Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Derek Waller Esq (PGP 09)


  Further to your Committee's Press Notice No 38 dated 31 January 2002, I welcome the opportunity to offer some views about the Government's Green Paper—"Planning: Delivering a Fundamental Change".

  I do so as an interested member of the general public who has served as a Borough Councillor in Lancashire (where I was shadow chairman of the Planning Committee), and who has been involved in numerous consultation exercises in North Yorkshire, Lancashire, West Sussex and the South East Region in respect of RPGs, Structure Plans, Minerals Plans, Waste Plans and District Local Plans.

  As far as Structure Plans, Minerals and Waste Local Plans and District Local Plans are concerned, I very much welcome the opportunity to become involved at the various consultation, deposit, inquiry and review stages. I find the process easy to understand, I am pleased with the opportunities to make comments and suggestions, and I am content with the way in which Objections are handled. On the other hand, my experience has shown that it is much harder for a member of the public to influence a draft RPG because of the different consultation arrangements and the inherent "distance" between the drafters and the general public.

  Whilst I agree that the current planning system could be improved, especially the detail of the development control process, I am opposed to the wholesale changes that are proposed to the plan framework, and I am unconvinced that there is any proven need either to eliminate Structure Plans or to change District Local Plans into Local Development Frameworks and their plethora of associated Action Plans which will not, in any case, provide total local authority area coverage.

  In particular, the Green Paper is generally short on evidence as far as the shortcomings of the current system are concerned; rather mainly relying on assertions which are repeated for emphasis and statements of the obvious which apply just as much to the present system as to any possible replacement system.

  I must observe, however, that I feel at a considerable disadvantage in "taking on the system" on this occasion. This is because my research has shown that most of the changes proposed either originate from or have the full support of the Royal Town Planning Institute, and since the overwhelming weight of opinion in support of the proposals comes from planners, house builders and architects, and since virtually all the local authority responses will have been drafted by RTPI members, I wonder what chance there is for the views of an "outsider" to be heard.

  Rather than considering local plans on their own, I believe it is important to consider the whole of the plan framework, and here I stress my view that the current system is sound in principle, albeit that some improvements would be helpful.

  Starting with national planning guidance, I very much welcome the idea of reducing its volume. The 25 PPGs and 15 MPGs are far too lengthy, detailed and prescriptive, and the current plethora of rules contributes significantly to the extended timescales and difficulties at the lower levels of the plan framework.

  Turning to regional guidance, I consider that PPG11, which was only published in October 2000, is a sound and sensible document which already emphasises the need for RPGs to be briefer and more focussed. On the other hand if, in the future, RPGs were to contain District-level house building allocations, then it would be necessary to consider whether or not the current restricted consultation arrangements were still valid. Clearly, there are irritations relating to RPGs, but the solution to these should be found without eliminating Structure Plans and, in this regard, I refer to the DTLR's "Report on the Responses to the Public Consultation Draft of Regional Planning Guidance, PPG11", published in July 2000 which, on page 7, stated that:

    "RPG and structure plans have different purposes. The new PPG11 makes clear that RPG should not descend into the level of detail more appropriate to a development plan. PPG11 also explains that the sub-regional basis of RPG should not be confused with county structure plans and their purpose is not to move local decisions to the regional tier."

  Below the level of national and regional planning guidance, I accept that for a whole variety of reasons Structure Plans and Local Plans take too long to develop from initial drafting to final adoption but, instead of supporting the wholesale changes that are proposed, I believe that the existing process could be speeded up by close adherence to the sensible guidance in the relatively young PPG 12 (December 1999); which should be given a chance to work before the framework is subject to wholesale change.

  Of course it is quite unacceptable that 13 per cent of local authorities have still to put their first plan in place and 214 current plans are now out of date. Equally, it is daft that plans should contain 200 or more detailed policies—but that is just what PPG12 is designed to eliminate; albeit that (strangely) there is no mention whatsoever of this important PPG in the whole of the Green Paper.

