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

Memorandum by the Planning Officers Society (PGP 60)



  1.1  The Planning Officers Society represents over 500 of the most senior professionals and managers of planning functions in the English Local Authorities. The Society embraces County Councils, Shire Districts, London Boroughs, Metropolitan, Unitary and National Park Authorities. Our objectives are:

    —  to act as an advocate for Local Government planning;

    —  to assist and advise the Local Government Association and the Government on planning and related issues;

    —  to act as a centre of excellence in Local Government Planning matters and promote best practice;

    —  to act in liaison with other organisations to promote the built and green environment.


  2.1  The Society's submission to the Select Committee will be made by:

    James Russell, President of the Society and Assistant Director of Strategy and Planning at Coventry City Council; and

    John Silvester, Senior Vice President, and Director of Planning and Community Services at Surrey Heath Borough Council.

  2.2  The Society's memorandum focuses on the seven issues in which the Committee have expressed a particular interest, following some preliminary general comments.


  3.1  The Society has broadly welcomed the Green Paper and its associated consultation papers, as heralding a long overdue and radical overhaul of the planning system. In his introduction to the Green Paper the Secretary of State sets out the Government's objective for the reform as:

    "We need a better, simpler, faster, more accessible system that serves both business and the community".

  3.2  The Society endorses these aspirations, and supports the various legal, procedural, cultural and resourcing changes that will need to be put in place to deliver them. The UK's planning, regeneration and sustainability framework is complex and diverse with many powerful interests at stake. Satisfying all of these in a system, which is simpler and faster, and yet fair and just, will be a challenging task.

  3.3  In order to simplify the task the Society believes that a guiding principle for all the reforms must be flexibility. Whilst the desire for standard solutions is understandable the Society believes that the planning system, and its users are now sufficiently mature to develop more local solutions on a "horses for courses" basis operating within a national framework.

  3.4  The Society believes that as part of the review it is important for the basic purpose of planning to be set down clearly in legislation. In our document "Planning for Change" the Society suggested "The purpose of the Planning System is to promote, guide and ensure sustainable development at all spatial levels, in ways which are fair, open and accountable. It seeks to resolve conflicts in the competing demands to achieve the social, economic and environmental aspirations of all communities".


  4.1  The first and fundamental point the Society wishes to make is that whatever system of development planning is adopted as the outcome of the review it is essential that the primacy of the Development Plan must remain as a cornerstone of the new system. Moves towards quicker, more flexible plans which are regularly reviewed are supported but the system will still need the strength of Section 54A (or whatever replaces it) to ensure that policies and interim policies have appropriate weight in the determination of planning applications.

  4.2  Whilst there is no doubt that the current Development Plan system has proved to be somewhat slow and ponderous:

    (a)  there is now some 90 per cent national coverage for the first time in 50 years;

    (b)  reviews of plans have been completed or are under way in many authorities;

    (c)  the system has dealt with tens of thousands of objections;

    (d)  many businesses and the development industry are experienced at participating in the process; and

    (e)  the system has set a framework for section 54a and the plan-led approach.

  4.3  The downside of the current system is that it has proved to be long-winded, hierarchical, expensive, inflexible, over-complicated, insufficiently responsive to the speed of change and of variable quality. All players in the system have to bear some responsibility. Local Planning Authorities sometimes find the decision-making process difficult in reaching unpopular decisions. The political commitment due to the high cost of plan production and the subsequent Public Inquiries has been sometimes less than enthusiastic. The business community, with the exception of the House Builders Federation often have not participated except in pursuing competing demands for development sites. Lastly, the voluntary sector has often wanted to cover every minor eventuality with safeguarding policies.

  4.4  A useful test suggested by Professor Ted Kitchen is that:

  The Usefulness of the Plan

    must = more than one

  The time taken to produce it

  All too often this has not been the case.

  4.5  Consequently the Society believes that there is justification for simplifying and speeding up the system and in doing so it is important that the underlying problems are addressed. If no solution to the underlying problems can be found, there will be a greatly reduced justification for change. This is certainly not to advocate "no change", but is important to avoid any element of change, which will not clearly eliminate one or more of the current obstacles to good planning. Before any change is implemented it must be shown clearly to have passed the very reasonable tests set out by the Secretary of State in his introduction to the Green Paper: better, simpler, faster and more accessible. This is particularly so in relation to the Development Plan process where no amount of repackaging will produce improvements, unless delays resulting from consultation and inquiries are addressed.

  4.6  The Society remains to be convinced that the system proposed in the Green Paper will necessarily be better, simpler, faster and more accessible to all sectors of the community. The diagram below shows how the spatial planning framework might look.

  4.7  The new system needs to provide real flexibility as to the geographical area to be covered by a Local Development Framework (to allow for LDFs for clusters of authorities), and in the format and presentation. In particular, there is concern that the proposals in the Green Paper for specific proposals to be contained in action plans would not work well in many areas because of the need to allocate and phase the release of sites for housing across a number of settlements, and to define the operative areas for a number of different policies.

