Memorandum by Peter Devonport Esq (PGP
THE PLANNING GREEN PAPER
I am a qualified and chartered town planner,
with a wide range of experience at all tiers of Local Government
and in a range of different planning environments.
I write to offer my personal views on the Green
There is much to commend in the paper on the
reform to development control, planning obligations and CPOs.
Though I have a number of reservations over the detail of the
reforms proposed, I believe they are essentially sound.
Whilst I consider the proposals to fast-track
major infrastructure proposals to be fundamentally flawed, I am
conscious that the reform's shortcomings have been widely aired
in the media by a range of environmental and community groups
and strong representations to Government on the issue have been
made. I feel I have little to add to this debate.
My principal concern is the proposed reform
of the Development Plan system. This is, in many ways, the Paper's
"Cinderella issue"the least debated and considered
element of the Green Paper. However, this is, by far, the most
far-reaching and potentially the most damaging reform set out
in the Green Paper.
I set out my views on the Green Paper's reform
of the Development Plan system (the effectiveness of the system
of local plans and the Government's proposals to replace them)
1. THE ABOLITION
Up to date, nationwide coverage has
long been achieved by Structure Plans and preparation and review
times have been quick and costs relatively low. As recent Government
research demonstrated, Structure Plans have been very successful
in their assigned tasks.
Structure Plans are a key intermediary
between the regions and the districts in determining the sub-regional
pattern of development and transport provision and perform the
critical but difficult role of distributing housing between the
districts. They provide the prime steer for strategic development,
and in those parts of the county which do not have an up to date
local plan, provide guidance for much day to day DC as well. They
are the interface between the "bottom-up" of the districts
and the "top-down" of the regionsthe glue that
bonds and integrates the development plan system.
Structure Plans are uniquely placed
to align their strategies with those of other key services provided
at the county level, in particular transport (through the Local
Transport Plan), social services and education, and sub-regional
bodies such as the Health Authority and Environment Agency.
Prepared by directly elected and
accountable County Councils, Structure Plans are ideally placed
to reflect local community broader aspirations and concerns.
Structure Plan teams in particular
and County Councils generally, provide the districts with technical
expertise which the districts would individually be unable to
finance. This includes expertise in such diverse areas as environment
management, archaeology, ecology, landscape design, retail planning,
economic development, urban design, urban conservation. These
services are critical to the delivery of an effective and high
quality planning service.
The role of Structure Plans is dismissed
in one sentence in the Green Paper as no longer being an appropriate
level for sub-regional planning. This is specious nonsense. Of
all the planning tiers, Structure Plan areas (ie the counties,
married where appropriate to unitary city councils such as the
East Sussex and Brighton and Hove Structure Plan) probably have
the best fit. Certainly it would be ludicrous to argue that the
myriad tiny, fragmented or sprawling district units or the raggedy,
mis-shapen doughnut of South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA)
makes any better sense. Counties are our oldest and most identifiable
tier of local Government in the country. People do relate to them
probably far more than the arbitrarily drawn districts and certainly
the SEERA region. Clearly, as an organisation which plans transport
services, schools and social services, the county is not considered
to be too remote by Government or local people for the delivery
of these key services. Yet the county level is large enough both
to take a truly strategic perspective and benefit from economies
of scale and levels of resourcing that large organisations can
reap. Cross-border, sub-regional issues can be adequately dealt
with (as they are at present) by joint working.
It is ironic that if any element
of the development plan system has consistently failed in terms
of its delivery, it is Local Plans. This is not the fault of the
districts themselves. Many are small and under-resourced. For
all, the scale of the task placed on them is daunting, in particular
the requirements in the 1990 Act for district-wide coverage. Recent
reforms requiring revised deposits have probably worsened matters.
The impression is that the reforms
are essentially politically rather than rationally driven. The
Government clearly wants to be seen by the business community
to be doing something-anything. Removal of a tier of planning
is, on the face of it, a swift, neat solution to speeding up development
planning. Structure Plans (counties) have been chosen for abolition
simply because they are the weakest link, in political terms,
of the tiers of Governmentthe least numerous and politically
least influential, being overwhelmingly Tory controlled. Lord
Falconer's recent examination by the Commons Select Committee
on the Green Paper, where he singularly failed to demonstrate
any clear, cogent or empirical case for the Government's reforms,
serves only to confirm this view.
Abolition would be justified only
as part of local Government reform to create suitably large and
sustainable unitary local Government. Clearly this is not on the
agenda for the foreseeable future.
2. THE PROPOSED
It is inconceivable that the districts
and a re-invigorated regional planning tier could fill the vacuum
left by the Structure Plan. In practical terms it would be unworkable
for the regional body to engage with the 80 or so districts and
Unitaries in a region like the South East. Joint sub-regional
working across boundaries is likely to complicate matters further.
In particular, it is difficult to
see how the districts will be able to agree amongst themselves
on the key matters such as housing and employment distribution,
retail centre hierarchies and transport provision. Quite rightly,
the district councils are, primarily concerned with protecting
their own local "patch" and inevitably lack a broader
strategic vision. On the other hand, the regional planning bodies
are not directly elected and include in their representation (a
third), organisations without any democratic political mandate.
