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



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580-599)

MR DIGBY JONES, MR MICHAEL ROBERTS AND MR BARNEY STRINGER

WEDNESDAY 24 APRIL 2002

  580. Where do you say that in your submission?
  (Mr Stringer) As we all know, there are lots of statistics from DTLR on the delays. That is one part of the quality issue.

  581. You did not think it was worth quoting that although it backs up the assertions you are making?
  (Mr Stringer) They are in the public domain and quoted in our response to the Green Paper which we submitted to the Committee in parallel to our evidence. You are right that it is a problem that we have not got statistics on the qualitative aspects and certainly, as Digby has said, the anecdotal evidence—

  582. Anecdotal evidence?
  (Mr Stringer) But it is very, very consistent. In our response to the Green Paper we have talked to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of businesses and we have got load and loads of examples of businesses which have had problems.

  583. You have not quoted them but you have loads and loads?

  Chairman: Order, order. One person asking questions at a time please. Chris Grayling?

Chris Grayling

  584. Can I probe you on the planning officer issue because you have clearly highlighted issues of which we are all aware. Planning departments are hard pressed but you are not surely suggesting that planning officers should be tilting in your favour without taking environmental considerations into account?
  (Mr Jones) No, the situation around the country is that they can afford to retain advisers on specific projects who, by and large, operate in a better financed world from a wage point of view and therefore we have at this moment a major problem which is business is extremely well represented in its planning applications and they are up against people whose morale is low, who are not paid enough. and who at the end of the day can move into the private sector very quickly. Therefore, I am not saying they are not good enough from a skills point of view, what I am saying is that they are burdened down with volume and their morale is low. It is in business's interests to get that to be better because at the end of the day we cannot always expect to get our way nor can we expect to have a system where it is going to work to everybody's benefit. Social inclusion in the wealth creation process is essential if business is going to succeed but at the moment those who are employed in local authority planning departments are not paid enough, neither are there enough of them and their morale is too low. That is one of the major impediments. I accept the point that by putting more money in and getting more, you go some way to doing it, even if you do not change the system. I do approve of that. I would say you will get an even better result if you change as well.

  585. In the normal self-government environment, every area is supposed to have a well thought out structure plan, but planning officers come, on an almost daily basis, under relentless pressure from people looking to put up developments that fray those plans at the margins. Is there not also an issue about the relative strength of each of those groups? You have one planner with one sort of development looking to put an application through, and you have hard-pressed local planning departments fending off applications from all sides.
  (Mr Jones) The answer to you is most certainly yes. Do you know, even with this new framework, if it goes through, as opposed to the existing one, for these people and business, of course, as we are going to have to deal with this as well, there will be a community strategy, a local development framework, a statement of core principle, a local action plan, a village action plan, a site-specific master plan, a statement of community involvement, a structure plan, a local transport plan, a regional plan and sub-regional plans. At the moment business is going to have to deal with all that and pay people for it, and also we are going to ask underpaid, too few people to cope with that at the same time. That is in a reformed system, let alone what we have at the moment.

Mr Batts

  586. Given that you are interested in getting things moving quickly, do you not think therefore it is a good idea that where planning permissions are given, they should merely last for three years rather than five, in order to encourage the development to be proceeded with?
  (Mr Jones) I could see why that would be a stimulus to getting on with executing the plan, yes. The problem with it is, it actually does not pay sufficient attention to the way that business actually goes about its business; it actually does not give enough certainty and stability going forward, although I can see why this would be an incentive for a culture change in our sector just like it could in other sectors.

  587. Might there be a case for having different lengths of planning permission?
  (Mr Stringer) At the moment our local authorities have powers to initiate different lengths of planning permission up to five years. The proposal in the Green Paper is to remove that freedom from the local authorities and say that the maximum is three years. What we are saying is that for the most complex, particularly big urban regeneration projects, there are all sorts of issues in relation to land contamination, removing surfaces, land acquisition, compulsory purchase orders and so on, getting the finance in place, that can take years, and that three years is not enough, and we are saying that local authorities ought to be allowed to retain the freedom to have planning permissions of up to five years.

  588. Finally, do you think it is a good idea about the change recommended in the Green Paper that once planning permission has expired then the developer has to put in for a new permission, it is not automatic that it simply rolls over?
  (Mr Jones) I think it would be a great incentive to get them to get on with it, I really do.

Chris Grayling

  589. Can I move on to the issue of the tariff system. It has been proposed as a vehicle for speeding things up, but you think it could have an adverse effect on urban regeneration. Can you give us an idea of why that is?
  (Mr Stringer) Compared to the current system—We do not like the current system, do not get us wrong, there are a lot of problems with that, and some of the proposals in the Green Paper about things like having standard terms and things, better accounting and so on, we agree are part of the solution. What is different about these proposals for the tariff is breaking any link or any connection between the individual payments and what is paid. Our concern is that it would be very inflexible, and that you will have situations where even different projects at different ends of the site will have different needs and different impacts and so on, and yet the tariff set in the local plan some years ago will not be able to take account of that, and the effect will be to make it very hard to develop complex blanket areas.
  (Mr Jones) I would add to that that you bring a far more political equation into it, and the one thing that business likes to do—The current system is not something that we would actively encourage, but it is there. What we like to do is that at least you can see the results of a planning permission, at least you can see there is some contribution being made by business linked to the development. If what we are just going to do is have the development of a tax which can actually go straight from local authority coffers and be used for anything, with no control, or link or perceived link by the voter to any form of development, then business starts behind the game, the developer starts behind the game and other, shall we say, different influences might just affect the granting of the permission by the people who are democratically elected on a local basis.

