Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by North Yorkshire County Council (PGP 24)

THE PLANNING GREEN PAPER

INTRODUCTION

  North Yorkshire County Council is pleased to assist this Inquiry into the proposals in the Planning Green Paper and invites the Committee to consider its evidence which is based on long experience in the preparation, review and adoption of development plans and in the process of preparing regional planning guidance.

  Evidence is given on three of the matters highlighted by the Committee as follows.

1.  THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE SYSTEM OF LOCAL PLANS AND THE GOVERNMENT'S PROPOSALS TO REPLACE THEM

  The following comments assume that the term "local plans" refers to all parts of the current statutory development plan—ie structure plans, districtwide local plans, unitary development plans and minerals and waste plans.

The Current System

  The speed and effectiveness of the present system is constrained by virtue of the raft of regulation proscribing the preparation and adoption of the development plan in respect of all its component parts. It is impossible to adopt plans quickly under the present system because legislation and the democratic process simply do not allow it. However quickly a local authority is able to prepare its plan, including carrying out appropriate consultation, an equivalent or greater amount of time is likely to be expended going through the complicated and extensive statutory processes leading to adoption.

  Structure plans are generally capable of being progressed more quickly than local plans due as much to the streamlined examination in public procedures as to the fact that they address essentially strategic issues.

  There appears to be no criticism of the structure plan process in the Green Paper. The Government's own research into the effectiveness of structure plans carried out in 1999 concluded that they have proved capable providers of strategic policy and direction for district authorities in respect of land use issues such as housing and employment land requirements and environmental protection. It also concluded that weaknesses identified in the research related more to the under-performance of structure plans as a wider strategic vehicle than to any damming condemnation of their land use policy content.

  Crucially the authors commented that while it might be easy to abandon the structure plan as an instrument of planning policy it is likely to prove less easy to develop, legislate for and implement an effective alternative statutory instrument that can offer strategic land-use and other appropriate policy detail that might be lacking in RPG but which could also offer the clear strategic vision that is so often absent in land-use dominated plans.

  Counties have a creditable track record of producing structure plans. There is national coverage of plans and many have been reviewed or substantially altered/updated on several occasions.

  The position on local plans is very different. There are numerous district councils that have yet to deliver even their first Districtwide Local Plan and many more where adoption of plans has occurred only in the last year or so.

  The efficiency and effectiveness of the local plan system is hugely compromised by the amount of detail they tend to contain and the fact that they provide policy guidance for every part of the district. It has long been the view of the County Council that there is no real need for such a comprehensive approach. National, regional and structure plan policy guidance is capable of providing a more than adequate policy context for development control decisions in many areas, particularly rural areas, where little or no change in circumstances is likely over the period of the plan.

  It is also the case that individual local plans tend to include policies, which essentially seek to achieve the same ends, as local plans prepared for neighbouring areas with the same characteristics and/or problems. These could be addressed more than adequately by a single policy in the structure plan or in some cases by national or regional policy guidance.

  An unnecessarily comprehensive approach runs the risk of hugely inflating the number of objections needing to be addressed at the local plan inquiry (LPI) and the overall time taken to progress a plan to adoption. At the very least it requires time and effort to be put into trying to resolve objections prior to the LPI.

The Green Paper Proposals

  The County Council has accepted that significant change is needed to many aspects of the planning system but does not consider the Green Paper proposals relating to the development plan system to represent a simpler or better focused model than the existing one.

  The Green Paper has been prepared in haste. While it is judgemental the analysis of the problems is shallow and flawed and there is no consideration of the potential for the current system and its processes to be modified and streamlined in order to achieve the objectives being sought. In short the Green Paper provides little to get to grips with at this stage.

  No evidence is advanced that counties have failed to deliver in their role as strategic planning authorities. The Green Paper is in fact silent on this issue. It is not however the County Council's purpose to defend the retention of structure plans but to ensure that any replacement system represents is better and more responsive than the one it replaces. This does not appear to be the case with the Green Paper proposals.

  There is a need to get away from the philosophy that one size fits all situations and to recognise that different areas and different combinations of problems and opportunities require different solutions. In the County Council's view the proposals constitute a serious erosion of strategic planning and leave a sizeable void between regional and local plan making.

Regional Planning

  The County Council accepts the proposal to make Regional Guidance statutory and to change its name to Regional Spatial Strategy (RSS). It does not accept that the RSS should contain an increased level of sub-regional prescription in two-tier areas or deal with site-specific matters. To do so would seriously undermine the principle of subsidiarity and result in greatly diminished accountability. County councils are currently accountable to their local population for strategic decisions taken sub-regionally. People very often find it difficult/impossible to identify with remote "regional bodies". This is particularly important given that regional bodies are likely to remain non-elected bodies in many regions. The RSS should be constrained to those issues needing to be addressed at regional level.

