Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by the London Borough of Camden (PGP 44)


  LB Camden welcomes the Green Paper's commitment to a successful planning system as "vital to our quality of life". The Green Paper rightly identifies the need to create a planning system which fully engages people, and which at the same time promotes economic prosperity and urban regeneration. It is of vital importance that the changes to the system are right.

  Camden is well placed to contribute to this process, from its experience of delivering planning services and promoting high quality development in the heart of London, and taking forward the Kings Cross Development, one of the largest and most complex development sites in London. Camden would like to cooperate with the Government towards delivering the aims set out in the Green Paper.

  Camden has submitted detailed comments to the Government on the GP and its various daughter documents. This memorandum draws on Camden's particular experience in commenting on the proposals under the following broad headings:

    —  Developing and implementing major schemes.

    —  Urban renaissance and regeneration.


The purpose of the planning system

  The planning system is said to be of vital importance but it has to be acknowledged that it does not stand high in reputation, nationally or locally, with local communities or the development industry. Camden considers that at the heart of this problem is a lack of consensus around the purpose of the planning system.

  Camden would like to see the Government give a clearer indication of the direction in which the planning system should move, and provoke a debate which would begin to build a consensus on what planning is for. Camden sees this as the main objective and starting point of any fundamental reform. The GP should have addressed more clearly the need to resolve the tension between concerns of business for speed and predictability of planning decisions, the aspirations of the community for greater involvement in the planning process, and the desire to deliver ever more social, economic and environmental benefits through planning.

The complexity of the system

  The GP's criticisms of the complexity of the system are accepted. Camden is concerned that the GP proposals could result in a more complex and harder to access system, for example:

    —  Proposals to simplify the hierarchy of plans could make the processes and the opportunities for access to them more understandable, but this could be offset by a proliferation of action plans, topic plans, neighbourhood plans, Supplementary Planning Guidance etc. The role of plans at each level must be carefully delineated.

    —  Proposals to make developers responsible for some local consultation would bring more resources and developer accountability to this important function, but roles and responsibilities must be carefully defined and clear standards set to avoid the need for duplicate consultations.

    —  Proposals to achieve Parliamentary scrutiny of national major schemes could reduce uncertainty and the unacceptable delays of the current public inquiry system, but to avoid confusion and alienation, opportunities for different parties to influence outcomes must be carefully defined. It will be difficult to retain the necessary flexibility in major complex schemes while retaining appropriate levels of strategic and local scrutiny.

    —  Proposals for planning obligation tariffs could increase openness around planning negotiations generally but involvement in specific negotiations on a particular scheme could be made more complicated by the existence of a separate tariff already agreed. It is unclear from the proposals how far viability or the other particular circumstances of a site or development would be taken into account in negotiations, based on the agreed local tariff.

Conflicts within the system and in the proposals

  The GP gives insufficient recognition to the difficult conflicts inherent in the present system. The GP advocates, in a number of ways, increased openness and public involvement. To retain legitimacy and achieve positive results, these are essential. The GP also underlines the need for greater speed and certainty in various aspects of the system. The conflicts between these two objectives, and the extent of resources needed to begin to address them, are not clearly acknowledged.


  Camden has been active in taking forward the development of the Kings Cross site comprising 22 hectares around the Kings Cross and St Pancras stations. Major rail infrastructure investment is taking place to upgrade the underground station, build the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, the new international and high speed domestic rail terminus and eventually, redevelop King's Cross Station into a 21st Century terminus for a passenger throughput that will equal Heathrow Airport's current numbers. The development of the site beyond the rail works is expected to commence in 2006 and will involve major commercial and residential components, possibly the largest inner city development in Europe this decade.

  In relation to the Green Paper, Camden would like to comment, based on its experience in dealing with Kings Cross, on development plans, development control and planning obligations.

Development plans

  The present development plans process is, as the GP says, slow and cumbersome. The simplification of the development plans system is welcomed, but the objectives of greater community involvement and increased speed are not easy to reconcile. The aim of greater certainty is also not easily married with the proposal for continuous review and updating.

  The UDP production process could, however, be simplified and speeded up by removing the need for a Public Inquiry. Such inquiries are adversarial, fail to help establish understanding and/or consensus on planning objectives in an area, are very time consuming and resource hungry, and do not remove the possibility of later legal challenge. For example, in Camden the public inquiry into the UDP took 10 months with another nine months taken for the production of inspector's 1000+ page report. However, after this, the publication of the UDP was further delayed for another year following formal adoption, due to a legal challenge (unsuccessful).

  For Kings Cross, as with all major schemes, it is vital that the strategic and local policy framework is up to date. Camden has had to bring forward its review into the Kings Cross Chapter, ahead of the review of the rest of the UDP, in order to put that framework in place in time for the developers to prepare their proposals for the site. This means that there will shortly be a separate Public Inquiry into that chapter. This is a difficult and very expensive route, but considered to be the most effective given the presently prescribed plan making process. Camden however decided to omit the 2nd draft Deposit Stage in favour of accelerating the review.

