Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Oxfordshire County Council (PGP 34)



  1.  Oxfordshire County Council has submitted comments to the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions on the proposals in the Government's Planning Green Paper and associated documents. For ease of reference, these comments are attached. However, in accordance with the Select Committee's invitation, this memorandum does not simply repeat that response, but addresses some of the issues on which the Committee has expressed interest.

"The effectiveness of the system of local plans and Government's proposals to replace them"

  2.  It seems appropriate to consider here the whole system of development planning, and not just local plans.

  3.  In shire county areas the development plan consists of the county structure plan together with district-wide local plans and local plans for minerals and waste (either separately or combined). The structure and local plan system was introduced in the early 1970s, with a requirement for district-wide local plans being brought in in 1991.

  4.  Complete structure plan coverage has existed for several years. In Oxfordshire, there have been seven versions of the structure plan produced, starting with the original adopted in 1979, with the latest alteration being adopted in 2001. Public consultation on the next review starts in April this year.

  5.  Complete local plan coverage has never been achieved, and even in those areas of the country where district-wide local plans do exist in many cases they are now out of date. In Oxfordshire, for example, the five adopted district-wide local plans all have housing allocations running only to 2001.

  6.  There are many reasons for this state of affairs. The "cascade" process, from national policy through regional planning guidance and structure plans to local plans, almost inevitably means that local plans are at the end of the chain (although there are provisions for producing local plans and structure plans in parallel). Local plan procedures are tortuous and arcane—a point partially recognised in the Planning Green Paper. It appears that the Government's last attempt to "improve" procedures by introducing a second deposit stage has only introduced further delay. Local plan inquiries, where each individual objector has the right to appear, tend to be far longer and more adversarial than structure plan examinations in public.

  7.  Whatever the reasons, the shortcomings in the local plan system and the lack of up to date coverage have meant that structure plans in many areas of the country have effectively constituted the development plan. This has certainly been true in Oxfordshire, where the first district-wide local plan was not adopted until 1996, some 17 years after the first structure plan was adopted. Most development in Oxfordshire over the last 25 years therefore has taken place on the back of the structure plan. To quote the report considered by the Vale of White Horse District Council in formulating its views on the Planning Green Paper: "The Oxfordshire Structure Plan has served the county well, establishing a clear strategy for the location of development, with public and political involvement, in an effective and efficient way."

  8.  The structure plan also provides a local strategic framework for issues such as transport, which inevitably cuts across district boundaries. For example, in Oxfordshire, the County Council has enabled the further development of Oxford's park and ride system. The fact that car parks are located in three different districts for a system which is fundamental to protecting Oxford's architectural and historical heritage means that this would be a very difficult task for districts to tackle individually, yet it is one that is too local to be appropriately dealt with by a regional planning body based in Guildford. This is a point which has also been recognised by the Go-Ahead Group PLC, one of the country's largest bus and train operating groups. It expresses concern that, under the Green Paper proposals. "The relationship between land use and transport planning would be broken at a time when it should be strengthened. District and unitary authorities are too small and lack expertise, regions are too big for all except a few issues eg airports."

  9.  Similarly, the structure plan provides a strategic framework for the Oxford Green Belt, which covers all five districts.

  10.  Equally important is the fact the Oxfordshire is largely a single travel to work area, and the Oxfordshire Structure Plan and economic strategy have been carefully designed to ensure that they complement each other.

  11.  All of these points reflect the fact that Oxfordshire is in many ways a classic city region. As John Minett wrote in the History of Planning in Oxfordshire, "Oxfordshire in many ways depicts an ideal of England, at its heart a cathedral city, market town and ancient university with surrounding acolytes of small ancient towns and villages, set in a varied and often beautiful countryside. It has been cited as the model geographical region and model administrative unit."

  12.  It is also worth noting the findings of the 1999 DETR study into the "Examination of the Operation and Effectiveness of the Structure Planning Process". This concluded that in general the structure plan process worked well, that sub-regional planning was necessary, and that, certainly in advance of elected regional assemblies, there was no case for the abolition of such plans.

