Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Peter Devonport Esq (PGP 08)



  I am a qualified and chartered town planner, with a wide range of experience at all tiers of Local Government and in a range of different planning environments.

  I write to offer my personal views on the Green Paper.

  There is much to commend in the paper on the reform to development control, planning obligations and CPOs. Though I have a number of reservations over the detail of the reforms proposed, I believe they are essentially sound.

  Whilst I consider the proposals to fast-track major infrastructure proposals to be fundamentally flawed, I am conscious that the reform's shortcomings have been widely aired in the media by a range of environmental and community groups and strong representations to Government on the issue have been made. I feel I have little to add to this debate.

  My principal concern is the proposed reform of the Development Plan system. This is, in many ways, the Paper's "Cinderella issue"—the least debated and considered element of the Green Paper. However, this is, by far, the most far-reaching and potentially the most damaging reform set out in the Green Paper.

  I set out my views on the Green Paper's reform of the Development Plan system (the effectiveness of the system of local plans and the Government's proposals to replace them) below:


    —  Up to date, nationwide coverage has long been achieved by Structure Plans and preparation and review times have been quick and costs relatively low. As recent Government research demonstrated, Structure Plans have been very successful in their assigned tasks.

    —  Structure Plans are a key intermediary between the regions and the districts in determining the sub-regional pattern of development and transport provision and perform the critical but difficult role of distributing housing between the districts. They provide the prime steer for strategic development, and in those parts of the county which do not have an up to date local plan, provide guidance for much day to day DC as well. They are the interface between the "bottom-up" of the districts and the "top-down" of the regions—the glue that bonds and integrates the development plan system.

    —  Structure Plans are uniquely placed to align their strategies with those of other key services provided at the county level, in particular transport (through the Local Transport Plan), social services and education, and sub-regional bodies such as the Health Authority and Environment Agency.

    —  Prepared by directly elected and accountable County Councils, Structure Plans are ideally placed to reflect local community broader aspirations and concerns.

    —  Structure Plan teams in particular and County Councils generally, provide the districts with technical expertise which the districts would individually be unable to finance. This includes expertise in such diverse areas as environment management, archaeology, ecology, landscape design, retail planning, economic development, urban design, urban conservation. These services are critical to the delivery of an effective and high quality planning service.

    —  The role of Structure Plans is dismissed in one sentence in the Green Paper as no longer being an appropriate level for sub-regional planning. This is specious nonsense. Of all the planning tiers, Structure Plan areas (ie the counties, married where appropriate to unitary city councils such as the East Sussex and Brighton and Hove Structure Plan) probably have the best fit. Certainly it would be ludicrous to argue that the myriad tiny, fragmented or sprawling district units or the raggedy, mis-shapen doughnut of South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA) makes any better sense. Counties are our oldest and most identifiable tier of local Government in the country. People do relate to them probably far more than the arbitrarily drawn districts and certainly the SEERA region. Clearly, as an organisation which plans transport services, schools and social services, the county is not considered to be too remote by Government or local people for the delivery of these key services. Yet the county level is large enough both to take a truly strategic perspective and benefit from economies of scale and levels of resourcing that large organisations can reap. Cross-border, sub-regional issues can be adequately dealt with (as they are at present) by joint working.

    —  It is ironic that if any element of the development plan system has consistently failed in terms of its delivery, it is Local Plans. This is not the fault of the districts themselves. Many are small and under-resourced. For all, the scale of the task placed on them is daunting, in particular the requirements in the 1990 Act for district-wide coverage. Recent reforms requiring revised deposits have probably worsened matters.

    —  The impression is that the reforms are essentially politically rather than rationally driven. The Government clearly wants to be seen by the business community to be doing something-anything. Removal of a tier of planning is, on the face of it, a swift, neat solution to speeding up development planning. Structure Plans (counties) have been chosen for abolition simply because they are the weakest link, in political terms, of the tiers of Government—the least numerous and politically least influential, being overwhelmingly Tory controlled. Lord Falconer's recent examination by the Commons Select Committee on the Green Paper, where he singularly failed to demonstrate any clear, cogent or empirical case for the Government's reforms, serves only to confirm this view.

    —  Abolition would be justified only as part of local Government reform to create suitably large and sustainable unitary local Government. Clearly this is not on the agenda for the foreseeable future.


    —  It is inconceivable that the districts and a re-invigorated regional planning tier could fill the vacuum left by the Structure Plan. In practical terms it would be unworkable for the regional body to engage with the 80 or so districts and Unitaries in a region like the South East. Joint sub-regional working across boundaries is likely to complicate matters further.

    —  In particular, it is difficult to see how the districts will be able to agree amongst themselves on the key matters such as housing and employment distribution, retail centre hierarchies and transport provision. Quite rightly, the district councils are, primarily concerned with protecting their own local "patch" and inevitably lack a broader strategic vision. On the other hand, the regional planning bodies are not directly elected and include in their representation (a third), organisations without any democratic political mandate. There is little or no prospect of regional Government anywhere in England, except the North East, for decades. Quite apart from the lack of resources and detailed local knowledge, the regional planning bodies will not have the legitimacy to take on their new sub-regional responsibilities, in particular the vexed issue of distributing mandatory district housing provision quotas. The SoS will, inevitably be drawn in to break the logjam and take key decisions. Power will not devolve to the districts but will be drawn upwards to the centre—to unelected bodies or the SoS. This is centralisation, not democratisation, of the system.

