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

Memorandum by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (PGP 68)

Planning Green Paper Planning: delivering a fundamental change


  The Govemment's proposals in the Planning Green Paper represent the most radical shake up of planning in England for fifty years. Many organizations, the RSPB included, agree that the system needs to change. We agree with some of the analysis in the Paper, for instance, that planning has sometimes been slow, lacked certainty, and resulted in out of date plans. Some aspects of the system need attention.

However, planning has also served us well as a nation over the last fifty years, including helping to protect important assets such as our countryside and wildlife habitats. It is essential that whatever new planning system is created it addresses existing weaknesses and it is capable of delivering improved planning for the next fifty years. We must not cast away the economic, social and environmental benefits that planning has brought us by rushing through reforms before their implications have been fully assessed.

The Green Paper and its proposals have concentrated the debate about the current state of, and the future for, planning. The Government is to be commended for initiating this important debate. The RSPB has submitted detailed evidence to the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions on the Green Paper, the proposals for determining Major Infrastructure Projects and the proposals for reform of Planning Obligations. The main points of those submissions are summarised below for the benefit of the Committee.



The Government must ensure that it gives itself time to fully consider the substance of the representations that it has received. The Green Paper includes fundamental proposals for reform, the implications of which must be carefully considered before legislative reform is pursued.

Sustainable development

We need a debate about what planning is for. The achievement of sustainable development should be the principal objective for the whole planning system and for all development proposals—sustainable development is not an "add on".

  A principal objective to further sustainable development should be included in a new Town and Country Planning Act. We are therefore pleased that the Planning Minister, Lord Falconer of Thoroton has announced his intention to "put sustainability at the heart of the planning system". Speaking at the launch of the RSPB's pamphlet Living Spaces—a vision for the future of planning, Lord Falconer said, "the Planning Green Paper has been criticised—and I think fairly—for not emphasising sustainability sufficiently... So I intend in our planning legislation to set out a statutory purpose for planning". He went on to confirm his intention that the purpose would clearly reflect the objective of planning to promote sustainable development. We look forward to the debate about the detailed wording of the purpose.

The new planning instruments

A.  National Level

  National planning guidance is a valuable tool for setting out national policy priorities and imperative for subsequent stages of planning

There should be no arbitrary limit placed on the length of PPGs, they should be as short, or as long and prescribe as much detail, as is required to clearly set out national policy

An England Spatial Planning Strategy is required to provide the necessary spatial coherence to aspects of national policy

Planning decisions should be taken at the appropriate level—it is unfair to subject local planning authorities to intense local political pressures when the principles of the decision are strategic.

  Important policy, procedural and legal issues must not be relegated to mere advice, they must be contained in the main policy guidance

Shorter national policy guidance supported by good practice guides, etc. may be less helpful to developers than a comprehensive, but longer "one stop shop"

Planning Policy Guidance on Nature Conservation (PPG9) must be reviewed immediately

We welcome the proposals to produce National Policy Statements, provided they are clear and unambiguous, and that they tackle important issues such as need, alternatives and to a degree location (for instance broad regional location). Such guidance must be subject to rigorous, open scrutiny and examination. We initially favour detailed consideration of the National Policy Statement through some form of inquiry, followed by a detailed inquiry on a detailed scheme.

We are not convinced about the merits of the proposed Parliamentary process for dealing with major infrastructure project decisions "in principle". The Government must seriously re-consider these proposals (see 2 below).

B. Regional Level

  We welcome the emphasis in the Green Paper on strengthening planning at the regional level and the proposal to give the new Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS) statutory status

  We believe that strengthened Regional Sustainable Development Frameworks, together with the RSS, should provide the longer-term framework and guiding principles for other regional strategies

  It is essential that strategic planning include opportunities for effective public participation and scrutiny and overcome the democratic deficit of the proposed model

  New arrangements must over-come the problem that currently many members of regional bodies retain a "local" perspective and mandate which can make it difficult for them to reach a regional strategic view or make difficult regional choices

  Rethinking and reforming boundaries must be part of the new planning settlement, no matter how difficult this may be politically. Without it, process and structural reforms will not completely solve the problems they are meant to address

Regional and sub-regional planning strategies should be subject to sustainability appraisals and/or Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)

We believe that all interested parties should have a right to appear at the Public Examination of RSS, this should not be by invitation as at present

All regional planning bodies should have the resources and information necessary to enable them to adequately perform their statutory role

