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


Memorandum by British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres (PG 63)

PLANNING GREEN PAPER

KEY POINTS

  The new planning regime must be devised so that there is a degree of predictability that it will cause fewer conflicts in the future. (paragraph 15).

  The emphasis on businesses obtaining faster planning decisions could be in conflict with improved community engagement. (paragraph 17)

  There must be a common minimum set of requirements for each local planning authority to meet to ensure that different communities have common understandings and expectations of how the planning system is to operate. (paragraph 18)

  Differences in local planning authority performance are often determined by the level of resources available, and the Government must ensure that local planning authorities have the level appropriate to deliver the minimum requirements. (paragraph 18)

  Community involvement in the planning process should be a requirement on local planning authorities, not something that is merely encouraged. (paragraph 19)

  There should be a consistent set of Government guidance, and possibly even legislation, on the minimum requirements for community involvement in all areas of strategy and service activity. (paragraph 19)

  The preparation of such guidance should build on the community engagement benchmarking work funded by Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and the community involvement indicators work being carried out by the Audit Commission. (paragraph 19)

  There needs to be a clear definition of the type of schemes that will be subject to Statements of Community Involvement. (paragraph 20)

  There needs to be clear guidance to local planning authorities on what constitutes good community involvement practice on schemes not subject to Statements of Community Involvement. (paragraph 20)

  Tighter timetables for decision making will truncate the actual time available for consultation, and result in many people not knowing about an application until too late. (paragraph 20)

  The Government should consider instituting statutory mechanisms for underpinning the key importance of its commitment to community involvement, eg neighbourhood governance structures, and Citizens Juries, and advisory committees. (paragraphs 21-24)

  Regional planning should build up from Community and Neighbourhood Strategies. (paragraph 26)

  The need for sub-regional planning should be a matter for bottom-up determination by neighbouring Local Strategic Partnerships. (paragraph 27)

  Pre-application discussion should be subject to public announcement. (paragraph 28)

  Business planning zones will undermine community credibility about the Government's commitment to Community Involvement. (paragraph 29)

  Outline planning permission can enable the achievement of speedy decision making without compromising community involvement. (paragraph 30)

  Planning Aid should be complimented by support to local multi-purpose service and project organisations and advice services to provide planning advice. (paragraph 31)

  Local planning authorities should be required to meet in open committee, with the community having the right of deputation. (paragraph 32)

  Community organisations should have the right of appeal against planning decisions that they have opposed. (paragraphs 33-35)

  Delegation to officers should be limited. (paragraph 36)

  Consideration needs to be given to different requirements relating to planning applications in which the local authority has an interest or stands to benefit as a result of sale to a developer. (paragraphs 34 and 36)

INTRODUCTION

  1.  Many communities are fed up with the way developers and property owners continually reshape the built environment in their neighbourhoods adversely effecting the quality of life of residents, and with large regeneration schemes that provide no benefit to neighbouring communities.

  2.  Communities often feel their wishes and interests are ignored in the planning system. This is why planning issues are often a catalyst for community action.

  3.  Members of bassac operate in neighbourhoods which are often in or adjacent to large scale physical redevelopment schemes and see little positive benefit. bassac therefore welcomes the publication of the Planning Green Paper as starting a dialogue on how to build an improved system which is integrated with any other positive Government initiatives such as Sustainable Development, Active Citizenship, Community Strategies, Neighbourhood Renewal, and Local Strategic Partnerships, and the government's concept in the Urban White Paper of putting communities at the heart of decisions affecting their areas.

THE PLANNING REVIEW

  4.  bassac made a submission to the Planning Review. It also took part in the preparation of the British Urban Regeneration Association's Steering and Development Forum's submission, and a meeting with Lord Falconer. bassac has continued to be involved in the Forum's deliberations on the submission in response to the Green Paper, and in the meeting with Brian Hackett and DTLR colleagues held on 12 March.

