Examination of Witnesses (Questions 960-979)
LORD FALCONER OF THOROTON QC, BRIAN HACKLAND, MIKE ASH AND JEFF CHANNING
WEDNESDAY 8 MAY 2002
960. Yes, but the Bill (inaudibleMr Ash and myself will probably . . . went through whipping ?) ?
(Lord Falconer) Is that right? Mr Ash has told me the reverse, but (that could . . . itinaudible?).
961. Can I just pursue this. If you are going to have it without whipping, presumably, the House would put people onto the committee, and the House would then put people on, on the basis of party representation in the House, or would the House simply put on the most willing people to serve on the committee?
(Lord Falconer) It would be entirely a matter for the House to decide how it peopled the committee. It would plainly be wrong for me to suggest how it should be done.
962. No; you are suggesting you want a streamlined process, so how does it meet your requirement for a streamlined process, if the House, unaided by the Whips, is going to have to make a choice as to who goes on the committee?
(Lord Falconer) Presumably, it makes a choice as to who goes onto select committees, at the moment.
963. Because it has a little bit of guidance, normally, from the Whips; the House may not accept that guidance?
(Lord Falconer) Unless you tell me this is a terrible thing to say, I would not have thought there was anything objectionable about the business managers discussing between themselves who might be appropriate for such a committee.
964. Of course; in which case, you are having some influence on the outcome, are you not? If you look back at the old Private Bills, when you put four people in, the crucial thing was, who got the chair, and that was done as a deal between the Whips, and everything that was said was often a waste of time because you knew the outcome, because you knew which party had the chair of the committee, and therefore had the casting vote when it came to the crunch. Now, if I had been appearing before one of those Private Bills, I would have been pretty disgusted by the process. Now are you trying to suggest a better process?
(Lord Falconer) Well then, the question is, I think people have confidence in the independence of select committees.
965. The Central Planning Casework Division was set up at the beginning of April to reduce the amount of time taken in public inquiry decisions. How much time do you think it will save?
(Lord Falconer) It was set up to reduce the time from the point at which the Inspector reports to the Minister till the time the Minister takes his decision. We envisage that it will halve the time within two years that it takes decisions to come out of central government on called-in and recovered appeals. I think the present average length of time is, is it 29 weeks; can I confirm, I think the reduction we are after is from 22 weeks to 11 weeks.
966. You will probably know that the public inquiry into the Docklands Light Railway Extension to City Airport actually took only a week, but the DTLR decision on that matter took a year. Do you think that this will help in cases of that nature?
(Lord Falconer) Yes, and I think that one of the aspects about planning reform is that central government has got to get its act together and demonstrate that it can actually produce change, in order to be a convincing driver of change in the other parts of the system as well; and the example is a well-taken example.
967. When will we see examples of the success of this new Casework Division?
(Lord Falconer) It was set up on 2 April. It is only dealing with new cases from 2 April. We will obviously report in six months, and then again in six months, as to what the results are, in relation to it; but I would hope that you would see material improvements in the timing by the end of the first year.
968. Lord Falconer, can I move you on to the proposals in the Green Paper regarding statutory consultees, because you are obviously aware that there is a suggestion that they should be allowed to charge pre-application fees. Now the submissions we have heard, from the Environment Agency and English Nature, demonstrate that they are quite uneasy about that. Would you like to comment?
(Lord Falconer) Yes; and they have made the same representations to me as well. The purpose of charging pre-application fees was to try to improve the service that came from the statutory consultees, and if the evidence is that it would not improve the service then, obviously, it would not be a proposal to proceed with. But there needs to be some process by which the standards are improved, because sensible local authorities in major applications will wait for the significant statutory consultees to respond, because if it is one that has a material effect on the environment then obviously you would sensibly wait for the Environment Agency; if it was a Grade 1 listed building, you would not wish to form a view before you had heard from English Heritage. What is the process, therefore, by which one does lead that not to become a bottleneck; and I think what one has got to look at is things like identifying where the really important applications are, trying to make it easier for the bodies to actually identify those that they have really got to focus on. I had a conversation last week, for example, with English Heritage, who said, one of the problems is they have got lots and lots of applications they have got to deal with but 99 per cent of them do not raise any real issue at all, whereas a few do, and it is identifying a process whereby you can actually identify those that give rise to the real need for consultation and those that do not. And I am not sure we have actually cracked how we do that yet.
969. Can I ask you about the fear of compromise. You have mentioned English Heritage. How do you answer the charge that there could be a real risk that if those important agencies are actually lifting money off developers then their actual assessment of the application could, potentially, be influenced by that?
