Examination of Witnesses (Questions 880-899)
LORD FALCONER OF THOROTON QC, BRIAN HACKLAND, MIKE ASH AND JEFF CHANNING
WEDNESDAY 8 MAY 2002
880. I wonder if we can move on to consultation. A number of local community environment groups in my constituency have responded to the Planning Green Paper, and they have expressed their concern that they will not be able to play the part that they do at present on planning applications they feel strongly about, being able to come and speak in person. Can you give me assurance that your proposals for reform are not going to take out of the equation that individual attendance at public inquiries, and indeed planning application processes?
(Lord Falconer) Yes, I can, and, indeed, none of the proposals that we have made would seek to reduce the amount of public engagement in the process. We would wish to increase it, and we would wish to increase it at an earlier stage as well. So, for example, in relation to either planning inquiries or in relation to deliberations by planning committees of applications, we would thoroughly welcome the widest possible public access, and greater publication, for example, of the dates of planning committees and greater publication of information about planning applications. Also, separately, we have encouraged in the Planning Green Paper and proposed levers to achieve this, that the community be consulted by the applicants a lot earlier than they are at the moment.
881. Thank you. Do you believe that where we have planning inquiries people actually ought to have the right to appear formally at those planning inquiries?
(Lord Falconer) Sometimes they do at the moment. Where there is a planning inquiry, I think it is absolutely critical that the process of the planning inquiry makes the community feel that they have had a proper opportunity to have their voice heard. I think a problem with the current system is, and it is not just in relation to planning inquiries but also other examinations that go on, there is a consultative process which, on the face of it, allows people's voice to be heard, but it is quite low down the priorities. So you can see in quite considerable numbers of planning inquiries about development plans, but, whilst individual members of the public can say things, it is really the big battalions who dominate the hearings, because it is commercial interests or local authorities who actually, as it were, set the agenda for the inquiry.
882. But, a unitary development plan, someone has the right to appear and to object, and you are taking away that right because the unitary development plan will no longer exist?
(Lord Falconer) But there will still be a Local Development Framework and we make it absolutely clear that that Local Development Framework must be prepared only after the community has been engaged in the process of its development. What we are saying is that a formal public inquiry may not be the best way to do it. We go further and say that the Local Development Framework must also contain a statement of community involvement, which means that changes to the plan, or development control applications, have got to be dealt with in a way that the community have a genuine opportunity to have their voice heard.
883. What about the local action plan, which might, for example, cover green belt; how are the people going to be clearly represented there, and how are differences going to be resolved?
(Lord Falconer) Before an action plan can be adopted, there must be a process by which the community's voice has been heard. What is the best way for that to occur; it will vary from place to place. It might be a planning for real exercise over a weekend, it might be public meetings, it might be publication of proposals in local newspapers, or in the local media; it will vary from place to place. I am quite sure that the current system, whereby there might be a notice put on a telegraph pole, or an advertisement put in a local newspaper, is quite frequently not enough; but I do not think that there is a one size that fits all, in relation to how you engage the community. I think the critical point is that we are utterly committed to ensuring that a community is properly consulted before those sorts of plans are agreed.
884. Now, if I can move on, many of the groups that have expressed these concerns are also the same groups that are particularly concerned about protecting the environment, wildlife, biodiversity and the countryside. What discussions have you had with those Ministers in DEFRA, it used to be in the same Department, about the impact of the proposals in the Planning Green Paper?
(Lord Falconer) I have had detailed discussions with Ministers in DEFRA, in particular the Minister of State with responsibility for the environment, and I have seen him, in fact, with the CPRE, I have also seen separately other of the groups to whom you have referred, and indeed I am seeing them again tonight, to discuss the details of the proposals. DEFRA is fully supportive of the proposals that we are making, and the Ministers in DEFRA are fully supportive, I am sorry, just to make it absolutely clear.
885. There seems to be a slight difference of view there, is there not?
(Lord Falconer) That was a slip of the tongue on my part. I would like to make it absolutely clear that they are supportive.
Chairman: That is useful information; thank you.
886. It is in the evidence we have received, either from the Countryside people, or English Nature, who have given evidence to say that the environmental impact aspect of planning development has not been fully recognised in the Green Paper?
