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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300-319)



  300. By a strategy do you mean a Local Plan as well?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) We mean a spatial plan, and we would like to see it moved up: first, the structure plans moved to spatial plans and moved up at least to a sub-regional level. When there is, indeed, some more democratic system at the regional level, we would like to see it move towards there in certain circumstances. We agree with the previous witnesses that, in fact, sub-regional levels are relevant and I believe Lord Falconer is of that view. It depends on the area of the country. There is similarity between our integrated spatial strategies and what Government has been emphasising, but we feel that the Government in their Green Paper has ignored the environment, "beyond the end of the street". There is a plethora of plans at the moment, overlapping in different time-scales and different areas, and these need to be brought together in some place to make a more efficient system.

  301. Do you think the Government proposal could lead to not merely quicker or even slower decisions, as far as you are concerned, but might lead to a different kind of decision being made on some important applications which could lead to more unsustainable development?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) That is what we are saying. There is a lack of strategy in the document. We are proposing a statutory purpose and broad objectives; we feel that they both need to be in place. The Government's approach seems to be very much a business approach—speed—and will, I think, lead to decisions which do not take into account these very important environmental issues.

  302. In effect, they could lead to a development-led approach to planning rather than a plan-led approach to development.
  (Sir Tom Blundell) Yes, I think so.

Mr O'Brien

  303. In your submission to the Committee you referred to the very few references to sustainable development and that these are not acknowledged as an environmental concept. Do you think the Green Paper gives priority to promoting economic growth while disregarding environmental implications?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) Of course, the Green Paper mentions sustainable development, indeed, at the beginning of the report, but we feel that it does not give a proper balance between the need to meet economic and social objectives and the need not only to protect the environment but to enhance it.

  304. Do you think the recent statement by Lord Falconer, when he said that he intends to put sustainability at the heart of the planning system, reconciles any problems you have?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) We have had discussions with Lord Falconer, and since then he has made a speech which takes into account issues of environmental sustainability and sustainable development to a greater degree. We would welcome that. The Government's regional spatial strategies could accommodate a more integrated approach where the issues that we are concerned about are brought together with the other development issues.

  305. Does that recent statement now prompt you to withdraw your earlier comments?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) I think many aspects of the report give us concern because sustainable development is defined in a very limited, local way. There is very much emphasis in the Green Paper on delivering decisions for business "in the right place at the right time"—I think are the words used. We would want to see very much greater thought given to the wide range of issues. Just take waste and minerals, which are still going to be dealt with at the county level, whereas many of the other issues in spatial planning are going up to regional level. I do not think the government has really thought through an integrated approach. I do not think, therefore, we will have an efficient system coming from it.

  306. Are you doubting the reference which has been made by Lord Falconer when he says he is going to put sustainability at the heart of planning?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) I think sustainable development is something that means different things to different people. We feel the way it is defined in the Green Paper does not give enough emphasis to protecting and enhancing the environment.
  (Professor Macrory) Can I just add on that that in the report we have a considerable chapter on what sustainable development can mean, and there is a concern, as Sir Tom has said, that it can mean different things to different people. We may come to this question, but we do propose a statutory purpose now for the town and country planning system, but we have studiously avoided the word "sustainable development" in that statutory purpose because we think that probably the public do not understand what it means and there are very different views. Certainly our view is that the environment and the concept of environmental constraints has to really be at the heart of that in the long term.

  307. In view of the fact that, as you point out, sustainability does mean different things to different people, does that not influence it because the Minister has said, "We will have to make the final decision", and therefore the points that you are making weaken the argument that the Government is not respecting the question of sustainability because they have to make the final decision when other people have different views on it?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) In many ways the recognition and the use of the words "sustainable development" and the fact that they can be used in different ways may be helpful. I believe that the Government could include environmental aspects to a greater degree, without upturning their major spatial strategies.

  308. In your report that you mentioned there you do refer to the environment and the planning system and you highlight the existence of more than 30 environmental plans and strategies for any one area, which you suggest should be co-ordinated with a land-use planning system. Could you give us a bit more information on that?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) We think that the problem can be solved by spatial planning. We saw an interesting example, in the West Midlands, which is moving towards this idea. They are bringing together the spatial elements of the three legs of sustainable development into an overarching spatial document. They would build on the different plans which at present are produced by a range of different environmental bodies, many of which of course have been formed over recent years and since the land use planning system in particular was established.


  309. Can you give us some "for instances" of the plans that currently exist?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) There are waste plans, mineral plans, bio-diversity plans, a whole range of environmental aspects.
  (Professor Macrory) The example in the report was looking at Cambridgeshire which is said to be a progressive area in any event but, as those who live there will know, under a lot of growth pressures and so on. These 30 plans which were just a starting point (and there seem to be more) were not necessarily pure environmental plans, but they have relationships to the environment. Some of them were habitat plans and would include transport plans and so on. Our concern is not simply the plethora of plans and what we describe as a "fatigue of planning" but that they are often based on different timescales and different databases and there seem to be very few ways of giving some sort of coherence to those plans and putting them together in any sense.

Mr O'Brien

  310. How do you see the impact of European legislation on some of this sustainability that you referred to in your document?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) I think generally helpful.

