Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 200 - 219)



Dr Pugh

  200. Should it be a requirement for local authorities to have an Open Space Strategy and, if it is, should it be a PPG or delivered in some other way? What do you think should be in it? If I could add a further rider to that; how do you respond to a cynical observation that local authorities are not exactly short of strategies anyway?
  (Mr Barber) Here again we have the problem that we do not have a national agency. I am sure many witnesses in this inquiry have said that one of the problems with this document is that it is overloaded towards sport. Sport is mentioned ten times more than parks, Sport England is mentioned 17 times in the document while English Nature and English Heritage are not. It is really pushed right over on the edge on that. I need to return to your question.

  201. What would an Open Space Strategy look like?
  (Mr Barber) There is a lot of guidance on sports provision for local authorities. Nobody can beat Sport England on the way they influence both government and local government. The problem is that we have not got an agency which can give sound guidance on the development of green space strategies. Fortunately, quite a lot of the best authorities have got them and, very interestingly, although this is a process that has only just started, the Audit Commission's Best Value Inspectorates are finding that those authorities which get the higher rating for what they have got (and also, incidentally, tend to get the highest ratings on their opportunities to improve or their likelihood of improvement) are those that have a proper strategy.

  202. Are you suggesting that local authorities need a mentor in order to construct their strategy?
  (Mr Barber) Yes they do. At the end of the day where are the strategists trained? How are they qualified? Who is giving the support to them in the way that Sport England or the Countryside Agency would give? This is a real loss and it has got to be built up. In other words, there is a basic lack of intelligence within local authorities, and certainly in government, as to how this works.

Mrs Dunwoody

  203. Intelligence in the sense of no information?
  (Mr Barber) It is only partly about information. I think it is also how you use the information which is a key issue here. I think my starting point for both would be two principles which I had hoped would come out much more strongly in the PPG. The first is the importance of seeing the overall landscape. Landscape is one of the great gifts that we have in Britain and it infuses our art, our music, we name our regions after landscapes, it is terribly important to us. Landscape is a concept which should be enshrined in what planners do. If you are going to make spaces into places you have to have an understanding of landscape, and this is not well-understood. My understanding, from the last inquiry I attended of this Committee when the question was posed to the Government Minister, is that there are not any landscape professionals among the 15,000 staff they have, so I do not know where it starts. The other is—and there is only a hint of this in the whole of the PPG—to see the green space of a town or city as part of that entity and see it as a green space system.

Dr Pugh

  204. You are suggesting that there should be another independent body, not English Nature, not Sport England, to advise local authorities on how to construct their strategies, another super-strategy body? Is that what you are saying?
  (Mr Barber) In all of those bodies, helping and supporting strategies and proposing standards is only a part of their work. I am quite sure that the decline that has taken place in green spaces that are managed by local authorities would not have been anything like as severe if the equivalent of a Sport England or a Countryside Agency had been at work. Indeed, they were encouraging local authorities to spend money on other things when they should have been investing it in what benefits more people. There is an imbalance. I am not saying that "quango land" is the greatest system of governance. I am saying that in Britain these quangos are very good, intelligent, well-funded bodies which have contributed very substantially to government policy and to local authority action and management. If we have one area and one area alone that is missing, we have a problem, and this is a black hole. I am saying if there are 150,000 hectares of the stuff and it is in the urban areas. You have got to look at the value of that. This is the evangelist thing I try to preach wherever people will hear it, as I am sure you will appreciate. The basics are about the economy and the success of towns and cities and this is what an urban renaissance is. This green space component is not yet properly locked into that process. I have high hopes for the Urban Green Spaces Task Force. I think you know from the written evidence we gave that the Urban Green Spaces Task Force never got a smell of this guidance before it was published. It simply came out of left field when we had hardly started our work.

Mrs Ellman

  205. Can we move away from the ground strategy and concentrate on something you identify in your evidence, the problem of management of green spaces, which you condemn very much in the document. What can the planning system do to improve management of existing as well as future urban space?
  (Mr Barber) I think the main thing—and interestingly in one or two paragraphs the PPG does start to get to grips with it, paras 38 and 39—is to recognise the inter-dependency. An awful lot of the planning function is to determine what third parties can or cannot do with their property. When you are talking about green spaces, parks or whatever, you are talking about land which is actually in the ownership and management of the same authorities that are planning for it. I think you have got to recognise that there is an inter-dependency. The other is that quality is absolutely so important and so all these standards, like 400 metres from a space of this size and 800 metres from a slightly bigger space, are just a banality that planners talk to planners, unless you invest it with a quality dimension.