  Camden would therefore like to see public inquiries replaced by a non-adversarial system, and local decision-making and ownership reinforced, and would support this aspect of the Green Paper proposals. Possible options could include:

    —  ability to adopt following examination in public as per London Spatial Development Strategy or Regional Planning Guidance; and

    —  ability to adopt following local consultations as per Community Strategy process.

  The GP advocates integrating new development plans with Community Strategies, and this would improve the effectiveness of local plans, by ensuring they clearly reflect corporate objectives and priorities, agreed following local consultations in partnership with other major service providers The current UDP review underway in Camden is already doing this. It is, however, also essential that the new development plans in turn inform the further development of Community Strategies.

  Although the principles of simpler and quicker plan production process are supported, the Green Paper proposals for Local Development Frameworks are unlikely to be achievable. They may in fact be more complicated, with the variety of plans that may apply to an area, and may lead to greater uncertainty through continuous change with short timescales for review and production. In fact, it may be quite unrealistic to achieve such timescales, without very substantial commitment of resources and, ultimately, curtailing community involvement.

Development control

  The GP makes a number of proposals in relation to large, complex developments, including agreement on "delivery contracts" for bigger applications.

  The Channel Tunnel Rail Link development at Kings Cross pioneered a form of delivery contract, which clearly helped to focus resources and decision making, but it has been very costly to Camden. In Camden's experience, having several big sites concurrently raises significant resource issues, and it is difficult to resource plan generally for major schemes as their timing is in the hands of the applicants. Authorities can increase their capacity in expectation of applications, to find submissions suddenly delayed by many months.

  The timescales involved in major schemes like Kings Cross can also be a significant complicating factor in the development control process, for example in consultation, and in agreeing a standard tariff of planning obligations which would be applicable over an extended period of development.

  Action/masterplans and planning briefs offer a good opportunity for specific guidance and connecting all Council services/cross borough working at an early stage on a local basis. They are again resource heavy, and tend therefore to be employed only in exceptional circumstances. The relative roles and responsibilities of authority and developer in these major cases are unclear in the GP, particularly in relation to resourcing research, exploring options, and consultation.

  Camden has found Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG) an effective planning mechanism generally and will be looking to make use of SPGs in taking forward the Kings Cross development. Better use of SPGs could allow development plans to be shorter and more focused, and SPGs could be the means of ensuring developers have the most up to date advice. Government guidance could encourage wider, better use of such guidance and place it clearly in the hierarchy of policy.

  Camden has promoted a wide consultative approach to development impact at a very early stage in the development of Kings Cross, and has established internal and external impact steering groups with relevant partners. This is based on an assessment that the impact of development goes beyond concerns traditionally associated with planning negotiations, and, in the case of Kings Cross, is greatly complicated by the extent of infrastructure works and the timescales involved.

  The GP proposal that developers themselves engage local communities in advance of submitting a planning application would impose new and broadly welcome accountabilities and could help resources, but in practice could cause confusion, and conflict with local strategies which seek to promote and value diversity. LPAs would need to set standards and monitor the process, and ultimately may need to duplicate consultation. On a site like Kings Cross there are clear advantages in consulting in close partnership with the developers at an early stage, but this can sit uneasily with the LPA's role as the development control authority. The GP is not explicit about these problems.

Planning obligations

  The powers under s106 of the Planning Act, in conjunction with the powers to impose planning conditions, are essential to ensure that developments fully address planning policies, and local and wider relevant impact. With these mechanisms, LPAs can ensure developments, as implemented, provide their anticipated social, economic and environmental benefits to the community as a whole, and are sustainable.

  The GP's confirmation of the importance of these powers is welcomed, but Camden is concerned that the proposals would mark a very fundamental move away from the previous Central Government policy (eg as set out in Circular 1/97) that Planning Obligations should be specifically related to the site and development in question. By breaking the direct link between, on the one hand, the policy implications and the real impact of the particular development, and, on the other hand, the conditions and Planning Obligations attached to the permission, it introduces a wholly new principle, with uncertain consequences. This is also the view of representatives of private developers, who have made the point that, if this direct link with the development is broken, a tariff system would constitute a development tax through the planning system. This inevitably raises the question of the effectiveness, adequacy, fairness and appropriateness of a new taxation system, and whether a general local tax would be better and more effective mechanism to provide for infrastructure and local needs, and the wider benefits that the proposals aim for.

  The acceptance of tariffs (and a de facto development tax) may be welcomed in certain circumstances, but would be almost impossible to apply in practice as each site varies so significantly. The relevance of viability is unclear as is the relationship with other elements necessary to ensure satisfactory impact or a mixed development. Although the paper is vague, it does seem to envisage tariffs as a starting point, to be supplemented where appropriate by further obligations. This could distort the policy priorities in individual cases. In the case of affordable housing, the position appears confused. The GP states that it would encourage authorities to seek on-site provision as a first choice. In such a case, there could be a need for both a written obligation to provide certain housing and an obligation to pay a tariff. In Camden however the provision of affordable housing is a key policy objective which has to be taken into account at the outset in proposals for many development sites. It is a priority use for Kings Cross, where we are looking for 50 per cent of housing to be affordable within a mixed and sustainable community. Consigning affordable housing to a tariff could transform this vital element to the status of an "add-on", for discussion after the main elements of a development have been considered. This would discourage mixed use/mixed community developments, which are at the heart of urban renaissance, and devalue affordable housing as a planning objective.