(Lord Falconer) I do not think that would be right. But, again, I come back to the basic proposition. If they are paid for pre-application discussions, that is only of value if the money is then used in a way to quicken up the process as a whole; and what you are hearing, I am hearing, from some statutory consultees as well, and they are saying it may not quicken up the process, therefore is it worth doing, and we need to consider that quite carefully.
970. Some of the statutory consultees that you appear willing to see removed have very specific expertise; one of the ones you mentioned, when you appeared before Committee last December, was the Garden History Society, that at the moment has a role in assessing the impact of development on historic parks and gardens. Now how do you answer the charge that, if you remove people like the Garden History Society from the list of statutory consultees, that expert knowledge that they have is not there in local authority planning departments, so how are you going to make up the deficiency?
(Lord Falconer) I think, if there is more publicity given to planning applications, and, in particular, the more we expand, for example, the planning portal, so that everybody knows what planning applications are current,
971. But, wait a minute, you were saying we should have much more pre-planning application consultation. Now if you know that the Garden History Society is one of the people who will statutorily have to be consulted, then, if you have got any sense, if you want to put up a new Sainsbury's, you go and talk to them, do you not, and say, "Look, can we come to something about this piece of land which will protect your interests?" and you try to iron out of the way any possibility that someone is going to statutorily object. What you are saying now is, "Oh, no, people will have to blunder into it, raise a great deal of upset, and then these people will know about it and will be able to make objections"?
(Lord Falconer) A balance has got to be struck, has it not, between, on the one hand, the waiting for a response from the sorts of statutory consultees that Christine has referred to, and making sure that their expertise is available.
972. So they are slow, are they, at responding?
(Lord Falconer) I would like to make it absolutely clear, I do not know how quick or fast the Garden History Society is, in relation to responding, but one of the points that was made in relation to statutory consultees was that the range was such that they quite frequently provide a bottleneck in relation to planning applications.
973. On what evidence? Could you tell the Committee, would you actually name some of these statutory consultees who you believe are responsible for the delays in the existing system; who are they?
(Lord Falconer) I know the names that were given to me, in relation to those that delayed it, and I would be quite unwilling to, as it were, name and shame them.
974. Because your evidence might be dodgy?
(Lord Falconer) Because there were widespread statements made by significant numbers of planning authorities that they had difficulty with particular statutory consultees. I was not provided with statistics that indicated that was right or that was wrong, but it was a pretty oft-repeated remark, and therefore it is something I think it is legitimate to consult about, and a balance has got to be struck. Talking to the statutory bodies, like English Heritage, they are also saying, "Yes, we do need to change the system by which we are consulted, because we are spending a considerable amount of time and money on something that is not producing results." So English Heritage say they spend millions on this, and 90 per cent of what they do has no impact.
975. Yes, but, instead of banning different amenity groups from the list, you could simply instruct the ones that are on the list to actually speed up, could you not, you have the powers to do that?
(Lord Falconer) What would you say about saying to the Garden History Society that they should be told of all relevant applications; would that be enough?
Christine Russell: I do not think they want to be told. I think that they feel that they do respond within the 21 days.
976. And I suspect they would be happy to respond rather quicker, as long as you left them as statutory consultees?
(Lord Falconer) But would not the right thing to do be, I could be wrong about this, if they know of an application then they can identify those that they want to respond to and those that they do not.
977. Can we move on to Business Planning Zones. I think it is fair to say, there is no great enthusiasm in the responses for Business Planning Zones, perhaps based on the fear that they will not be well-designed, they will not be sustainable and they could well be used for giving the green light, if you like, to developments on greenfield sites. How do you ensure that developments in Business Planning Zones will be sustainable, along the lines you have stated?
(Lord Falconer) It has been made clear in the Planning Green Paper that they are not about, the implication of your question is they are about creating low quality development areas, that is not what they are about, they are about creating quality developments. The criteria for development within a Business Planning Zone would be set, clearly, it would be low impact development of high quality, and not the poor development characteristic of earlier sorts of planning zones like this. They would require an Environmental Impact Assessment, and that will obviously present a safeguard.
978. Have you ever come across a developer who did not claim that his development was of good quality?
(Lord Falconer) I think, if you spoke to a number of housebuilders, they would acknowledge that, for example, housebuilding developments in the past
979. You have seen hoardings up, have you, "low quality housing"?
(Lord Falconer) No, I have not actually ever seen that, but if you spoke to housebuilders they would acknowledge that some of the developments done not so far in the recent past could not be described as high quality development.