Sir Paul Beresford

  590. Do you not see it as a possibility as a development rather than a stealth tax, and that those local authorities who are benefiting from this development tax would be benignly disposed towards a scheme if they could see that the Treasury is making adjustments to the capital grant to compensate for this equalisation, so you are effectively in receipt of this land with a stealth tax accordingly?
  (Mr Jones) I could not have put it better myself.

Chris Grayling

  591. You may not like the actual detail of the tariff scheme, but does not the principle speed up negotiations?
  (Mr Stringer) The trouble is, the tariff as proposed also has in addition a level of negotiation on top. I think that what business is worried about is that they will pay the tariff, then they will pay the local council to negotiate a planning application on top, so no one gains.

Mrs Elman

  592. You advocate business planning zones. You support them in attractive areas. Could you give us any examples of where we have lost out by not having such things?
  (Mr Jones) Where we have not as a nation actually been successful enough—and it is not just planning and it is not just government policy, it is across the piece—is the attraction of especially high tech customers, to get, and to be seen to be, an attractive home for investment, especially from overseas, in the knowledge economy and, I particularly feel, also to get the knowledge economy working its way into manufacturing, to get a value-added manufacturing reputation in the country. In that respect we could show you some areas where yes, they are succeeding in that, but it is not general, and it needs business to be more incentivised to do it, it needs policy at a local level, at a regional level using RDAs, but it also needs a planning system that actually will encourage it as well. It is that end. The clusters do not have to be around academia, which is where it tends to be; it can be round major infrastructure projects. A regional airport, for instance, is a very good example where it can be a base and a totem for the customer of business enterprise, and also a bigger company, a bigger OEM, around which can be nurtured some high tech smaller businesses. It is the complete thrust across the country. There are one or two very good examples where it works, but not enough.

  593. Are there any examples of where we have lost such developments because of the existing system?
  (Mr Jones) Yes. We can provide you with that information, most certainly so, but what I do not want to do today is just give you four or five anecdotes, because I might be accused of anecdotal evidence that is not in our submission.

Mr Batts

  594. The idea of the local development frameworks and action plans replacing the current requirement for a unitary development plan is supposed to speed up the whole process and make it more simple.You are saying the opposite might be the case, are you not?
  (Mr Roberts) Yes, we are. We are concerned not that we should not think about the things that are listed here as all things together, but that the proposals for the LDFs in the Green Paper do not give any sense of how the different things will pull together. What we would like to see is for the different elements to be encapsulated in, for example, a single strategic document which shows how the action plan would fit in with the LDF; but equally, that the different constituent bits should be operating to the same sort of timescale as well. In practice, I think what would be particularly helpful is for the Department perhaps to give some sort of working example of how its proposals might operate in the real world. In the absence of that, it is difficult to see that the proposals will in fact make things more streamlined and more effective.

  595. Is not what you are suggesting that we go back to unitary development plans but we just do it more quickly?


  (Mr Stringer) I think a lot of businesses have found unitary development plans more effective than some local development plans but, as you say, the problem is that they are not produced quickly enough and they are often not very well prepared. The emphasis should be getting on better plans rather than completely restructuring the system.

Chairman

  596. Your main thrust is this question of jobs and the number that is created. If I look at the period, trying to avoid being party political, between 1970 to 1972 the main thrust in this country was loss of jobs. In the past ten years a very substantial number of jobs have been created. Is that not correct?
  (Mr Jones) The restructuring of the industry environment of Great Britain took place between 1979 and is probably still going on today. The end result is going in the right direction but the first part of that is you are going to get a lot of job losses and then people will be reskilled and come forward into better skilled, better paid jobs. That whole thing is going to take a generation and it clearly has. That is not party political either.

  597. But in the last ten years a very substantial number of jobs have been created in this country.
  (Mr Jones) Most certainly so, yes.

  598. So the present planning system has not stopped those jobs being created, has it?
  (Mr Jones) The problem with respect of that argument is that if we do not do something about it we will lose that competitive edge.

  599. But if you have got the competitive edge now when we are competing with other countries that have different and faster planning systems it has not held us back so far, has it?
  (Mr Jones) But it will because this whole restructuring of the business environment and the wealth creation process is not something that is just the prerogative of the United Kingdom. It is going on in France and Germany and the United States big time. These are our major competitors and they are experiencing the same challenges, but they have some advantages and shots in the locker that we do not have. We already heard they are bigger countries. They also have a better transport infrastructure system and education system. These are all things which we can work on as a country and we are, but they are long-term projects. Planning is another one where if we do not do something about it we will lose the competitive advantage that we have got. I am agreeing with you but I am saying what we should not do is say, "That's alright, chaps", because it will not be going forward.

 


 
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