Sub-Regional Planning

  This is an area of particular weakness in the Government's proposals. At the moment and for the foreseeable future, structure plans offer policy guidance at a level between the regional and the local. The Green Paper gives examples of the sorts of areas that may require sub-regional plans—eg cross-boundary problems of planning in major conurbations and areas of major growth or change. It envisages that this highly selective approach to sub-regional planning would become the responsibility of the regional planning bodies and be taken out of the hands of local government. On the basis of the criteria set out in the Green Paper it is to be expected that there would be no need for sub-regional plans to be identified in North Yorkshire.

  Cross boundary issues arise at all levels but it is obvious that the smaller and more local the planning unit becomes the greater the probability that such issues will arise, each requiring joint inter-authority solutions. In shire counties the abolition of the role of county councils in this sort of work could lead to a multiplication of separate, and perhaps rival, arrangements and remove a level of overview and co-ordination what is still needed.

  Major issues such as determining the inter-district distribution of housing and employment land, integrated planning in river catchment areas and planning for areas such as Greater York all require the sort of planning co-ordination that county councils have been able to deliver successfully for many years and which the Green Paper singularly fails to recognise.

Local Development Frameworks

  The Green Paper asks whether the counties should have a role in assisting regional and district authorities in preparing plans and should continue to have a central role in preparing and reviewing development plans. The County Council is prepared in principle to accept the abolition of structure plans but would wish such acceptance to be clearly linked to recognition that county councils have statutory responsibility for preparing Integrated Development Frameworks—as opposed to Local Development Frameworks—as the sole tier of development plan below the regional level and that they should have a duty to develop working arrangements with district councils for the purpose.

  Concentrating spatial development decision making at county level would have significant benefits. It would:—

    —  retain inputs to regional planning at the level best able to negotiate on behalf of the whole county;

    —  release district councils to concentrate on Action Plans;

    —  avoid the confusion of having a multiplicity of strategies for small areas;

    —  limit "nimbyism" in dealing with big planning issues;

    —  build on the county role as lead authority for RPG; and

    —  maximise potential for county/district joint working.

  In finding a successor to structure plans and local plans the emphasis needs to be less on whether counties or districts should prepare LDF's to the exclusion of the other and more on using the resources of both to the best advantage.

  This approach reflects the position of the County Councils Network within the Local Government Association. It makes proposals to address the "void" in the Green Paper between the regional and district levels and attempts to promote better integration between land-use and other key strategic planning processes such as transport at the county level. For many parts of large, primarily rural, counties this would be the only level of planning required.

2.  THE ROLE OF REGIONAL PLANNING BODIES

  Regional Spatial Strategies will establish the context within which Local Development Frameworks or, as the County Council would prefer, Integrated Development Frameworks drawn up at county level are to be prepared. It will be important therefore that the RSS is properly integrated with other regional strategies such as the Regional Economic Strategy prepared by the Regional Development Agency. It should not however seek to establish control over the actions and decisions of other agencies by being too prescriptive, detailed or site-specific.

  Particular attention will need to be given to overcoming the potentially very large democratic deficit in the preparation and adoption of the RSS. As already noted regional planning bodies are and will remain non-elected bodies in many regions. Local people currently feel distanced from the regional body and unable to contribute in any effective way to the process of preparing the RSS. Sub-regional strategies should be owned by the responsible local authorities. There is also concern about the potential lack of knowledge at regional level of the particular problems and issues arising in discrete sub-regional areas. Local authorities have their finger on the local pulse and are in a much better position to respond to local problems and concerns.

3.  WHETHER THE GOVERNMENT'S PROPOSALS WILL SIMULTANEOUSLY INCREASE CERTAINTY, PUBLIC PARTICIPATION AND FASTER DECISIONS, PARTICULARLY FOR BUSINESS

  The emphasis placed on regional plans and "criteria based" Local Development Frameworks in the Green Paper could make real community participation in plan preparation more rather than less difficult to achieve. Increased plan making responsibility for regional bodies is likely to reduce the sense of local ownership of strategic planning and increase remoteness from decision-making. Thus one half of the proposed new development plan system would become more distant from local communities which would be expected to concentrate mainly on detailed local matters after the important major spatial decisions have been taken at the higher level.

  The enhanced community participation sought by the Green Paper is particularly applicable to site-specific Action Area plans. Structure plan experience suggests that it will be more difficult to apply some techniques in dispersed rural areas, particularly when preparing the more general criteria based LDF's. In such areas more traditional methods might be most appropriate including area committees, focus groups, exhibitions and consultative documentation and meetings.

  There is a conflict between the Government's wish to encourage more and better community engagement while at the same time speeding up the processes of plan preparation and adoption and reducing rights in respect of major infrastructure projects. There is no explanation in the Green Paper of how this will be resolved. Although the two strands are not irreconcilable a great deal more thought needs to be given to establishing where the balance should be struck.

  Everybody, and not just the business community, needs access to a system and processes that command public confidence and are fair open and accountable. The system needs to understand the needs of businesses and to respond efficiently to their reasonable demands. However it also needs to protect communities and the natural and built environment and to champion sustainable development and sustainable development practices. As in all things it is a matter of balance.

North Yorkshire County Council

March 2002



 
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