  Development proposals also frequently raise many issues that cannot be addressed through planning conditions or the tariff system, such as Green Travel Plans, regulatory clauses, mitigation measures, phasing provisions, necessary local infrastructure and facilities, training, access etc. All of these other aspects will be a part of s106 negotiations on Kings Cross. Camden's view is that even if a tariff system were adopted it would be necessary to retain the S106 powers for these other purposes. This dual approach would at least not achieve a less complex planning system.

  Camden believes that the existing powers in fact offer adequate and appropriate mechanisms to achieve the agreed aims, and that the problems identified with those powers are more to do with illegitimate use and poor practice. Camden currently operates a system which is a transparent and accountable version of Option B as set out in the GP, and would therefore favour this option which gives greater Local Authority flexibility to negotiate a wide range of local facilities/services within the law. Mechanisms to promote and share good practice would overcome many of the perceived problems.


  Quality of life is perceived as under great pressure in large cities, as evidenced by levels of out-migration, skills shortages, high housing costs, problems in retaining or reinforcing sustainable communities.

  Quality of life can be seen as directly threatened by many changes associated with the urban renaissance agenda, especially higher densities and mixed uses. These are supported and promoted as essential to the creation of vital and viable urban areas, but are also seen as bringing more noise, pollution, litter, congestion and crime, as threatening urban open spaces, eroding familiar townscapes and turning their backs on the public realm. Developments are seen as led by viability, not quality or good design, and thought to be poorly related to the provision of essential infrastructure, eg public transport. In concern over speed and certainty for developers it is important that these quality of life concerns and especially quality of design are not undervalued.

  The GP talks in general terms about the development control process in relation to householder and major applications. It does not sufficiently recognise that small applications (householder and other), especially in dense urban areas, and not just in conservation areas, can raise a range of complex issues, and involve extensive consultation.

  Small applications can be of vital importance to many people, affecting their quality of life, and can involve cumulative erosion of environmental quality over a period of time. Such applications can be householder applications in densely developed areas, where small developments can have a very significant impact on a lot of other residents, present and future. In intensively used commercial or mixed urban areas, small developments coming on top of quite rapid lifestyle changes, for example the development of the night-time economy in town centres, can have a significant impact on the daily lives of many people, particularly residents. It cannot be assumed therefore that small applications can always be dealt with rapidly, and it is important not to underestimate the resources needed for such applications.

  The use classes order is a very significant tool in the protection of amenity, and in the provision of support to business, in mixed use areas. Camden has submitted detailed comments on the proposals for the Order, and considers that the Green Paper gives insufficient emphasis to such controls in the management of urban areas. The current A3 Food and Drink Class, nightclubs, sex establishments and gambling premises can be of significant concern even in major town centres, where increased residential use is being encouraged.


  Many of the GP proposals address less important elements of the development control process, rather than the central issues referred to above. The failure to put forward detailed proposals for enforcement is particularly disappointing. Enforcement is the Achilles heel of the system, comprehensively derided by local communities and frequently ignored by parts of the development industry. If the planning system matters, planning enforcement matters. It clearly isn't working but this appears an unimportant issue for the Green Paper.


  The GP do not fully address one factor that would make a very significant impact on achieving its aims. As already indicated, Camden considers that resources are a more significant factor in the achievement of the above aims than changes to the legislation. In relation to the set fees for planning applications, the "one size fits all" approach, on the basis of an average authority, is wholly inappropriate. In urban areas generally, and in areas like Camden, with responsibility for high density and sensitive areas and for large daytime working and tourist populations, development pressures and costs are out of the norm. We have calculated that an increase in fees of at least 45 per cent would be required in Camden, if we are to continue with our struggle to balance quality of service and performance for all our customers. The current ceiling of £9,500 fee on schemes as large as Kings Cross is plainly indefensible. The resources required for good effective and inclusive consultation have to be recognized. The skills shortage, which is particularly affecting areas like London, would be a serious constraint on many of the proposals in the GP to improve the planning system and will in particular increasingly impact on the urban renaissance and quality of life agenda.


  The planning system is in danger of reaching a new level of disrepute. The key elements for a better system are:

    —  A consensus around its purpose.

    —  Clear differentiation of roles from national through strategic to local levels.

    —  Openness through all processes.

    —  Adequate resources and skills.

    —  Clear democratic mechanisms by which local communities and their local Councils can work with developers to agree a positive way forward.

    —  An absence of legalistic adversarial mechanisms.

March 2002

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