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CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
This is corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.
Taken before the Environmental Audit Committee
on Thursday 17 February 2011
Joan Walley (Chair)
Mr Mark Spencer
Dr Alan Whitehead
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Dr Hugh Ellis, Chief Planner, Town and Country Planning Association, Naomi Luhde-Thompson, Planning Policy Advisor, Friends of the Earth, Fiona Howie, Head of Planning, Campaign to Protect Rural England, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Thank you very much, all three of you, for coming along to our session this afternoon. We apologise for being a little bit late starting, so we might have to speed up a little bit as we go because we do have another set of witnesses in this session.
To get the session going, we are very conscious that there are big changes being made in terms of the Localism Bill and, as a Select Committee, we wanted to try to understand what the Bill means for sustainable development, try to explore the extent to which it should or should not be on the face of the Bill and how all of that links up in terms of strategic thinking. So this is just a one-off discussion, and we are very grateful to you for coming in. I wondered if you could perhaps start off by exploring with us how the Government’s proposal to introduce "a presumption in favour of sustainable development" could change the current planning system. How do you see it working, or what do you see the pitfalls as?
Dr Ellis: I think the presumption is problematic in two ways, and what we try to do in analysing the presumption of sustainable development is firstly to see if we can understand what the Government’s intention is, and that is obviously to write that into the national planning framework rather than into the face of the Bill. It would be the overriding objective of planning to have a presumption in favour of sustainable development.
I suppose the issues that flow from it-just very broadly and quickly-would be that there are two elements: first of all, there is a presumption in favour, and then there is sustainable development. The question: how will sustainable development be defined? It is obviously critical if it becomes a guiding thread principle of planning, and that is a debate that is being actively discussed in terms of amendments, and there are-it seems to us anyway-clear definitions of sustainable development that we could work with.
Then there is a tension between the presumption in favour of sustainable development and the presumption in favour of the plan. That is a second dimension to the problem. I think there is a consensus that we need a strong plan-led system. In fact I would say it is a critical element of delivering sustainable development spatially that you have strong regional, sub-regional and local planning and it is plan-led. That element means, I guess, that you can have some certainty about outcomes, and the process can be democratic. Those two dimensions are absolutely critical.
The reason why it is so important to get a definition on the face of the Bill is that there is a strong cross-Government corporate sign-up to the UK’s sustainable development strategy. That contains five key principles that are vital to delivering sustainable development, so that does give us the basis of our approach.
Q2 Chair: Does that still apply at the moment, in your view?
Dr Ellis: We asked that question of DEFRA officials yesterday and, as of yesterday, the UK sustainable strategy as far as they were concerned was still a cross-Government corporate strategy.
Chair: Thank you. I don’t know if your colleagues wish to add anything to that.
Fiona Howie: I would just add that, as Hugh said, we believe that the plan-led system is critical, especially as the reforms are aiming to empower people. We believe that if there is greater involvement at the neighbourhood and local level to develop plans, but then a presumption in favour that is not in line with the plan-led approach, that will cause yet more tension within the planning system rather than solving some of these issues. We are not against a presumption in favour of sustainable development that is in line with the plan, as long as we can get the right definition of sustainable development.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: The words "a presumption in favour" are quite difficult to deal with if you have not defined sustainable development very clearly, because that might mean a presumption in favour of any type of development. So we would want to see that definition very clearly on the face of the Localism Bill to say that the purpose of planning is to deliver sustainable development, which is then defined. You are looking at wording as an objective to further achieve sustainable development.
Q3 Chair: Just briefly, do you think that the way that the Committee went yesterday gives you any hope that that might now be coming forward?
Dr Ellis: I think the Minister has made it clear that they are willing to think about this, but the structural issues are still there, and one of the structural issues is that there seems to be a rejection of accepting sustainable development as the purpose of planning on the face of the Bill. Historically, we have had purposes of planning on the face of the Bill, so it is not as if it is a novel idea or in any way impossible from a legislative point of view.
Then there was a focus on it being in the National Planning Policy Framework. Of course, since none of us have seen the National Planning Policy Framework, it is very difficult for us to judge what the content would be. I would be very concerned about the general discourse that is circulating, which is that the NPPF will have what is known as a high-growth definition of sustainable development, as if sustainable development were capable of complete redefinition in any circumstance, and it plainly is not.
Q4 Caroline Lucas: We have already touched on the definition of sustainable development several times and, at the risk of making the whole of the rest of the meeting define sustainable development, could you say how you think sustainable development should be defined in the local planning context?
Dr Ellis: The starting point, I think, is the five principles that flow out of the UK strategy. Let me just take one or two of them and how they might play out spatially. Working within environmental limits is already a very key part of how local spatial planning operates, and Planning Policy Statement 1 makes that issue very key. It would also play out in relation to the varying and vital role of planning in, for example, climate change mitigation and adaptation. The important issue is that you cannot have twin objectives in planning. The overall objective and vision has to be sustainable development and, basically, planning’s role is how to deal with that spatially: how it plays out in space and how we can make the most of that definition.
Although the operational principles might flow into planning-they might be, for example, town centre first policy; they might be in relation to climate change; they might be in relation to sustainable housing and transport-all of those things flow out of that core idea. What worries me is that if you change the core idea of planning away from the definition even now, which I think is relatively robust in PPS1, you undermine the purpose and delivery of the system.
Fiona Howie: I was just going to mention that the Minister for Decentralisation was good enough to give a speech to CPRE last Thursday, in which he picked up on the importance of sustainable development, which we very much welcome. When elaborating slightly, he mentioned that growth should be compliant with environmental standards, which we felt was a very narrow interpretation of what we would mean by sustainable development and the environmental element of that. To reiterate Hugh’s points, it is a broad area and we have five principles that I think would set up the right framework for that on the face of the Bill, but it does need to go beyond simply environmental standards that are defined at the moment.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: Yes. Essentially, we are taking the five principles from the UK sustainable development strategy and saying they should be on the face of the Bill as part of the overall purpose of planning.