  4.8  Similarly, the legislation should impose the very minimum of prescription, and be generally non-restrictive on the content of LDFs and the approach to their production, having in mind the need to target and enable effective use of scarce resources.

  4.9  In the early years of the new system, Action Areas are likely to be thin on the ground as local authorities or communities will not have the resources to prepare them having regard to the need to concentrate on Regional Spatial Strategies, Sub Regional Strategies, LDFs and improving the performance of Development Control. Hence the statutory development plan will consist of an RSS and LDF prepared in conformity. There is some concern that if LDFs comprise only a set of core strategies and criteria based policies, many more applications will be considered having regard to "other material consideration" rather than "in accordance with the provision of the development plan".

  4.10  In terms of addressing the issues of speed, simplicity and accessibility the heart of the matter is the approach taken to the legitimisation of the plan and its proposals. In this regard, we would urge that the present adversarial system should be changed to one in which there is a process of examination of the draft plan and the work leading up to its publication, asking the question "is it a good plan?"


  5.1  The Society fully endorses the concept of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) which we see as a major plank in the delivering of the sustainability agenda by pulling together land use, transportation, economic development and other social policies. There is a clear case for RSS having statutory status.

  5.2  We are, however, opposed to the proposal that responsibility for the preparation of the RSS (so far as it specifies planning policy and targets) should be extended beyond the democratically elected bodies. That does not rule out a wider body preparing the RSS where each agency is responsible for and controls those aspects, which it will deliver, as is the case with community strategies.

  5.3  It is essential that all planning authorities should have an explicit, statutory role in the preparation of the RSS and its component parts, including sub-regional strategies or targets; and the implication in the Green Paper that County Councils will cease to be planning authorities needs to be reconsidered. The loss of the Counties' contribution and resources would be fatal to regional and sub-regional planning, and present serious difficulties for the preparation of local development frameworks and minerals/waste plans.

  5.4  The sub-regional components of the regional spatial strategy should be the responsibility of the local authorities within the sub-region.


  6.1  Firstly, the Society recognises the need to balance national objectives for major infrastructure with local concerns about the impact that these might have. There is a clear need for a mechanism that allows differences of view to be explored and evaluated in an open and democratic manner, which commands respect. A system that fails to do this will become discredited and could provoke direct action from objectors.

  6.2  Whilst there are some well-known examples of public inquiries that have taken excessive amounts of time, the majority of inquiries are expedited quickly. The procedures they follow are generally understood and are accessible to the public, and the decisions they produce command the respect of objectors and promoters alike.

  6.3  By contrast current Parliamentary procedures can be difficult to access other than by those directly involved. The use of a Parliamentary procedure should therefore be reserved only for the most significant of projects of genuine national interest where there is a clear advantage over the planning inquiry approach.

  6.4  The Society agrees that there are a small number of developments that are of national importance and that require special consideration. However, we believe that the list suggested in "Annex C" of the consultation is far too extensive and would be likely to prove an impossible burden on parliamentary time. We welcome the Government's intention to prepare national policy statements to provide a clear context for consideration of individual projects. Our support for this is dependent upon there being adequate opportunity for public consultation and testing of the policy.

  6.5  We agree that there may be benefit in separating consideration of need and the principle of development from detailed consideration of the project proposal. However, we are concerned that decisions about suitability of location should not be taken without adequate opportunity for scrutiny of environmental, sustainability and other impacts prior to decisions being taken. Greater clarity is required about how the process proposed in the Green Paper will deal with the relative merits of alternative locations or routes.

  6.6  We consider it to be an important safeguard that, even where a scheme has been given in principle approval in policy terms, an Inspector should be able to recommend rejection following a detailed examination of the practicability and impact of a scheme.

  6.7  We are not persuaded that for all but the most major proposals Parliamentary procedure offers demonstrable advantages over the Public Inquiry approach. We have overriding concerns that the proposed measures do not provide adequate opportunities for public involvement at appropriate stages of decision-making. Democratically elected local authorities have a key role in agreeing views as to the local acceptability of major projects, which needs to be explicitly recognised.


  7.1  The Society supports the notion that certain high technology companies and other twenty first century business need greater flexibility to be able to respond to rapidly changing market conditions. We are not, however, convinced that Business Planning Zones are the right way of creating this flexibility. On the face of it they seem similar in concept to Simplified Planning Zones (BPZs) which have proved less than effective.

  7.2  If BPZs are to be sufficiently large, in terms of floor space or land take to merit identification at the Regional level via spatial strategies, the Society is dubious as to whether they would have "low impact on the surrounding area". The Society's concerns are that they would:

    —  be likely to be on Greenfield rather than Brownfield sites;

    —  undermine sustainability;

    —  undermine the urban renaissance; and

    —  make the implementation and monitoring of green travel initiatives very difficult.

  7.3  In any event the Society believes that if all the other measures in the Green Paper are implemented—ie faster, better, simpler development plans, and faster development control there should be no need for BPZs.


  8.1  The Society supports the idea of a tariff-based approach spread over a wider range of developments that is currently the case with section 106 Agreement as most developments, other than the most minor, make some demands on local infrastructure, social, educational or leisure provision.

