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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 787-799)




  787. Can I welcome you to the Committee this morning. Can I ask you to identify yourself and your team, for the record, please?

  (Lord Falconer) I am Charles Falconer, Minister of State at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, with responsibility for planning, housing and regeneration. Brian Hackland, on my far right, is the Head of the Planning Department. Jeff Channing is Head of Planning Policy within the DTLR; and Mike Ash is the Chief Planner within the DTLR.

  788. Thank you very much. Now do you want to say a few words, by way of introduction?
  (Lord Falconer) Could I? Thank you very much indeed for the opportunity to participate in this inquiry. The planning system should promote environmentally-friendly development which is sustainable, socially and economically; without that development, we will not deliver policy outcomes such as social inclusion, greater competitiveness and improved infrastructure. The Planning Green Paper addresses the issue of whether the system, as opposed to the particular policies, of planning is effective to deliver those outcomes. Its conclusion was that it did not, because the system is slow, rules-driven, as opposed to proactive, overcomplex, unpredictable, lacking in adequate community engagement, underresourced and not user-friendly, insufficiently connected to the wider policy aims of central and local government. The analysis of what is wrong and the need for change has been widely accepted by the respondents to the Planning Green Paper, and, by way of example, the National Trust "welcome the debate triggered by the publication of the Planning Green Paper and recognise that the land use planning system needs reform." English Nature "supports the need for reform, the planning system needs to respond better to the community and deliver the outcomes it requires. We welcome means of speeding up the system and making it more customer-focused and inclusive, less arcane and adversarial." Whilst there is this widespread support for the principle of change, the consultation process has thrown up considerable debate about the detail; those details are very important, and that is why we sought as wide a debate as possible about them. But underlying the Planning Green Paper is the belief that simply tinkering with the present system will not produce the degree of change required to make the system work effectively. Whilst we strongly support a plan-led system, can the problems identified earlier be solved, for example, by stronger central guidance, changes to the development control process, some legislative changes; we believe not. There has to be a culture change; that does not mean removing the good bits of the system but it does mean the depth of change required has to be fundamental. As Professor Grant said, I think, to this Committee last week, words to the effect that incrementalism has not worked. Look at the history. In 1991, the plan-led system was introduced with a view to increasing the importance of plans and to encourage local planning authorities to speed up their production. All local authorities were supposed to have had a plan in place by 1996; as at December 2001, 45 local authorities have still to adopt their first plan, 214 plans are becoming out of date with few signs of review. Numerous initiatives have been tried, to make the system work better, as it stands, changed regulations, advice issued, planning statement 1998, PPG12, 1999; none of these has delivered the necessary change in the efficiency of the process. Throughout the nineties, there has been repeated ministerial exhortation to change, Ministers have toured the country sharing best practice, best value has targeted the worst-performing authorities. Whilst individual authorities improve, the overall position on plan-making and development control does not. Could I ask you, at a convenient moment, to look at the figures for resolution of development control, applications over the last ten years, which I have made available to the Committee, and basically they show no substantive change in the process, in terms of timing, over those years. To deliver the necessary change, Government must demonstrate its determination to ensure the planning system reflects the goals of simplicity, reasonable speed, community engagement and connection with other outcomes sought, whilst delivering sustainable outcome. That change to be delivered also requires a properly-resourced planning system, that is one where local planning authorities have enough properly-qualified and experienced employees, high quality strategic planning is done at regional and, where necessary, sub-regional level, and central government resolves both the strategic and the case-led issues quickly and convincingly. In delivering the fundamental change required, we must ensure we deliver the change in a way which does not paralyse the planning system, provide excuses for delay, or lead to disruption whilst change is introduced. Good and clear transitional arrangements are vital to the success of the process of change; there must be clear, sign-posted, orderly change, the users of the system and those engaged in making it work must know at each stage of the process what is required of them. Without fundamental change we will not achieve change, but fundamental change will not be delivered by a big bang but by thoroughly thought-out changes, introduced clearly and methodically. We intend to produce a policy statement before the parliamentary recess, in which we will set out the changes we intend to pursue, in the light of the consultation; we will seek legislation at the earliest opportunity so that the momentum for change is sustained and the uncertainties reduced. At the heart of the reforms must be a clear understanding of what we are planning for, and I have in mind in setting this out in the legislation as a statutory purpose for planning. I am not going to prejudge what it might be, indeed officials are currently discussing a form of words, but what we have in mind, in the Bill that we propose, is something that will clearly reflect the objective of planning to promote sustainable development. Mr Chairman, we very much welcome the opportunity to debate the issues and focus on what change is required.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