  5.  In its submission to the Planning Review bassac made the following key points, some in support of statements made by the Secretary of State:

    —  the planning system needs to be radically reformed into a tool for developing sustainable communities;

    —  if the outcome does not strengthen community participation in planning decisions then confidence in getting involved in urban and rural and neighbourhood renewal will be undermined;

    —  the planning system of the future must engage communities and contribute to people feeling connected with the process of government;

    —  planning is a key lever to help create a decent society and quality of life;

    —  past planning mistakes contributed to the break-up and decay of communities; and

    —  planning is a key process to achieving environmental, economic and social sustainability.

  6.  bassac welcomed the Secretary of State's emphasis on:

    —  planning's role in creating sustainable communities;

    —  not allowing commercial interests to run roughshod over legitimate environmental concerns;

    —  the right of the community to express their views about decisions which affect them.

THE TRANSITION FROM PLANNING REVIEW TO GREEN PAPER

  7.  bassac is concerned that in the transition between the Secretary of State's announcement of the Planning Review and the publication of the Green Paper, some of the contextual vision has been lost. It is important that this context is crystal clear, because many businesses involved in development, and many voluntary and community organisations, and the people active within them, have not yet understood the way seemingly separate Government policies and initiatives interlock.

  8.  The Green Paper sets out detailed proposals for making the planning decision process speedier and more efficient, and for strengthening community involvement. It does not sufficiently think through that these may be incompatible objectives, and that the proposals will not sufficiently end the current imbalance against community interests at the heart of the present planning system.

  9.  The Green Paper summarises the business criticisms of the planning system. These criticisms seem to be the driver behind the proposals to speed up decision making. Business is often at the heart of the problems that the planning system has to deal with. Many business interests consider that their wishes must take precedence, despite being formulated without any engagement with the local community, or any consideration of potential negative impacts on the community or other businesses. In the new context of the Government agendas of Sustainable Development, Community Strategies, urban, rural and neighbourhood renewal, Local Strategic Partnerships, and the revival of local democracy and citizen engagement, business can no longer expect to have precedence over other interests. The Confederation of British Industries expects business interests should be better understood by planners, through university planning courses including economics and finance of developments. Equally businesses, especially those engaged in larger scale developments, need to be trained in understanding the new context in which planning is to be a tool to achieve the Community Strategy.

  10.  Business is not a "homogenous" entity. Many developers ride rough shod over the interests of existing businesses operating in areas they wish to redevelop, especially the needs of local shopkeepers whose economic viability can be undermined by the developments of larger developers and businesses. The thrust of some business lobby views on the future of the planning system, particularly for speedier planning decisions, will benefit developers and large businesses rather than smaller more locally based businesses. Businesses genuinely committed to making a positive difference through their planning developments to a local area, will be seeking to be actively engaged in the area's Local Strategic Partnership.

RESOURCES

  11.  Some of the inadequacies of the current planning system that are identified in the Green Paper seem to be more an issue of lack of resources than the statutory legal framework. A changed framework will not work better unless it is adequately resourced.

DETAILED COMMENTS

Paragraph 2.4 Speed and Predictability

  12.  There is a confusion here between different processes by which blight occurs. Blight can be caused as a result of the time it takes:

    —  developers to buy out property owners, a process over which the community has no influence until the developer is ready to submit a planning application;

    —  for an implementable planning decision for a site which has become redundant eg factory or school;

    —  for a decision to be taken on a controversial planning application where the community may prefer a prolonged period of blight rather than agree an unacceptable application; and

    —  a developer to act once a planning decision has been taken; often going back with a revised scheme.

  13.  From the community perspective it will often take considerably longer than eight weeks to properly consider the implications of an application. It is not the time it takes to make a decision that should be paramount, but reaching a broadly acceptable decision, ie the final outcome which will affect an area for decades.

Paragraph 2.5—Community Engagement

  14.  bassac agrees that the problem with the current planning system is that it is "consultative", and does not engage the community in a way that it feels empowered. The community is the weakest player in the current planning system. This is partly due to the limited rights to make representations, and the lack of a right to put in a community appeal against a planning approval. It is also due to the lack of a system of neighbourhood governance structures that would enable the different interest groups within the community to have a strong voice in deciding planning applications. Such structures are needed if the Government's overall goal of putting communities at the heart of local decision making (eg as expressed in the Urban White Paper) is to be realised.

