Examination of Witnesses (Questions 400-419)
MS LUCY NEVILLE-ROLFE, MR TONY EGGS AND MR IAN COULL
WEDNESDAY 17 APRIL 2002
400. I ask you again: do you have a ratio of supermarkets to population?
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) The answer is that it varies. We have five different formats for different areas of population, so it will not be an exact ratio in that respect.
401. So it is not likely, in fact, that if you got speeded up planning, you would automatically smooth out that kind of number of applications because you are doing it on a different basis?
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) You are right. It is where the customer is leading and we are not going to invest unless there is the customer need. The concern we have on delay is that the delays have got worse, partly because we have moved to brownfield sites where you have, for example, to assemble hundreds of plots on certain occasions.
Chairman: Assembling sites is not a planning problem; it is a problem of going on to brownfield sites.
402. How do you think the planning system should be funded? Do you see an increased role for the private sector and how large a contribution do you think the private sector is prepared to make?
(Mr Coull) The planning system is clearly under-funded at the moment. A report that the DTLR commissioned said that the development control process alone was under-funded for planning fees by about 35 per cent, so the increase of 14 per cent is only going to scratch the surface of addressing what is already a problem inherent in the system right now. We will be very happy to pay significantly higher fees for planning applications and for the planning process, but we do want to see a more efficient and more effective system.
403. You would presumably pass it on to the baked bean tin when you sold it?
(Mr Coull) The total package of development value is made up in many different ways. If the planning application fees rise or if the planning obligations rise, then that is part of a value which will not change.
(Mr Eggs) I think our position is the same. We are happy to help with the funding by an increase in fees, but we would equally like to see that ring-fenced so that it did not go into a general pot to be used elsewhere, say for front line services. Therefore, if we saw a benefit, and if it was going to
404. So you would like to dictate how local authorities employ people and you would like to be responsible for the money going towards their jobs?
(Mr Eggs) I do not want to dictate. I was asked if we were prepared to fund an improvement to the planning service, and I would, but unless you ring fence it, I do not see how you can guarantee
405. You would not, in effect, because you are not suggesting that local authorities would ring fence the amount of money they got for development to go into one particular set of officers, are you?
(Mr Eggs) There has to be concern about how it is done. From a purely practical point of view, yes, the willingness is there to pay, but I think we need to address whether, if you cannot ring fence it, you think about that money actually giving an improved service. If not, then it does not seem to be particularly equitable to pay 14 or 25 per cent more and then that money goes somewhere else.
Mrs Dunwoody: The answer is you do not.
Chairman: We need to keep to our timetable, so slightly shorter questions and answers would be helpful.
406. I have two short questions. You say that there is 35 per cent under-funding and yet planning fees have only gone up 14 per cent. I want to clarify whether the cost of planning applications, in the light of the report you mentioned, will be covered. Secondly, I think you are both committed to a better planning service. Could you define what, in your view, that would be?
(Mr Coull) A better planning service in terms of the delivery will be agreeing at national level what are acceptable performance standards for approving any planning applications through the process and actually delivering those.
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) First of all, the planners do a great job which is very important. I would also like to have a feel of culture and pride in the planning departments being adequately resourced. Anything we can do to help that we would want to do. Secondly, it has central government, regional government if we move to that and local government, where there is need for good project management, timing and the right approach to planning, bringing in all the interests.
407. As you know one of the main aims of the Green Paper is to introduce greater community participation, particularly in the development of these local development frameworks. Can I ask you both for your views on those and whether you think the proposals as they appear in the Green Paper at the moment will give you sufficient information to enable you to go out and plan where your future stores or extensions are going to be?
(Mr Coull) Both of us already are very heavily involved in community activities. We are investing in the community. We are not normal developers in the sense that we develop and then walk away. We are developing for the long term. We both have a major community involvement when we are planning applications now and bringing that community involvement to an earlier stage of the process is something that we welcome unreservedly. We have some concerns in the structure of the set up between the community involvement and the creation of local development frameworks and I think that needs clarification. We welcome the fact that the community is referred to in the Paper as including business interests because, in a lot of the stuff, we have been excluded. One of the major improvements that must be achieved through this process, from the current situation, is it must be more inclusive because currently local planning inquiries and the like are very difficult for ordinary members of the public to get involved in.
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) I agree. Local is the right level for a lot of understanding and engagement. Two concerns: one is that the responsibilities between the statement of community involvement, the action plans, and important things like green belt issues, should be clearly spelt out. The second is the more practical point, which is how can you learn from some of the things that Ian and our company have developed. We do not only put up a planning notice, which is the normal way of communicating with local communities, we also issue leaflets, have meetings, have exhibitions and engage with local interests early on so that they know that the proposals we are bringing forward are okay. The problems come out early on so that they can be dealt with in the plan. A lot of this sort of work, pioneered with superstores, is useful and could be brought in more broadly.
