Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-257)
MR HUGH ELLIS, MR NEIL SINDEN AND MR HENRY OLIVER
WEDNESDAY 10 APRIL 2002
240. In a restricted application to the third-party right of appeal, you have referred to appeals against projects that are introduced by the local authority who are also the planning authority. How do you base that then? How would you apply that?
(Mr Oliver) That is an issue about the potential conflicts of interest between the local authority as planning authority and the local authority as property-owning or intending-developer authority with a potential pecuniary interest in the result of the planning application, so we think it is only sensible that there should be a third-party right of challenge against that decision so that it can be held up for independent scrutiny. What worries us fundamentally about the Green Paper's view on the third-party right of appeal is that no matter how good a reformed planning system could be, it is still going to go wrong sometimes and a lot of the issues that really upset and concern the local people are quite small ones, not major projects, and those are the sorts of issues which will not be up for call-in by the Secretary of State, so there is currently no safeguard.
241. Have you considered the issue of local authorities introducing a consultation exercise before they get to that question of submitting a planning proposal?
(Mr Oliver) Well, the best ones do.
242. Would that not be a better approach?
(Mr Oliver) I do not think it is an either/or. I think from our point of view, along with other developers, the local authority ought to be consulting as widely as possible before it even puts its proposals on the table. Of course that is right and we welcome the Green Paper's suggestions on pre-application consultation, but we do think that sometimes things go wrong and for public confidence to be maintained, there needs to be a safety net, a qualified safety net, a limited safety net, but we nonetheless think there needs to be one.
243. Under the current system, there is public involvement in local plans and there is often a public inquiry at the end of the day which a few people are very confident of appearing at and performing at and so on. Are the Government's proposals to have proper involvement of local communities a better way forward and a more imaginative way of actually getting local community involvement in the area?
(Mr Sinden) I think there are a few merits to the Government's proposals to promote better community engagement in local plan processes in other ways. The idea of statements of community involvement which the Green Paper puts forward is potentially a very positive and useful one which could take us forward in terms of widening and extending the public engagement in those key decisions. But we are concerned that as, currently presented, statements of community involvement could well end up as tick-box, reactive processes whereby local authorities and indeed business applicants are just sort of ticking
244. Presumably there must be some guidance given as to how you conduct a community statement?
(Mr Sinden) We would expect the Government to come forward with guidance on how statements of community involvement will be deployed, but we would like the process to be much more proactive and much more focused on encouraging and promoting public engagement. This is where I think the concern that we have about the Green Paper's rejection of a third-party right of appeal is quite disturbing and disappointing because it sends all the wrong signals about where the Government is really coming from in terms of public engagement. That, alongside the gaping hole, as it has been described, that could emerge between the local and regional tier of decision-making, could well fatally undermine public confidence in the system, whatever comes forward from the Green Paper's quite useful suggestions in relation to community involvement.
245. Can I take you to some of the comments you make in your submission on local strategic partnerships: "Local strategic partnerships have all the major players in the areas. They reflect the community strategies in their thinking". Do they not have a very significant role in drawing up local development frameworks?
(Mr Sinden) I think that potentially local strategic partnerships, which are very young and are taking only the very first tentative steps in terms of establishing themselves as useful local fora for defining community priorities, could well have a valuable role to play. But crucially at the moment they do not embody or come with the statutory safeguards that the land-use planning system has in terms of public involvement and public engagement. We are not convinced at the moment that we are at a stage with the local strategic partnerships, or indeed with community strategies, which would enable us to move away from a rights-based system which the land-use planning system has, I think, been usefully based on for the past 50 years or so.
246. What you are not saying is that they may end up being more or less what you want them to be, but you cannot yet see them as being that.
(Mr Oliver) But I think it is important to point out that community strategies particularly have not yet had a baptism of fire, if you like, in terms of the mediation of conflict which development plan processes involve. I suspect that if you actually threw them into that boiling cauldron of sort of discontent and conflict, you would find that they pretty soon fell to pieces and were not perhaps sufficiently robust to do the job that they would need to do, so they do a different thing. They are about setting a vision rather than actually dealing with those conflicts, I think, and, therefore, we need to be aware of that.
(Mr Ellis) Just to return to your first point, public inquiries are a problem because they are intimidatory and a lot of people feel that they cannot participate in them. What the Government should quite clearly have done is to promote very imaginative public participation which we started getting with the planning system which pretty much wrote the book on it, and left those statutory rights in place. You can have both, but, as Henry said, planning is conflictual and it will always be an argument, always be a big political battle, so those rights of redress and access are absolutely vital. This Green Paper takes those away without offering anything concrete, apart from the word "involvement" in their place.
247. Can I come on to the scrutiny of major projects. You just used the word "imaginative" and it occurs in your submission about "imaginative reform of the public inquiry process". Is Lord Falconer right in thinking that there has got to be a better way of dealing with major infrastructure inquiries and can I press you a little bit on what you actually mean by "imaginative reform"?
(Mr Oliver) Yes, he is right to say that there is a better way of doing it and we, as a coalition of groups with other organisations, have very warmly welcomed national policy statements on issues like aviation or ports and reform of public inquiry processes to correct abuses, increase pre-inquiry discussions and improve opportunities for public involvement. However, we do not think that the Government's proposals for approval in principle of site-specific proposals by Parliament will either deliver what the Government wants in terms of a speeded-up system or satisfy public opinion if consideration of the principle of the development in the first place is taken away from the public inquiry. So we welcome two-thirds, we see it as a problem and we think the solution may be rather different from the one the Government is proposing.
248. Can I press Mr Ellis on his imaginative reforms?
(Mr Ellis) Yes, you can. The background to this essentially from our point of view is of course this Planning Green Paper could equally be called "Response to Terminal 5" because that is really what the context of it is.