  13.  Given all these points, it is hard to understand, let alone agree with, the Government's statement at paragraph 4.37 of the Green Paper that "We believe that the county no longer remains the most appropriate level at which to consider many of the key strategic planning issues." The Green Paper offers no analysis to support this assertion.

  14.  The Government's proposals to revamp the development plan system appear to be fundamentally flawed. This issue is addressed in some detail in the County Council's comments on the Green Paper. Key points are that:

    —  the proposals to abolish county structure plans (along with local plans and unitary development plans) would result in a significant "democratic deficit." Decisions currently taken by directly elected county councils would be drawn upwards to regional (and sub-regional) spatial strategies which would be approved by the Secretary of State, acting on the advice of regional bodies whose members would be either indirectly elected or not elected at all. This sense of democratic deficit is compounded by the fact that the Green Paper appears not even to acknowledge the role in the planning system played by town and parish councils;

    —  the gap from the regional to district level would simply be too large to bridge. It is not reasonable to expect a regional planning body to have the detailed knowledge necessary to give sufficient guidance to district councils in preparing their local development frameworks. Equally, it is unrealistic to expect the 65 district and unitary authorities in the South East each to have a meaningful input to the preparation of a regional spatial strategy. The result is likely to be that people feel increasingly disenfranchised from the planning system;

    —  this is likely to compound the difficulties of securing real public involvement in the preparation of regional spatial strategies. The structure plan system does enable local people, businesses and interest groups access to the system, and critically, to elected local representatives. The Green Paper proposals would sever these links, and lead to the suspicion that the very unspecific talk of "community involvement" is little more than rhetoric;

    —  the Green Paper proposals would break the links between land use planning at a county level and planning for transport where it is only a couple of years ago that the Government gave county councils responsibility for preparing local transport plans (a challenge which Oxfordshire has met by being recognised as a Centre of Excellence for transport planning), minerals and waste planning, the county community strategy and, not least, the provision of services: in shire county areas, typically 80 per cent of local government services by value are provided by the county council.

  15.  The County Council commends to the Select Committee the alternative model proposed by the County Councils' Network. This appears far more likely to meet the objectives which the Government has set for itself than the Green Paper proposals, and to accord far more closely with the findings of the 1999 DETR research.

"The role of regional planning bodies"

  16.  The County Council accepts the need for regional planning, although it is worth nothing that, for the South East, the Government office regional boundaries make little functional sense.

  17.  However, the County Council agrees with bodies such as the Town & Country Planning Association that it would be wholly unacceptable to consider changing the development plan system in the way the Green Paper proposes unless and until directly elected regional government was in place—and even then there would be a considerable debate to be had over what was the most appropriate form of governance beneath the regional level. This view also appears to accord with the 1999 DETR study which concluded "we doubt whether the current proposals for enhanced RPG preparation are capable of also fulfilling an effective role in providing an efficient, democratically accountable and statutory system of sub-regional strategic planning within the short-medium term (5-10 years), unless there are further radical moves involving regional devolution and local government reform". It may be that the Government has in mind precisely such regional devolution and local government reform. However, if that is the case, it should put forward proposals for that, allowing full consultation on all the costs and benefits, before embarking on proposals for a shake-up to the planning system which is fundamentally flawed in its present form.

"The procedures for scrutinising major development projects"

  18.  A key issue here is that statements of Government policy on issues such as airport capacity should be provided in time for them to provide a framework for development decisions rather than as a post-hoc justification for them. Indeed, there is currently a lack of national strategy to guide the location of such things as major new transport or energy infrastructure or a national Government view on the appropriate balance of development between regions.

  19.  Such statements of national strategy, together with tighter inquiry procedure rules, would help immeasurably in the consideration of major infrastructure projects.

  20.  The current proposals for dealing with such projects, which seem to have been developed largely as a reaction to the time taken to deal with the 5th terminal proposal at Heathrow beg many questions. They seem to give huge discretion to the Secretary of State, and potentially to be too widely cast—allowing, for instance, many minerals and waste developments to be caught within the process. Ministers have also indicated that decisions on such projects might be whipped through Parliament. If this was the case, some might argue that it would also be acceptable for local planning authorities to adopt a similar approach for major proposals with which they dealt. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, it would certainly be a major shift from the general approach to date.