Q5 Caroline Lucas: Do you think the Government is adequately involving stakeholders in developing its guidance on sustainable development?
Dr Ellis: This is a difficult issue. In our view, it is not sensible to develop a new piece of legislation, like the Localism Bill, without a much more extensive brokering of agreement. That could have happened through a Green or White Paper, both of which were absent from the process. Latterly, with the NPPF, what we have is a consultation, which is very welcome, but there is no document associated with the consultation. It is an invitation to suggest principles. There is active consultation going on from the department now, but I would say that the NPPF is probably the most important policy document for planning for the best part of 40 years, and that means that it really does need to have cross-sector support. The most important and effective way of doing that is to lock all the planning sectors into a room and broker an agreement that can generate consensus. That is not the approach at the moment, but we would very much welcome-because there is time to get this right-a wider and more open discussion, particularly with communities because they are not yet involved in the process.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: Just to add to what Hugh is saying, we have obviously been talking to Friends of the Earth. We have a large number of local groups, and they are now very interested in planning sustainable development. They are very concerned that there has not been any way for them to get involved in the ideas in the Localism Bill-for instance, the process of neighbourhood planning, how it will work, how it will play out in their community, how sustainable development could be achieved through these plans. These are all questions that at the moment it is very hard to engage with, because you are looking at a very technical, difficult piece of legislation that amends four different types of Acts, and it is just very complicated. You have to talk about it for quite a long time in order to get people to some measure of understanding about what is happening in neighbourhood planning and what it means. Regarding the National Planning Policy Framework, it is a real shame that there is not more engagement now for people and communities to start talking about these issues. We are going out and talking to communities where we can, but of course there should be much more done on that, and we would really like to see that.
Fiona Howie: I believe that they are going to publish a draft for consultation in July but CLG might be able to answer that further..
Q7 Chair: Do you see some kind of gap between one piece of legislation and the publication of that, and a limbo period in between?
Fiona Howie: Absolutely. I think the National Planning Policy Framework, as Hugh said, will be essential to taking the new planning system forward. The fact that the legislation is in the Commons at the moment, in Committee, and we don’t have a draft NPPF is making those discussions more difficult.
Q8 Peter Aldous: Is this gap an creating opportunity for something extremely undesirable to happen? For instance, I am thinking of a town centre first policy. If someone puts in a planning application, say, for an out-of-town food store in this interregnum period, is it going to be more difficult to oppose that application?
Fiona Howie: My understanding is that the existing planning policy remains while the replacement is developed, but I think it is making things-like the discussions around a presumption in favour of sustainable development and whether or not it should go into the Bill-very difficult. Also, I know there have been amendments about the amount of weight that should be placed on the National Planning Policy Framework. Again, we could have a far more sensible discussion about that if we knew what that document might look like.
Dr Ellis: The NPPF becomes even more important in the absence of regional planning. Whatever you thought of regional planning, particularly in retail and town centre first, it was critical because it was the only mechanism of defending the decision of one authority or a group of authorities against the decision of one authority to allow, for example, a large out-of-town regionally-sized retail development. At the moment, with the mechanism going forward, the NPPF will be the only document with which that sort of development can be judged. That means that the content of it, on town centre first, is absolutely correct.
I would also add that it also has to be-which is, I know, heresy-to a degree prescriptive. It cannot just be a completely light-touch, rhetorical document. It has to be prescriptive, because if you want town centre first to work, and all sorts of other sustainable development principles, you have to have a detailed impact test to go with it.
Q9 Caroline Nokes: Do you get a sense that in the intervening period, while current planning policies are still in place, there is a rush in some areas to get applications on the system before the framework comes forward?
Dr Ellis: There is certainly an uncertainty, which is largely to do with the process of the revocation of regional planning, which was revoked. That was then found to be unlawful, so regional planning now exists again, but in that period particularly there has been a tremendous amount of housing units falling out of the planning process or planning provisions, so there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty.
Again, if we were starting from somewhere else we would start with a more-again, maybe heresy-gradualist process, with a strong transition plan, so that the Government’s objectives can be understood and implemented, but not in the sense of leaving a vacuum that can be filled. The consequence of that is development that we will live with for 50 to 100 years.
Q10 Caroline Lucas: I just wondered if there are things we can learn from other countries in terms of the way they work on sustainable development, and I wondered, in particular, whether you could give examples of where an assessment for sustainability is made before the development is permitted.
Dr Ellis: There are certainly overall lessons, particularly on climate and sustainable development, of two orders, I think. Firstly, it is assessment tools, where often there is independent commissioning of things like EIA in north-west Europe. The overriding lesson of places like the Netherlands and other Nordic countries is that they have a strong consensus about the overall spatial direction of their nation. In the Netherlands, it is built on a consensus for 100-year plans, based obviously on flooding, and they have understood the need to have that.
If you look at the implementation of perhaps some of our most sustainable places-Freiburg might be one example-they are based on 35-year consensus politically and a strong planning process. If you characterise the opposite, in the UK, we have a tendency on a 10-year cycle to decide planning is bad, deregulate it and minimalise it, then decide we have cross-border strategic sub-regional issues we cannot deal with without it, so we reinstitute it, which is legislatively complicated, and get it back. This regional planning was only on the books for five to six years, which is worth bearing in mind. We only had regional strategies for that length of time before we decided to scrap them. I think if only we could broker this overarching agreement about the objective of planning and its implementation, then the UK, economically and environmentally, would be much better off.