Paragraph 2.8—Reducing Planning Conflict

  15.  However, inadequate the present planning system, there is no point changing it if a new set of conflicts arise which will result in it being "subject of constant attack and its decisions suspect". The planning process is not neutral. It is determined politically through the legislative framework and the local decision making process. Conflict will always be inherent when different interests cannot be reconciled. The new planning regime must be devised so that there is a degree of predictability that will cause fewer conflicts.

Paragraphs 2.9, 4.7-4.14—Local Development Frameworks

  16.  bassac supports the idea of Local Development Frameworks connected up with the Community Strategies, and of local plans, particularly where these are linked to Neighbourhood Renewal Strategies. The Frameworks and Community Strategies are not that dissimilar to Structure and Development Plans. The best of these combined a vision that is now to be enshrined in Community Strategies, and a detailed development framework. The major difference is that the Plans were drawn up by local authorities and consulted upon with the community and other agencies, whereas the Community Strategies are to be developed and owned by Local Strategic Partnerships between local authorities and partner organisations. The idea of local plans builds on the development briefs for small areas already prepared by local authorities. The Frameworks and local plans will become the detailed planning tool for partnership approved Community Strategies. The inclusion of a map of the area as part of the Framework is crucial. It enables people to visualise areas discussed in accompanying print documents. It also enables community organisations to visually identify very small local areas on which they would like to see action taken.

Paragraph 2.10—Speedier Planning Decisions

  17.  The emphasis on businesses obtaining faster planning decisions could be in conflict with the improved community engagement (paragraph 2.11).

Paragraph 4.16—Making the new system work

  18.  bassac agrees that there must be a common minimum set of requirements for each local planning authority to meet to ensure that different communities have common understandings and expectations of how the planning system is to operate. Differences in local planning authority performance are however often determined by the level of resources available, and the Government must ensure that local planning authorities have the level appropriate to deliver the minimum requirements.

Paragraphs 4.21-4.24—Engaging the Community

  19.  bassac supports increased community involvement in the planning process. It should be a requirement on local planning authorities, not something that is merely encouraged. It also supports the concept of Statements of Community Involvement. The Government is promoting improved community involvement in Community Strategies, Neighbourhood Renewal Strategies, and in specialist service delivery. There needs to be a consistent set of Government guidelines on community engagement across all these areas. This will avoid the danger of disputes about minimal expectations, and should also address the issues of co-operation over community engagement so that communities do not feel overloaded with what to them appear to be similar consultations by different public agencies. There should be joint Departmental guidance, and possibly even legislation, on the minimum requirements for community involvement. The guidance should include benchmarking so that there is some agreed basis on which the adequacy of Community Involvement Strategies can be challenged. If developers are to be expected to undertake Community Involvement they need clear guidance on what is expected of them, otherwise they will enter the exercise with a degree of uncertainty as to whether they might be open to challenge. Similarly the community needs to understand the basis for their involvement. The preparation of such guidance should build on the community engagement benchmarking work funded by Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and the community involvement indicators work being carried out by the Audit Commission.

  20.  The following issues need to be addressed in order to ensure that communities are clear about their Community Involvement rights:

    —  Statements of Community Involvement will only apply to large developments. There is no definition of what is meant by "large development". A significant number of applications could have a big impact, while not being large developments. These are likely to fall outside the definition of "large". There needs to be a clear definition of the type of schemes that will be subject to Statements if there is not to be confusion at community level, and accusations of manipulation of definitions;

    —  Small planning applications will not be required to have a Statement. This puts the onus on local planning authorities to carry out consultation. There needs to be clear guidance to local authorities on what consists good community involvement practice on schemes not subject to Statements;

    —  Even if a developer complies with a Statement, it does not mean that the final proposals will resolve all problems. The local planning authority will still need to carry out consultation;

    —  Tighter timetables for decision making will truncate the actual time available for consultation, and result in many people not knowing about an application until too late.

