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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 680-699)



Chris Grayling

  680. Your point about county councils, to what degree do you think that the loss of structure plans (and by definition the loss of some of the involvement of county councils) would have a significantly adverse effect on environmental factors? In what kind of way would you see that manifesting itself?
  (Sir Martin Doughty) I suggested that we were not wedded to structure plans. We recognise that the two-tier system that is there at the moment, if we are going to move up to greater involvement of the region, is a difficult one to sustain. Our worry was that if structure plans were to go, a lot of the expertise that county councils hold for us, particularly the ecological expertise, and maybe also expertise in archaeology and historic buildings, would be lost. Unless there is a statutory role for the county in this that would disappear. It is not sufficient to say we have now to go region to district and the counties are there in the middle they will offer their expertise up. The Treasurer will say you have not got a statutory role any more, you should not be employing these people any more. One aspect of this within the present framework of local government is that there needs to be a statutory role to make sure the county councils' expertise is not lost from this whole process.

  681. The county councils' expertise may be lost anyway because there is a question mark over the whole structure of local and regional government. Are you suggesting that the concept of regionalisation of responsibilities in terms of environment could be significantly damaging at county level?
  (Sir Martin Doughty) What I am saying, and I have no knowledge of what changes to the present tiering of local government in shire or metropolitan areas could follow the regional White Paper is that the expertise that currently exists within county councils, to our mind, is absolutely fundamental to delivering the sort of environmental benefits of the planning system and the outcomes of the planning system we would wish to see, and that expertise should not be lost.

  682. What would happen if it were lost?
  (Sir Martin Doughty) For a planning authority to make development control decisions it needs to have appropriate expertise. If that expertise is not available then decisions will be taken which may not safeguard the environment. Similarly with the drawing up of plans at whatever level that is done there needs to be that expertise.

Christine Russell

  683. Can I ask you a series of questions about statutory consultees because in your evidence to DTLR you clearly stated that you did not support charging. What is your view on charging applicants, for instance for pre-application advice? Secondly, I note in your memorandum to us that again you do not want the number of statutory consultees to be reduced but you do talk about welcoming measures to encourage them to make a timely response. How are you going to do that, fine them? What are you going to do?
  (Mr Price) We do not favour charging because we think that will create administrative complexities. We do not want to put off people coming to see English Nature for advice and possibly if we were charging fees that might do that. That is the reason why we are not keen on the fee aspect of things.

  684. You support upping the fee for submitting applications to local authorities?
  (Mr Price) Planning application fees have not kept up with reality in terms of the economic cost of funding the planning system so the overall planning fee, which is completely nothing to do with English Nature and goes to the local authority, needs to be raised to fund an improved service. I would not wish English Nature to become involved in fees. We have said that in our memorandum. We are certainly very keen on improving our effectiveness as a consultee. We made the case we need to be retained as a statutory consultee because of the expertise and value we add to the planning system. We want to work very closely with local authorities and make use of information technology and information bases and so forth, sharing knowledge and expertise to basically speed up the consultation process. We also would like to see local authorities raise their capacity of understanding ecological issues so they know when to consult us so that we are not consulted on applications in which we have no interest. They should have the capacity perhaps to deal with a large range of planning applications with ecological implications and English Nature only becomes consulted on only the very serious ones. We are very keen on retaining a role as statutory consultee but making the process much more effective and not slowing down the planning system process.

Mr O'Brien

  685. What is wrong with the Government's proposals for considering major infrastructure proposals?
  (Mr Price) This is something that does concern us because it is the major proposals that have the greatest effect on the environment. These are the very significant developments. We are also of an opinion that the marathon inquiries are not the way forward and that that is not the way to deal with very important national infrastructure. Before Parliament can make a decision we feel that a certain sequence of things needs to be very clearly in place. First of all, we need a national land use strategy, that is something we covered in an earlier question, basically to set the parameters of how we plan our national environmental assets. Secondly, we welcome the Green Paper's proposal that there should be national policy statements for the individual elements of infrastructure. We see that as being very critical and we expect these to be adopted following a rigorous process of sustainability appraisal so that the national policy statements protect our environmental assets and give a policy framework for infrastructure that would not damage important areas of nature conservation, for instance. We think that the Government should select a very narrowly defined range of developments of significant national importance to take through this process and that should be in place, and that when a Secretary of State is in a position to select one of these projects we feel there needs to be an expert body independent of Parliament that can consider these proposals that is able to assess issues of need and alternatives, to assess the environmental information that is forwarded with the application, to carry out consultation (because I think it is vital that a thorough public consultation takes place at this parliamentary stage through this body we are recommending) and also to carry out consultation with expert statutory agents and so forth. Only then, after that rigorous period (and I think the time-scales of consultation are too short to be realistic) the expert body should be in a position to make a very informed recommendation to Parliament to decide whether to approve the proposal in principle and allow an inquiry to take place over the details, or perhaps not to approve.

