Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-332)
SIR TOM BLUNDELL AND PROFESSOR RICHARD MACRORY
WEDNESDAY 10 APRIL 2002
320. Would you like to elaborate on that? Could you also say why you think third party rights of appeal will help to secure greater integration between the planning system and environmental regulation?
(Professor Macrory) Could I first say that we do not necessarily sayand we are quite honest about thisthat a third party right of appeal, even if limited, will speed up the system. One has to be quite honest that it may well in the short term lead to delays but we think that is a price worth paying for improved confidence. It may have a side effect of reducing the number of legal challenges to the courts and that may speed things up, but one has to be honest about that. In relation to the statutory consultees, we are very conscious that bodies such as the Environment Agency (and I would say I am a Board Member of the Agency) are statutory consultees on many areas. I do not think their involvement, I have to say, has been critical or that my own Agency is terribly sophisticated at the moment and it could do a lot better. The latest figures we have is something like 35 per cent of their advice in planning applications is ignored. It is that sort of figure. The statistics
321. Is that the quality of the advice or?
(Professor Macrory) I would like to know and that is the next stage of the inquiry but it is that sort of scale. The Environment Committee certainly has looked at the whole question of flooding and planning and so on and that is very important. So we do think there is a case for saying that statutory consultees should have the possibility of a merits appeal. I do not think statutory consultees for the most part or other unelected bodies should have a right of veto on planning decisions, but if they had the right of appeal that would give the weight of their advice more significance. It is very unlikely, except in the most extreme cases, that a statutory body would exercise that right, but the fact that it exists would be rather important.
322. Is this not whole Green Paper aimed at making things easier for business, not looking at extra ways of extending the planning procedures? Would that not, taken with your suggestion in relation to removing an application of law, extend the procedure and not shorten it?
(Professor Macrory) Do you want to answer?
(Sir Tom Blundell) No.
(Professor Macrory) Thank you!
323. If you have spoken to Lord Falconer he must have agreed with you some series of criteria. Is this meant to improve it, shorten it or lengthen it?
(Sir Tom Blundell) Our proposals are meant to improve the overall quality of the planning system. That may not speed up certain aspects of it in the short term. If the only aim is to speed up the process then what in our view you will end up with is a dissatisfied
324. Is it your opinion that it is meant to speed up the process?
(Professor Macrory) Clearly certain proposals in the Green Paper are meant to do that and statutory consultees are a very good example, where there is a proposal to cut down the range of statutory consultees and to require them to respond in quicker time. The second one may be a very sensible proposal but the first one, in our view, is not correct.
325. I would like you to expand on your comments which you mentioned briefly about the need perhaps for the Environment Agency to play a greater role in the process of planning applications, for instance developments in flood plains. This is particularly pertinent to my constituency. How would you like to see that happening?
(Professor Macrory) I am wearing two hats at the moment as Commissioner and as a Board Member of the Agency but I will try and argue for the Commission collectively. We certainly think that bodies, particularly the Environment Agency because of its interest in the environment, should be playing a much stronger role at the strategic level of plan-making. That is where there is a weakness at the moment and it is partly to do with skills and it is partly to do with resources.
326. Can I push you on that a little bit because the Environment Agency office that covers my constituency is in Wales whereas my constituency is part of the North West. Are you giving some thought to that?
(Professor Macrory) I think the Environment Agency is consulted on 100,000 planning applications in 450 authorities a year and it has 150 officers dealing with this. There is a big mismatch there. There is a problemone hates to bring up the question of resourceswhich is that although many of the Environment Agency's functions are paid for out of licence applications and so on, the planning consultation function is not funded directly, it has to come out grant in aid and of course that is always being squeezed. That is part of the question.
(Sir Tom Blundell) Our impression from speaking with local authorities is that most local authorities do not seem to have a very close relationship with the Environment Agency which is obviously related to the fact that there is one man or woman in the Environment Agency dealing with a number of local authorities and I think this really does pose a problem.
327. So you would accept the criticism implied in the Green Paper that some of the statutory consultees, for example the Environment Agency, are culpable at the moment of holding up the processes?
(Sir Tom Blundell) The position may not be disconnected.
328. In your written evidence you suggest there should be a single volume of planning guidance. Is that a practical proposition?
(Sir Tom Blundell) We believe it is but we do agree with the Government's Green Paper statement that the PPGs need simplification. At the moment we have two kinds of content: principles which have to be followed, and planning advice which is not of the same kind. So we would imagine, as indeed the Government is proposing also, that the content is very much more focused to the principles and then brought together. At the moment the Government is recommending that it takes two years to review seven of the PPGs, so under their proposals it would take around eight years before they have reviewed the whole lot. It is a challenge but we need to move rather quickly to a much more co-ordinated and focused volume.
329. Do you think it is reasonable to say there should be one volume when there is a need to review different aspects of planning policy?
(Sir Tom Blundell) I think so but that should not be an excuse for delaying the review to the extent it is now.
330. As far as the Government's proposals are concerned, do you think they are going to encourage much greater public acceptance of planning decisions or do you think people are going to be more cynical about the planning process and it will perhaps encourage much more direct action to object to particular developments?
(Sir Tom Blundell) If speed is the emphasis and the quality of the planning decisions decreases as a consequence, then of course that could lead to much more public disillusion and that of course is our concern.
331. So you made that point to Lord Falconer. Do you think he is going to change his mind?
(Sir Tom Blundell) We had a very positive and constructive discussion where I made all the statements I have made today and I think he said he agreed with them all.
332. So when we see him at the end of this inquiry we can put that point to him?
(Sir Tom Blundell) I think so. If I could add one other point which is in our report which does not appear in the Green Paper and that is the whole question of information and the importance of using systems and making it more accessible. One of the concerns we have is that at present the information is cycled between government departments who all charge each other and the charges make getting a lot of the information we require to make decisions and get proper public access much more difficult. So we think there should be a lot more emphasis in first making information which is publicly generated free and also using systemsmodern technology grid systems as well as GIS systemsto make it available in a way that the public could have access also.
Chairman: On that note, could I thank you very much for your evidence.