Memorandum by SERPLAN (PI 33)
1. SERPLAN is the London and South East
Regional Planning Conference: It is constituted by the London
Borough Councils and the county, unitary and district councils
in the county areas of Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire,
Essex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Oxfordshire, Surrey, East
and West Sussex and the Isle of Wight. As such, it covers the
whole of the area of the South East Government Office, part of
the area of the Eastern Region Government Office, and London.
2. SERPLAN has the role of advising the
Secretary of State on the contents of Regional Planning Guidance
(RPG) for the South East (the SERPLAN region). In December 1998,
SERPLAN submitted to the Secretary of State, its Sustainable Development
Strategy for the South East covering the whole of its area (SERP500).
This SERPLAN Strategy was consulted on in early 1999, as Draft
Regional Planning Guidance, by the Government Office for the South
East, under the merging new arrangements for the preparation of
RPG that promote greater transparency and regional ownership.
The Strategy was then subject to a Public Examination in May and
June 1999 resulting in a Report of the Public Examination Panel
published in October 1999.
3. This memorandum deals with Public Examinations
into draft Regional Planning Guidance as produced by Regional
Planning Bodies (RPBs), which is the area of activity of direct
concern to SERPLAN. This was not covered in the list of questions
received by SERPLAN, but I understand that the Committee wishes
to cover such Public Examinations in its enquiry. It must be borne
in mind that Panel Chairs in such cases, although assisted by
Planning Inspectors as members of the Panel, would not necessarily
be themselves members of the Planning Inspectorate. SERPLAN's
case was perhaps peculiar in having as its Chair the retired Chief
4. The main points arising from SERPLAN's
recent experience are as follows:
(i) All briefings to the Panel, including
the commissioning brief/terms of appointment, should be made public
at the earliest opportunity and certainly before the final preliminary
meeting, after which there should be no more.
(ii) Some means has to be found to introduce
to the Examination proceedings the weight and balance of opinion/evidence
garnered through the written consultation procedures. Otherwise,
as SERPLAN has seen to its cost, the Examination can be dominated
by a vocal minority (albeit representing important interests)
with a distorted picture resulting.
(iii) The Examination is intended to be investigatory
and non-confrontational, but given the stakes involved, this was
always going to be a vain hope. It would be better to acknowledge
the fact that the draft RPG is being tested and that the RPB is
inevitably in the position of the defence. Given the fact that
the Panel will pick participants who can assist this testing process
(ie predominantly critics and opponents), would it not serve to
achieve a more balanced discussion to give the RPB the right to
nominate some of the participants in the discussion? At the SERPLAN
Public Examination the choice of participants was heavily weighted
in favour of the major critics and there was no representation
of the widespread support which SERPLAN's Strategy had received
during its public consultation, both within and beyond the South
(iv) Public Examinations are daunting events
for all concerned, particularly for non-professionals. It is likely
they will become more so, as the big interest groups gear up and
dominate proceedings as they do in Local Plan Inquiries. Regional
planning is a pretty arcane process, but it is important that
as wide a spectrum of opinion as possible is represented round
the table. This really is up to the Panel, in how they select
participants and how they conduct discussions.
(v) It costs a lot to participate fully in
a Public Examination. At one point "Living Over The Shop"
withdrew from the SERPLAN Public Examination because of funding
problems. In the end they appeared, but the issue needs to be
addressed. By way of example, participants in the South West RPG
Public Examination are required to submit thirty copies of each
submissionpurely for the convenience of the Panel Secretariat,
but at considerable cost to local charitable groups.
(vi) SERPLAN strongly endorses what is said
in the second bullet point of the recent LGA Statement on Regional
Planning, about the Panel reporting to the RPB, not the Government
Office. The Panel must remain independently appointed, but its
report should be to the RPB and be made public at that moment.
This would greatly strengthen the sense of regional ownership
of the Guidance as opposed to a feeling of it being imposed by
Central Government. The RPB would be obliged to indicate to Government
how it had taken into account the Panel's report in the final
version of the Regional Guidance; but with the Secretary of State
retaining arms-length powers of intervention.
(vii) There is also an issue of timing of
the Public Examination in the overall process of producing RPG,
It would be better for it to follow the first period of consultation
on RPG. Two periods of consultation appears very long-winded and
also heightens the impression that RPBs are really not to be trusted
and that the whole process needs to be gone through again by Central