    —  It is clear that the proposed Local Development Frameworks (LDF) will not achieve their aims and will be as, if not more, time-consuming, complex and lengthy to prepare as the current local plans system. Political realities will dictate that all settlements will demand their own Action Plans to establish development boundaries and inevitably become entangled with detailed zoning issues. Nor will the settlements be prepared to wait their turn in an orderly fashion to ease the demand on local planning resources. On close inspection, it is clear that separate Topic Plans (ie detailed site allocations) for housing and other land uses covered by the sequential approach are unavoidable. The LDF will contain a district wide designations map which will require a high level of detail (OS base) and profound property implications. Full Public Inquiries for the LDF core policies and map and their reviews and the Topic Plans and Action plans are inevitable to meet community demands and the requirements of the Human Rights Act. These requirements and effects will place a massive burden on the districts. They will not speed plan delivery or reduce bureaucracy. Back to the future.

    —  A new sub-regional tier will need to be invented to try and make the new system work. An intermediary between the region and districts is a functional necessity. It is apparent that, behind the headlines of abolishing a tier of development plans, the Government is, begrudgingly, recognising this. An emerging "back door" fix is evident, in the Government's talk of a continued role for the counties in helping prepare sub-regional strategies and helping share out housing distributions. This is dishonest. But above all, it will not work. Without a statutory strategic planning function (ie Structure Plan or an equivalent successor—see below ideas for LDF) and key formal stakeholder role, it is highly unlikely that the counties would be prepared to resource such a limited, merely advisory sub-regional role. Nor, without the statutory lead responsibility for sub-regional planning, would the counties have the mandate or vision that the Structure Plan provides to take on the leadership role at this level.

    —  The proposals are inconsistent. Counties are not considered by Government to be an appropriate level for mainstream strategic sub-regional planning yet the minerals and waste planning function remains. Local Transport Plans will also remain with the county. These functions make little sense divorced from the wider strategic planning role provided by the Structure Plan. Integration and the quality of plan-making will suffer.

    —  Stripped of their statutory strategic planning function, counties are unlikely to wish to fund all the technical supporting expertise they currently provide to the districts in fields such as archaeology, environmental planning, retail analysis, economic development, landscape and urban design etc. The vast majority of the districts are simply unable to afford or justify funding such expertise. They lack these skills in-house and the resources to buy in. Realistically, this situation is unlikely to change markedly. The quality and integrity of planning decisions will suffer significantly.

    —  It is clear that the spatial strategies prepared by the districts will be in name only. Divorced from strategic planning for transport, environment, education and social services and other key services which will remain at regional or sub-regional level with the counties and other organisations, they will continue to be simply land-use documents.


  There is another saner way which builds upon the best of the existing and proposed new system. This comprises:

    —  Counties (and Unitaries, as appropriate) should prepare the core policies of the LDF, the strategic spatial framework (ie key diagram) and county-wide SPG for relevant matters such as sustainable design, planning tariff, parking standards etc. In certain cases, joint working will be appropriate, as happens with many Structure Plans currently. This could extend to joint LDFs stretching across county borders where there are particular common and pressing issues. Counties and unitaries have a good record of such collaboration already, albeit at the sub-regional level (ie A23/Crawley Gatwick studies). Close working with the districts will be essential in all circumstances.

        At a stroke this would liberate the districts of 80 per cent of the content of their current local plans (and LDFs as currently proposed). These effectively parrot core Structure Plan policies endlessly with very little added value. It will also avoid their having to become embroiled in long, protracted joint working on sub and regional issues. The full value and expertise of the counties would be retained and enhanced.

    —  Ideally the county/unitary prepared LDF would be formally integrated with the Local Transport Plan and stronger relationships between the sub-regional bodies such as the Environment Agency and Heath Authorities to achieve more effective and co-ordinated spatial planning.

    —  Counties need to enforce their strategic role. With their technical expertise and resources, experience of dealing with major development proposals and strategic vision, they are far better placed than the districts to determine strategic schemes. They should have veto powers on all strategic planning applications, rather like the Greater London Assembly.

    —  Districts would be freed to concentrate on local issues. They should lead on the preparation of the Action and Topic Plans, prepare planning briefs for important sites and deal with all non-strategic applications. Close working with the county on the preparation of the LDF would be essential to ensure their views were fully considered at the strategic level. In turn, there would be a need for a major input from the counties on master planning of major development and projects, utilising their strategic planning skills and experience and resources.

    —  Regional Planning bodies would continue their role but would not encroach into the sub-regional tier. This is most appropriately dealt with through the LDF. Counties would continue to lead on cross-boundary sub-regional issues.

Pete Devonport, BA (Hons), MRTPI

March 2002

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