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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-279)



  260. The question I was asking was, there are problems with the current system here. I am sure we will come on to structure plans in a few minutes, but we have got 13 per cent of authorities—that is quite a significant number—which have not got a plan to operate a planning system from. So this great principle that everyone defends in planning is not working, in large parts of the country, because there are no plans there. How relevant are they? My own authority is just going through a review of its UDP and it is going to take four years. That really is not a system which is responding and flexible and in with events in the here and now.
  (Mr Russell) I think you are absolutely right. Coventry is lucky enough to have just adopted its first ever UDP review in the UK and, you are exactly right, it took almost exactly four years from a standing start. I think the main issues to do with the development planning system are the methods we have for validating the plan. Certainly you will see that that is one of the areas we are concerned with. Had we not had to go through a lengthy inquiry process which went over much the same ground as we had been through in public consultation and then various government initiatives in terms of checking the plan, this, that and the other, I think we could have managed to have got the plan adopted much swifter and more speedily. Of the issues which we have highlighted, it is the validation process of whatever development planning system you have which is the crucial element that needs to be addressed as a result of the Green Paper.

  261. You think there are some simpler reforms of the current system which could deliver and solve the problems the Government has identified more easily and more effectively than the proposal the Government has put forward?
  (Mr Russell) We believe that is the case, yes.

Ms King

  262. We have heard about the problem of resources for the planning system. In your position I would expect you to say that central Government is not allocating enough, but is it not also a problem, given that recent settlements have been more generous than what has gone before, that, as we have heard, cash-strapped local authorities are not prioritising their planning departments? How can they be encouraged to do this, in your view?
  (Mr Silvester) I think there are a number of ways in which that can be achieved. We should recognise that whilst there has recently been an increase in the fee level for planning applications, (for example, a 14 per cent increase at the district level) not all local authorities have that new level of income allocated to their planning function. That will just go into the general savings targets for the authority. So just because there is new money going into the planning system, if you like, does not necessarily mean there will be additional resources in order to deliver a faster, more effective planning process. There are ways and means in which authorities do need to have that money identified and earmarked for those particular planning processes, but, also, I think, it is an issue of skills for local authorities. The planning system is changing, there is no doubt about that, particularly with the new tariff systems etc that will come into play if those proposals come forward. Authorities will need to take on board new skill levels, and that is a big issue for the profession and the planning schools as well. They need to re-orientate the way that courses are being developed to meet the future needs.
  (Mr Baker) As someone coming from a university background it is quite clear that planning schools do recognise there are problems in the recruitment of planning students at the moment and are, in fact, looking at their programmes to try to make them more attractive, but it is linked back to the issue of resources because, clearly, there is a problem that potential planning students do not see town and country planning as a career which is particularly attractive or which they want to go into. One of the reasons for that—and there may be many reasons—is that they do not see that the environment in which might work if they become a local authority planner is an attractive one to be in; partly to do with resources and partly to do with pressures of work because the resources are so tight. It is not just about the money that they take home, it is the environment they are working in. That does link back directly to "Is the service properly resourced and do the professionals working in that service have the time and the necessary back-up to be able to deliver the job"?

  263. Turning to resources for a second, you said that the Government had raised the levels of fees by 14 per cent, but over the last ten years the fees have fallen behind inflation by about 35 per cent. Is it practical or reasonable to expect planning fees to generate sufficient revenue to pay for expanded planning departments?
  (Mr Deegan) Generally speaking, local government, as you will know, does not like ring-fenced grants. That is a view we would subscribe to. Therefore, I think there is a key issue about—whatever the level of resources—is it appropriate for it to be ring-fenced, even if it comes from something that is as directly related as a fee.

Mrs Dunwoody

  264. It is not quite an answer to what you were asked, though, is it? You were being asked, if you fall disastrously behind the rate of inflation, is that sensible? Is there any particular reason why the rest of the ratepayers who need other services should subsidise planning applications?
  (Mr Deegan) There is a fair question to be asked around that. What I am trying to say is that—


  265. We are trying to get an answer to the fair question "Should we allow fees to fall behind in real terms"?
  (Mr Deegan) I was trying to answer the question "Is there sufficient resource in planning?" I have no view and the County Surveyors' Society has no view on the level of planning fees. We do have a view on the resource issue, which is the general local government view that we are not happy with ring-fencing. Of course, we would support more resources going into planning, but we are not a trade union for the planning profession and, therefore, recognise that if there are problems in terms of resourcing the existing functions then it makes sense to look at the system and try and secure efficiencies.
  (Mr Russell) I think the answer is no, it should not have been allowed to fall behind. It should, in fact, be covering the costs of dealing with planning applications. What it should not do is go on to fund the rest of the planning service, which needs to be funded through some form of general revenue support, because the rest of the planning service is a much wider community benefit which needs to be funded by other methods through Standard Spending Assessment or some other method of funding.