  686. Would that not lead to a delay in processing because if we follow the procedure that has been outlined about consultation on a wider aspect involving public inquiry, do we not go back to slowing up the procedures again?
  (Mr Price) Inevitably these things cannot be decided very quickly. The proposals that the Government have put forward will be quicker than these very marathon inquiries. The Heathrow example is the one that most concerned everyone. The way that the process can be speeded up is if the national policy statements are fairly clear and have been thoroughly worked out so that proposals that come along that clearly conflict with those national policy statements could be weeded out, or developers would not even promote a project which was contrary to the Government's national policy statement. If you have got those policy measures in place it is going to encourage only those proposals.

  687. You do say there should be extensive consultation. Are you saying that should be narrowed down and that should only apply to certain issues decided by this body to which you are referring?
  (Mr Price) There should be consultation at the various stages. There certainly needs to be consultation on the national policy statements.
  (Ms Collins) One of the ways of speeding it up is to have a more inquisitorial process and less of an adversarial process. If the facts about the environment are clear in advance then the options can be appraised more objectively. One of the worries we have about the Parliamentary procedure process is that if you are just considering one location, then you are not able to consider alternatives. The critical thing about finding the best way forward for UK Limited is to look at environmental, economic and social aspects of the development together and to consider alternatives at an early stage. We suggest that there needs to be this inquisitorial and evidence-based process of enquiry before Parliament considers a major infrastructure project. We have got a lot of experience with the roads programmes—


  688. We have got a lot experience with roads. I do not want to prolong things but more difficult ones are things like new port developments at Dibden Bay and Felixstowe.
  (Ms Collins) There is no national ports policy statement and that is obviously something that would help during the scrutiny of an individual port development.
  (Sir Martin Doughty) It is interesting to note that at Dibden Bay at the moment we are very heavily involved in the public inquiry. In fact, Dibden Bay may be one of the last marathon public inquiries that the barristers love. On the Humber Estuary we are talking at a very advanced level with the same developers in a way that we in our terms would avoid an inquiry, ie, we are having some very constructive discussions with them.

  689. Is the key thing there the process or is the key thing the geography?
  (Ms Collins) Both are very important. The geography is very important. The environmental assets are often locationally specific and economic developments can move, they can have more choice.

Mr Cummings

  690. You tell the Committee that you want planning obligations to retain their existing role of securing environmental mitigation as well as the payment of a tariff. Will this not mean that tariffs will have to be set at a very low level so as not to discourage development on complex sites?
  (Mr Price) I think not. There are two elements to the planning obligations. The Consultation introduces this standardised tariff and we have commented on that. We also rely on planning obligations to provide a legal mechanism for securing things like environmental mitigation and environmental compensation. Quite simply we need that mechanism in the planning system to be retained quite apart from what happens with tariffs.

  691. You are not pursuing the argument that it would discourage development on complex sites?
  (Mr Price) I am not quite certain of the question, I am afraid.

  692. In your evidence you are talking about planning obligations to retain their existing role of securing environmental mitigation as well as the payment tariffs.
  (Mr Price) It is essential we have that.

  693. What I am saying is will the tariffs have to be set at a lower level so as not to discourage development on complex sites?
  (Mr Price) Not necessarily so. The legal agreements are two separate things. The tariffs are set by the local planning authority and that would be a political choice they make. Our concerns that environmental elements are tied up legally.


  694. What happens with some of these brownfield sites where you have got some very interesting natural developments within those sites and yet there is probably not sufficient money to pay for the development anyway so you are looking for some way of bringing money in? If you are going to have a tariff there and you are also going to have to pay money to move species on a particular part of the site, is that not pretty difficult?
  (Mr Price) The problem is we would not want tariffs to choke off development in brownfield sites and areas of low land values.

  695. Different tariffs for different areas?
  (Mr Price) I am sure there would have to be different tariffs because they would be set by the local authority and they would reflect the land values in their particular area. Unfortunately that leads to some sort of regressive element in the benefits. In our statement we have expressed concern at that. The cost of the tariffs basically must not prevent good development going ahead. They must not prevent sustainable development going ahead. They must not soak up all the money so there is money to mitigate for newts or whatever.

  Chairman: On that note, I think we had better finish. Thank you very much for your evidence.


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