408. Can I ask you about the fact that in the future it is quite possible that many areas of the country that you may be interested in developing your stores in will not be covered by comprehensive land use plans? The public undoubtedly will be suspicious when they see men in suits with clipboards on some of the land that does not have a designation. Do you see that as a problem?
(Mr Eggs) I do not see it as a major problem because the most important thing is that we have an up to date and relevant local development framework or plan, whatever we call it, that does not conflict as times move on. We all know that we are pushed towards and understand the need for brown field sites, town centre, first edge of, so in a way we already know where the development is going to take place. The major problem as presented is long term land assembly.
409. You have just used the words "land use and development plan framework" but there is a difference, is there not? The framework does not demand that there is a plan for the whole of the area. In that case, you will not know where the development will take place. That is one of the issues we would like your views on.
(Mr Coull) There are very few supermarket sites that suddenly become available. There is quite a slow burn on these sites. There are a lot of pre-application discussions that already take place on these things. A lot of particularly the bigger schemes will lead almost inevitably to an action plan being produced for that area, so we will see a land use plan being prepared.
410. Why do you feel that you want action plans to be used so sparingly? That is in the Tesco evidence, I believe.
(Mr Eggs) It was the worry that you had a proliferation of action plans that meant in the end all you had was to revert back to the local development plan where it was detail, detail, five years, ten years, some time, never, and that they should be used sparingly but properly.
411. Is it though that an action plan is more likely to deliver a no decision quickly to a proposal that you are wanting to proceed with and therefore you are going to have to go through the longer process?
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) That was not the logic for our position. The logic for our position was to try and have a system that really works locally. We have an interest in the economy developing in the right way, having the right sort of framework, wherever we operate, because our customers do not just shop in shops.
412. Do you keep figures as to how many of your major proposals are, in the first instance, approved by a local authority or approved on appeal?
(Mr Coull) Yes. Lucy mentioned earlier that both companies try very hard to work within the current framework which means we are not in conflict with the current plans too often and, as a result, our approval rate is over 90 per cent now on new applications.
413. Your approval rate on your initial application to a local authority is over 90 per cent in favour?
(Mr Coull) Not always at local authority; occasionally at appeal, but
414. This is what I am wanting, the differential figures, because I think it is important about whether local development frameworks are going to work or not in the public's mind. What percentage of your applications get an initial approval from the local authority and why do you feel that these changes might up that percentage?
(Mr Coull) We have a high proportion. I do not know the figure. May I give the clerk the numbers afterwards?
415. It would be very helpful if we could have the figures for the number that you get in the end and whether you get them at the first bite of the cherry or whether you get them on appeal. Could we have them from Tesco as well?
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) It is a high proportion but we will let you have some figures in writing.
416. What can you contribute to regional planning?
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) We can contribute part of the industry voice. I have talked about the needs of the country moving forward on a regional basis. We are a big employer. We have shops scattered about in different formats in most areas and we can bring to the party some understanding of consumer lifestyles going forward and the sort of site analysis that we do with our superstore development. The reason that we talked in our submission about being involved in regional planning is we feel that that and the productivity issues that it raises should be part of the conversation in setting the regional framework. We should be a contributor, one of many important contributors to regional strategy.
417. How do you see that contribution being effective? Do you see yourselves as a participant in drawing up policies?
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) We would like to be consulted on the proposals as they go forward. We would be one of the consultees but there is a slight lack of clarity in some of the documentation as to how this regional area would work. Our final view will depend on exactly what the government comes up with in this area.
418. How do you see retail provision being influenced by regional, economic strategies and regional spatial strategies?
(Mr Coull) When the RDAs were created two or three years ago, they produced their first draft economic plans and not one of the 12 included anything about retail provision. There is clearly a bit of learning that has to go on here. We have a major economic impact in communities both through employment directly and through our supply base that we have in that area. There is a role for us to play and we would wish to participate in the consultation process, as we do now through RDAs, the regional transport authorities and so on.
419. If you make your own assessments of retail need, as you described to us earlier, how would that relate to a need identified through a planning strategy?
(Mr Coull) The ability to identify within a local area and then blow that up into a region, the need for new, modern, high quality space that customers want, is something that we are very familiar with and we have teams of people who can produce that data. It would be up to us to convince the regional authority or whatever form it takes that there is merit in providing for additional retail space in a region.