Examination of Witnesses (Questions 700-719)
SIR JEREMY BEECHAM AND MR LEE SEARLES
WEDNESDAY 1 MAY 2002
700. Do you think it is fair for the CBI to blame local authorities for the delays that take place in the present planning system?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) It would be foolish to deny there are occasions when local authorities do not perform adequately. It would be equally wrong to blame local authorities for all or even most of the delays. Sometimes the applicants themselvesthis applies to commercial and non-commercial applicantsdo not make the best use of the system. We have instances of automatic appeals, of twin-tracking applications, and of a failure to engage with the planning authority before an application is made. One of the ways of improving the system would be to make more use of pre-application consultation in an effort to identify problems and deal with them before a formal application is made.
701. Would you accept that one of the reasons for the delays in the present system is the inability in some areas, especially two-tier authorities, for the development control officers in the district council to establish good working relationships with, for instance, the county highway engineers and transport managers?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) It is possibly true that in some cases the two-tier structure militates against expedition in dealing with applications which perhaps makes reaching satisfactory conclusions more difficult, but there are also examples of county authorities working very well with districts and indeed lending their expertise to district councils. We are talking here, of course, of a huge spread of authority from district councils with significant populations of 150,000 down to very small districts of 20,000 or 30,000 population without perhaps the resources to invest sufficiently in the planning process.
702. Sir Jeremy, reports suggest that financing for planning departments in local government has dropped between 20 and 37 per cent over the past few years. Why are local authorities not putting enough money into planning departments?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) Because the pressure is on other key services like social services and education. As the Committee will be aware, the proportion of grant which is now ring-fenced has trebled to something like 15 per cent over the last five years, which crowds out discretionary expenditure and expenditure on areas which are less high profile so far as local government is concerned. Local authorities in many cases have responded to those particular pressures and it may be a rational choice in particular circumstances to devote scarce resources to those services rather than planning. It is fair to say, however, that there are also supply side problems. It is not easy to attract and retain planning staff. There is a national problem about that which collectively needs to be addressed as well. There are simply not the people in the planning profession available sometimes for local government and there are, I understand, fewer people in planning departments at universities training for that profession. This is an issue that we have all got to address.
703. Do you consider then there should be approaches made by the Government for introducing skilled planners into local government?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) We do need to look at ways of enhancing entry into the profession and then ensuring, as with a number of other areas of course in public service, that we have the capacity to retain and recruit staff. It may be that we need to look at bursaries for example under which authorities or other agencies help to support students through professional training.
704. If the Government is persuaded then to put more resources into local government to back up their planning procedures, would that money have to be ring-fenced?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) No because it would compound the problem which the Association has already strongly identified. Ring-fencing is not a suitable way of dealing with significant policy issues over time. There may be a case for pump-priming, for example if one were to announce a tranche of monies for bursaries to encourage entry to the profession for a period that might be acceptable but in general to ring-fence expenditure is something to which we are opposed simply because of the domino effect that runs through the whole system.
705. How would the Government be assured that your comment just now about the lack of funding for planning that more money would be directed at planning?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think there is a willingness in local government, for example if there is discretion to make charges as is envisaged for pre-planning work, to use the proceeds of that within the planning system. I think that would be something those authorities seeking to make a charge would very much have in mind. But staffing is a major difficulty.
706. Has the quality of planning decisions reduced by 20 to 37 per cent?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) I doubt it.
707. Was there a productivity issue as well?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) I am advised from my left that the quality has gone up. I do not know what the evidence for that is.
Helen Jackson: In that case there was a productivity issue, was there not?
708. Come on, Mr Searles, speak up.
(Mr Searles) The study that DTLR carried out is where the upper end of the estimate for reduction in resources came from. It also referred to an increase of 25 per cent in cases being considered in local government. The statutory performance statistics show decision-making in eight weeks to be about 62 per cent over that time, now increasing to 65 per cent. So, against a reduction in resources and an increased caseload the decision making performance has largely stayed the same.
Mrs Dunwoody: Should we not make that public, they might do that even more.
709. The serious point is are you claiming increased efficiency on the part of the local authority or are you bemoaning the reduction of funds?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think we would want to invest more in the planning process. The temptation is to deal with the relatively simple household applications more quickly because that is a straightforward matter and the more complex issues, which require a higher level of skill, inevitably take longer, and it is there perhaps we need the greater level of expertise both on the part of officers and members. One the things we wish to address is training members to play a more effective role in the planning process and there are protocols around the involvement of the members in planning which the Association has developed.
710. So does the Association approve the recommendation in the Green Paper to increase the delegation to officers?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think that must be a matter for local discretion. Again, there is a balance to be struck between accountability which is not normally well served by delegating decisions away from elected members, and the need to ensure that you get a timely decision. Planning issues are often very controversial and there needs to be member involvement in appropriate cases. It is a question of what is appropriate, which really is a matter that can only be determined locally. 90 per cent, which is the proposal, may be too rigid a figure to apply across the board but in many cases it would be found to be acceptable.
711. You said earlier that local authorities are finding it difficult now to attract professional planners into local government rather than the private sector. Do you think the proposal outlined in the Green Paper are likely to make the profession in local government more attractive or less so?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think if there is a perception that planning is regarded as a positive tool as opposed simply to a negative break on development (and therefore itself is seen as a negative profession) then I think that will help. Many of the proposals do convey that perception of the concept, particularly of development frameworks and operating within the strategic context more effectively. The Association's view is that joint working between the districts and counties, to pick up a point that was made before, should be the cornerstone end of planning. Then I think that creates the right atmosphere but you need more than an atmosphere to encourage people to enter the profession.
712. Can I ask you finally on staffing matters, how confident are you that local authorities already have or could attract the skilled staff that will be necessary to operate the tariff scheme?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) That rather depends on the details of scheme. Whilst we welcome the concept and we think there is a lot to be said for it, much will depend on how it is to be worked and how much local discretion there is, particularly on what the tariffs are based. You could do this in a number of ways. If, for example, you were to label the tariff on the basis of valuation of property you bring in not only planning but evaluation skills as well, which we can buy in or maybe they can be in-house. The history of municipal planning over the last 30 or 40 years does suggest there ought to be the capacity to handle significant change effectively providing you can get the staff.
713. How important is it that there should be a proper land use map in developing local development frameworks?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) Here I defer to the technical. I would assume that it is important but I am not aware that there is a particular problem, but maybe you are.
(Mr Searles) Are you referring to the proposals map?
(Mr Searles) As I understand it, the local development framework could still have a proposals map which would be part of the development plan.
715. We are told that there may not be a land use map.
(Mr Searles) You mean specific site boundaries?
(Mr Searles) As I understand it, I think the local development framework could have something within its contents which will be a proposals map, and the proposals map can be something that represents the core vision, which is the things that are less site specific, but also can be an accumulation of all of the action plan site designations, which of course are site specific. There could be a proposals map which would show the details of all the action plans in one place.
717. You say you want site specific policies.
(Mr Searles) Action plans can contain site specific policies, of course, but the reason for separating the core vision of the local development framework from the site specifics of an action plan is related to the scrutiny they would then go through to legitimise them. There is nothing to stop a single map being produced which shows the proposals from all the elements of the LDF.
718. You say there is nothing to stop it but is there anything to ensure that also?
(Mr Searles) My understanding is that is the case.
719. You are assuming but you do not have the evidence?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) We would want it. I think whether the assumption is correct or not, time will tell.