Chair: That is fairly clear.
Q11 Zac Goldsmith: I have two questions. The first relates to the neighbourhood development plans, and based on what we know of the proposals and even the lack of definition or otherwise of what constitutes a neighbourhood, I am interested in hearing from you how important you think they are and how much power they will give communities and local people to define the characteristics and nature of the developments that affect them.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: I think, in terms of participation, what is quite concerning is that there is no clearly defined process in the Bill-it is all up to the Secretary of State to decide in guidance how that process will work. When the plan is examined, there is no right to be heard. It is default written representations, and that is pretty exclusive, and it doesn’t give the same opportunities to look at the plan, to discuss the issues and to debate them. It really doesn’t. It is quite an exclusive process if you are just having written representations, so I think there are big concerns there.
There are also concerns around the equalities impacts of neighbourhood plans, such as: how are you involving people; who has been involved; are you going out to people where they are? The neighbourhood plans are set up so you only have to have three people living in an area; so, three people? I mean, it is pretty difficult to see how they are going to get everybody involved and how that is all going to work.
I think, in terms of what neighbourhood plans can or cannot cover, there are obviously going to be prescriptions. However, without the White Paper, we don’t really know what the Government is thinking about, in terms of what they think they should cover. We would really like to see them as plans for neighbourhoods to develop sustainably, but communities are going to have to be supported to do that because it does take a lot of time and effort to do that. If you are working full time, when are you supposed to go to a planning meeting to discuss some pretty big issues? There are lots of issues about that and the amount of information that is required. Where does your evidence base come from? There are lots of big issues there.
I think the problem is with trying to discuss these issues when you just have a piece of legislation in front of you, rather than being able to discuss them through a White Paper and talk to communities who might be interested in doing this kind of thing, and also talk to communities who have never thought about doing this sort of thing, but say, "Well, if you were going to do this, how would you do it?" That is actually what we are trying to do at the moment, but of course it would have been better to have a White Paper to do it with, rather than doing it through the legislative process.
Q12 Sheryll Murray: Don’t you think, though, that some of the fundamental work has already been done through the local parish plans and local town plans, and the neighbourhood plans could just be an expansion of those?
Dr Ellis: There is something very important there, because our quick assessment is that the neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood development orders are not, in a sense, wrong in any way, but they do about 10% of the job that we need to do to make planning open. I say that because, if you have written the parish plan, of which there are many, and many communities have invested in it, that cannot be a neighbourhood development plan without going through the full and extraordinary lengthy complex process of adoption. I think the Bill should contain, at the heart of it, a duty to have regard to those expressions of community views, so that the mass of other informal documents that communities produce, which are at the moment not yet registered or have no legal weight, can have that value. That is very important, because otherwise what we have done is created a kind of Rolls-Royce neighbourhood plan, but created access to it on a very limited basis. There is an easy solution so long as we are able to think more broadly about what community participation might mean.
Q13 Zac Goldsmith: Practically speaking, we do not have sight of NPPF, and whether or not that is a good thing or a bad thing is almost academic at this stage because we have a Bill going through. The question is: what specifically, practically speaking, should we be looking to do to improve this aspect of the Bill, specifically in relation to the neighbourhood plans?
Dr Ellis: This is difficult. I think I would want to broaden the debate out in the way that I described, so I would leave neighbourhood plans and Neighbourhood Development Orders as an option. Then I would say very clearly that we have created this broad duty to have regard to other statements of community view, and I would create guidance to make sure that all the effort that communities place around the parish planning process are absolutely essential to LDF preparation.
My one comment would be that neighbourhood planning has attracted a lot of attention, but because your neighbourhood plan must be in conformity with your LDF, essentially the process that has been set up means that the LDF is where the power is. You cannot argue about housing in a local neighbourhood development plan; its location, numbers or waste. In that sense, it is the LDF that we need to open up. Again, just finally, that is mostly about the culture of planning. That is where the task really is; making sure that planners communicate and making sure communities are empowered.
Fiona Howie: We have around 60,000 members, many of whom are very involved in the planning system, and we are trying to get the message to them that Local Development Frameworks or Local Plans-as they might be renamed-will remain critically important to influence because they will set that strategic direction. I think there are big questions, and lots of our members are asking them, about what can be decided at the neighbourhood level, and I think they can include policies around design, character and distinctiveness, which are all very positive. I think there may be some communities who will be very disappointed that they are not getting the level of power that has been talked about in the past in relation to neighbourhood planning.
Dr Ellis: One of the issues we have to focus on is the balance between strategic and local. We need to have honesty-and this is absolutely the role for the Government-about the fact that there are some things that can be decided effectively locally, and some things that genuinely cannot. You cannot tackle housing and climate change purely on a local basis or purely on a local government basis. So this tension-which is inherent in planning and has always been there-between what the neighbourhoods want and how that is fed up needs an honest final settlement. That final settlement, I think, the Localism Bill does not achieve, partly for the reasons I have described and partly because you have to accept that there is an element-and we are allowed to say this, although it may be unpopular-that where there are, for example, wider housing needs, we have to face them. We have to find a way of meeting them in a strategic way, and it is exactly the same for energy. That is part of the sustainable development objective, because some communities have more environmental capacity than others, for example, or more housing or social needs than others, and that does have to be dealt with strategically
Q14 Zac Goldsmith: I think you are right. There is an impression that has been created that this is a wholesale transfer of power back to the communities. I think a lot of people are very excited about the prospect of being able to have a much more innovative involvement in the development of the high street, for example. I think a lot of other people think we might be able to resist the Tesco invasion as a result of this, but I think a lot of other people think they will be able to block inappropriate or unpopular developments in their area, all of which I think would be very positive. You have already answered the first part of my question, which is: will this Bill deliver that? I think the answer that all three of you have given is that it will not.