  21.  There are a variety of community engagement techniques that Government good practice guidance should be promoting, such as Planning for Real. bassac also suggests that the Government institute statutory mechanisms for underpinning the key importance of its commitment to community involvement, eg neighbourhood governance structures, and Citizens Juries, and advisory committees.

  22.  Neighbourhood Governance Structures. At present the only neighbourhood governance structures that have a statutory basis are Parish and Town Councils. Many local authorities are establishing informal structures eg area forums as vehicles to engage local communities. The size of these forums varies from small neighbourhoods to districts the size of a quarter of the local authority area. The latter size is too large to foster the genuine engagement of communities, especially those living in neighbourhoods which are going to be significantly affected by planning decisions. These forums are subject to the political and financial whims of the local authority (viz Community Councils from the 1970s and decentralised Neighbourhood Area Offices and Forums from the 1980s). Serious community engagement that is sustainable requires statutory provision.

  23.  Citizens Juries. These would involve a panel of local residents questioning local residents, community, voluntary and business organisations, the planning applicants, the planning officials and other involved agencies about the potential impacts of an application. There might be a role for the local Member of Parliament as Chair. If the Government made it a requirement on planning officials and applicants to appear before such Juries, and that the planning authorities had to treat such Juries as statutory consultees, this would give a clear signal to communities that the Government intention for meaningful community involvement had teeth.

  24.  Advisory Committees. A number of local planning authorities have Conservation Area Advisory Committees examining applications affecting conservation areas and listed historic buildings. Membership can comprise local amenity societies, relevant local professional organisations eg architects, local historical societies and residents associations. These Committees often have a level of expertise not contained within Planning Departments, and view planning applications more in their historic and built environment context that Planning Departments are often capable of doing. Their work has been of considerable value to local planning authorities in either providing grounds for rejection for unsympathetic developments, or suggesting improvements to applications, and in contributing to the development of local plans. There is a strong case for the establishment of such Committees to consider applications for the whole planning authority area and for there to be a requirement on local planning authorities to take their views into account. The operation of such Committees has not prevented member organisations from lobbying outside their role on the Committees. Such Advisory Committees could be an additional safeguard to protect the interests of communities.

Paragraph 4.25—Sustainability Appraisal

  25.  bassac supports the need for sustainability impacts

Paragraphs 4.39-4.41—Regional Planning

  26.  bassac supports the continuing relevance of regional planning policy. However, such policy should be rooted in the Community Strategies and Local Development Frameworks and address issues of conflict between them, and issues that are wider than individual local authority areas. The temptation to have regional policies determined "top-down" dictating Community Strategies and Local Development Frameworks should be avoided as such an approach will act against community engagement in shaping local areas. In many cases concepts of a region are artificial economic and political constructs, to which communities do not relate.

Paragraph 4.49-4.5—Sub-regional Planning

  27.  It is likely that in considering the Community Strategies and Local Development Frameworks many Local Strategic Partnerships will identify the need for discussions on a sub-regional planning basis than a regional one. The need for sub-regional planning should therefore be a matter for bottom-up determination. Where the regional planning authority identifies the possible need for sub-regional planning it should be required to negotiate with and convince the relevant Local Strategic Partnerships, and not impose it upon them.

Paragraphs 5.9-5.10—Pre-application discussion

  28.  A major drawback with current pre-application discussion is that it is done behind closed doors, with planning officers becoming involved in shaping an application, so that often it is a foregone conclusion that they will recommend its acceptance to the Planning Committee. This leaves them open to accusations of personal compromise, and of compromising public consultation. If pre-application discussion is sought by an applicant it should be subject to public announcement, the availability of the ideas to public scrutiny and the opportunity for the public to discuss the ideas with the developer and Planning Officers. Absence of such a requirement will act against confidence in the Government's commitment on the role of community involvement.