C. Sub-regional level

  The proposed new plan arrangements leave a big gap between the regional strategic tier and the "local" plan tier of the local Development Framework. This risks re-enforcing the top down, predict and provide effect. We believe that comprehensive sub-regional planning is therefore required

Sub-regional planning will need to be more open, participative and informed than some past efforts

D. County Level

  The RSPB is not wedded to the retention of Structure Plans, but we believe there are shortcomings in the current proposals. We are not convinced that a strong case has been made for removing a democratically accountable tier of strategic planning

Strategic planning is essential to ensure higher-level land use priorities are reflected in lower tier decision-making

If county level strategic planning is abolished, then we believe something similar will be required to replace it—we favour comprehensive sub-regional planning tested through a Public Examination open to all interests

We do not believe a plan tier is removed by the Green Paper proposals and the "divorce" of strategic planning from closely associated minerals and waste planning at the county level is likely to prevent integrated land use planning

Strategic planning expertise, and specialist expertise in ecology, archaeology, etc., must not be lost due to the planning reforms

F. Local Level

  Options for improving efficiency in the existing local planning processes have not been fully explored. We doubt whether a complete overhaul of the local plan system is warranted and question whether this will meet the Government's stated objectives

The LDF approach creates uncertainty and could return us to the much criticised 1980s when most policy principles were decided by development control

We doubt the abandonment of a comprehensive map base for plans will provide greater certainty and help communities engage in local planning. Some areas are in need of more concentrated planning than others, but we believe that this could be achieved within a system that retains a comprehensive map base

  The frequent reviews in the new "plan" system could result in short-term planning which runs counter to the Government's sustainable development objectives

We welcome the continued commitment to sustainability appraisal consistent with the SEA Directive. This should also apply to Action Plans if these are pursued

The detailed relationship between Community Strategies and LDFs is unclear. Community strategies are in their infancy and their effectiveness remains unproven

The public should have a statutory right to make representations on local plans and have them heard at a public hearing before an independent Inspector

E. Development control

  We welcome many of the development control proposals in the green paper, for instance the emphasis on pre application discussions, the need to provide reasons for approval, etc.

We are concerned at the proposals to reduce statutory consultees—to address problems of delay in consultation delivery by removing the statutory status of some consultees seems draconian. This proposal should not be pursued. In particular, we consider that English Nature must remain a key statutory consultee and receive the necessary resources to perform their statutory function

We are not convinced that business planning zones will encourage quality, resource efficient development and we believe they could, in some cases, result in adverse environmental impacts

We do not support local permitted development rights as they risk giving rise to adverse environmental impacts, and adding to uncertainty for developers


  We share the Government's objectives to reduce unnecessary time taken in inquiries and to safeguard public consultation and involvement. We welcome the proposed National Policy Statements (NPSs) and the proposals for improving public inquiries. However, we believe the proposed Parliamentary process is problematic because of its effect on public participation and the ability for Parliament to consider projects in sufficient detail. We are not convinced that the combination of major infrastructure proposals will meet either of the Government's objectives of reducing delays and safeguarding public consultation and involvement. The following is a summary of our views on these proposals:-

Coherent national framework for decisions on MIPs, for instance a national spatial policy framework—we need a coherent national framework to provide the strategic context for integrated decisions about major infrastructure projects (for example, consideration of impacts on a regional road network resulting from port proposals) and to help foster more even development across regions

National Policy Statements (NPSs)—we welcome the proposal to prepare National Policy Statements for issues such as ports and aviation. This is a positive development in the treatment of major infrastructure projects. These NPSs must be clear and unambiguous, and tackle important issues such as need, alternatives and broad location (for instance, broad regional location). They should cover issues of principle but not precise location, ie identify specific sites. They must be subject to rigorous, open scrutiny and we believe this requires a form of examination open to all (akin to an improved, more accessible form of Public Examination of Regional Planning Guidance), rather than consultation modelled on Planning Policy Guidance where there is no opportunity to develop themes around a table and no opportunity to challenge others' assertions. We believe there is a case for an independent body with significant status to hear these representations, for example an independent policy commission.

Parliamentary process—we are not convinced by the Government's proposals for a Parliamentary process for decisions "in principle" on "the principle of, the need for and location of a project" (paragraph 19) and we do not support them. The proposed process would require a step change in quality and resources if it were even to begin to address the key issues effectively. We believe the current proposals are unlikely to save significant time, and they will place substantial additional burdens on Parliament, and reduce effective public participation. We believe they would also reduce the quality and detail of consideration of proposals since vital information relating to specific sites could be unavailable. Moreover, we are not convinced that matters of principle and detail can be easily differentiated.

Detailed Public Inquiries—whatever the system for determining the principle of major projects, the local public inquiry will deal with detailed on site issues, including issues of environmental capacity. Any local inquiry Inspector must have the power to refer a major project back up the decision-making "ladder", to Parliament and the Secretary of State, if the inquiry raises issues relating to the overall acceptability of the project.

Improving the current system—we welcome many of the proposals to improve public inquiry procedure. We believe inquiries should:-

    —  aim to secure high quality public participation in a less adversarial way;

    —  take an approach based on hearings and fact-finding discussion, with Inspectors taking a more inquisitorial role;

    —  make greater use of round-table discussions to help resolve issues;

    —  ensure full access to background information (eg research work) for all interested parties;

    —  set and enforce strict deadlines for submission of evidence and information;

    —  adhere to prearranged timetables, with penalties for abuse by participants;

    —  eliminate, as far as possible, time-wasting practices such as reading out proofs of evidence (written evidence should hold equal weight to oral);

    —  make greater use of pre-inquiry discussions—ie focus on the real contested issues;

    —  use planning advocacy services to their full potential to encourage, inform and coordinate input from the public;

    —  hold sessions at different times (including evenings and weekends) to increase access and openness; and

    —  consider funding NGOs and other public interest groups to enable them to participate on equal terms with other parties.

  We believe that the most effective way of dealing with major projects could be by a combination of a national spatial policy framework, the proposed National Policy Statements and improved practice and procedure in public inquiries.

3.  Planning Obligations

  Sustainable development should be at the heart of the planning system. Planning obligations have a role in achieving sustainable development, however the Government's proposals can be read to imply they have a primary role—this should not be the case. Sustainable development is not an "add on" for planning obligations to deliver. We should expect all developments to be sustainable.

We think planning obligations are important to offset/mitigate adverse environmental (and other) impacts, and to promote positive planning benefits—the latter should be their primary contribution. We believe positive benefits that planning obligations should deliver include habitat creation. The following is a summary of our views on the proposals:

—  sustainable development should be an aim for the planning system as a whole. A sustainable development duty should be enshrined into any new planning act.

—  We believe that planning obligations should not solely be relied upon to deliver sustainable development, as this implies it is little more than an "add on". Planning obligations should not be the only way to achieve sustainable development.

—  We think planning obligations should have two main purposes—to address the impacts of proposals (including environmental impacts) and to provide positive planning benefits, the two must be clearly differentiated.

—  Careful consideration is needed when defining the scope and role for planning obligations. In the first instance, as a point in principle, adverse environmental impacts of all developments should be avoided. Any adverse impacts that cannot be avoided should be mitigated, including through planning obligations. As a last resort, damage that cannot he mitigated should be compensated, again through planning obligations. There is a clear distinction between mitigation and compensation, and genuine enhancement. Enhancement should not be confused with mitigation and compensation, it is about providing new benefits through positive planning.

—  All impacts, including environmental impacts, should be covered by planning obligations. In the current system this is not always the case. Often infrastructure is provided but mitigation of environmental impacts is not.

—  We wholeheartedly support the Government's recommendation that planning obligations should provide positive planning. However, we think the system risks being monopolised by the provision of affordable housing and that benefits will not be available for other important positive planning purposes. Provision of affordable housing is a very important objective but planning is too blunt an instrument to provide it effectively. Affordable housing should be delivered through other funding streams, including central government funding, and not be provided through the planning system alone.

—  The environment and biodiversity should benefit from the new system. At present, the focus on biodiversity is very weak compared to other purposes. This should be rectified. The positive benefits that obligations should deliver should include habitat creation.

—  Planning obligations are a regressive system ie the greatest gains can be secured in areas where they are perhaps needed least, the areas with greatest development pressure. Planning obligations are least likely to be secured in depressed regions where obligations could be most beneficial. The Government needs to address this problem in developing the new system.

—  We support proposals for improved transparency, monitoring and accounting proposed for the new system. We have called for these for some time.

—  The Government has created confusion by failing to clearly state what the different purposes for tariffs and the negotiated element should be.

—  The present system can be complex and sometimes lacks clear guidance. Government needs to consult on and produce clear guidance on how the system can be more user-friendly and efficiently operated.


April 2002

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