The second question is: are there any amendments that you are aware of or that you would recommend, or that your organisations would back, which you think might improve what is basically a very good piece of legislation but which has some gaps, which I hope we will collectively be able to join up? This is a very long-winded question.
Fiona Howie: The points Hugh made are very relevant, and I think the issue around housing, for example, is very difficult. I think if it were left to the neighbourhoods to decide, it is quite likely that in many places identified need would not be addressed. It might not be a change in the legislation that is needed, but language about the importance of engaging with local plans, and everyone not just totally getting distracted by neighbourhood plans but still feeding in at the local level, and ensuring that there are processes to enable that to happen, so that people are engaged in those discussions as well as in neighbourhood planning, rather than concentrating on neighbourhood planning to the exclusion of getting involved in those critical discussions. I think that balance needs to be communicated and promoted as the new system is taken forward.
Q15 Dr Whitehead: In your written evidence, you have all in different ways made the distinction between NDOs in parished areas and NDOs in non-parished areas, and suggested that the extent to which parished areas or parishes have a statutory function may vary. There is a different level, therefore, of accountability between an NDO in one area and the other. How does that relate to what you have said already about the extent to which you can reflect sustainability criteria in Neighbourhood Development Plans and the extent to which you have to refer to Local Development Frameworks? Do you think that maybe the distinction between parished and non-parished areas might be better defined in terms of the differences that might result?
Dr Ellis: I think it is absolutely clear that there is a two-tier system, as you suggest, and the one based around parish councils has difficulties but is basically coherent. It seems to us that the one for non-parished areas, which is 60% of the population and based around neighbourhood forums, could never pass into law. It simply cannot stand that three people, or a multiple thereof, who have not been elected, who would not have to disclose a financial interest in the plan they were writing, could possibly form a legitimate unit to make significant neighbourhood planning. The question is how you resolve the problem. In fact, although again this may seem extraordinary, perhaps the heart of the Localism Bill should have been to introduce lowest form local governance into those non-parished areas. After all, most of these areas were parished, historically. In fact, if you want to do neighbourhood planning effectively, accountably and openly, then you need the community council-let us call it that for the sake of argument-operating in urban areas, particularly in urban areas where there are contested ideas about communities of interest or conflicting communities of interest: perhaps 30, 40, or 50 different groups who want to deliver that message, but that has to change.
Finally, because of the way the legislation is framed, none of the duties on climate change or sustainable development applies to neighbourhood planning, and I think that is another thing that does have to change. After all, what we are saying in the duties is, "Please think about climate change; please think about sustainable development," which are not onerous duties on neighbourhoods.
Q16 Sheryll Murray: I have heard you mention several times about the three people in the neighbourhood forums, but that is only one criterion, is it not? They do also have to meet a series of tests and pass those before they can be recognised. Do you think those tests should be set out? It is quite strange that they are prescriptive, though.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: I think there is one test that they do not have to meet, which is the equalities impact test. They are not covered by the Equalities Act 2010 and there is no reference to an equalities impact assessment. I think it would be key to have that in there and to at least have that test as part of it.
Dr Ellis: Again, the issue for us is that people have suggested, for example, that ward councillors might serve on these forums and that there are ways of incrementally making them more accountable. However, the great criticism of regional planning was that, although there were lots of elected representatives, there was no direct accountability. It seems to me that this is a very wicked policy problem in this sense: can you or can you not make them democratically accountable? It is an "all or nothing" debate, isn’t it? Sure, you can make them a little less unaccountable, but it seems to me that, given that planning is quite contested in urban areas, you must have them democratically accountable from the beginning, so they have some legitimacy in the process.
Fiona Howie: I think there might also be issues around competing organisations. It will be difficult for a local authority if approached by two separate groups-perhaps a civic society and another neighbourhood organisation that has organically developed-to try to compare and contrast, or broker a deal between the two. I do think there needs to be careful consideration given to criteria to help local authorities make what could be quite a difficult and potentially controversial decision. Again, if the aim is to empower communities, it does need to be transparent so that they can ensure they have made the best decision possible rather than people being turned away and feeling they are not able to take up the opportunities of neighbourhood planning.
Q17 Caroline Nokes: Having parish councils across all of the 65% of unparished areas is quite an interesting prospect, isn’t it? I wanted to move on to regional strategies and their abolition, and the requirement on local authorities to construct voluntary agreements and arrangements where they negotiate with neighbouring local authorities for items that are of more regional significance. Do you think that voluntary co-operation will be adequate?
Dr Ellis: No.
Caroline Nokes: I was expecting that.
Dr Ellis: The reason is not because voluntarism is in any way wrong, but I suppose we might claim history is on our side in the last 80 years of planning. We have had regional planning since the 1920s, would you believe? It has been turned on and off at various moments, but I think the difficulty is that it will work in the best of places where there is genuine desire to co-operate cross-boundaries and cross-border, and where development clashes are well understood and where there is a consensus, but in many places in England, that is not the political reality. There are places trying to defend themselves and their environmental quality from development pressures.
To give you an example on biodiversity and climate change in relation to particular issues of housing and energy, that is an element where you have to plan at catchment level where river basin level is the right spatial scale. But there is no way of making authorities join up with each other, especially if it is not a neighbouring one-if an authority three stages up in Cumbria decides to chop all its trees down and create a flood problem for the authority in Cockermouth, there is absolutely nothing that can be done in the proposed regime in the Localism Bill. We can afford to say this: we will have to reinvent some form of effective sub-regional planning. I hope it is not on the old regional basis and I hope it is in a more accountable way, but even though the accountability was flawed, the research, the evidence and the data on sustainable development that regional plans did was hugely valuable.
