Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by CPRE (PGP38)

1.  INTRODUCTION

  CPRE has a long history of involvement in the land use planning system from our foundation in 1926. We helped create the movement for change which secured the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 and today we are the largest and most active voluntary contributor to the planning process in England. CPRE regional groups, branches and districts play an active role in the preparation and review of plans, policies and guidance at all levels, encompassing both strategic and detailed local issues and, we estimate, scanning at least 100,000 of the half a million planning applications submitted annually in England. In all this activity, we aim to promote the beauty, tranquility and diversity of rural England through encouraging the more sustainable use of land and other natural resources in town and country.

2.  THE PURPOSES OF PLANNING

  CPRE believes that the planning system, for all its faults, is a vital cornerstone of environmental protection, sustainable prosperity and the quality of life for present and future generations. CPRE accepts that there is room for improvement in the existing planning system but we are concerned that the Green Paper's analysis of the problems facing the planning system appears to be based on some questionable assumptions, leading to the promotion of some inappropriate remedies. The greatest risk from an inadequate planning system is further damage to the countryside and historic urban areas, results which would fundamentally undermine the Government's own policies on sustainable development and the delivery of the urban renaissance. We are concerned that the Green Paper pays relatively little attention to the issue of resources—financial, human and educational—in planning and among its practitioners and users.

  CPRE recommends that the Government explicitly acknowledge the vital importance of planning to the environment, sustainable development and the public interest. This should be set out through:

    —  A positive, statutory statement of the purposes and benefits of the planning:

    —  Targeted improvements to the existing arrangements for planning at national, regional, sub-regional and local levels rather than abolition of a particular tier;

    —  A clear understanding of the role of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) in directing and improving strategic planning decisions;

    —  Strong emphasis on a "plan, monitor and manage"—as opposed to "predict and provide"—approach to implementing and reviewing policy in practice;

    —  A commitment in Spending Review 2002 to an increase in support for planning services by at least as much as the 37 per cent recommended by recently published DTLR research.

  A major omission from the Green Paper is its rejection of a right of appeal against the granting of planning permission in a limited range of circumstances—applicants currently enjoy an unlimited right of appeal against any refusal. Such a safeguard would be arguably even more necessary if the wider Green Paper proposals were to go ahead as they could open the door to more speculative applications and inappropriate developments. All three major UK political parties have expressed their support for the idea and, in July 2000, the House of Commons Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee's report on The Planning Inspectorate and Public Inquiries recommended that a limited third party right of appeal should be introduced (para 93). The absence of such a right, the Committee concluded, "goes against the spirit of greater public involvement in planning".

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

  Strategic planning: CPRE is disturbed by the gaping hole threatened by the Government's proposals to abolish democratic, strategic planning in the form of Structure Plans and Unitary Development Plans (UDPs). We are convinced that the distance between the regional level and the local is too wide for effective planning. Structure Plans account for strategic planning over 80 per cent of the land area in England, the consequences of their abolition would be felt most in the rural areas which they cover. They have proved an effective, robust and up-to-date planning tool with a 30-year track record, underpinned by a considerable fund of staff skills and resources. They are overseen by elected councillors, at a level which is large enough to assess strategic options but local enough to allow gathering and analysis of considerable detail in relation to development choices. The county tier is also generally identified with by the public—in this it contrasts in general with regions and even districts.

  The Green paper makes an unconvincing case for the abolition of Structure Plans and the strategic element of Unitary Development Plans, and the assumption by regional planning bodies of all strategic planning responsibilities. The Government's own research into structure planning, published in 1999 stated, that "the statutory structure plan should be retained as the `crucial link' between enhanced RPG and local plans".

  CPRE is not wedded to a sub-regional strategic planning system consisting only of county Structure Plans. Indeed, it is highly probable that we shall see different models emerging in the next few years. Nor do we believe that all the issues in sub-regional planning could be addressed solely through a system of rigidly demarcated county Structure Plans. There is a need for greater flexibility in some cases to allow cross-border consideration of issues. However, there are already examples of this taking place, and the current system would allow for further developments and expansion of these collaborative arrangements where they are necessary.

  CPRE recommends that any new arrangements for sub-regional, strategic planning, need to deliver:

    —  comprehensive coverage;

    —  democratic accountability;

    —  a statutory role for county councils and unitary authorities; and hence:

    —  retention and best use of existing resources at the strategic level;

    —  planning at a scale large enough to be strategic, but local enough to allow people to identify with it;

    —  where appropriate, the ability to bring local authorities together to address the needs of a sub-region;

    —  improved opportunities for public involvement; and

    —  a greater ability to integrate land use, transport, waste and natural resource planning in pursuit of achieving more sustainable development.