  206. But how is that going to be done? We are aware of the issue. Exactly how is it going to be done in the planning process?
  (Mr Barber) I think personally that both the planning authority and the land managing authority should be working much closer together and sharing common information. If, as in many authorities, neither of them has a clear idea of how people actually use these various green spaces, what they value highest and what they value least, then it is very difficult to say it is planning. In fairness, this document is starting to hint at that, that local authorities need an assessment of the value of all kinds of open space and not just for sport. Unfortunately, they manage to undo that completely by turning out a spurious document at the same time which goes under the name of "Partial Regulatory Impact Assessment", which to you and me means "what are the resource implications of this planning policy guidance?" and it is trying to tell us that it is all cost neutral, when what we know is that the planning authorities and the managing authorities working alongside green space, for the most part, do not have the basic plan information because they do not know how people use these spaces.

  207. What should be in PPG17 or other parts of the planning system which will make better management of existing as well as new space?
  (Mr Barber) Remove the ambiguity in paragraph 38. It is not just about recreational facilities, this is something that affects all green spaces, and to recognise that it is a crucial issue because here is the true value. Also the scope for improving the quality of existing green spaces is far greater and likely to be more beneficial than anything you can do in planning by adding green spaces. It is not where the emphasis should be.

Mrs Dunwoody

  208. Mr Barber, you heard the previous witnesses and you know what they really said to you is—I paraphrase—"we are so terrified somebody is going to have a go at us about not having decided our green spaces properly, particularly a developer, that we are looking for nice, neat rules that we can quote if we get a planning inquiry." How do you give them enough confidence to get beyond that?
  (Mr Barber) The planning inquiry business and appeals and so on is dictating rather too much. I want planners to plan, first of all, rather than constantly having their minds on who is going to catch them out because I do not think we do very well when it comes to that. I think the difficulty is that planning and management has not come together as closely as it does in other countries. In Germany you would find that the planning and management of recreational green spaces of all types is much more informed and working much closer together. Whether, as a result of that, you would produce planning policy guidance of this type, or indeed planning policy guidance at all, is another proposition. I am looking forward to seeing this Green Paper on planning because part of the problem and why we have this difficulty is the planning system itself. After 50 years of the British post-War planning system it is no wonder we need an urban renaissance.

Mrs Ellman

  209. What we are looking for here is how the draft PPG 17 should be changed to deal with these issues.
  (Mr Barber) My personal preference would be to scrap it and write it again.

  210. What would it then say? Can I ask you specifically what is your interpretation of paragraph 62 of PPG 17 in relation to the commuting of maintenance payments for off-site open space? We have been told by the witnesses there is some ambiguity in that paragraph. What do you think it means? What does it means in terms of the ability of councils to seek commuted maintenance sums for maintaining off-site open spaces?
  (Mr Barber) I think that one problem of over- reliance on the Section 106 agreements is how you make that work for smaller developments in smaller areas. If urban regeneration works along the Rogers line that is going to get more difficult. I think everybody can feel that it should not just trip over a threshold and suddenly 106 kicks in and you get a piece of open space with the development. It has got to work a little bit more like a tax on the development, if you like, so that new development contributes to the green space system as a whole. I think you will find that in a number of other countries they are using that rather broader principle rather than trying to make 106 do more than probably Section 106 can do in law. It would not surprise me if a lot of developers asked the question "Why do you want six acres for the 1,000 people I am housing when the last six acres I gave you is so poorly looked after?"

  211. Does not the current PPG17 address that issue? If not, what do you think it should say?
  (Mr Barber) In a way I am giving up the ghost on PPG17. I think this is planners talking banalities to planners.

  212. Give me an example of something specifically in it to address this issue of maintenance of space.
  (Mr Barber) The question is would that come in a planning guidance or some other form of guidance?

  213. Tell us where it should be.
  (Mr Barber) What I am trying to do is avoid saying that PPG17 set up under the present British planning system should somehow be the vehicle for everything you want to do on management, maintenance and improvement of open green space.

  214. On the specific issue of the on-going maintenance of space, what do you think should be done in terms of the planning process, whether in PPG17 or anywhere else?
  (Mr Barber) There should be less reliance on 106 and I think this Section ought to be exploring the other options. One of the problems, I think, with Section 106 is that it is socially divisive as well. I was in Basingstoke a week or two ago and I was amazed at just how many community facilities they are getting through 106 agreements, it is very impressive. Their only worry is how they are going to maintain it all when they have got it. It is not because they are great planners in Basingstoke. It is simply because this is either a buyers' or a sellers' market. If the developers want to develop in Basingstoke and they have got these ideas for community facilities they will go along with it because there is still profit there and they still want to do it. How does this play in places like Salford? It is not the same thing at all. Section 106 and reliance on that as being not only the means of providing open space but funding it by commuted sums is extraordinarily divisive because the poorer places, the places that need an urban renaissance most, do not have that opportunity.