Fiona Howie: I should mention that I know perhaps part of the solution is viewed to be the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships. I think we have concerns that they are business-led and they have an economic growth remit. So in maintaining that overview and influencing the views of local authorities in creating their local development documents or going below that, we believe they should have a far more balanced approach that integrates economic, social and environmental considerations rather than skewing their views towards economic growth at potentially any cost.
Q18 Caroline Nokes: I am glad you moved on to that, because I wanted to pick up on an issue on Local Enterprise Partnerships. We have heard repeatedly that they are to be business-led. In my own experience, from discussions with my locally soon-to-be-established LEP, I know they would like to see democratically elected councillors ousted from the planning process so that business can run it and obviously make "the right decisions". How do you think they should be involved in the strategic process?
Dr Ellis: At the moment, we have promoted amendments on duty to co-operate that reference LEPs, only because LEP boundaries are the only spatial boundary now left in England beyond the local, so there may be opportunities there. I absolutely agree that since the LEPs themselves are not corporate bodies of any kind and have no legal status, it is very difficult to amend anything to actually place an obligation on them, because they are very ephemeral organisations and, for all the reasons that we have heard, I think the idea of them at the moment in their current form carrying strategic planning powers is difficult. However, what we have tried to do-and it is very much a reserve position-is say that where you are a member of a LEP and where you are also a local planning authority, there are special obligations placed on you around co-operation and sustainable development. The problem with the LEP boundaries is that in the north of England they can be quite sensible in terms of economic functional areas, but in the south of England they are more challenging.
Fiona Howie: I think there are some examples; I believe there is one in the north-west that has recruited to its board not only business interests and local authorities but also other people from academia or from academic institutions, so I think there are some examples of good practice where they are trying to take a more integrated approach, but I certainly do not get the feeling that that is mirrored across all of them. Certainly, we cannot give them a statutory role at the beginning, and I think there is a huge amount of debate about whether that would be a positive option anyway, but they are likely to be looking across boundaries and so may well influence strategic planning via their non-statutory route, but we would not want them to do that unless they do take this more integrated approach to planning.
Q19 Caroline Nokes: I would like to pick up on the comment about recruiting quite broadly representatives not just from business but from academia as well. Does that necessarily give them an improved perspective on sustainable development?
Fiona Howie: I think they a re trying to recognise that it i s not just economic growth ; things like skills are very important, and that is why they were trying to link to the educational institutions. I think the fact that they are business-led is not a good thing, and I appreciate opening up the board does not make them in any way more accountable or transparent, but I think at least they are looking beyond just saying, "We need economic growth , t herefore all we need is business partners to be involved in the boards of these as well as some local authorities . "
Q20 Peter Aldous: Can I go back to what Dr Ellis said? There is obviously a concern that the duty to co-operate does not provide a sufficiently rigid framework and that perhaps the regional tier of Government was too much of a straitjacket. It just alludes to what he might have thought was an alternative way forward, and I would be interested in learning a little bit more about that.
Dr Ellis: We have taken various bounda r ies , as I said, over the last 60 or 70 years. I think the problems with the regions, in terms of boundaries, were that they were probably at too high a spatial scale. You can image that in an ideal world we can evolve the test for regional planning in England, which is partly based on accountability and transparency but also based on environmental, economic and social functionality, which might be boring but it basically means that planning becomes more effective; it recognises the importance of city regions; it recognises the coherence, perhaps, of rural areas and market towns and sees a variety of different kinds of regions emerging, rather than the nine standard regions.
In that sense, what you have I think is the best of all possible worlds: more ownership, I would hope, from a local authority level of the region. At the same time, you would acknowledge that there must be a regional approach for England’s future. On top of that you also need a national spatial plan, but perhaps I should not say anything more about that. That develops a kind of a mosaic with more buy-in from communities. It will never completely resolve the tension but, ultimately, that must be agreed centrally. That framework has to have an acceptance at the national level for delivering.
Q21 Chair: I am just very conscious about time. We do have another set of witnesses to come before us. Finally, could you tell us whether or not there has been expertise that is embedded currently, providing that support for regional planning in respect to sustainable development, that is lost as a result of this Localism Bill?
Dr Ellis: I would say that I am desperately worried about the loss of expertise, particularly in terms of human resource, from strategic planning to the regional level. The information and data sets are now located at the British Library, but they are not active and they are not being updated except in relation to some aspects of energy. I am also concerned about the loss of a Sustainable Development Commission and the loss of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which published a report today called Demographic Change in the Environment. Those sorts of documents-and this document in particular-make the case for the need for a regional and strategic spatial approach.
My problem is that without all those background organisations-and you could say the same about the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit-we have lost an entire tier of intelligence-gathering. This is not an ideological case about centralism; it is just about intellectual capital that informs the evidence-based plan. It is going to set back delivery on climate change, in my own personal judgment, by five to 10 years if we lose those organisations.
Chair: Okay. Dr Ellis, Naomi, Fiona, we must leave it there, I’m afraid, because we do have time restrictions on us. Thank you very much for coming at such short notice.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Robert Ledsome , Deputy Director, Climate Change and Sustainable Development, Steve Quartermain , Chief Planner, Stephanie Hurst , Deputy Director, Planning - Environment, and Michael Bingham , Deputy Head, Planning - Development Management, DCLG , gave evidence.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed for coming before us to our second session this afternoon. I am afraid we are really short of time. I think you sat in to hear the previous witnesses, but I welcome the four officials to the session this afternoon. I think it has to be said that we had hoped to have a Minister, but we do understand that there are other commitments that are being made. We want to try and get straight in and understand where the sustainable development priority is within all of this legislation, and I am going to turn, first of all, to Peter Aldous.