  Local Planning: The achievement of 87 per cent coverage of Local Plans and Unitary Development plans (UDPs) since they were made a requirement in 1991, although below the standard demanded by successive governments, has nonetheless been considerable, and often secured on a shoestring budget. These have delivered numerous benefits to the areas concerned, among them greater certainty among communities and business and greater clarity as to what is required of would-be developers. In spite of these achievements, CPRE believes that there are problems with the existing process of local planning. However, these are not primarily issues of the structure and process. Rather, the main problems in coverage and relevance of plans appear to stem from a lack of financial resources and skills among officers and members, inadequate political commitment from successive Governments to ensuring that local authorities produce and update plans and opportunities for abuse and delay—frequently by developers and their agents. As such, targeted correction of these weakness could deliver the desired improvements without risking a hiatus in local planning while major structural reforms were enacted and implemented.

  CPRE does not support the Green Paper proposals for Local Development Frameworks (LDFs) in their current form. We are concerned that if LDF policies are not sufficiently detailed the paradoxical result will be longer delays and greater confusion, as developers are encouraged to lodge speculative applications for "white land". This would also create the practical problem of a case-load which could bring a process which the Government wishes to accelerate to the point of collapse.

  CPRE recommends that Local Development Framework should:

    —  give comprehensive coverage;

    —  contain sufficient detail to guarantee certainty among business and the community and enable LDFs to deliver positive, effective plan-led decision-making and implementation, rather than a passive and reactive system;

    —  look at least 10 years, and preferably further, ahead—the period covered should change automatically with each review;

    —  ensure ease of reference and clarity by relating all policies and proposals to an Ordnance Survey base map covering the entire area;

    —  contain clear indications and time-tables of where additional Action Plans, Topic Plans, and genetic guidance (eg on design) will be developed;

    —  be subject to an inquiry or hearing which gives individuals and groups a right to an independent hearing before the LDF is adopted;

    —  allow for continuous monitoring and review of the effectiveness of policies in meeting existing objectives in line with a plan, monitor and manage approach;

    —  not be subject to material change in principles of objectives without a full review hearing.

  Automatic applicability of national guidance in Planning Policy Guidance notes, Minerals Planning Guidance notes, Circulars and Directions to LDFs would obviate the need to repeat national policy at great length in the document itself.

4.  THE ROLE OF REGIONAL PLANNING BODIES

  CPRE welcomes the proposal to put regional planning in the form of Regional Spatial Strategies, on a statutory footing but is concerned that (i) this is not an adequate substitute for the current arrangements for planning at the sub-regional level, and (ii) that the Green Paper is unclear about the intended relationship between Regional Spatial Strategy and other regional strategies. CPRE also believes there are a number of flaws in the proposals to move all strategic planning to the regional level: the regional planning tier is too remote from most areas and people, thus reducing the likelihood of public identification with, and participation in, the process; regions cover too large an area to be able to address problems and solutions at a sufficiently detailed scale; and regional bodies are not elected, nor easily held to account by individuals or communities.

  CPRE recommends that the Government should ensure that the arrangements for Regional Spatial Strategies:

    —  explicitly emphasis the pre-eminence of the RSS as forming the framework with which all other regional strategies and initiatives should comply;

    —  enshrine sustainable development as the overriding objective of the RSS;

    —  require regional planning bodies to guarantee ample opportunities for public participation in their development, consideration and adoption, including a much improved public examination process;

    —  indicate clearly the role that county councils and unitary authorities will play in the development, implementation, monitoring and review of the RSS;

    —  show how the plan, monitor and manage (PMM) approach will be applied to regional strategies, and how the public will be encouraged to participate in this monitoring and review;

    —  acknowledge the need for integration of the various, currently disparate, elements of land use planning, eg housing, employment, waste, minerals, water, energy and transport;

    —  do not give special status to Regional Development Agencies, especially given their relative lack of public accountability; and

    —  identify how they will maintain representation from a wide range of bodies, including environmental NGOs, where/when regional assemblies are in place.

5.  PROCEDURES FOR SCRUTINISING MAJOR DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS

  CPRE welcomes the Government's proposals for national statements of policy on issues such as ports or aviation as these could significantly reduce the time taken by public inquiries. However, such statements need to be subject to full public consultation as well as parliamentary debate. They should deal with principles and criteria for development, and should in no circumstances be site-specific. CPRE also supports the Government's intention to improve public inquiry procedures. We believe that there is considerable scope to make inquiries fairer, quicker and more effective by, for example: better resourcing and preparation, including pre-inquiry discussions; using round-table meetings with the Inspector/Panel in an inquisitorial, rather than judicial, role to discuss and analyse particular issues; more use of sessions outside normal working hours, to facilitate voluntary participation; introducing and enforcing stricter time-tabling (possibly with penalties for non-compliance); and reducing or removing abuses and practices which consume time for little benefit (such as witnesses reading out their submissions, for example).

  We are strongly opposed to the Government's proposals for a Parliamentary procedure to decide in principle on specific projects on specific sites, and to remove the right to assess the desirability or otherwise of a proposal at a Public Inquiry. We do not believe that Parliament has the resources, the time, the technical expertise to hand or the sheer physical capacity to give proper consideration to all the issues surrounding major development projects, all of which would be rendered irrelevant in any case were a Parliamentary vote to be whipped, as the Government has indicated is likely. We consider the proposal to deprive the public of its entitlement to a hearing before an independent Inspector at a local Public Inquiry on the largest and potentially most environmentally damaging projects to be an unjustified attack on the principle of public involvement in planning.