There is little or no prospect of regional Government anywhere
in England, except the North East, for decades. Quite apart from
the lack of resources and detailed local knowledge, the regional
planning bodies will not have the legitimacy to take on their
new sub-regional responsibilities, in particular the vexed issue
of distributing mandatory district housing provision quotas. The
SoS will, inevitably be drawn in to break the logjam and take
key decisions. Power will not devolve to the districts but will
be drawn upwards to the centreto unelected bodies or the
SoS. This is centralisation, not democratisation, of the system.
It is clear that the proposed Local
Development Frameworks (LDF) will not achieve their aims and will
be as, if not more, time-consuming, complex and lengthy to prepare
as the current local plans system. Political realities will dictate
that all settlements will demand their own Action Plans to establish
development boundaries and inevitably become entangled with detailed
zoning issues. Nor will the settlements be prepared to wait their
turn in an orderly fashion to ease the demand on local planning
resources. On close inspection, it is clear that separate Topic
Plans (ie detailed site allocations) for housing and other land
uses covered by the sequential approach are unavoidable. The LDF
will contain a district wide designations map which will require
a high level of detail (OS base) and profound property implications.
Full Public Inquiries for the LDF core policies and map and their
reviews and the Topic Plans and Action plans are inevitable to
meet community demands and the requirements of the Human Rights
Act. These requirements and effects will place a massive burden
on the districts. They will not speed plan delivery or reduce
bureaucracy. Back to the future.
A new sub-regional tier will need
to be invented to try and make the new system work. An intermediary
between the region and districts is a functional necessity. It
is apparent that, behind the headlines of abolishing a tier of
development plans, the Government is, begrudgingly, recognising
this. An emerging "back door" fix is evident, in the
Government's talk of a continued role for the counties in helping
prepare sub-regional strategies and helping share out housing
distributions. This is dishonest. But above all, it will not work.
Without a statutory strategic planning function (ie Structure
Plan or an equivalent successorsee below ideas for LDF)
and key formal stakeholder role, it is highly unlikely that the
counties would be prepared to resource such a limited, merely
advisory sub-regional role. Nor, without the statutory lead responsibility
for sub-regional planning, would the counties have the mandate
or vision that the Structure Plan provides to take on the leadership
role at this level.
The proposals are inconsistent. Counties
are not considered by Government to be an appropriate level for
mainstream strategic sub-regional planning yet the minerals and
waste planning function remains. Local Transport Plans will also
remain with the county. These functions make little sense divorced
from the wider strategic planning role provided by the Structure
Plan. Integration and the quality of plan-making will suffer.
Stripped of their statutory strategic
planning function, counties are unlikely to wish to fund all the
technical supporting expertise they currently provide to the districts
in fields such as archaeology, environmental planning, retail
analysis, economic development, landscape and urban design etc.
The vast majority of the districts are simply unable to afford
or justify funding such expertise. They lack these skills in-house
and the resources to buy in. Realistically, this situation is
unlikely to change markedly. The quality and integrity of planning
decisions will suffer significantly.
It is clear that the spatial strategies
prepared by the districts will be in name only. Divorced from
strategic planning for transport, environment, education and social
services and other key services which will remain at regional
or sub-regional level with the counties and other organisations,
they will continue to be simply land-use documents.
3. PROPOSED ALTERNATIVE
There is another saner way which builds upon
the best of the existing and proposed new system. This comprises:
Counties (and Unitaries, as appropriate)
should prepare the core policies of the LDF, the strategic spatial
framework (ie key diagram) and county-wide SPG for relevant matters
such as sustainable design, planning tariff, parking standards
etc. In certain cases, joint working will be appropriate, as happens
with many Structure Plans currently. This could extend to joint
LDFs stretching across county borders where there are particular
common and pressing issues. Counties and unitaries have a good
record of such collaboration already, albeit at the sub-regional
level (ie A23/Crawley Gatwick studies). Close working with the
districts will be essential in all circumstances.
At a stroke this would liberate the
districts of 80 per cent of the content of their current local
plans (and LDFs as currently proposed). These effectively parrot
core Structure Plan policies endlessly with very little added
value. It will also avoid their having to become embroiled in
long, protracted joint working on sub and regional issues. The
full value and expertise of the counties would be retained and
Ideally the county/unitary prepared
LDF would be formally integrated with the Local Transport Plan
and stronger relationships between the sub-regional bodies such
as the Environment Agency and Heath Authorities to achieve more
effective and co-ordinated spatial planning.
Counties need to enforce their strategic
role. With their technical expertise and resources, experience
of dealing with major development proposals and strategic vision,
they are far better placed than the districts to determine strategic
schemes. They should have veto powers on all strategic planning
applications, rather like the Greater London Assembly.
Districts would be freed to concentrate
on local issues. They should lead on the preparation of the Action
and Topic Plans, prepare planning briefs for important sites and
deal with all non-strategic applications. Close working with the
county on the preparation of the LDF would be essential to ensure
their views were fully considered at the strategic level. In turn,
there would be a need for a major input from the counties on master
planning of major development and projects, utilising their strategic
planning skills and experience and resources.
Regional Planning bodies would continue
their role but would not encroach into the sub-regional tier.
This is most appropriately dealt with through the LDF. Counties
would continue to lead on cross-boundary sub-regional issues.
Pete Devonport, BA (Hons), MRTPI