Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by The National Trust (PGP 33)


  1.  The National Trust welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Committee's inquiry into the Planning Green Paper. We have a wide ranging interest in land use planning and considerable experience of land use change and development to bring to bear on the Government's proposals.

  2.  The Trust recognises the need for improvements to the planning system to improve both the quality of its outputs and the efficiency of the process for all concerned. We welcome the Government's interest in reform but have serious concerns about the rationale that lies behind the Green Paper and its daughter documents, and the proposals relating to forward planning and major infrastructure projects in particular. The Green Paper does not do enough to acknowledge the massive contribution land use planning has made—to countryside protection, regeneration, community involvement, improved transport accessibility, resource management and economic prosperity—and our analysis of the Green Paper suggests that despite a number of welcome proposals it:

    —  Lacks a strong evidence base, especially in relation to the proposals to abolish Structure Plans and the underlying yet misguided assumption that land use planning is a barrier to economic productivity.

    —  Fails to recognise the importance of the planning process in securing public acceptance of sometimes controversial land use change and development and its role in mediating conflict.

    —  Lacks a clear purpose for planning from which to develop proposals for reform.

    —  Fails to recognise that public participation and public rights go hand in hand—the Green Paper recognises the importance of effective public participation but removes or fails to provide the rights needed for communities to ensure independent and effective scrutiny of decision making, including through removal of the right to be heard at local inquiry and resistance to a carefully defined third party right of appeal.

  3.  A summary of our recommendations to the Government is taking forward the Green Paper in provided in Annex 1.

  4.  The rest of our evidence is structured around the issues of particular interest to the Committee.


  5.  The Trust is a strong supporter of the plan-led system and universal coverage of development plans. We recognise the effectiveness of the system introduced by the Planning and Compensation Act 1991 has been seriously hampered by the unacceptably slow rate of preparation and review of district-wide development plans. This owes more to a lack of political priority, starvation of resources and a declining skills base in local planning authorities than a failure in the procedures.

  6.  Recent years have been notable for a lack of strong political leadership on the importance of land use planning. It has been bypassed in the development of Government's proposals for local strategic partnerships, community strategies and other regeneration and land use measures, and the main focus of political discussion has been on the impact of planning on business and productivity. This culminated in the Green Paper being launched by the Chancellor shortly after the General Election at an event where the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and Regional Affairs was not present.

  7.  The Trust is concerned that the proposed Local Development Frameworks will replace district-wide, map-based policies with a potentially threadbare set of policy criteria. This will fail to engage local communities, leave large areas of the country with the flimsiest of planning policy frameworks and promote greater uncertainty for developers. It will simply be impossible to plan effectively in such circumstances. We commend the proposals for more detailed Local Development Plans contained in the National Assembly of Wales consultation paper which will retain proposals maps and a right to be heard at a local inquiry. This needs to be backed by clear policy guidance, a clear and enforced timetable for preparation and review and additional statutory requirements on the content of development plans. We believe that such an approach strikes a better balance between content and speed of preparation and review.

  8.  We are also concerned by the proposed abolition of County Structure Plans. This leaves too large a gulf between regional and local planning and risks disenfranchising community interests from engaging in strategic policy development. The new sub-regional framework needs to be both universal in its coverage and as effective at engaging community interests as Structure Plans if it is to provide a substitute. County councils also need to retain a statutory role in forward planning, at a regional, sub-regional and local level, if they are not to haemorrhage skilled staff.


  9.  The Trust welcomes the proposals to place regional planning on a statutory footing and the move towards more integrated spatial strategies. The quality of the process of preparing and implementing Regional Spatial Strategies will be critical, especially given the long term lack of direct accountability. The RSS should be a lead regional policy document with the Regional Economic Strategy and other regional policies required to work within the framework it provides. It is important, therefore that the RSS is prepared by the Regional Assembly, and the Regional Development Agency is identified as just one, albeit important, contributor.


  10.  The Trust remains unconvinced of the merits of the Government's proposals to use Parliamentary procedures as a means of scrutinising major development projects. These will ultimately be self-defeating, as the lack of effective community involvement in debates over the principle of major development will cause friction and ultimate rejection of proposals by local communities on the ground. The case for major change is unproven and only a handful of public inquiries into major development have lasted more than three months in the last few years.

  11.  We welcome other aspects of the Government's proposals in this area, notably to improve the inquiry process and to produce clear statements of national policy in areas where development is of national significance. This should provide the clear national lead on development projects of national significance, establishing a national need (or otherwise) for development but not specifying location. Parliament is singularly ill equipped and insufficiently resourced to provide the kind of detailed scrutiny required and the Government has already undermined public faith in its proposals by admitting that decisions will be whipped. It is also unclear that the Government has even considered the implications of the proposals for the Trust's power to declare land inalienable.

  12.  We urge the Committee to consider the following improvements to the Government's proposals, assuming that some form of Parliamentary procedure is introduced:

    —  A drastic reduction in the range of development projects considered eligible under the new procedures so that the number considered is no more than 2-3 per year.