Mrs Ellman

  266. Mr Baker, if I could address this to you initially, do you think that these proposals in the Green Paper will make planning more attractive?
  (Mr Baker) No, not really. One of the problems that I have with the Green Paper—and I am particularly interested in the proposals for the changes to the development plan system as opposed to development control, because that is what I know most about—is that in taking away the strategic level of plan-making and, in a sense, in some way, downgrading what is currently done at a Local Plan level, it will actually make the job seem more bureaucratic and regulatory; it is about making decisions on a planning application subject to a set of criteria that you read from a book and will not necessarily provide the challenges that will encourage people to get into planning more than they do at the moment.

  267. Will it make it worse?
  (Mr Baker) I think it might, yes.

  268. Are there any other views?
  (Mr Russell) I think it rather odd, and it has already been mentioned, that the CBI's original pressures for change, in fact, may now not be seen to be entirely convinced with the answers that have come forward. I think that their 10-point plan was very much geared to wanting to speed up the development control process and yet 80 per cent of the Green Paper relates to the development plan process. Perhaps the element of the Green Paper which is the least radical is the actual element on development control, which suggests, to my mind, a number of relatively minor tinkering around the edges and is certainly not a fundamental review of the process of control and development.

  269. What is the advantage of setting tariffs for planning gain?
  (Mr Silvester) I think it is very clear that business that is generating development does have to pay its way, if you like, in terms of the impact on the local community. Whilst in the current system you appreciate that obligations have to be development related, there is a case for a wider community benefit to be generated from that development—for example, where you have a residential area adjacent to an industrial estate which might benefit from some environmental improvements as a result of a wide-scale change of that industrial estate. It may have been difficult to negotiate with the current system, but under the new system if you have got to arrange your community benefits and identify them in your development framework, then all development will be contributing towards a wider range of community benefits and on different scales. We think there is some inherent problem with the tariff system, unless it is on a very bare and open basis. One recommendation we are suggesting is that it is based on a proportion of the development value rather than on individual tariffs negotiated at the LDF inquiry. If they are on that individual basis you will see some conflict/rivalry between local authorities adjoining and even between the various regions of the county. I think there is scope for different tariffs but it needs to be on a very fair and open basis.
  (Mr Deegan) I think the County Surveyors' Society takes a rather more cautious view on tariffs. We have welcomed statements in the daughter document to introduce a greater degree of transparency into the discussions over planning obligations. However, we have expressed the view that there are certainly some macro-issues about income from tariffs which are not clear in the Government's proposals at the present time. For example, it is not clear to us whether the income generated by the proposed tariff system would be additional to current local government resources or would be compensated for by reductions elsewhere. Similarly, in terms of the tax impact on business, it is not clear to us whether it would be an additional tax or, again, be compensated for by reductions elsewhere. I think there are some macro-issues of that nature. Equally there are variations around the country. My colleagues in the south east, for example, are rather more keen on the concept of tariffs than my colleagues in the north west and north east, and that is for very obvious reasons of regional imbalance. We also think, in relation to specific proposals being put forward by the Government, that there are some real difficulties in the two-tier areas of local government about establishing single tariffs which cross both local government boundaries—geographical boundaries and functional boundaries. Therefore, it would be very difficult to see how those negotiations would work effectively. Our view is that whilst the present system is some distance from being perfect we would prefer some tweaking of that system rather than a wholesale scrapping of it.

  270. Are planning departments equipped to set tariffs?
  (Mr Silvester) I think it is clear that there would need to be new skills brought into departments, yes. Many local authorities do not have their own surveyors and valuers any more, they rely on consultancies to provide that advice. It may well be that unless you are relying on a straightforward analysis provided by the developer—and I suspect most local authorities would want to question that analysis provided to them—there would need to be a level of expertise which many of us have not got at the present time. Some authorities do.

