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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Could I welcome you back to this Committee and would you introduce yourself and your team for the record.

  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I am Charles Falconer; I am the Minister for Housing, Planning and Regeneration. Mike Ash is in charge of the planning part of the Department of Transport, local government for the regions; Joyce Bridges is in charge of the Urban Policy Unit and Mike Gahagan is in charge of the housing part of the DTLR.

  2. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No, I will be more than happy to go straight into questions.

  3. I have suggested to the Committee that they keep their questions fairly short so that we do not keep you too long. I hope you will take that into account.  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I will keep my answers fairly short as well.

Mr Betts

  4. Not every minister gets a chance to redeem themselves so quickly! The feeling of many people is that the introduction of the plan-led system introduced in 1991 has actually been quite successful in allowing the key decisions for an area to be taken with the involvement of the whole community; anyone interested can make their case and it can be heard and listened to as part of the general debate. Do you think that it is a strength of the present system and that it should continue?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think in principle it is a strength of the system that there is a plan-led system for two reasons: (1) it allows the community to participate in making decisions for the future about what will happen in terms of land use in their area and (2) it provides some degree of certainty for those who want to make decisions about whether to invest in development of various sorts. I think that in delivery the system has failed in a number of respects. For example, it takes too long for a local development plan to get prepared. For example, because there are so many other layers of guidance—national, regional, etc—those local development plans quite frequently, when they are produced, are out of date and therefore they do not provide the certainty that they are required to. Equally, because the process takes so long, frequently local residents and members of the community will find it quite difficult to remain engaged in the process because they do not have the time or the energy to devote to something that is not perhaps absolutely critical to the centre of their lives.

  5. Many might agree with the issue of speed and trying to keep things up to date, but you did indicate that the general approach of having a development-led planning system is one you support, which is a little at odds with the speech you made at the Town and Country Planning Summer School in Exeter on 6 September where you said that detailed plans would only be produced where needed in a new system.  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I was saying two things at the Summer School. First of all, you do need a local development plan. The local development plan should set out the principles that should apply for planning in that particular area. One of the complaints about local development plans at the moment is that they are much too detailed and much too prescriptive. Detail and prescription may well be sensible for particular parts of an area, for example where you need a regeneration scheme for the centre of a city or a part of extreme deprivation, but it will not be appropriate for all of the area covered by the local development plan. So, what I was saying at the Summer School was to have a local development plan that sets out the basic principles and, for areas of change which will not be every part of the area, have a more detailed implementation plan. Where you need a more detailed implementation plan, then and only then go into the greater detail.

  6. Just picking up on what greater detail means, are you assuming that there would not actually be zoning of land by particular use categories throughout the whole of the area?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes. I do not think it is right that you should be too site specific when it is not necessary. The reasons why it takes so long to get local development plans together is because what you have are site owners, developers, individual members of the community fighting about individual places in the local development plan. Why have that long drawn out battle when it may well not matter except in certain specified places?

  7. Is it not likely that the long drawn out battles will be shifted from the overall plan to each individual application because, when somebody puts an application in for planning permission, at least now they have a reasonable degree of certainty that the land will be zoned for that particular purpose and then there are particular discussions about what in particular goes on the site. Now they have a battle about whether there should be houses there, leisure there or whatever.  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) In some cases it will, in other cases it would hopefully focus in on, for example, the implementation plan which would be the more detailed areas of change that I have specified in the earlier answer that I gave but, in terms of a local development plan, if you want principles to be established which inform the way that planning goes on, it is much better that it be done, as it were, at a level of criteria rather than simply going through each site and saying what should happen to it. You are right, you are never going to avoid arguments about particular sites from time to time. What I am saying is that if you want a local development plan which would inform the way that planning takes place in a particular place, it should set out what the principles are rather than seek to deal with every issue because it is the seeking to deal with every issue that has led to the delays, the contradictions and the exclusion of community engagement because it takes so long and it is so complicated.