  The solution to such problems is not to eliminate Structure and Local Plans in their present form just because their gestation periods are too long and because some local authorities are tardy; rather the Government should seek to analyse the real reasons for the poor performance, then learn the lessons and correct the system; if necessary by imposing penalties for tardy performance. One solution being to "name and shame" Councils, as illustrated in para 6.46 of the Green Paper in relation to the speed at which planning applications are determined.

  Additionally, a change of attitude towards suggested amendments by the planning officers who draft such plans would help the process towards a speedier conclusion. It is not always the general public and other Objectors who are responsible for today's delays! The drafters of Structure Plans and Local Plans are not always right, and a review by interested and informed local individuals can very often result in a markedly improved final version of a draft plan.

  I am also opposed to any fundamental alterations to the current system of consultation which, in my experience and contrary to the assertions contained in the Green Paper, is already entirely satisfactory for the general public as evidenced by the number of Objections received by County and District Councils when draft plans are published for comment.

  Indeed, reading between the lines, I discern that the real reason for the Government's ambition to do away with Structure Plans and change Local Plans is because the public (and their concern with protecting the environment) get in the way of extra house building, and therefore do not always deliver what the Government, the house builders and the planners want. So, what we are now presented with is a proposal to get rid of them; thus solving the perceived problem in a single stroke.

  This conclusion is reinforced by several quotations from the Green Paper:

    "What was once an emphasis on consultation now blocks development—so it is time for change".

    "Delay in dealing with contentious proposals can hold up Plans".

    "Under the present system everyone has the right to make objections, but it is time-consuming".

    "The process can lead to the avoidance of difficult decisions, such as the supply of housing in the South East".

  I therefore see a frustrated Government and house building industry who, together with the planners, neither like the consequences of public consultation and involvement, nor the fact that what they call "difficult decisions" are avoided. Thus, under the popular banner of "modernisation", the Government are using the excuse that the current planning system has fundamental faults as the reason for reducing the rights of the general public to have their proper say in the production of Structure Plans and District Local Plans.

  There will always be varying points of view in relation to development proposals, no matter what planning framework is adopted. Thus, I believe that the right to challenge such proposals is very important indeed, and that it should be maintained. The procedure was recently changed slightly when PPG12 was re-issued, and it needs to be given time to settle down. Please remember that it is the community that Structure and Local Plans are supposed to serve; not the planning professionals, and the current proposals—many of which seem to originate with the RTPI—smack of "throwing out the baby with the bathwater".

  In answer to the Committee's questions with which this submission is linked, I believe that the current system of local plans is inherently effective; albeit that several small changes could improve it. I am opposed to the Government's proposals to replace it with a Local Development Framework plus its associated plethora of Action Plans, especially as the new system will neither provide comprehensive land-use policy cover for Districts or Boroughs, nor provide such an effective means whereby the general public and other interested parties can object to proposals as now.

  Also, I believe that the new proposals will decrease certainty, will diminish the effectiveness of public participation, and that they may well slow down some decisions, particularly in areas where land use policy with regard to house building could now become unclear. On the other hand, however, they may facilitate the central imposition of house building targets, thus creating immense frustration and anger amongst those who live in areas selected for housing growth and who will no longer have an effective conduit for their Objections.

  In summary, I hope that your Committee will find this submission helpful, that they will take note of my confidence in Structure and Local Plans, and that they will ask the Government to reconsider the Green Paper's proposals in respect of the planning framework.

  Finally, please permit me to finish with a pertinent quotation from the Roman, Gaius Petronius (27 BC-66 AD):

    "We trained hard to meet our challenges, but it seemed as if every time we were beginning to form into teams we would be re-organised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by re-organising. And a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation."

  In my view, the Government would be far better engaged in making the present planning system work rather than destroying it and inventing something new. The general public would be better served by a slightly improved version of the present planning framework, rather than by a completely new one which seems to have enhanced status for planning professionals and an easier ride for house building proposals as two of its underlying objectives.

Derek Waller

8 March 2002

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