Paragraphs 5.36-5.38—Business Planning Zones

  29.  bassac is very concerned about the ideas for Business Planning Zones in which planning consent will not be required if the application is in accordance with tightly defined parameters. It is not possible for the Government to assess whether the level of impact of a Business Zone on neighbouring communities is low or not. That can only be decided locally. Who will decide on what is a "Business Zone"? Will it be the local authority or the Local Strategic Partnership? Will it be subject to public discussion and community involvement on the Community Strategy, the Local Development Framework or a Local Action Plan? The Government's commitment to Community Involvement will be undermined if communities believe they have no voice on the potential effects of a Zone on their areas. A planning application in a Business Zone might be subject to concern by existing businesses within the Zone. How will their interests be protected?

Paragraph 5.42—Outline Planning Permission

  30.  An advantage of the outline planning permission process is that the community knows that an applicant may come forward at a later date with detailed planning proposals. This enables the community to develop its ideas on the application in advance. This can enable the achievement of speedy decision making without compromising community involvement.

Paragraphs 5.57-5.58—Community advocacy: Planning Aid

  31.  The Planning Aid system has been an important resource for communities concerned about planning applications. However, it is dependent on the volunteer capacities of planners. Willowbrook Centre, a member of bassac, provides a complimentary model, being a specialist planning advice resource to communities in the London Borough of Southwark. There are a range of multi-purpose service and project organisations which already work in the field of community involvement. They could take on a specialist planning role as well. Many advice service organisations could also take on a planning brief, alongside their existing specialist areas such as welfare benefits, employment, and education. This would enable volunteer planners to concentrate on helping in those areas where no specialist organisations exist.

Paragraph 5.59—Open Committees

  32.  It is regrettable that the Green Paper does not require all local planning authorities to meet in open committee. While closed Committees do not necessarily mean that the community cannot find out when an application is going to be considered, it means that the officers' reports will not be public. The community therefore will not know whether its views have been correctly represented. Nor will members of the community be able to attend to observe the decision making process. Where Committees are open, and the agenda and reports are available in advance there are opportunities for last minute interventions through individual Councillors or through deputations to present community views to the Committee. Planning Committees should be required to meet in open session. There should be a statutory right to deputations.

Paragraphs 6.9-6.23—Third Party Rights of Appeal

  33.  bassac regrets the Government's rejection of the arguments for third party right of appeal. In its comments to the Planning Review it argued that "As a last safeguard to community interests, community organisations should have the right of appeal against planning applications that they have opposed".

  34.  Communities which consider that planning decisions have been forced upon them, despite the improved opportunities for their engagement, will feel very embittered if they do not have a final right of challenge through appeal against the decision. There are at least two frequent types of planning decision where the embitterment will be greatest:

    —  decisions on local authority owned land, or local authority land sold to developers, as the local authority will not be seen as a disinterested part in its role as local planning authority; and

    —  decisions where the local planning authority has given planning approval out of line with the Local Development Framework.

  35.  The credibility of the Government's policy to increase community engagement will be undermined if it does not enable a right of appeal in these circumstances. Absence of a community right of appeal will give the signal that developers' interests are paramount over and above those of local communities.

Paragraph 6.37—Improving Local Authority Practice

  36.  More delegation to officers of planning application decisions has its attractions if the driving force behind the new planning system is to be speed. Delegation is a fundamental undermining of the principle of community involvement. At present it is not always clear in public notices about planning applications as to whether it is delegated to officers or a matter for the Planning Committee. Nor is it necessarily made clear that an objection to an application results in it being referred to Committee. Given the time it often takes for the community to get to know about an application, it can sometimes be too late to lodge objections. Usually it is the small applications which will be subject to officer delegation. While each application may seem insignificant in itself, it is often the accumulation of small decisions in a street or a neighbourhood which cause community concern. The idea of local action plans will not cover every street or neighbourhood, so there will be no broadly acceptable community view on how the officers should exercise their judgement. Setting a target for delegation is artificial, in that it cannot then take account of fluctuations in the number of planning applications, especially those requiring Statements of Community Involvement. Delegation should exclude planning applications by the local authority (see comments in paragraph 34 above).

Sean Creighton, Policy Development Officer, bassac

18 March 2002



 
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