Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by Suffolk County Council (PGP 28)

THE PLANNING GREEN PAPER

  1.  Suffolk County Council has made comments to the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions on the Planning Green Paper and its "daughter documents". This paper is consistent with those representations but focuses on the issues highlighted by the Committee in its Press Notice of 31 January 2002. In addition, by way of example it looks at what would be the practical consequences for the strategic planning of one part of Suffolk if the Government's current proposals were implemented.

EFFECTIVENESS OF LOCAL PLANS AND GOVERNMENT'S PROPOSED REPLACEMENT

  2.  It is recognised that the process by which local plans have to be prepared, and in particular the form of the local plan inquiry, means that they can consume a considerable amount of a council's staff and financial resources and take an excessive amount of time before they are completed. However, the Green Paper's proposed replacement, the Local Development Framework, while intended to be "succinct", will not have the comprehensive coverage and level of detail currently in local plans, especially in areas not covered by Action Plans. Additional detail and coverage is essential to increase the speed and predictability of decision making on planning applications, which the Green Paper is trying to achieve. On the basis of current details, LDFs will not add certainty for businesses, investors and the public.

  3.  Despite the Government's intention of providing "shorter, better focused, plans at the local level", the Green Paper identifies at least eight different types of action plan, virtually all of which would be required in any district experiencing development pressure. With multiples of certain types of these action plans (eg area master plans, village plans), the planning framework for a district could become complicated for the public to understand and the council to prepare and implement. In addition, there is the danger that the important inter-relationships between different elements of land use will be lost in a series of plans prepared over a period of time.

THE ROLE OF REGIONAL PLANNING BODIES

  4.  The vast majority of the strategic planning work currently undertaken by County Councils would in future rest with regional planning bodies and the Secretary of State. By making the process more remote from the communities it affects, it will make adequate involvement and consultation more difficult and increase the sense of policy being imposed. This is not consistent with the principles of local leadership expressed in the White Paper on Local Government.

  5.  The gap between the two levels of planning at regional and district level would be substantial. To prepare an assessment of regional and sub-regional issues, and in particular to distribute housing provision to, for example, the nearly 50 Districts in the East of England, will require a high level of knowledge, analysis and local involvement. County Councils have historically fulfilled this role and have provided the main support for the Regional Planning Body. Without a statutory plan-making role, it is unlikely that County Councils would retain the level of information and expertise to support the regional planning bodies in the preparation of Regional Spatial Strategies or to contribute to Local Development Frameworks. A limited number of sub-regional strategies are expected. However, these would not cover most of the region and it is not clear how they would be managed and progressed.

  6.  As a practical example of the difficulties that may follow the implementation of the Planning Green Paper proposals and of the uncertainties that it still leaves, we have drawn on the situation in the Ipswich area.

  7.  Ipswich is the most populous town in Suffolk and one of the largest in East Anglia. In its administrative geography it is typical of many such towns across the whole of England. The physical extent of the built-up area stretches beyond Ipswich Borough itself and into three surrounding Districts (Babergh, Suffolk Coastal and Mid Suffolk). Its commuting and retailing hinterland runs much further than the built-up area, into the surrounding rural area.

  8.  Planning for the Ipswich area is undertaken by the County Structure Plan, which provides a strategic overview, and by four separate district local plans. In line with its sustainable development strategy the Structure Plan identifies Ipswich as the prime location for growth in Suffolk. Considerable attention was given within the Structure Plan to the distribution of new housing growth between the four different districts which share Ipswich's built-up area, and a single location was selected for major development which was considered to offer the greatest opportunities to meet housing needs in a sustainable way. The Members involved in this process were all from Suffolk, including from the Ipswich area, while the officers knew the area well, many having worked on this subject for a considerable number of years.

  9.  The future means by which this area may be dealt with is far from clear in the Planning Green Paper. This proposes a "small number" of sub-regional strategies within each region. By way of example, the Green Paper already quotes within the East of England Region, the Thames Gateway and the Cambridge Sub-Region. Whether this allows others to come forward within the Region or not is still to be revealed but looking at both eventualities, the following conclusions can be drawn:

  10.  Ipswich Without a Sub-Regional Strategy Without a specific study of the area, the four districts in the Ipswich area would have their housing provision and other spatial elements derived as part of a region-wide exercise covering nearly 50 different districts. It is far from clear what staff and information resources would be available to the team preparing this element of the regional plan, but it is unlikely that they would match that currently available locally from the County Council. Furthermore any decision at present is taken by Members elected to serve the county. In the future, the regional strategy would be prepared by a panel of nominated elected representatives from across the region (the majority without any detailed knowledge of the Ipswich area) and stakeholders from various organisations. Ultimately the strategy would be adopted by the Secretary of State.

  11.  Ipswich with a Sub-Regional Strategy It is not clear how the sub-regional strategy would work under the Government's proposals. It is assumed that a housing provision figure would be allocated to the area by the regional spatial strategy. Its division into districts would then be the subject of a separate study where more detailed analysis of the local situation would be undertaken. Decision-making would presumably still be at regional panel and Secretary of State level.