Q22 Peter Aldous: Thank you, Madam Chairman. The presumption of sustainable development in terms of favourable sustainable development is very much key in the coalition Government’s planning reforms. With that in mind, why is there no definition of sustainable development in the Bill?
Steve Quartermain: The view has been taken that Ministers think that they can-
Chair: Sorry, the view from where?
Steve Quartermain: I’m sorry; the Minister’s view is the presumption of favourable sustainable development can be put into policy, and that putting it into legislation might be too restrictive. There are many ways of defining an assumption in favour of sustainable development. They think that by putting it into policy it enables us to talk to people-like the witnesses you have just seen-about what the definition is and how they perceive it, and we believe that putting it into the policy statement is the best way of describing it.
Q23 Peter Aldous: That is in the National Planning Framework?
Steve Quartermain: The National Planning Framework.
Q24 Peter Aldous: Remind me again, when is that due?
Steve Quartermain: We have committed in our business plan to produce a draft by July for consultation.
Q25 Chair: When will it be operational?
Steve Quartermain: I think it is April 2012.
Chair: In 2012, April. Thank you.
Q26 Peter Aldous: Is there a worry that, in the interregnum between the Bill being enacted and that coming in, people could be rather grappling in the dark a little bit, or not?
Steve Quartermain: I don’t think so, and they shouldn’t be, because let us not forget that we are proposing a revision to the planning system, we are not scrapping the planning system-the existing planning system is still there. There is still a requirement for local planning authorities to have their local plans in place, LDFs. There is still existing PPS advice. There is still advice within them that is valid and relevant today. This is about revising the planning system. We are not starting with a blank sheet of paper.
Q27 Peter Aldous: How do you plan to work up the definition of sustainable development that local authorities and then others will use? Will you be using the existing definition or will you be working up a new one?
Steve Quartermain: The Minister has accepted that the principles of the definition that are in the 2005 document will be underpinning the basic principles of our definition. I would just make the point, which is again answering a question that you asked of previous witnesses, about our engagement here. We have called for evidence. The closing date is 28 February. We have asked people to tell us what they want in the NPPF and people-like the previous witnesses-are well-placed to make a contribution to that debate. It is quite an open collaborative process. We want to hear what people have to say.
Q28 Martin Caton: As you have said, the Government already has a definition of sustainable development in the 2005 strategy. It is to some extent the repetition of a question, but I honestly cannot see why that, in planning terms, cannot be put on the face of the Bill.
Robert Ledsome: Quite a complex set of issues are encapsulated in the 2005 definition, and I think it is open to question-and the previous Administration took this view when this self-same debate was taking place in relation to what became the 2004 Planning Act-how far in the legislative framework you can encompass the complexity and the dynamism of the idea of sustainable development. That is why under the 2004 Act there was a high-level statement, and there was reference then to planning policy as a way of fleshing that out. That is very much a similar sort of concept to the policy-based approach that the current Administration is taking forward.
I think it will be quite a challenge for ourselves as policymakers-and indeed lawyers-to find a way of encapsulating the quite complex ideas that are encapsulated in the 2005 principles within the legislation that does not then lead you to either unintended consequences or a constant need to refine it as thinking develops and new ideas emerged about how you can address sustainable development.
Q29 Martin Caton: You heard our previous witnesses who are not strangers to planning policy and planning legislation, and they saw no problem in using the strategy as a basis for something on the face of the Bill. However, I would like to ask something about cross-departmental co-operation on this issue. Are you talking to DEFRA, for instance, about-
Robert Ledsome: Yes, indeed. There is a lot of cross-Government debate going on at the moment, not least in terms of finalising the Government’s response to the Committee’s recent report on embedding sustainable development. The Secretary of State for DEFRA is leading that process. My Department, as with other Departments, is fully engaged with DEFRA in terms of looking at the specifics as well as the more general issues that are of interest to the Committee.
Q30 Martin Caton: Are you near to reaching a consensus on what sustainable development should mean in planning terms?
Robert Ledsome: I know that Ministers are very keen to get the response to the Committee and also to get a more general statement on sustainable development out very rapidly.
Q31 Chair: How have things changed since yesterday on that? I am talking about the deliberations of the Standing Committee on the Localism Bill.
Robert Ledsome: I am not thinking necessarily that the deliberations in the Standing Committee will have a direct influence to bear on the work that has been done, particularly around-
Q32 Chair: In that case, why wasn’t it in the Bill in the first place?
Robert Ledsome: I think, as Mr Quartermain has explained, that Ministers took the view that a detailed definition was not appropriate for the Bill. What I am talking about at the moment is a statement of Government policy that is being worked on and being led by the Secretary of State for DEFRA, which the Government would wish to publish in due course. That would actually help to provide a broader policy framework for what may eventually go into the National Planning Policy Framework.
Q33 Mr Spencer: Could you convince us that the neighbourhood planning process will fairly represent the needs of everybody in communities and get across to all sectors of society?
Steve Quartermain: I hope we can. It is not as though you are planning for a different community. The community is living within a district that has a local plan. It is the same community. It is an opportunity for these people within a neighbourhood to have more say about their particular area and to shape where they live.
I noted a question earlier about parish plans and the like. I have previously been involved with the preparation of parish plans and, as a local planning authority, we committed ourselves to the adoption of a supplementary planning guide where they had followed procedures, and it was in accordance with the overall aims of our plan. We know that local communities have an appetite to get involved with shaping where they live and I think this is a really powerful opportunity for them to do so, and do more, because they will be able to be involved in allocation of sites and take it further than just parish plans at the moment. This is a really good opportunity.