Miss McIntosh

  789. Could I ask the Minister, what is wrong with the present system, local decisions being taken by local people?
  (Lord Falconer) We are very much in favour of local decisions being taken by local people, but it is too slow, first of all, and I would refer you to the chart I handed round at the beginning; it is too rules-driven, as opposed to proactive, so, when an application is made now, what happens is, the planners, instead of asking the question, what is right for the area in accordance with local and regional policies, reach for the rule books and try to work out what the rules prescribe. It is overcomplex, people do not understand what guidance the planning system is given, it is unpredictable, people do not know what results it will produce, it lacks adequate community engagement. It is underresourced, go round local planning authorities and they will frequently say they are very understaffed, dependent upon agency staff; it is not user-friendly, whether you be an objector or an applicant, people say that the system does not encourage a greater understanding; and it is insufficiently connected to the wider policy aims of central and local government.

Sir Paul Beresford

  790. Have you actually been into a local authority to see the match with processing?
  (Lord Falconer) Yes, I have.

  791. That is a good start. In that case, would you not agree that being too hung up on your chart, as you put it, ignores the fact that, if you are looking for quality, you may want to take time, you have to reflect that some of the applications may, in fact, be the reason for the delay, and that "no" is an answer within time but might not be the right answer?
  (Lord Falconer) Of course, quality has got to be an equal consideration to time and timeliness and predictability and certainty as well; but the message I am getting back, in relation to local planning authorities, is, it is not just a question of its taking time but they are significantly underresourced, unable to give the time to the important decisions, where the quality of those decisions will have the most material affect on the community.

Miss McIntosh

  792. Minister, can I refer to your memorandum to us. In paragraph 4, you say: "The proposals aim to encourage much more community ownership of the planning system," now parish councils would claim to have that community ownership; they feel that they are going to be excluded under your proposals. Why are you reducing the number of statutory consultees?
  (Lord Falconer) Parish councils are not statutory consultees at the moment. We would envisage a system where any major applications which affected a parish would be, obviously, notified to a parish, and it would be up to them to respond as they think appropriate. We are not remotely reducing the role of parish councils, because, as I say, they are not statutory consultees at the moment.

  793. Your Green Paper and your evidence say that the problem with the planning system at the moment is it is overcomplicated, there are too many tiers.
  (Lord Falconer) That is one of the problems.

  794. Can you explain to the Committee why you want to replace four tiers by five tiers, and I will go through them: a national policy statement, a revised planning policy guidance, a new Regional Spatial Strategy, a sub-regional strategy and an action plan. Why is that going to be more simple and less complex?
  (Lord Falconer) What we are proposing, in essence, is PPGs, which is national statements of planning policy, regional planning and district planning; where the gap between region and district is too wide on particular issues then we can see it might be appropriate to have a sub-regional tier, but that will not be in every part of the country and it will not be based on counties. I was not quite sure what you were saying when you said "national policy" then "revised policy statements".

  795. National policy statements on major infrastructure projects?
  (Lord Falconer) Those would be very specific to individual, major infrastructure projects, they would be perhaps one or two projects in a year, at the very most, they would not relate to the, as it were, everyday planning application or development plan issues for local authorities. So I think it would be slightly mistaken a position if you said that was a new tier of planning; it is no more than saying that you make a statement about, for example, what airport policy for the nation is.

  796. It is pylons that are my particular concern, and we can go into that at great length; but at what stage will you consult the parish council?
  (Lord Falconer) In relation to a development control application, I would envisage that, because there would be considerable publicity in development control applications, amongst the people who would be told about it would be the parish council, and they, like anybody else, would be entitled to respond, which is the current position.


  797. Can I be clear about this question of simplicity and certainty. I understand there is a slight tension at the moment within Government about PPG17, that the Department seem to think they have managed to boil it down to 13 or 14 pages of clear text; there are others in Government who say that anything beyond three pages is too long. Could you throw any light on what sort of approach we are going to have, are we going to have very short PPGs and then very much longer guidance notes on them?
  (Lord Falconer) What we think the right approach to take is that the policies themselves should be short and clear. I think, though I will be corrected if I am wrong, the current situation is that the present statement of national policy in PPGs stretched to 852 pages, over 852, and that seems, to me, to be too long.

  798. Yes; let us just concentrate with PPG17, because that is on your desk at the moment?
  (Lord Falconer) Indeed; and, you described it as a tension, there are creative discussions going on to get to the right answer, and, of course, precisely the drafting of a document like that will lead to great debate. The aim should be as short as is consistent with providing sufficient certainty, 852 pages overall is too long; if we are going to reduce the total from 852 then that means taking individual PPGs and making them shorter.

  799. So three pages, or ten or 12?
  (Lord Falconer) I do not know, I am not sure what the right number of pages should be; it must be short enough to be digestible, long enough to be sufficiently certain.


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