Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 464-479)




  464. Good morning. Can I welcome you to the second of the Committee's sessions inquiring into the Planning Green Paper. Could I ask you to introduce yourselves for the record, please?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) My name is Barbara Young, I am Chief Executive of the Environment Agency.
  (Dr Skinner) I am Dr Andrew Skinner, I am Acting Director of Water Management of the Environment Agency.

  (Mr Vallance) I am Roger Vallance, I am the Head of Local and Regional Relations for the Environment Agency.

  465. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy to go straight into questions?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) Could I just make a very brief introductory point?

  466. Yes.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) Basically we believe that the process of speeding up the planning processes, and streamlining them, is worth doing. We think there is a need for change. We are not quite sure that all of the proposals in the Planning Green Paper are the right changes and we are keen to make the point that we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. The planning process is an open, reasonably transparent process, it is locally democratic and it has been a means of getting sustainable development, competing economic and social and environmental issues out on the table and balanced in the main. We have got to retain that element. We think that the proposals in the Green Paper need some testing and we are particularly anxious to look at the proposals for waste, which have not been tackled for major infrastructure proposals, for statutory consultation and for planning obligations. Those are the main ones that we believe we would want to focus on.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Louise Ellman.

Mrs Ellman

  467. What is wrong with the Government's plans on major infrastructure projects?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) The major infrastructure proposal we think tries to tackle a problem that is not the one that Government thinks they have. Having looked at some of the major planning inquiries we believe that the issues that would be dealt with by a parliamentary process do not actually take up that much time of planning inquiries, they are a comparatively small part of that. The major time delays in planning inquiries are first of all arguments about the Environmental Impact Assessment and whose version of it is right, secondly recesses and report writing time. The recesses are often because new information has come into the equation and all of the participants need to consider it. Thirdly, quite a lot of time is spent waiting for Government and ministerial decisions on the basis of planning inspectors' recommendations. We do not think that some of the issues that the major infrastructure procedure is aimed at solving are actually the ones that it would address. Our worries about the major infrastructure projects proposal is that it does not take proper account of the requirements of the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive. These are quite complex and lengthy and technical requirements which we believe a parliamentary process would find as equally time consuming as a planning inquiry. They run the risk of disenfranchising local interests because what needs to be resolved in the Environmental Impact Assessment is quite detailed, and about locations, and therefore would be dealt with and done and dusted by the end of the parliamentary process, leaving very little left for the local planning inquiry. We think also that a process in Westminster, although it is the heart of democracy, is not very local to local people and would be a disincentive to them attending. We also think that having two processes, a parliamentary one and then a local inquiry, would add to the length rather than shorten it. We are not sure that the proposals that are in the Planning Green Paper would do anything other than lengthen the process and make it more complex. We think that the thing that should be focused on, is in fact, how we can make the existing planning inquiry system more speedy and more efficient. We believe that there are ways in which that can be done, particularly in terms of speeding up the process of preparing Environmental Statements and getting some sort of independent scrutiny of those so that when the inquiry comes to be held the Environmental Statement is an agreed one and much of the inquiry is not taken up with arguing about it. We also think that there should be a speeding up of the departmental consideration following the inquiry, some sort of delivery contract between the process and government. Those are the sorts of ways in which the current planning inquiry process could be speeded up rather than inventing this other process which we think is going to be very complicated for Parliament to deal with and very lengthy.

  468. In your written evidence one of the things that you say should be done is a simplification of the current plethora of statutory regimes. What were you thinking of?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) In terms of some of these very big and complex developments they can be seeking permissions, authorisations and planing approvals under a whole variety of different regimes. Roger Vallance would be able to comment on things like the Thames Gateway, on the number of regimes that it had to comply with. As a result, both the documentation and the process in looking at all of those regimes together, but not connected, is extremely onerous. We would like to see whether there is a way that you can bring together some of those regimes into a more streamlined framework. Roger, do you want to comment on the Gateway example?
  (Mr Vallance) The London Gateway example, I think, required applications under the Harbour Empowerment Act, the Transport and Works Act and various planning applications. I think there were 69 volumes of Environmental Statements which were prepared pursuant to those various permissions, much of the content of which overlapped.
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) So there could be a considerable streamlining in terms of simple documentation even though the individual regulatory requirements would still require to be met.

Ms King

  469. You were talking about the Environmental Impact Assessment and you have made it clear that you do not think it is a very good idea for Parliament to be responsible for that as would be required under EU law. Do you think it is not a good idea because Parliament is not equipped to do it or do you think it is not a good idea because, as you have said, it would be a lengthy process?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) I think it is probably a bit of both. Andrew may want to comment on this. It would be very lengthy and very technical. I am not saying that Parliament could not cope with that, but I am not sure it is the best use of Parliament's time. On current applications in a planning inquiry the inspector is someone who is used to dealing with and judging and amassing a whole weight of very technical evidence and coming to some conclusions, so that is what he does and that is what he is good at. I am not saying it is impossible for Parliament to do that but it would be a very lengthy process and it is incredibly technical. If, as is the case at the moment, the Environmental Impact Assessment is hotly contested and you have got experts from each side contesting whether the Environmental Impact Assessment is the right one or not, I am not sure that is the best use of parliamentary time.

