Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by the Environment Agency (PGP 53)



  1.  The Environment Agency believes that the present planning system has served a useful purpose in providing a democratically-based forum for the resolution of the economic, environmental and social elements of sustainable development. Although it undoubtedly has its faults in terms of speed and bureaucracy, we believe it important that any reform retains the fundamental benefits of the system. As both a statutory consultee and a developer of major flood defence and water resources projects, with wide interests in sustainable development, the Environment Agency has an important stake in the planning process, and is ready to play its part in realising the benefits that the Planning Green Paper, and associated daughter documents, can deliver.

  2.  In summary, the views of the Agency are:

    —  Local Plans—We support the proposals for local development frameworks (LDFs) and we welcome proposals for better community involvement, provided that there is a requirement for the Agency to be consulted.

    —  Waste Planning—Strategic waste plans should be produced by groups of county and unitary authorities. Waste plans should identify specific locations for waste sites.

    —  Major Infrastructure—The Parliamentary Procedure is NOT the best way to streamline the process. Simplification of the current plethora of statutory regimes, together with national policy statements, better quality applications, and reduction in the time gap between the Inspectors Report and the Secretary of State's decision, are all better alternatives.

    —  Planning Obligations—The proposed tariff system is not suitable for local environmental obligations. Instead we propose that the current system of site-specific agreements is strengthened and made more transparent.

    —  Statutory Consultation—We agree the need for reform of the role of statutory consultees, and believe a risk-based approach should be applied, with the provision of standing advice by statutory consultees to local planning authorities for low risk development proposals.


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

  3.  The Environment Agency supports the basis of the plan-led system, and actively seeks to input into all local authority development plans. We do not believe the principle of the plan-led system should be dropped. We believe that a reformed plan-led system is the best way to provide business with the certainty it requires to make future investment decisions. After a decade of operation, it is apparent that the current system needs modification. Certainty is not provided when 13 per cent of local planning authorities have still to produce their first plan, while a further 214 current plans are out of date. The timescale for the preparation of plans in many instances is far too long, and the plans when produced are unwieldy in size and complexity, and often out of date.

  4.  The Agency therefore sees a clear need to deliver shorter, better focused plans at the local level, which can be prepared quickly, and revised frequently, and which are integrated with other strategies and plans. We therefore support the move to spatial planning at the local level and the development of core policy and Action Plans. The continuous updating of the statement of core policies will ensure it remains relevant and incorporates the latest policy guidance, as well as changing circumstances at the local level.

  5.  The Green Paper proposals for better community involvement in Local development Frameworks (LDFs) are very welcome. We support the flexibility and the general lack of prescription in the new proposals, but we suggest that some fixed points are necessary in order to provide minimum standards, which we believe should include a requirement to consult the Environment Agency. However, while we support the proposed role of community strategies in establishing a local vision and objectives for the LDF, we are concerned that many community strategies are not adequate for this purpose. Many concentrate on immediate local issues such as litter and dog dirt, rather than wider issues such as flood risk. In its response on the Planning Green Paper the Agency has suggested, therefore, that DTLR should join DEFRA and the Agency to support the LGA in establishing a Sustainability Unit within its Improvement and Development Agency. The Unit will provide sustainability advice for community strategy preparation, which, in our view, should include guidance on the links to land use planning.

  6.  Although we support retention of the County waste planning role, we consider it disgraceful that only 60 per cent of waste local plans have so far been adopted in the eight years since they were first required. Also, waste is sometimes given inadequate attention in Unitary Development Plans, when unitary authorities can let a contract for the export of municipal waste, and pass the strategic problem on to someone else.

  7.  We propose that waste local plans should reflect the reality that waste flows across local authority boundaries, and disposal needs cannot all be met within urban areas. County and unitary authorities should co-operate in producing joint waste local plans on a waste catchment basis. This is already beginning to happen, and we note with approval the joint plans produced by Leicester and Leicestershire, and Stoke and Staffordshire. Public Service Agreements could be used to encourage groups of waste authorities to produce plans to agreed timescales.

  8.  We also propose that criteria based development control policies proposed for Local Development Frameworks should not apply to Waste Local Plans. Difficulties with criteria led policies in the Surrey Waste Local Plan in contrast to the specific locations in the Hampshire Waste Local Plan persuade us that specific site proposals maps are needed. This will lead to intense debate during the plan preparation stage, and will add to the burden and difficulty of preparing waste local plans. But it is the only way in which planning can deliver strategic certainty for waste site provision.