  CPRE recommends that the Government press ahead with proposals for national policy statements—with full public consultation and debate—and public inquiry reforms, but abandon the idea of a Parliamentary procedure to decide on specific projects as unnecessary, unworkable and likely to lead to further delays and greater conflict.

6.  BUSINESS PLANNING ZONES (BPZS)

  CPRE believes that the arguments presented to support BPZs in the Green Paper are fundamentally flawed. In 2001, according to the Government's own figure, 87 per cent of all planning applications were approved, and 35 per cent of all appeals against refusal were allowed. These figures do not point to a major problem for business in gaining permission for reasonable applications. We oppose the proposals because:

    —  A direct consequence of the relaxation of planning controls is that business lose confidence in the future quality of their immediate environment—developers lack the reassurance that neighbouring business will be restrained and standards maintained to the benefit of the whole area.

    —  BPZs would suffer from a lack of public legitimacy and be likely to provoke fierce anti-business feeling within affected communities.

    —  BPZs would undermine the Government's welcome approach to planning for communities which puts the emphasis on mixed use development to deliver the urban renaissance and reduce car dependency.

    —  If designated on Greenfield sites BPZs would undermine the sequential approach to the allocation of land for development.

    —  Large areas of potentially productive land could be effectively sterilised by zoning—a 1989 report in Property Journal showed that only 45 per cent of the land in Enterprise Zones had been developed in the eight years since they had been established.

    —  Areas where "leading edge technology companies" tend to congregate (eg Cambridgeshire) tend also to already have serious problems of environmental capacity and high local housing demand, so such zones would add to the problem of over-heating.

  It appears that Business Planning Zones would offer no greater advantages—either to businesses or to the communities in which they operate—they are available through the development plan and development control mechanisms of the existing planning system.

  Furthermore, there are distinct disadvantages to both business and community interests in the proposed approach.

  CPRE believes that the proposal for Business Planning Zones would be a wholly retrograde step, likely to encourage greenfield sprawl, undermine the quality of the built environment and spark public outrage. We therefore strongly recommend that it be withdrawn.

7.  PROPOSALS ON PLANNING OBLIGATIONS

  CPRE welcomes the Government's proposed new objective for planning obligations to "enhance the quality of development and the wider environment, and ensure that it makes a positive contribution to sustainable development" (paragraph 1.3). However, we are concerned that the proposed tariff scheme risks undermining the objective of sustainable development by making it something for which local planning authorities must forgo cash benefits in order to secure. Specifically the proposals:

    —  risk inhibiting innovative and high quality development;

    —  risk delivering "unequal" patterns of development benefit across the country;

    —  are susceptible to misuse as local development delivers local financial gain;

    —  do not go far enough to ensure transparency and accountability;

    —  would create a perverse incentive for authorities to improve the most damaging forms of development to secure higher yield from tariffs.

  CPRE believes that section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provides scope for the Government's proposed redirection of the purpose of planning obligations without losing the connection between development and benefit, and the accountability that tariffs potentially obscure.

  CPRE recommends that improved policy guidance, accompanied by a review of the role of conditions and effectiveness of enforcement, be used to deliver a more transparent and accountable system of planning obligations. Policy should be complemented by fiscal measures such as further tax incentives for regeneration, removal or reduction of VAT on renovation and repair, and the imposition of VAT on greenfield construction.

8.  CERTAINTY, PUBLIC PARTICIPATION AND FASTER DECISIONS

  The Government's stated objectives in reforming the planning system are to increase certainty, reduce complexity, deliver faster decisions and better engage the community. Certainty that the planning system will deliver key Government policy objectives such as the urban renaissance and the protection of greenfield sites, sending clear signals to would-be developers and where they should—and should not—focus their proposals would clearly be welcome. However, certainty that a greater proportion of development proposals will go ahead would undermine the basic functions of the planning system in conflict resolution and giving detailed consideration to local need and environmental capacity. Reduced complexity is a welcome objective but there are question marks over whether the Green Paper proposals would meet this aim. It should also be noted that in a plan-led system which the Government supports, plans need to be sufficiently detailed to meet the need for clarity and remove potential loopholes, which requires a degree of complexity.

  Finally, CPRE believes that the Green Paper pays insufficient attention to the potential conflict between faster decisions and public participation. We are also concerned that the current proposals may fail to deliver either objective. For example, abolishing a tier of planning is likely to shift the problem to other tiers which are less well-equipped to deal with them in terms of skills, resources and, in the case of regions, local knowledge. Less detailed and specific plans would leave more room for uncertainty and hence tend to increase delays. Similarly, proposals for major infrastructure projects, business planning zones, 90 per cent of planning applications to be delegated to officers and more emphasis on key decisions being taken at regional level would all tend to discourage public participation.

March 2002



 
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