Examination of Witnesses (Questions 384-399)
MS LUCY NEVILLE-ROLFE, MR TONY EGGS AND MR IAN COULL
WEDNESDAY 17 APRIL 2002
384. Good morning and thank you for your paper. Can I ask you to identify yourselves for the record.
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) I am Lucy Neville-Rolfe, the Group Corporate Affairs Director at Tesco. I have led work in Tesco looking at the planning reforms.
(Mr Eggs) I am Tony Eggs, the Property Acquisitions Director at Tesco.
(Mr Coull) I am Ian Coull, Group Board Director of J Sainsbury PLC, and amongst my responsibilities are planning, property and the environment.
385. Do any of you want to make any statement or are you happy to go to questions?
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) I would like to make two brief points, if I may, Chairman. First, may I make the point about being positive about development, because it creates jobs and in retailing it creates jobs right across the country. Our company and other companies have created a lot of jobs, even in the last year. That is why the reforms are important in terms of speeding up the planning system and bringing a greater measure of consistency and transparency. The second point is that we, as a company, I think, come at the issue in a slightly different way from others. We try to work constructively within whatever planning system we encounter, both in this country and elsewhere. Since the changes in the early 1990s, we have actually moved to doing 91 per cent of our new stores on brownfield sites. There has been quite a shift. We have also sought to support the urban renewal work through our regeneration schemes.
386. In your submissions you both argue that the planning system needs change and the Green Paper starts off from a similar basis, that it needs major reform. You are all in agreement with that, are you?
(Mr Coull) Yes, we agree.
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) We see the need for change through evolution.
387. You agree with the changes proposed?
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) I think we have some points on how you might do it. We believe in evolution, not revolution. We are happy to engage on each of the headings.
388. Do you think the Green Paper proposals go too far, they are too revolutionary?
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) We think the broad thrust is right but the devil is in the detail on a lot of regulatory issues. We are worried about perverse effects in some of the areas.
Chairman: Could you expand on that at all?
(Mr Eggs) I think you have said consistency, transparency and speed is what we are all about. Then therefore we agree with the fundamentals of the Green Paper.
389. Do you think the Green Paper will achieve that?
(Mr Eggs) Yes, on the whole, but we would disagree on some of the issues. For example, I would be concerned about the abolition of outline planning permissions and the introduction of development certificates until, as an industry, we saw how they worked. Fundamental to the operation of the development industry is the certainty that outline gives you, without getting into too much detail in terms of land use. I do not really see how development certificates are going to give the industry that certainty. That would be a caveat. I would not want to see twin-tracking abolished, although it is something as a matter of practice that we rarely, if ever, use, but I would endorse the fact that it is a nice thing to have behind you when you really do need to get on and, if necessary, come to a public inquiry. Reducing the period of time in which you could appeal for an inquiry from six to three months is tempting in that that speeds up a process. I think it could be the opposite, in that it would force you to go down a route when actually longer negotiation it is what could do it. You might actually end up with more public inquiries rather than satisfactory negotiating. They talk about delivery contracts between the officers and the applicant as a way of speeding up the process. My concern is that I will spend the next three months negotiating a delivery contract, particularly if it has got teeth, and if it has not got teeth, then I prefer the current, informal system where we do engage pre-application and try to agree certain time scales for who does what and by what time. I know others embrace some of those things. I think, from a practical point of view, that there are concerns.
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) Could I just add one point, which I hope you have seen from our evidence? It is on this business of delays where the government have made some proposals for speeding things up. We quite recognise that on supermarket applications you are not going to get planning permission in eight weeks, or whatever. We have made a proposal that you should try overall not to go beyond 54 weeks. We have submitted a diagram that shows that typically it has taken us over 80 weeks. We have suggested ways for major projects where you could bring down the overall time so as to get projects properly considered and properly consulted upon but without such long delay in the system.
(Mr Coull) We are very supportive of the direction in the Green Paper. We have a number of concerns that we could share with the comments just made, but we are more supportive of the planning obligation plans, of delivery contracts, than we heard this morning. As ever, the devil is going to be in the detail. We support the direction of the Green Paper.
390. One of the things you said is that you criticise the current system because there is too much detail in it and it is too prescriptive. Sometimes that sounds a bit like developers saying, "If only they would let us do what we want and do not worry about the public views on it, we would be a lot happier".
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) In reforming the regime, we agree with the overall vision. It is really important that a lot of time is not spent in confusion and bureaucracy. For example, on the issue that was discussed in the previous session around how the tiers link together, we are very keen to have good, clear policy guidance, a regional layer that is strategic and helpful and takes into account where regions need to go, and then local development frameworks, which for us are crucial because local is where most planning decisions should be taken. It is about the local communities, in a form that is not complicated. But there is confusion between different layers. One of the tests we set in looking at the proposals was: would it actually work like that? Will it be clear? Who is going to do what? That is so that we can move forward. That is why I am saying the devil is in the detail, not that the detail is not important, but it should be clear and there should not be too much overlap.
391. Can I ask you both, perhaps separately, whether you are more concerned with the present system of planning over the time it takes to actually formulate the plans because of the different tiers of planning, or whether your greatest concerns are over the length of time it takes a local authority to determine an actual application? Are you concerned on both levels, or just the latter?
(Mr Coull) We are certainly concerned on both levels. The intention of having development plans in place has been around for ten years or more and there are still large parts of the country which do not have approved structural plans. They are supposed to be kept up to date every five years. That has not been happening. So we do have concerns about the length of time that is taken in the present process to get approved plans. Then at development control level, we currently take typically three years from the start of the process to get planning consent, and I am sure Tesco will be very similar. That includes the pre-application discussions, the community involvement that we both participate in a very big way, and then the approval process. That takes a year or longer. Both concern us. I think that accelerating the current system would go some way towards addressing those problems but there are other issues within the system at the moment that we think could be improved, including much more community involvement, for example.
392. If you got permission to do it much quicker, would you actually have the money to invest or would you even want to put more supermarkets across the country than we have got already?
(Mr Coull) If the system as a whole were improved, then there would be a concertina of development activity in the short term because we would have more applications being approved earlier, but then the thing would even itself out again. The current development plans that we will have over a five or ten year period will be spread out to tie in with the length of time the process takes.
393. Do you have a ratio of population to supermarkets?
(Mr Coull) We have a population market size that would be required to support a large supermarket.
394. That is not quite the question. How do you at your level decide what is the need for another supermarket? On what do you base that?
(Mr Coull) It is based on the square footage there is in the market area and the quality of the square footage.
395. The square footage generally?
(Mr Coull) Square footage of supermarket space and the quality of that square footage.
396. Not yours but your alternatives?
(Mr Coull) It is everything. All the square footage in a market area that is selling groceries is the major determinant of whether or not we believe there is a need.
397. So if it takes you three years to get planning permission, how do you structure your demand for supermarkets over, say, a five-year period?
(Mr Coull) We have national and regional plans that are targets we set internally for our development programme, and we look at the various market areas that we have targeted to identify whether or not there is an opportunity within that five or ten year period to find an appropriate site and to go through the process and get approval.
398. And Tesco?
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) We have a similar approach and we have a public programme which we announce each year for development
399. Why do I think I am missing something there? Is there no outside stimulus that determines you to go into a particular area, other than things like square footage?
(Ms Neville-Rolfe) If I could clarify, we have, I think, a very well-developed site research department of geographers who work on the catchment and demographic data.