  311. You think that the European Directives will be helpful to you?
  (Professor Macrory) Yes. There is a Directive on Strategic Environmental Assessment which we think is clearly going to impact and it may assist on some of these areas.

  312. The Green Paper will help that also, will it?
  (Professor Macrory) It does not seem to address that particular question.

Miss McIntosh

  313. Sir Tom, in answer to an earlier colleague's question you said the Government approach appears to be designed to speed up the process, not necessarily designed to take account of environmental concerns. Would you like to elaborate on that?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) It is very much focused on development control. We of course agree with the Government that efficiency is required. We believe that a system that is going to work has to be a system that gives high quality planning judgments and we believe that that is one which is working within a broad strategy rather than just with an emphasis on speed of local planning applications.

  Miss McIntosh: A number of us have had applications for overhead pylons go through successfully on the present procedures. I am very concerned that the new parliamentary procedures will expedite such applications in the future. I also am very concerned that Parliament is not best placed to consider even broadly these planning applications. Each and every one of us that sits on such an inquiry where we have chosen to do so will be accused of NIMBYism because people will judge us —

  Mrs Dunwoody: Is this a short question?

  Miss McIntosh: Do you agree with that?

Mrs Dunwoody

  314. Yes or no?
  (Professor Macrory) On the question of power lines and power stations generally, in our previous energy report we did recommend that the procedures were fully integrated into the town and country planning system which they are not at the moment and we felt that was an anachronism. We do discuss the question particularly of major infrastructure projects and although we welcome in principle the idea of better developed national policy frameworks, which clearly one would hope Parliament would be strongly involved in, certainly I and we do have doubts whether Parliament is in the best position to handle the detailed locational issues. It is up to Parliament to decide whether it has the capacity and the time to take on these procedures. Whether it is the best use of time is debatable, as anybody who has been involved in Private Bill procedures will know because of the amount of time and effort that is involved. Without saying Parliament cannot do it (because that would not be for us to do) we doubt whether it is in the best position and we recommend that the locational issues in major inquiries, the actual location of a particular project, is better determined by some form of planning inquiry commission which mixes adversarial and inquisitorial elements against a policy framework and probably against a locational framework which would help decide "these are the locational principles".

Dr Pugh

  315. Can I ask about Local Development Frameworks because you do not say a great deal about them. Do Local Development Frameworks have a critical role in helping manage the local environment?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) Having read the Green Paper several times and again yesterday, I find the description of local government frameworks really quite unclear.

  Chairman: Surely you are not criticising the Green Paper as being unclear?

Mrs Dunwoody

  316. Not after you have spoken to Lord Falconer. Everything must be crystal clear!
  (Sir Tom Blundell) He certainly tried to convince me that I agreed with him! Let me say that our worry about the local government area is really related to questions of expertise and resource. We believe that many of the decisions that have to be made require special expertise in different areas. Even in the county councils concerned with structure planning, there is not always the relevant expertise. To take much of the decision making down to local government and into local plans and to remove the structure plans is of concern to us.

Dr Pugh

  317. You seem to be saying that the Local Government Frameworks should be largely silent about environmental concerns and if they speak they have not got sufficient expertise to speak with. Is that what you are saying?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) Not at all. We welcome the emphasis on participation in the planning process that is in the Green Paper. Local government has to contribute to the discussion and there has to be a feeding up but there has to be a strategic overview for an area which is much larger and a level that is higher than district planning because most of the issues we are dealing with, whether they are waste disposal or transport or whatever, concern a broader area and the district plans are not the appropriate area. So there has to be some cascading down from that to give guidance.

  318. So they can speak about the environment but consistent with wider planning?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) Yes.

Miss McIntosh

  319. The Green Paper rejects third party rights of appeal. I gather in your submission that the RCEP are in favour of that. Could you justify why you think third parties should have the right of appeal?
  (Sir Tom Blundell) I will hand that to my lawyer colleague.
  (Professor Macrory) I am sure it is going to help lawyers! We looked at the system. When you look at the system at the moment, it is rather odd in the sense that both third parties and developers can always appeal to courts of law on questions of law and essentially third parties now do not have a locus problem. When you look at merits appeals, at the moment, as you know, only developers have a right of appeal. Several things about that struck us as strange. First of all, I have no doubt, looking at the increased number of judicial reviews going on in the courts at the moment, that many are essentially are disguised as legal appeals but in effect they are merits appeals. Lawyers such as myself can disguise a merits appeal as a legal appeal but that is not appropriate use of court time and it is not very effective. Secondly, we feel that there are instances where our concern is to improve public confidence and trust in the system. At the moment this looks like a distorted system. The argument of course is that developers have property rights and therefore they should be given a second bite of the cherry. I think the debate has now moved on beyond that and there is a case for rights of appeal. The alternative, which we suggest, is to ask—Why should developers have the right to appeal to what is normally an unelected inspectorate? If you believe in democratic government you could say it should be the local planning authority or the Secretary of State if he calls it in and that is the final decision, and if there is a question of law you can still go to court but let us not have any merits appeals at all. We felt that was probably too radical even for this Government to take on board so we have proposed a slightly more balanced one. I should also mention the idea of the statutory consultees having a right of appeal which I think is novel in this report and is a very important element of that.


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