Q34 Mr Spencer: You would have to acknowledge, though, that if you are wanting to gain a planning permission or stop a planning permission and you have key skills or key knowledge, that gives you a bit of an advantage within the current system. I wonder how you are going to give those communities-normal people-those skills and that knowledge base to be able to influence the planning system that they will have.
Steve Quartermain: We have made provision for local authorities to support the neighbourhood plan. There is a duty for local planning authorities to provide support for neighbourhood planning.
Q35 Zac Goldsmith: This is on the same issue. There does not seem to be a clear definition of what constitutes a neighbourhood, and I don’t think anyone knows what powers are going to be accompanying these neighbourhood plans. I think a lot of people are putting a lot of hope in these plans for all kinds of local reasons, and it does not seem to me that the neighbourhood plans are going to solve or answer any of the concerns that people have, whether it is an inappropriate development locally, whether it is the rapidly changing nature of the high streets, whatever it happens to be. My question to you is: are we going to have a definition of neighbourhood? Is it going to be clear to us what constitutes a neighbourhood, how one qualifies in order to be able to create a neighbourhood plan, and what the value of those neighbourhood plans will be in real terms?
Steve Quartermain: In view of your time, I could just say yes.
Zac Goldsmith: We are going to have all that?
Steve Quartermain: You will have guidance on it. There is guidance being prepared. I believe that the Minister has made it very clear that they see that this is about a neighbourhood plan that is in the context of a broader plan. This is about consistency with a plan. This is not an opportunity for people to block development. The Government is very keen to be clear that their planning process is pro-growth; it is about developing a culture that sees growth as a good thing. Neighbourhood plans can play a very important part in that and we will be issuing guidance about how people can get engaged. That guidance will be targeted towards those people who will be engaged with the process. In terms of the definition, there may be different definitions of what a neighbourhood is, but there is a safeguard in the local authority having a say in that.
Q36 Zac Goldsmith: Could you give one example of a really tangible, radical area where a neighbourhood plan will make a difference? Give an area where local people will be able to flex their muscles and see an outcome.
Steve Quartermain: I don’t think there is a neighbourhood in the country where that opportunity will not be there.
Q37 Zac Goldsmith: What kind of thing, though? At the moment, it seems to me that people might be able to argue about how many car parking spaces are arranged in the local supermarket lot, but it doesn’t seem to go much deeper than that. I am trying to understand in real terms what communities and neighbourhoods will be able to do to influence the shape, nature and form of the places they live as a result of these neighbourhood plans, and I cannot yet imagine what that is, because nothing seems to have been put forward.
Steve Quartermain: When I was a Director of Planning and Environmental Services in a North Yorkshire authority, a village came to me and said they wanted to develop 30 houses. They wanted eight of them to be affordable; they wanted new access to their playing field and they wanted a new village hall. The local plan at the time was contrary to that. It said, "No, no, you are not a village where that development can take place; in our hierarchy of settlements, you would not be expected to get 30 dwellings." In a neighbourhood planning world they would be able to do that. They would be able to get their plan together; they would be able to draw up their proposal; they would be able to get the community to vote for that; and if more than 50% of people wanted it, they would be able to do it. That is for me a really powerful example of how a community can achieve development that suits their requirements.
Zac Goldsmith: Even if it conflicts with the local plan.
Q38 Sheryll Murray: Can I take you back to where you were talking about training of local neighbourhood people to participate and draw up the plans? How much sustainable development training will that include? Planning training has always existed for quite a while now for parish councils, but will you be incorporating any training with regard to sustainable development on that, or do you envisage that local authorities will be introducing that sort of training?
Robert Ledsome: I think aspects of sustainable development and environmental issues are already being accommodated within the professional training that is being provided by the professional institutions. There are other services that have been funded to provide guidance and help for planning authorities.
Q39 Sheryll Murray: Is that compulsory at the moment?
Robert Ledsome: It is not compulsory in the sense that local authorities have to provide the training. It is a service that has been available.
Steve Quartermain: There is a requirement for Royal Town Planning Institute members to have 50 hours of CPD every two years. Sustainable development is part of that training, but I want to stress that this is not just a process for planners; it is for people who plan. So there will be a whole range of people who are-
Q40 Sheryll Murray: I was referring to people who participated in the neighbourhood planning authorities, setting up their neighbourhood plans. Will you be providing them or will you be introducing a requirement for local authorities to provide them with adequate training, taking into account sustainable development?
Michael Bingham: I think it is fundamental to the support that local authorities can be expected to give that they would be addressing sustainable development as part and parcel of that, because that is central to the planning system and what planning is trying to achieve.
Q41 Chair: On that process: while previous witnesses were sitting there, they did refer to the abolition of certain pieces of expertise, and I would include the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit and the environmental data there. With all of that gone, how are these local practitioners at local authority level going to be able to link up with the local people to have regard to information or to be able to make informed decisions on sustainable development?
Steve Quartermain: The Government has done a couple of things in that respect: first of all, it has made some funds available to local Government for the support of neighbourhood planning, but it has also-
Q42 Chair: Are those ring-fenced?
Steve Quartermain: No.
Chair: No, not ring-fenced, okay.
Steve Quartermain: There is a fund that they have just offered to organisations who want to bid to be part of a scheme to support the delivery of neighbourhood planning. That is plainly different from training, but it is about delivering capacity and trying to ensure that people understand how neighbourhood planning will work, and the Government is hoping to issue a number of grants to a number of organisations who can work with the community to help them achieve neighbourhood planning.
Q43 Mr Spencer: What I cannot understand is-it comes down to this definition of neighbourhood and local, I suppose-what happens where you get communities that are close together and an application, for example, for a wind turbine that one village favours because it will benefit them but the neighbouring village sees the wind turbine and doesn’t want it, or if one village wants to expand its school but the neighbouring village thinks that that will put its school under pressure. How do you balance those?