  470. So you think more cases will end up in the courts?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) I think Government is beginning to see some of the difficulties with the proposal that is being put forward. Certainly my understanding is that they would only see the parliamentary process being used for a very small number of extremely strategically important propositions. If that is the case I think there is a parallel question which is how do we also make the normal planning inquiries more efficient.

Christine Russell

  471. Can I ask you what your opinion is of the proposals in the Green Paper on statutory consultees?
  (Dr Skinner) We welcome the suggestion that these need to be revised. We are not very happy with the revision which is proposed in the paper, although we are much happier with the discussions that we have had, stimulated by the debate, with officials. The paper is saying that the number of statutory consultees should be limited to those who have other permitting powers. We do not deny that but one good example of an issue where we would wish to be statutory consultees and we currently are not is in development of flood plains and there are no statutory power linkages there. There is that and other examples where we feel there is a need for review.

  472. Could I ask you whether or not you consider that under the present system statutory respondees are often the ones who are responsible for the delays? Do you believe that?
  (Dr Skinner) No, that is not my view, although there are constraints upon us as statutory consultees because of the fact that the list of activities for which we are consultees was drawn up nearly 50 years ago and it is not a very smart list in terms of relationship to environmental risks they pose. The position we are putting is that a review of the statutory consultee responsibilities would leave us with a different set of objectives but ones that are more relevant to environmental risk and, therefore, we would use our time, and therefore our input to local authority processes, in a smarter way.

  473. Would you give some examples perhaps to the Committee of the proposals where you feel that you would need directly to be responsible and those where you just feel standing advice would be adequate?
  (Dr Skinner) Standing advice would cover situations like cemeteries, sceptic tanks, various issues relating to pollution control, where the risks are small and where we now have adequate technical guidance and standing advice which will cover those. Issues like development of flood plains, not for conservatories necessarily but for major structures, are ones where we do not always see our advice carried through because we do not have the weight of statutory status behind it.

  474. Are there any other circumstances other than flood plains?
  (Dr Skinner) There are some aspects of infrastructure development for industrial plants where sometimes we find ourselves with very complex pollution control issues to deal with because plants have been built in proximity to people and if that had not happened in the first place then a lot of the environmental regulation we need to do would have been obviated.

  475. What about pig sties?
  (Dr Skinner) I am sorry?

  476. What about pig sties?
  (Dr Skinner) Pig sties would be covered anyway because large piggery units will come under the PPC Directive and therefore that would be one for which we have responsibility. That would come under the Government's proposal anyway.

Helen Jackson

  477. Do you think that the environment is given sufficient emphasis in the Green Paper alongside economic and social aspects?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) The Green Paper is a slightly odd beast because basically it focuses on streamlining and speeding up the process rather than actually looking at how you can deliver sustainable development through the planning system. I think when you challenge government on that they say "that is not what it is meant to do, it is meant simply to be about speeding up". We think there are ways in which you could have a better balance under the proposals in the Green Paper. There has been talk of whether there should be a statutory purpose for planning, I do not think we support that, we would like to see what that looked like but the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution tried a statutory purpose for planning, they struggled with it long and hard but we do not think they quite got there. We are not sure it is worth arguing about, quite frankly, in terms of a statutory purpose for planning because if you have a single bullet, phrase or clause that describes it it is not going to meet all needs, I suspect. Providing you can make sure that sustainable development is built into the Regional Spatial Strategies and the local frameworks and that the individual development control applications take account properly of environmental, social and economic issues, which I think they are quite good at doing at the moment, you need it at all three levels.

  478. But environmental control is often the factor that may play against a speeded up delivery of a yes to development. Would you agree with that and do you think that the emphasis on speeding up is another way of downgrading the environmental issues?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) I believe that if we are not careful we could see speeding up as trying to short-circuit some of the environmental issues. The important thing is to get the processes right so they are efficient and they are risk-based so that if, for example, there is statutory consultation it is based on this being an important issue for the environment and things like the Regional Spatial Strategies really do take account of sustainable development right at the very beginning and cover issues like natural resources, waste, water and biodiversity in the context of social and economic priorities and that gets the tone right for the whole process. I think there are ways in which you can speed up the process without necessarily losing out on the environmental issues.

  479. Can you expand on that a little. Does it mean producing biodiversity plans and ecology issues more quickly and more efficiently?
  (Baroness Young of Old Scone) We would certainly like to see things like Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Frameworks and at any intermediate tier, because we think there is rather a gap between those two tiers, some sub-regional focus to take account not only of spatial requirements but to take account of some of these sub-strategies about waste and water, biodiversity and minerals so that, in fact, the spatial strategy does take account of natural resource use as well. That might be something that takes time to do, but it is time well spent, because you are setting the framework right on which the rest of the planning system can then rest. Andrew Skinner has got some views about the role of the Regional Spatial Strategies and how we might actually use them most effectively in linking through the regional, sub-regional and local levels.

  Chairman: We had better come on to that a little bit later.


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