The procedures for scrutinising major development projects

  9.  The Environment Agency has been directly involved in the appraisal of major infrastructure projects both as a promoter of major flood defence and reservoir projects, and as a statutory consultee, and we have suffered from the delays and uncertainties that bedevil the present system. We would welcome measures that improve strategic direction, clarity and certainty, whilst reducing costs and simplifying the planning process, provided that they take proper account of relevant environmental issues, which can be complex. However, in its response to the Government's consultation paper Proposed New Parliamentary Procedures for Major Infrastructure Projects, the Agency's view is that a Parliamentary Procedure is not the best way to make decisions on major infrastructure projects.

  10.  The Agency does not believe there is any evidence that the proposed Parliamentary Procedure would be faster than a well managed public inquiry. We have analysed time spent at some recent public inquiries for major infrastructure projects and this has shown that only about 15 per cent of time is spent on the topic of "need", while 30 per cent of time is spent on report preparation/recesses, and about 50 per cent on detail and local issues including environmental topics.

  11.  The Environmental Impact Assessment Directive requires that the proper assessment of environmental impacts must include the null (do not develop) option. If Parliament was to include Environmental Impact Assessment as an integral part of its role of considering the principle of the development, very extended parliamentary timescales would be needed.

  12.  The Agency considers that simplification of the current plethora of statutory regimes, together with national policy statements, better quality applications, and reduction in the time gap between the Inspectors Report and the Secretary of State's decision, are all better alternatives to the Parliamentary procedure.

Proposed changes to planning obligations

  13.  The Agency supports the refocusing of the planning obligation system around the principle of sustainable development, and the objectives of minimisation of any unavoidable adverse external impacts of development, and environmental enhancement, wherever possible. We support the proposal the greater speed and economy could be introduced by the production of standard forms of contract. However the Agency has concerns about the proposed tariff system.

  14.  Many of the external impacts of development depend on local environmental capacity, and the capacity of local infrastructure such as drainage, flood defence and water supply systems. We believe that a District specific tariff would rarely have the fine grained local flexibility needed to reflect local environmental conditions.

  15.  Tariffs may also come to be seen as an alternative to negotiations with developers, and there is no guarantee that the money would be used for environmental protection or enhancement. Once a developer pays a tariff, the opportunity for further negotiations about environmental issues may have been lost. In addition, the tariff could simply be seen as a betterment levy in another guise, especially if the income from tariffs is not spent on addressing the externalities of the development.

  16.  The Agency considers that site-specific agreements remain the best option for securing environmental and related infrastructure contributions, and could be streamlined and made more transparent, by standard terms of contract and by agreeing with local communities the criteria for planning obligations to be set out in Local Action Plans. We generally prefer planning agreements to specify provision in kind rather than relying on cash contributions as this enables more environmental benefits to be provided. Contributions in kind are also more likely to ensure that the externalities of a development are addressed.

Statutory consultation

  17.  Although the Committee did not raise this as a particular issue on which it required evidence, the Agency would like to raise the issue of Statutory Consultation. The Agency agrees the need for reform of the role of statutory consultation.

  18.  Article 10 of the General Development Procedure Order 1995 (GDPO) at present requires local planning authorities to consult the Agency on a range of planning applications. In addition, Planning Policy Guidance Notes (eg PPG25) also advise local planning authorities to consult the Agency on specific types of development. The advice we provide is sought by local planning authorities because it is of a highly technical nature, and cannot readily be provided by other means.

  19.  We believe that Government should apply a risk-based approach to statutory consultation. In cases where the level of risk is perceived to be high, and where a site specific technical response is required, we agree that local planning authorities should continue to be under a duty to ensure that the Agency, or other relevant consultee, is consulted, and that the Agency should be under a duty to provide advice. We believe that the GDPO should be reviewed to establish a new list of high risk applications for which the Agency should be a statutory consultee. This list must include applications in river and tidal flood plains.

  20.  However, our own estimates suggest that about one third of the applications on which we are at present consulted should be considered as high risk. We support therefore the principle of providing generic standing advice to local planning authorities on applications where the development type or location is of lower environmental risk. Such standing advice, which should be regularly updated, would enable local planning authorities to use our advice without consulting us on a site by site basis. We believe this in itself would help speed up the local authority decision making process as well as providing for greater transparency and greater certainty to developers.

  21.  We are about to test the standing advice approach with approximately 20 local planning authorities in relation to development proposals where the risk of flood is considered to be low. If the pilot is successful, we propose to agree a national protocol with the LGA to promote the use of standing advice with all local authorities. However, it is likely that some may still wish to consult the Agency on a case by case basis, even for low risk applications, and there should be statutory provision for standing advice in order to achieve consistency.

  22.  The Agency also supports proposals for developers to pay a fee to cover our costs as a statutory consultee. The Agency's services should be paid for by developers at the pre-consultation stage, or at the application stage if developers decide not to consult the Agency in advance, or if the proposals received by the local planning authority are significantly different from those on which our advice is sought.

March 2000

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