Chair: And w hat mecha nism is there to balance that?
Steve Quartermain: You have to remember that the neighbourhood planning-this was mentioned earlier-has to be in conformity with the plan. There is always an element of numbers. The housing numbers in particular were never a floor target, and there was always some flexing in numbers. I come back to my earlier point that neighbourhood plans have to be seen in the context of a local plan, so it will be the local planning authority who is likely to make decisions on that, and there will be policies within the local plan. I think Hugh Ellis referred to it; there will still be a plan that will determine things such as wind farms.
Q44 Caroline Nokes: I want to take you back to your comments about hierarchy of settlements. When local planning authorities are deciding the hierarchy, they do tend to look at issues of sustainability in terms of access to local services, schools, pubs, shops, and so on, and if your village falls very far down that hierarchy then obviously the presumption is not for development. If villages were to come forward with proposals for quite a significant level of housing in terms of some smaller villages of, say, 30 or so, how would the sustainability of that be assessed against the local desire?
Steve Quartermain: That partly brings us full circle to where we began, which is why it is not on the face of the Bill, because I think the Government recognises that sustainable development may differ in terms of your circumstances. What is sustainable for a smaller settlement is different from a larger place in a different part of the country, and there needs to be this flex. You will find that most local development plans already have a view about what is sustainable. What we are hoping to achieve through neighbourhood planning is some flex in the system that will allow people to be more self-determining about what is sustainable for their community.
Q45 Dr Whitehead: Taking it up the other end, isn’t there just a fundamental problem that, on the one hand, we are going to have a presumption of sustainability in the National Planning Policy Framework, but if all the intelligence, planning and organisation at any level between the very local and the national level has gone, how does anybody know at local level-or indeed at national level-whether any of the various activities going on at local level do cumulatively lead towards benefits as far as climate change, sustainability and biodiversity, for example, are concerned, or lead away from it? In principle, it looks as though you have a presumption of sustainability that could be completely meaningless because no one can monitor or understand what that presumption may mean.
Steve Quartermain: I think my starting point there is the assumption that the evidence was collected at a higher level. A lot of this evidence was already being collected by local authorities and fed into a higher level, so I think it is quite wrong to assume that all this evidence has disappeared. The evidence is there and the duty to co-operate, which the Government is promoting, will ensure that this evidence is shared. It is part of the duty to co-operate: sharing of evidence and providing evidence to other people. This evidence is not just held at a-
Dr Whitehead: They may do that.
Steve Quartermain: There is a duty for them to do that.
Q46 Dr Whitehead: Yes, there is a duty to co-operate in general terms. People may co-operate in general terms but, as far as I can see, there is no duty to provide that information upwards and collaboratively in a way that could produce the outcome that you are suggesting.
Michael Bingham: I think there are two things here. We know from the past, before we had the current round of regional planning, that authorities have collaborated naturally on that sort of thing because it is in their interest to do so and to share information about common issues and interests. The other thing is that the Minister for Decentralisation emphasised yesterday that he did recognise there was an opportunity to strengthen the duty to collaborate. He said he will go away and look at that. That may be part of your answer.
Q47 Sheryll Murray: Without a strategic planning tier, how will you monitor the cumulative impacts of local decisions on climate change, biodiversity and wellbeing across the nation?
Chair: Mr Quartermain? Mr Bingham?
Michael Bingham: Sorry, I will lead on that one. There is a hierarchy of assessment, so while you may not have the formal regional planning tier, of course plans produced at the local authority level are still going to be subject to sustainability appraisal that incorporates the requirements for strategic environmental assessment. That cannot be done in isolation. Local authorities have to think about the wider impacts and consequences of the plans and strategies that they are producing and, as we have just been talking about, they will still be producing information. There are still annual monitoring reports where these impacts and how plans are being implemented over time will be reported. Again, we expect that it will be natural for local authorities to want to share information and for that information to come together where it is reasonable to do so. Again, the duty to co-operate will strengthen that expectation. I think it is through those mechanisms that this will happen.
Q48 Chair: Can I just cut through that? I was at a presentation that was given by the Climate Change Committee to Parliament yesterday on the implications of the fourth carbon budget. One of the points that was made there was that Crossrail, in terms of how it is currently being planned, is planned for a 20-year future programme. But how will local authorities know at the strategic level the kind of timeline and the needs of the carbon agenda that they need to address in planning terms as well, so that we are not planning infrastructure, for example at that local level, which is going to be out-of-date or affected by climate change, in respect to the point that Ms Murray was making?
Robert Ledsome: There are other elements of the process that were introduced under the last Administration that are still retained. In terms of the sorts of issues and examples you have just mentioned, the National Policy Statements are the answer. They are still part of the process and they will set out the long term infrastructure requirements that the country needs in relation to climate change or any other issues. Clearly, as part of the process of developing the NPSs, particularly on those relating to energy infrastructure, for example, then the Government will be thinking about the issues that the Climate Change Committee has raised in relation to the long-term requirements for energy supply, grid decarbonisation and so on.
Q49 Chair: I am afraid we have been defeated by the bell. I would like to raise one last issue before we all leave: the issue of the European Union fines. That was something we wanted to cover. I don’t think we are going to be able to have the time for you to give us a verbal response to that, but I think we would be most grateful for a note on what the implications are for local authorities. Should it be in the Bill in respect of the recovery of funds? I am sorry about this noise. What happens about infringement fines? Are they going to be aggregated generally? It would be really helpful to have a note from you about apportionment of payment of fines.
Robert Ledsome: We will provide a note.
Chair: I am really sorry about this. We are all going to go, but thank you very much indeed for your time and for coming along this afternoon. Thank you.
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