    —  A step change in the capacity of Parliament to scrutinise major developments along the lines proposed by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

    —  A Parliamentary debate over the national policy statement (eg White Paper) regarding the need for development as an alternative to Parliamentary scrutiny of the location of development proposals.

    —  Scope for a local inquiry Inspector to require the Government/Parliament to reconsider the need for development if local scrutiny raises issues of more than local significance.


  13.  The Trust views the proposals for Business Planning Zones as a non-starter. The proposition is based on a false perception that land use planning policies are an obstacle to necessary growth and development. The proposals stand out as the most blatant example of distortion of the planning process in the Green Paper and could establish a precedent for further weakening its integrity elsewhere. The crude nature of the proposal is reflected in the assertion that every region should have a Business Planning Zone prior to any assessment of need or merit. We also see an inconsistency in the proposals that require qualifying business to be "low impact" in terms of housing demand, infrastructure requirement or environmental impact. By definition this would exclude precisely the kind of development it appears the Government would have in mind, such as the development of high technology industries around Cambridge, which have fuelled both housing demand and traffic growth.

  14.  We urge the Committee instead to address the economic benefits of the planning system for business. We are disappointed by the assumption underlying the Green Paper that the process of planning is having a significantly negative impact on economic productivity. This lacks any convincing evidence-base and fails to recognise the economic benefits of managing land use change and protecting a high quality environment. Developing the nation's competitive advantage in the future will "focus on increasing and realising the potential of all localities" and regions "building on their own indigenous strengths" (Gordon Brown MP and Patricia Hewitt MP writing in the Foreword to Productivity in the UK: 3—The Regional Dimension HM Treasury 2001). Maintaining and enhancing environmental quality and regional and local distinctiveness is central to this and the land use planning system plays a vital role in safeguarding such resources for economic as well as social and environmental benefit.


  15.  The Trust welcomes the proposed refocusing of planning obligations around the objective of sustainable development and the proposals to increase both transparency of process and access to information. We have serious reservations, however, about the move to a tariff based system and the intention to break the link between the use of planning obligations and the direct impact of the development. This could have the effect of significantly distorting the consideration of development proposals, with local planning authorities becoming as interested in the potential income to be derived from the tariff as the planning merits. In the absence of any safeguard such as a third party right of appeal against departure applications this could result in damaging development and land use change driven by a concern to provide funding for local authority services which bear no relation to the development and which should be resourced in other ways. In a worst case scenario a cash strapped local authority would become reliant on development to fund local service provision at the expense of longer term planning policy considerations.

  16.  An alternative approach, which would allow planning obligations to be used to help achieve strategic as well as local policy objectives, would be to strengthen the policy base for obligations in development plans and use this as the starting point for negotiation. This would allow for open discussion during policy development and clearly set out the local planning authority's expectations in advance of a planning application being submitted. A policy based approach would have the advantages of Alternative Option B as set out in the consultation paper in terms of flexibility while providing necessary certainty and the transparency needed to ensure consistency between authorities.

  17.  The Trust broadly welcomes the approach to making compulsory purchase a more positive and practical instrument in managing land use change and promoting regeneration.


  18.  In the Trust's view, the planning system is one of our key public policy mechanisms for mediating land use change and development in the public interest and for moving toward more sustainable patterns of development and living. It provides not only a means of regulating "development" in the public interest but also of integrating public policy objectives within a long term land use framework and for engaging communities in the process of change and development. The Green Paper does not effectively recognise these different roles and, as a result, we believe it will not meet its own objectives of "a better, simpler, faster, more accessible system that serves both business and the community" (Forward, Planning: delivering a fundamental change 2001).

  19.  The Green Paper appears confused over the difference between providing for public participation in the planning process and ensuring that the public has the necessary rights to ensure effective scrutiny. Both are necessary. There appears to be a concern that public rights will result in unnecessary delay when the evidence suggests most delay in planning decisions results from development interests competing among themselves and/or decision making within local and central government. The Green Paper also underestimates the benefits of community rights that need only be rarely exercised to have a beneficial impact on the quality of decision making.

  20.  When the loss of strategic planning at a sub-regional/county level across the country is combined with the risk of threadbare policy criteria at the local level and the risk of major development being imposed on local communities there is also a great risk of provoking public unrest about change and development which can only heighten uncertainty for all concerned.


  21.  The Planning Green Paper lacks virtually any substantive discussion of the purpose of planning or its policy objectives. The role of planning in promoting an urban renaissance depends upon a combination of:

    —  Effective national guidance—such as the development of an Urban PPG in the review of the PPG series—and a supportive strategic policy framework—where the demise of Structure Plans would be damaging.

    —  Integrating other public policy and expenditure processes with the land use objectives established in development plans.

    —  Establishing stretching targets for making better use of urban land in housing, industrial and other development and reversing the urban exodus, and ensuring distribution of housing and other numerically defined land use requirements in development plans works with the grain of an urban renaissance.

    —  Effective support, monitoring and enforcement, especially by Government Regional Offices.

    —  Availability of skills and resources.

  22.  The Green Paper is weak on these issues and it is unclear how it will contribute directly to an urban renaissance as distinct from other policy objectives.

March 2002

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