  8.2  Because of the likely continuing need for site-based planning obligation requirements it may be appropriate that such tariffs should be levied for a relatively limited range of purposes, eg affordable housing, open space, school places, general transport improvement that would be relevant to all types of development.

  8.3  Because of varying land values both within local authorities and between different regions tariffs may not always be applicable because they could inhibit any form of development.

  8.4  Local Planning Authorities will need continuing access to valuation advice if the tariffs are to be properly related to land/development values, which can change rapidly over time. This will be an additional financial burden on local authorities, unless the valuation costs can be offset against the impact fee. It is not clear how a local planning authority will be able to justify the particular tariff it chooses to set. One option would be to set the tariff as a percentage of the development value. Additional government guidance on this may need to be provided if there is not to be lengthy argument at the Local Development Framework examination stage.

  8.5  If tariffs are seen as an additional source of capital resources for Local Planning Authorities, the level of fees collected should not be a factor in determining a local authority's capital allocation, Rate Support Grant etc.

  8.6  As regards the proposals for CPOs and compensation these are welcomed especially following on from the recently published Compulsory Purchase Procedure Manual. The Society considers that the right balance has been struck between the needs of the community and the rights of the individual and concludes that:

    —  the overhaul of procedures and how they are applied is long overdue and the Green Paper comprehensively tackles this, broadly in line with what local authorities have been asking for over a long period;

    —  it is eminently sensible that the justification for acquisition is much more closely related to the development plan system as proposed in the parallel Green Paper;

    —  the simplification and consolidation of the legislation should encourage wider use of the available powers; and

    —  new compensation arrangements should be more fairly applied to, and understood by, those affected by compulsory acquisition although there may well be increased financial obligations on Local Councils or those providing the funding.

  8.7  As regards the Use Classes Order (UCO), the Society acknowledges that the options put forward are based on detailed research undertaken for DTLR by Baker Associates. The Society also notes that the Preliminary Regulatory Impact Assessment concludes that the provision of the Revised UCO should allow "the maximum possible deregulation consistent with delivering planning policy and wider objectives including protecting amenity."

  8.8  The Society has two main concerns, firstly that the review agenda seems to be driven by issues in London and the South East. Many of the concerns raised are just not a problem elsewhere in the country. Secondly, the Society believes that the changes are not sufficiently radical and the balance is still too firmly on the side of neighbour protection than deregulation.


  9.1  As indicated earlier the Society endorses the need for radical change and welcomes the broad thrust of the proposals.

  9.2  The Society is, however, dubious as to whether the reforms in themselves will achieve the sea change, which is anticipated. The crucial issues in achieving increased certainty, greater public involvement and faster decision, all at the same time, are attitude and resources.

  9.3  There is no doubt that local authorities and the planning profession have to tackle head on the poor image of planning and shift the culture from a neighbour protection system to one that embraces positive planning at all levels.

  9.4  The Society hopes that it is doing its part with its revised Best Value Guide and the work we are doing with IDeA and the DTLR's Modernising Unit in relation to Moving Towards Excellence, to assist authorities in providing an excellent and positive service.

  9.5  The resources issue is crucial in terms of funding, staffing, skills and training. The Society input extensively to the research project "Resourcing of Local Planning Authorities" undertaken for DTLR by Arup Economic and Planning with the Bailey Consultancy and supports the conclusions that most authorities are seriously under-resourced. Headline statistics from the study show:

    —  37 per cent under-funding of unitary and district authorities and 23 per cent for counties;

    —  27 per cent increase in the number of development control staff required to meet current needs.

  9.6  Even if additional resources are forthcoming from this year's spending review, the increasing difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff will present a major barrier to the improvement of services, particularly in London and south east England. The number of students completing accredited higher education courses each year has declined recently, as has the number of applications to undergraduate courses (see below). Retention problems are increasing due, in part, to the failure of pay to keep pace with increases in the cost of living and a very tight labour market.

  9.7  Only if the twin problem of resources and people with appropriate skill are resolved, alongside the reforms, can Government's objectives for the Planning system be achieved.


  10.1  The Green Paper and its daughter consultations are primarily about process and procedures. The Society is disappointed that there is little about objectives and outcomes, eg:

    —  achieving sustainability;

    —  integration of transport and land use;

    —  addressing social exclusion;

    —  the quality of design in town and country; and

    —  urban renaissance.

  10.2  The Society does, however, believe that there are aspects of the proposals, which if implemented in the right way and within the right culture will assist urban renaissance. This includes:

    —  more focused national guidance with a clear sustainability thrust;

    —  a collaborate approach to Local Development Frameworks;

    —  Action Area Plans including Master Plans, Design Brief etc;

    —  a more focused use of resources to areas of change or in need of change;

    —  the new CPO and compensation proposals; and

    —  the potential for increased investment in regeneration from planning obligations.


  Information regarding the Planning Officers Society and the full submission to DTLR on the Green Paper can be found on our website:

James Russell
John Silvester
Senior Vice President
March 2002

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