Mr Cummings

  271. Are the proposals for drawing up regional strategies in the Green Paper workable, in your opinion?
  (Mr Baker) I think the answer to that is yes, to a point, in that I welcome the proposed strengthening of the current regional planning arrangement set out in the Green Paper, particularly the move to statutory status for the new regional spatial strategies and the fact that it is re-emphasising the need for wide stakeholder involvement in their preparation. There are still problems though, and they relate, partly, to the intention of the integration between the regional spatial strategies and other strategy making at the regional level—notably the economic strategies being produced by the development agencies. It is still not clear in the Green Paper how those mechanisms are going to work. It seems to suggest that the regional spatial strategies will set a development spatial framework for the implementation of the economic strategy, but that does not get to grips with the problem that there could well be conflict in opinion between the regional planning body and the development agency as to what form the framework should take. I think that is something that is not yet fully resolved in the Green Paper. That links in very much with the potential problem that there still remains a democratic deficit at the regional level, and it seems to me that actually one way to try and pull together all these strategies—the most obvious way—would be to move as quickly as possible towards some form of regional elected government, then there would be one accountable authority that was responsible for strategy making at the regional level and, hopefully, therefore, there would not be this potential problem of conflict between them. The other element (which I am sure we are coming to in a minute)—

Mrs Dunwoody

  272. Before you leave that, you could not see any difficulty with a region that consisted of Manchester and Liverpool, where Crewe might feel it was slightly out-gunned?
  (Mr Baker) I think the current regional boundaries, obviously, have their problems, but I think that—

  Chairman: You mean we could get rid of Crewe?

  Mrs Dunwoody: I suspect that is the suggestion, yes. Perhaps we could have an Independent Republic of Crewe.

Mr Cummings

  273. Would the Planning Officers' Society like to comment on the question by my colleagues?
  (Mr Russell) About regional spatial strategies? Yes, we believe that regional spatial strategies are an important element. They can, in fact, I think—

  274. The question was are they workable?
  (Mr Russell) I think they are workable. Like all of these things, this is a Green Paper with very little flesh on the bones. I think if you take the concept and develop it through the normal process, then clearly a great deal more advice and guidance on the legislation will come out, and I think they could be made workable. I am less worried, I think, than Mark that proper integration of the different strategies can take place. Oddly enough, John Deegan and I have been heavily involved in the current round of regional planning guidance in the West Midlands, which is not on a statutory basis, but I think we have made significant strides in integrating the various elements of strategy at a regional level. I certainly think that we both feel that we would be quite happy for that plan, when it comes out, to have a statutory basis to form the basis of subsequent development planning at whatever level it is. So I think that there is already good work being done in the regions which could be taken that bit further forward within a statutory framework and could, in fact, form the basis of a regional spatial strategy at a statutory level.

Christine Russell

  275. Can I ask both of you, representing two different groups of planners, what your views are on the proposal to effectively abolish structure plans—to strip out that tier of planning?
  (Mr Deegan) Can I spell out very clearly that our position is not the retention of structure plans in their present form, which would clearly be seen as the county councils defending their own current interests. What we do believe in very important is the retention of a universal or near-universal and statutory arrangement for sub-regional planning. In other words, at a level between a regional and the local level.

  276. Could you expand on that and say why you could not have sub-regional powers on regional planning? Why exactly could you not still achieve that objective with sub-regional planning—albeit under the umbrella of a regional planning system?
  (Mr Deegan) I think the key problem at the moment in, as it were, doing it top-down rather than bottom-up, is democratic deficit. There is clearly no democratically accountable regional body.

  277. That is the only cogent argument? If you had a democratically elected form of regional government, you would have no objection to the abolition of the structure plans?
  (Mr Deegan) With respect, I did not say that. I think even with a democratically elected regional body there is an overwhelming case for retention of a tier of sub-regional planning. I think there is a decent argument that that should not be simply managed at the regional level. The argument for that, in my view, principally, is that the regions in this country are very large, and there is an issue about remoteness and access and voice to regional institutions which would be felt by local government.

Mr Stevenson

  278. So the distinction that needs to be drawn here is whether that sub-regional activity is best done through county councils or through a grouping of unitary and district authorities within an identified sub-region?
  (Mr Deegan) There are variations on that model. The view we would take, as a society, is that the sub-regional statutory planning needs to be undertaken within partnerships that are appropriate. In some circumstances sub-regions may be larger than existing counties.

  Mr Stevenson: You are a planner, not a lawyer.


  279. Mr Russell, you appeared to nod. I need to get a nod on the record.
  (Mr Russell) No, I think we have to admit here that there is a situation here where you can get a cigarette paper between John's view and my view. Our view is, yes, we have already said we support very much a strong regional tier. We are concerned that from very, very large regions you could be, in certain cases, going down to local development frameworks for authorities of little more than 60,000 people. We do believe that that is too big a gap in terms of making important decisions on major housing allocations, major employment allocations and major transport—


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