  12.  In both cases, decision making is far more remote from the local electorate than it is at the moment. Local members can currently directly influence strategic planning. Ultimately, important issues around the structure plan can affect the outcome of local elections, allowing genuine democratic control over major strategic decisions. It is difficult to see that this would be possible in the future under either approach that may come from the Green Paper.

  13.  As a consequence of these concerns the County Council considers that it is important to retain strategic planning at a level where it can be the responsibility of democratically elected councils, possibly dealt with jointly by counties and districts in two-tier areas, for an area which the general public can relate to. One way of doing this would be to prepare sub-regional strategies along the lines proposed by the Local Government Association.

PROCEDURES FOR SCRUTINISING MAJOR DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS

  14.  The County Council's concerns over the proposals set out in this daughter paper, New Parliamentary Procedures for Processing Major Infrastructure Projects, focus on the adequacy of the procedures for public consultation. Whilst it is in the national interest to have modern infrastructure, it is essential that those affected by proposed major infrastructure projects have adequate opportunities to make their case in favour or against such proposals and for such representations to be fully considered.

  15.  The period for representations to be made after designation of a project is not generous, and if Parliament is to make a decision in principle on the basis of full information and the fair representation of consultees' views, a longer period would be appropriate, at least 56 days.

  16.  Projects should not be designated by the Secretary of State unless there is a prior statement of national policy which has been subject to prior public consultation.

  17.  The Terms of Reference and timetable for local inquiries should take account of the objections and representations received on a project and be subject to a short period of public consultation.

  18.  The proposals should recognise that for some categories of development, other authorisations are required which could override Parliament's decision to approve in principle, eg for nuclear power stations, or installations for the reprocessing of irradiated nuclear fuel.

  19.  It is suggested that, notwithstanding Parliament's approval in principle, there may be matters, including local environmental considerations, which could cast doubt on the wisdom of proceeding with any project as proposed. In areas of special designation (eg Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) such matters should be recognised in the Terms of Reference, which the Secretary of State sets for local inquiries.

PROPOSED CHANGES TO PLANNING OBLIGATIONS

  20.  Existing arrangements for negotiating Section 106 Obligations could be improved. Within Suffolk, the Local Planning Authorities have all adopted Supplementary Planning Guidance relating to Section 106 Obligations which sets out how they will conduct themselves in negotiations and gives advice on the circumstances where contributions will be sought for social or environmental improvements or facilities.

  21.  Despite this, success in achieving developer contributions is variable and depends, amongst other things, on the willingness of the developer to negotiate, the state of the property market and the basis upon which a developer has acquired, or taken an option on, land and whether there are any "extraordinary" costs associated with the development of the site.

  22.  The LPA is usually negotiating with imperfect knowledge and therefore often in a position of weakness. A tariff based approach would assist in this respect.

  23.  Of particular importance to the County Council is the process for achieving contributions towards the cost of providing county council services, especially school places. A detailed procedure for assessing the need for and level of developer contributions towards the cost of school places in Suffolk has been in operation for about two years. Whilst imperfect, it has been increasingly successful in obtaining contributions towards the provision of school places.

  24.  It would be important to ensure that the tariffs set by District Councils adequately reflected the needs of the County Council. It is not clear how this tariff would be devised, for example, would the tariff cover all elements of infrastructure required or would each element have a separate tariff?

  25.  At present contributions towards the cost of County Council services are sought where justified, and where there is a geographical relationship between the development and, say, the school which needs to be expanded to cater for children from that development. The proposed tariff system suggests that money could be sought towards the overall needs within an area, rather than being so geographically linked, which would be welcomed.

  26.  It will be essential for the County Council to be consulted on the setting of tariffs, the exemptions that might apply and how those tariffs may be spent. The Government suggests that the local authority will decide the priority to be attached to the services that will be funded through the tariff mechanism.

  27.  This mirrors the current situation because District Councils have the final say on the level and use of contributions obtained. This can sometimes frustrate the ability of the County Council to obtain sufficient contributions to cover the costs of the extra demands placed upon it by new development. County Councils should have a statutory part to play in this process.

WILL THE GOVERNMENT'S PROPOSALS INCREASE CERTAINTY, PUBLIC PARTICIPATION AND LEAD TO FASTER DECISIONS?

  28.  It is acknowledged that certainty, participation and speed are laudable objectives to have for the planning system, but there are inherent tensions between them, particularly in attempting to obtain faster decisions while increasing public participation. For instance it is difficult to see how LDFs can be produced in a matter of months, as sought by the Green Paper, while at the same time public participation is increased. Paragraph two of this paper suggests that the complex nature proposed for LDFs, but without a comprehensive coverage, will mean that certainty for all stakeholders will be reduced. In addition, the move of strategic planning functions from counties to the more remote regional level (as noted in paragraph four) will discourage public participation in this part of the planning process.

Director of Environment and Transport

March 2002



 
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