"Proposed changes to planning obligations, CPOs and compensation and use classes"

  21.  The aim to simplify the current system of planning obligations should be supported, and the idea of tariffs looks worthy of further investigation, although a betterment tax, directly related to land value, might be preferable. It could help in securing funds for affordable housing in those areas of the country where development pressures are greatest and land values highest. However, it will be important to have some mechanism to counter the regressive tendency of such a system, with richer areas of the country able to levy far higher tariffs than poorer ones, and to avoid the risk of adjoining areas getting involved in "tariff competition" (as currently sometimes happens with car parking charges) and seeking to undercut each other in order to secure particular development. Any new system must also be suitable for minerals and waste development, which is not mentioned in the consultation paper.

"Whether the Government's proposals will simultaneously increase certainty, public participation and faster decision, particularly for business"

  22.  There is already some evidence that planning authorities are likely to suspend work on development plan preparation while there is uncertainty over the form which future development plans may take. In addition, county councils losing staff are likely to find it very difficult to recruit while the threat to the county planning function posed by the Green Paper exists. As the 1999 DETR report put it (paragraph 4.13) "Such a pool of expertise is difficult to assemble, but easy to destroy". Loss of strategic planning expertise from the counties is likely to have a damaging effect on the capacity to produce regional spatial strategies, since county staff currently provide the main input to regional planning work.

  23.  The Green Paper proposals thus threaten to create a hiatus in the planning system at precisely the time when a major effort to redress under-investment in the country's infrastructure is needed. Lack of development plan coverage is likely to increase. This in turn will almost certainly lead an increase in planning by appeal, with a greater uncertainty and delay for business, local communities and everyone else involved in the system—precisely the opposite of what the Government is seeking.

  24.  The Green Paper fails adequately to recognise the tension between the desire for greater speed in the planning process and the desire for greater community involvement. There also needs to be a more honest recognition that much of what planning is about is the mediation of conflict. Public acceptance of planning outcomes is likely to be greater if there is a clear line of democratic accountability—something which the Green Paper proposals for development planning would weaken.

  25.  Some of the Green Paper proposals in the development control area are to be welcomed. There is also a great need to simplify and speed up enforcement procedures and introduce tougher penalties. This could have considerable benefit in increasing public confidence in the system.

  26.  In any review of Permitted Development Rights, the Government should also close the loophole whereby private companies which were formerly public utilities can carry out significant development in sensitive locations without being subject to planning control. The County Council has experience of this with development by Railtrack at Hinksey Sidlings in Oxford.

"Planning's contribution to the urban renaissance"

  27.  An effective planning system can and should make a significant contribution to urban renaissance. However, the role of the planning system needs to be complemented by a raft of other measures, as recognised in Lord Rogers' Urban Task Group report. In particular, fiscal and other policy measures need to be brought to bear if the Government is to succeed in achieving its objective of reducing the proportion of dispersed greenfield development and replacing it by high quality development on urban brownfield sites. There also needs to be a recognition of some policy conflicts which are currently glossed over: for example, research which the Government has commissioned on achieving higher densities in urban areas has concluded that a major way of doing this is to reduce the amount of space provided for car parking. This can only sensibly be achieved if levels of car ownership, at any rate in urban areas, can be restrained—otherwise the result will simply be indiscriminate on-street parking—yet this is an issue which the Government does not appear to have addressed.


  28.  The County Council, while welcoming some aspects of the Planning Green Paper, objects to the Government's proposals in that they fail adequately to embody the following principles:

    —  there must be a clear and direct link between plan making and democratic accountability;

    —  as far as strategic planning is concerned;

      —  there needs to be a bridge from the regional to the local,

      —  there needs to be a clear link and integration between land use and transport planning,

      —  the sub-regional level which should in most cases be based on the county needs to provide a clear framework for the plans prepared at district level;

    —  the planning system must be adequately resourced and needs to be capable of ensuring implementation on the ground, particularly in terms of securing infrastructure.

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