  8. I want to take that up because surely alarm bells are going to starting ringing in many places where, if there is not going to be that zoning outside these active regeneration areas you have been just referring to, for certain some land is going to be green open space and, if it is going to be zoned in the plan, the presumption is that it will not take place and it will be gone and virtually any site will be up for grabs because each individual application will be considered as that application on its merits without reference to anything wider.  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No, I do not think that would be right. I think you would find that the principles that apply to the particular area will be sufficiently clear to ensure that there would not be the sense that everything was up for grabs. There has to be some degree of specificity in the local development plan, sufficient to ensure that it is not, as you say, a free-for-all with every site up for grabs. So, the balance has to be struck in every place. It will not involve zoning every site, as you put it, but it has to be sufficeintly clear and sufficiently detailed so that people will know what would be likely to happen if they applied for planning permission in a particular place for a particular site.

  9. Coming on to the strategic planning, it appears that as well as changes in the local development planning, there are also problems because of the ...  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It would be wrong for me to say everything that is going to be in the Green Paper.

  10. You can confide in us!  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) One of the problems in the system is that there are too many layers of plans and obviously one of the things we are considering at the moment is how one reduces the number of layers of plans that there are.

  11. I think some of us would understand that point but if at the same time you are reducing the amount of detail in development plans and taking structure plans away, the first time you are going to get any detail is when somebody puts the original plans up which is exactly where some of the community involvement is probably the least and people find the most complicated part of the lot to understand.  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Being neutral on whether or not we are getting rid of structure plans, if you had local development plans that set out policy in a sufficient degree in principle, that would be a point where the community was involved. If you also had implementation plans which are setting out the detail of what should happen in particular areas where change is expected, there again it is an area where the local community would be intimately involved in the process.

  12. I am not quite clear, what is the regional development guidance thing going to do?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) We already have regional planning guidance and that sets out issues that should be dealt with at that level, for example infrastructure issues and for example levels of housing for the whole region, and those sorts of things would probably still continue to be dealt with at a regional policy guidance level and processes would be set up as they already exist whereby the community can be involved. Our experience of community involvement obviously is that the closer to the community the particular issue is, the more the community wishes to get engaged and the more the community does get engaged, so the higher up in terms of national, regional, district and neighbourhood the particular plan, the less the community do get engaged, but that does not mean that you do not set up as many inclusive particpatory structures as you can.

Christine Russell

  13. Businesses have indicated that what they need most from the planning system is speed, certainty, transparency and quality of decisions, but most of your public statements have homed in on the speed aspect. Could you perhaps tell the Committee about all of those aspects.  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) First of all, as far as certainty is concerned, you need to know from the quality of the plans that are being produced, which is the point Clive was making earlier on ... If you have a clear, uncomplicated structure of plans and guidance that give you a clear indication of what the likely result is going to be, then you get much greater certainty. As far as quality is concerned, we think that one of the things that is vital is quality and that business, when they make an application, start to involve the community and the local authority at as early a stage as posible, that is before the specific application is made but at a much earlier stage so that they engage with the people who are most going to be affected by that, and we need to take steps to encourage the earliest possible participation of the community and the local authority in individual applications. As far as quality is concerned, quality involves in part raising the status of the planning profession, raising the importance of planning both at local authority level and at central government level. The quality of the people attracted should be much, much better than it is at present and that is a vital element in the process. As far as transparency is concerned, which is the last matter to which you referred, central government and local government have to set out much more clearly what they do, why they do it and also who can participate and when. So, for example, at central government level, we should be setting out much more clearly not just why we call in planning applications but why we do not call in particular planning applications. At local authority level, the community and the applicants should be clear that they have a right to speak, for example, to the planning committee before it makes its decision and that is a right that they have. For example, in relation to planning gain issues, there should be publication as to what planning gain is obtained and what then happened to it. So, on the four—that is speed, transparency, certainty and quality—I hope that our proposals will not just address speed but will address all those four issues.

  14. Are you absolutely confident that if you speed up the process of planning applications, you will not inevitably dilute the public involvement in those decisions?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I cannot be absolutely confident about what will happen in relation to any particular proposals, but the process at the moment does not encourage particularly effectively community engagement. One very loud message I get when speaking about planning is that members of the community say, "The first we heard about this particular application was when we saw the local authority sticking up signs advertising the proposal." Why is that? We have specific consultation proposals that take a large amount of time, but there is no incentive in the system at the moment for, for example, the developer to actually engage with the community before they make a formal application. That is something that we would like to see because that reduces suspicion, reduces worry about what may happen and probably increases the speed at which the actual formal process then takes.