  215. You referred to the Partial Regulatory Impact Assessment and the question of whether it was going to cost any more money. You are suggesting that a bit more money ought to be put into the PPG17 process. Are you sure about that? Would it not be better to keep money out of the planning system and put it into maintaining parks and open spaces?
  (Mr Barber) I think so, chair. I very much agree with that because it gets back to my point that it is rather over-rating the effect of the planning system on the improvement of open space when most of it is existing, will be there in 20 years' time, and the one thing that we all have to face—and your previous inquiry faced—is that in that space of a generation between our generation and the previous one, a great decline has taken place. PPGs and planning guidance are not going to be able to address that problem. You did that much more ably in your previous inquiry than you can force PPG17 to do. I have got criticisms of this document as it stands, but it may be that a lot of my criticisms are because of the system itself and way these things have to be shoe horned into planning policy guidance to be effective. I would like to see the Green Paper on Planning address this. The problem is I do not know who they are going to get to write it.

Chris Grayling

  216. Can I take you on to the question of improving open spaces. Our understanding is that best value inspections of local authority parks and ground maintenance services suggest that a significant proportion of parks and open spaces are unlikely to improve. Why is that and what can we do about it? "Unlikely to improve" does not feel like good enough.
  (Mr Barber) The interesting thing is that it is the authorities which have got the lowest rating, a one-star rating (which is quite poor) which are the ones that are most often judged to be least likely to improve, whilst the ones that are good are the ones that are most likely to improve. I think it is simply that the management is better. In what ways I do not know, and I do not know how much you want to go into that, but one of the things that does seem to be influential is whether they have got a comprehensive strategy or not, so whether it is in a PPG17 or otherwise, I think the biggest reinforcement for best value (and what this Committee has been concerned with so often in the state of green spaces) is to have really comprehensive strategies. It would be nice to see PPG17 leading into that instead of, as it does, mentioning locking into other local government strategies, but only talks about current recreational, educational and cultural strategies. It does not talk about landscape strategies, green space strategies, parks and open spaces strategies, or whatever you want to call them. Again I think that is something of a missed opportunity.

  217. I take it that you disagreed when we heard from one of the three previous witnesses his view that local authorities should be the core managers of open spaces? I would interpret from what you are saying that you would not necessarily think that is a particularly good idea?
  (Mr Barber) I think local authorities should have the prime responsibility and in fairness to their history nobody has done more to provide high quality green spaces in the urban environment than the local authorities. They got the legislation and built parks and so on.

  218. But you are saying they are not very good at it.
  (Mr Barber) They are not very good at it because they have lost the plot. If you look at what happened in Victorian times it was done for health reasons under the Health Acts. We seem to have lost sight of the fact that personal health and fitness is supported far more by having a good environment than trying to cure the problem at the other end with ever spiralling medical costs. It is the economic equations that seem to me to be wrong. The other thing that the park builders knew was that good parks put value on land. Birkenhead Park, which is generally reckoned to be about the first fully municipal park, was paid for because of the properties that were built around it. I know Rogers is advocating Georgian square type buildings as being more effective. There is a relationship between good quality green spaces and values, not just on house prices but on the total asset value of our towns and cities, which really needs a lot more investigation in my view.

Christine Russell

  219. I would like to return to what you mentioned earlier which was the relationship between planners and the leisure departments, where so often you get the case of planners negotiating 106 agreements that can be very costly that their colleagues in the leisure department then have to pick up. Do you think that issues like working practices within departments should be contained in planning guidance? If not, how do you forge these closer, better relationships between planners?
  (Mr Barber) Generally speaking, I am not in favour of central government telling local government how to do its business. I think the best open spaces in the network that we enjoy today have been created by stronger local authorities who did not depend on government telling them what to do. They went to Parliament for the legislation they wanted and got on with the job. I would like to see a return to that. There is no doubt about it—and I think your earlier inquiry saw this—that an awful lot of knowledge and intelligence that ought to be there in local authorities is missing. This is not to be divisive between planners and managers because there is no doubt in my mind that we need much better managers and green space landscape management training in order to manage these systems holistically. There are two stepping stones to this. One is what this Committee has already advocated, and that is there should be a national agency that can promote all of this. The other is that if we are prepared to experiment with things like elected mayors and so on to shake local government up a bit, why cannot we have what some very successful cities have—Vancouver and Minneapolis come to mind—where the green spaces are managed by a separate authority but nevertheless a democratic one, one that is elected. You have got some good models in this country. I cannot hold Milton Keynes up as a model of anybody's idea of sustainable urban development but at the end of the day Milton Keynes' Parks Trust is very good as a model. They are funded by a part of the substantial asset base of Milton Keynes and it works, I think very well, because the management and the funding is more dedicated than it is in a typical large multi-purpose authority.

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