(Lord Falconer) What I had heard was that groups like the CPRE were concerned that there was not enough focus in the Green Paper on the importance of sustainable development, and on the importance of an environmentally-sustainable planning policy. Now the Green Paper is trying to deal with the system rather than the substantive policies, but I think it would have been better if we had had more reference to that, and I think the way that one seeks to reassure is to make it absolutely clear that, in any legislation that comes forward, we will put, four square, on the face of the legislation what the statutory purpose of planning should be, to reflect those concerns that the RSPB, the CPRE, the Friends of the Earth, the National Trust, have had. And, without drafting, we should specifically say, the purpose of planning is to promote sustainable development, which means environmentally-sustainable, economically-sustainable, socially-sustainable, to meet the very point that the groups have made to you and to other people.
887. On this subject of sustainability, you have said it is going to be one of the key elements in the statutory objective for planning. What is the statutory objective likely to contain?
(Lord Falconer) I think the statutory objective would say words to the effect, the purpose of planning, of land use planning, is to promote sustainable development.
888. Is not that a bit like motherhood and apple pie? I mean, it can be all things to all people and it is utterly unenforceable?
(Lord Falconer) Yes; and the question is, do we need then to identify what is meant by sustainable development, do we then go on and say, i.e. development which is sustainable, both environmentally and economically, do we need to go further. Because, I think you are right; sustainable development can mean so many things to different people, therefore we need to solicit views, and officials are talking to the various groups that Helen referred to, before she rushed out of the door, as to what they think the right definition of a statutory purpose should be.
889. So have you yourselves come to any idea of any initial thoughts on what such a definition might be?
(Lord Falconer) I think we probably need to go further than saying sustainable development, for the reasons that you say. Paul is saying, what is the objective of planning at the moment.
Sir Paul Beresford
890. I ask the same question; what is your idea of sustainable development?
(Lord Falconer) The objective of planning is to promote sustainable development.
891. What is your definition of `sustainable'?
(Lord Falconer) Sustainable means sustainable environmentally, economically and socially, i.e. the development has got to promote the environment, it has got to have an economically-sustainable future and it has got to make a significant contribution to the social fabric.
Sir Paul Beresford
892. Apple pie with cream?
(Lord Falconer) It is very difficult to, as it were, provide a definition without going into such detail that it then simply becomes a lawyers' beanfeast.
893. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution did not really manage to crack this definition issue, did they?
(Lord Falconer) They did not, no; but I do not blame them for that, because I think it is, as Oona and Paul are saying, quite difficult.
894. So we have got this difficult phrase up at the top; what about a practical example, something like a new Curry's, or a Comet shed, selling electrical appliances, is that really going to be sustainable over any length of time, as people would understand sustainable? Is it not there for a few years and then it is going to be knocked down and replaced with a different shed?
(Lord Falconer) I would be quite loathe to comment on individual applications, but, for example, one very good example of unsustainable development overall would be significant out-of-town shopping centres, that have an overall effect that does not sustain urban centres, will not be sustainable in the long term because of transport problems, and that is why PPG6 strongly speaks out against them.
Chairman: The business parks?
895. But that is what people want; nobody can deny that Blue Water, for example, is not a popular creature, so therefore there has to be a balance in making it possible to have that kind of resource without destroying the environment, surely?
(Lord Falconer) I think, sustainable development involves the planning system making precise decisions about what is sustainable. I do not think, if it is what people want, that is a good enough basis for making planning decisions.
896. Yes, but your defence of your proposals is that you have got a statutory objective, which is going to be clear and precise, and, so far, we do not appear to have got very close to it?
(Lord Falconer) No, but what I am dealing with is the point that has been made by a lot of groups, CPRE, Helen made the point
897. I understand that, yes.
(Lord Falconer) And I think we have got to wrestle with that problem, because we do need people to be absolutely clear that we are committed
898. We have not got to wrestle with it, have we, we have got to come up with a solution, and are you confident that you can come up with a solution that is going to meet their objections and is going to look as though it is sustainable?
(Lord Falconer) I do not know, is the answer to that; but I think we need to have a pretty long discussion, there needs to be a detailed discussion about what the drafting of the statute would be. I suspect that the drafting is not going to satisfy everybody, but I think it is very, very important that something is put into the statute to give the signal.
899. What is the relationship between Regional Spatial Strategies and Regional Economic Strategies?
(Lord Falconer) The Regional Spatial Strategy and the Regional Economic Strategy, in the new system that we propose, should be consistent; therefore, what the Regional Economic Strategy is saying should be reflected, where appropriate, in the Regional Spatial Strategy. That means that before the regional planning body produces its RSS there should have been consultation with the Regional Development Agency, so that there is consistency between the two, because if there is an inconsistency or a divergence between the two then there are two documents pointing in different directions in relation to the delivery of state policy.