249. Surely not!
(Mr Ellis) I think so. I think it is about taking a particularly difficult case and saying that the planning does not work on the basis of what happens surrounding Terminal 5. Clearly nobody, least of all Friends of the Earth or any of the other NGOs, welcomes how long Terminal 5 took, but again the Government has not peeled apart why Terminal 5 took so long, the national policy statements, the way that the inquiry was run and managed. All those issues could be nailed down, the administration of inquiries when inquiries do not actually sit for four weeks, the Minister is sitting on a report for twelve months. There are all sorts of issues about delay, but the critical issue for us is that it is not public objection which is the cause of delay, but principally inside the public inquiry system. Yet the public, under the major infrastructure proposals, are being punished because their right to talk about the principal need, and location of individual major infrastructure projects is being removed. Now, my question is why
250. It is not being removed
(Mr Ellis) Yes, it is.
251.because Parliament represents the public, so in a sense Parliament is being asked to make a decision. Now, surely that is more democratic than people who might or might not turn up as objectors to a particular proposal?
(Mr Ellis) Well, I am not going to sit here and suggest that Parliament is not democratic! Of course it is.
252. Not if you want to get out in one piece!
(Mr Ellis) Parliament clearly has the right to set general policy and site-specific policy, but I think that in my mind I can see two different issues. I can see the importance of Parliament playing a democratic role, of course, but that is not the same as the rights that the public have individually at the moment, which actually are not rights of democratic accountability, but they are rights of access. They are civil rights, for example, to cross-question witnesses in front of an inspector in a local planning inquiry on need. Now, that is not actually democratic accountability, but that is about transparency of process. So they are two different things, I think, which the Government has got confused. Certainly let's have more democratic accountability, but why remove those public rights because all that will do as an outcome is engineer conflict into this process because the average person walking down the street to their little aviation inquiry will walk through the door and say that they have come to argue about the fact that there are too many aeroplanes and the inspector will have to say under these rules, "You cannot say that to me because that is an issue of need and that has been dealt with elsewhere". That I think can be avoided. An imaginative system, well, okay. Let me get back to what planning was good at. Planning invented planning for real, it invented non-adversarial systems of mediation, it has invented pre-inquiry discussions so that areas of common ground can be established and it has invented advocacy, and one of the few welcome things of the Planning Green Paper is advocacy for third-party groups. All those things can help, not us, the usual suspects, if you like, on planning inquiries, but help ordinary people involve themselves in the system, but that of course takes us back to how you resource it.
253. Just finally on that, if you want to get the delays down and make these things within a reasonable timescale, do you think the Government can do anything other than change the procedures in order to get these planning inquiries completed in a reasonable timescale or do they simply need to proceed as they are and tighten them up a little?
(Mr Sinden) Let's not underestimate the huge potential that there is in the proposal to establish clear statements of national policy in advance of decisions on specific projects. I think that proposal alone could do a huge amount to reduce the delay in decision-making. I think Parliament has a critical role to play in debating emerging national policy statements governing aviation, energy generation and so on, and that is where we believe the Government should be focusing its attention.
254. Both organisations appear to be fairly critical of that. Would you prefer the Government just to scrap its plans for legislation and go on with reformed resources or do you think we need a Bill in the next session of Parliament?
(Mr Sinden) We need more time. We are not convinced that we need a Bill in the next session of Parliament. We may well need a Bill later on in order to redress some of the legislative problems that we have identified with the system, such as third-party rights of appeal, in future, but at the moment we would argue for more time to reconsider and reevaluate the proposals put forward in the Green Paper.
(Mr Ellis) I think I would support that and, just by way of shorthand in terms of a vision about what we would propose and recommend, the Welsh Assembly's Planning Green Paper which deals with many of the issues which Government have put forward without dismantling the structures, it makes administrative changes, it talks about the need for more certainty and efficiency, it talks about the need for public involvement is an excellent document.
255. That is the view of your organisation. Your individual members do not seem to be very concerned about this.
(Mr Oliver) Our individual members, I can assure you, are extremely concerned about it and miss no opportunity to tell me so. We have at CPRE had an extensive process of asking our members what they actually think about the Green Paper proposals and what they would like us to say and one of the annexes to our formal response to the Green Paper was a summary of their thoughts and ideas. I think if anything comes out from that, it is an urging on the part of our members to be stronger, fiercer and more radical than perhaps we have been.
(Mr Ellis) Could I just say the same. Planning is dominating all our contacts on the web, by phone, by letter. It is by far the biggest area of concern and probably by far the biggest area of local work with local groups and other communities that we work with. I would say this: that planning does face a problem. As far as we are concerned at Friends of the Earth, planning was the most sophisticated environmental system of regulation ever set up and the most radical ever set up, but it has become something which is considered to be locked in a bottom drawer, dull and not something people can access. I can certainly convey not just from FoE groups, but from other communities that this is a very significant concern.
256. But not one so far which seems to be getting into MPs' mailbags.
(Mr Ellis) I would be surprised if that was not the case.
257. Is your definition of "radical", staying the same but with more cash?
(Mr Ellis) No. I think what always excites me about the planning system and what worries me about the current proposals is that the original 1947 planning system nationalised development rights and gained democratic control about the change of land for local communities. It was pretty much the second most radical thing I think that Labour administration did.
(Mr Sinden) We also need to improve the ability of the planning system to implement national policy. At the moment we have seen that we have problems with the planning system. Despite its overall benefits and value, we have problems with implementing a plan in relation to managing traffic growth, and in relation to providing new housing. We need to ensure that the system is better able to deliver those crucial policy objectives to the benefit of wider society.
Chairman: Well, on that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence.