Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 300 - 320)



  300.  Can you give us any information about a fourth round of the Rough Sleepers Initiative in London and elsewhere?
  (Mr Ballard)  I cannot give you a definitive answer. The future of the Rough Sleepers Initiative is something that the Social Exclusion Unit has been asked to look at as a priority measure. To me, it is inconceivable that continued assistance of some kind will not be provided. The report of the unit will be available shortly before the summer break.

Mrs Dunwoody

  301.  When I endeavoured to find out from the Library where the Social Exclusion Unit was located in order to address some correspondence to it there seemed to be some confusion, if not pure ignorance, about it. Where is the unit located physically?
  (Mr Ballard)  The Cabinet Office.

Mrs Ellman

  302.  Do you say that the initiative would be the decision of the Social Exclusion Unit?
  (Mr Ballard)  No. I am saying that the Social Exclusion Unit is looking at the whole area and will be making recommendations about how provision should be carried forward in future and what it should be. I cannot pre-empt that conclusion because I am not party to it. All I say is that its first set of recommendations is expected to embrace this area.

  303.  When are they expected?
  (Mr Ballard)  The appropriate word is "shortly" which I construe to mean before the summer recess.

Dr Whitehead

  304.  I refer to page 27 of the report. One sees a note about consultations on amendment of the Building Regulations. It is noted that in 1998 there will be a further review of building regulation requirements that deal with energy efficiency. What progress are you making on this?
  (Mr Ballard)  There are two sets of regulations. As to disabled access, we expect to bring forward regulations in the autumn.


  305.  When you say "bring forward" what do you mean?
  (Mr Ballard)  They will be laid before Parliament.

  306.  When will they come into effect?
  (Mr Ballard)  They will come into effect 12 months after being laid. I believe that that was what Nick Raynsford said on 9 March. As to energy efficiency, we announced some proposals in February which Nick Raynsford wants to review. We have had a series of workshops examining those general proposals. In consequence of that, a lot of ideas have come forward and a consultation paper will be issued on 3 July with specific proposals as opposed to more general suggestions.

Dr Whitehead

  307.  I ask you to turn to fig.7.f on page 60 which sets out the performance of the Planning Inspectorate in relation to planning inquiries. It is not very good, is it?
  (Mr Ballard)  The Planning Inspectorate has had to deal with a considerable rise in the number of appeals. It responded to that about two years ago with a three-year programme. It made clear at the outset that it would take time to bring things back into kilter. We can demonstrate that it is on track to doing that. For example, its outturn in 1996-97 for written representations was 25 weeks; in 1997- 98 it is 21 weeks. The target for 1998-99 is 18 weeks. As to hearings, the outturn in 1996-97 was 47; in 1997-98 it was down to 40; and the target for 1998-99 is 24. Dealing with inquiries, we have moved from an outturn of 56 weeks in 1996-97 to 52 weeks in 1997-98. The target for 1998-99 is 36 weeks. The targets for 1998-99 are significantly lower and very close to what can be delivered statutorily given the various processes that each must go through. We would not set those targets if we did not think that they were demanding or achievable.

  308.  The inspectorate is moving forward but lagging behind the targets that have been established?
  (Mr Ballard)  That is right.

  309.  What is the reason for that?
  (Mr Ballard)  I do not believe that there is any easy explanation for it. To go back to what I said a moment ago, we do not want to set easily achievable targets but demanding targets. I do not think that we should be too dismayed if the inspectorate fails to meet them by a small amount. On written representations the shortfall is not considerable. The main concern must be in relation to inquiries where there is a significant shortfall.

  310.  Dealing with the performance indicator of determination of local authority planning applications within eight weeks, are you discussing with anyone, perhaps the Audit Commission, how to make that measure rather more meaningful? I am sure you are aware that there has been a good deal of criticism of different practices of local authorities, for example some bringing people in before determination to get the application right and others just whacking it through committee and throwing it out, thereby meeting the target. What has been happening?
  (Mr Ballard)  We share that concern. Eighty per cent in eight weeks is a simple target, but we have been concerned by stories about individual authorities manipulating their approach to this matter. We have been trying to discover if there is some other form of indicator upon which we can alight that is both easy to understand and makes more sense. We have been talking to the Planning Officers' Society and the National Planning Forum which reflects local authorities and users of the planning system. The Audit Commission is also looking at this area. We have not come up with anything definitive but are continuing to try to work through it. We recognise that the present indicator is not as satisfactory as we would wish. I cannot give an undertaking now that we will have something by a given date, but the department is conscious of the need to do something.

  311.  You are conscious of the fact that the eight weeks tend to be used as a stick with which to beat a local authority on the head even where objectively it is pursuing good practice in planning?
  (Mr Ballard)  The difficulty is that some people play by the book and organise themselves properly and handle the applications in eight weeks. Other authorities do not. There is a third category of authorities where the figures are manipulated. Our concern has been to try to ensure that best practice that is followed successfully by some authorities is carried through.

  312.  For example, that there is a satisfactory result all round?
  (Mr Ballard)  Yes. I believe that that is part of the general need to look at these things in the context of best value.

  313.  In paragraph 7.10 reference is made to ensuring that the planning system puts the principle of sustainable development into practice. It is said that it is hoped that a good practice guide will be published shortly. Is that imminent?
  (Mr Ballard)  This will come out after the integrated transport White Paper.


  314.  How soon after?
  (Mr Ballard)  We have looked at this carefully over the past year. The wider policy on transport and sustainability has been developed. We have been very keen to ensure that it is compatible with what emerges from the White Paper. We are keen to get it out. I cannot give an absolute time. If it does not come out before the summer recess it will come out very soon after you come back.

Christine Butler

  315.  Is it ready and waiting in the queue?
  (Mr Ballard)  It is there.

  316.  It is ready and waiting for the transport White Paper?
  (Mr Ballard)  I do not want to be drawn on an exact date. It does not require a lot of work to put it into a satisfactory shape.


  317.  What is the target for the Minister to decide planning appeals?
  (Mr Ballard)  I should know the answer to that, but I am afraid that I cannot remember it off the top of my head.

  318.  Is it something like Terminal 4—three or four weeks?
  (Mr Ballard)  If the Minister made a decision on Terminal 4 in three or four weeks both you and we would be surprised. Terminal 5 is a matter of concern. Obviously, once we get the inspector's report, which we hope will be by the end of this year, we will want to deal with it as quickly as possible.[4]

  319.  Can you provide a note as to how quickly Ministers are dealing with these matters?
  (Mr Ballard)  Yes.

  320.  There were one or two other questions on which the Sub-Committee was not very happy. We were particularly concerned about the implications of the minimum wage. If you cannot give us any more than the £50 million as an overall figure for personal social services is it possible to get some indicative figures from one or two local authorities who may have been lobbying the department in terms of refuse collection, street cleaning, office cleaning, housing maintenance and repair and all the other things that may affect them as contractors?
  (Mr Wood)  We will take that away and see if we can provide information to help the Sub-Committee.

Chairman:  On that note, thank you very much.

4   Note by witness: Completion of evidence should be by the end of the year. The inspector's report will follow later. Back

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