  15. Does that not actually contradict what you said in response to Clive Betts earlier that in fact if you do not have proper unitary development plans and local plans, then the public from the outside do not have say because the public's first opportunity to make their views known of what they would or would not like to see happening to a piece of land in their neighbourhood is actually at the inquiry stage for local planning and it is at that point that they have the opportunity to say, "Yes, we would be happy with housing but we are not happy with industry" or whatever. So, if that is not there at the beginning ...  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) In relation to the more streamlined local development plan of the sort that I have been talking about, the issue would be to what extent should it go into detail. I am making it clear that it should not go into zoning every major site in the area, but I am saying that it should give sufficient detail to indicate the sort of approach that the local authority would take. In addition, where there are areas where change is expected, regeneration areas for example, then there should be a much more detailed implementation plan. So, at both those stages, the commmunity would have an opportunity and this time a real opportunity, not one that involved a formal public inquiry which is much more lawyer driven than it should be, to participate in the making of decisions. In addition to that, if the measures we put into place are to encourage developers to talk to the community before an application is made, then the community will be engaged at that stage as well. What we are trying to do is to make the process not one where there is "a formal consultation", which is very difficult for individual members of the community to participate in, but to really engage the community in making decisions about the future of land use in their area. Although one would have thought that a long process would engage people and make it easier, in fact the experience seems to be that it does not because the process is so drawn out, it is so complicated and people do not quite know what is happening at every stage in relation to it.

  16. But the rates of determination in planning authorities is very different in different local planning authorities. Would it not simply speed up the system if most planning authorities simply had more staff?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) We have done some work in relation to that and, interestingly enough, the amount of resources and the amount of people in the planning department does not lead to the conclusion that the more you have, the quicker you do it. It varies from place to place and it depends upon a whole range of issues such as the attitude of the local authority, the way the consultation takes place and the engagement with both the household applications and the developer. Surprisingly, there does not seem to be that correlation between resources and results.


  17. I have two developers in my constituency who whinge about how long the process is taking but they are very keen to nip in judicial reviews if they think they can sabotage someone else's plans. If you change the system, are you not going to get even more judicial reviews and therefore the process will be slowed down even more?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I hope not because I think one of the things you notice about local development plan inquiries at the moment is that the people who engage in them primarily are developers and they are arguing among themselves as to what should happen at particular sites, so developers will go to one local development plan inquiry to object to a retail proposal in one place saying that it damages the city centre in another place because they already own land there which they can develop. The judicial reviews tend to be as a result of what conclusions are reached in relation to the local development plans. What I hope our proposals will do will be to make it much harder for the lawyers to become involved and seek to upset conclusions that are reached because the process will be much fairer to the community and much clearer than it is at the present time. There is lack of clarity that really is the landscape in which lawyers thrive.

  18. So you would like to put a few lawyers out of work?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I would like to put a few lawyers out of work in relation to planning, yes. I would like to make it clear that some of my best friends are lawyers.

Ms King

  19. With regard to planning gain, in broad terms, I wonder if you could tell us if you favour a move towards a flat fee, impact fee system, or broadly speaking a move towards a negotiated system?  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Again, I cannot say precisely what will be in the Green Paper which will indicate what the Government favours in relation to it, but I think what we should aim for in relation to planning gain is certainty so that developers know where they stand and local authorities will find it easy in those circumstances to have clear and robust negotiations with the developers. I believe that it is not possible to have a `one size fits all' approach. Therefore there will always need to be some element of negotiations which are site specific. So, I think there should be a combination of certainty with a recognition that you need some site specific powers in order to deliver. I think the position at the present time is that some local authorities ask for too little and therefore do not get enough planning gain, but there are some local authorities which ask for much too much and, as a result, shake off a development that would have been beneficial to the community as a whole. That suggests to me that there is insufficient clarity about what they should be going for and therefore I think clarity is quite important. There is another element which I touched on in answer to Christine's questions about transparency. One of the big complaints that I get at the moment is that communities do not know what deals have been done on their behalf and they do not know what happened to the deal after they had done it. Did the developer deliver on what he promised? If he did deliver on what he promised, where can I see it now? I think we need as well to look at the issue of transparency on planning gain issues.

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