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

Examination of Witness (Questions 605-619)




  605. Good morning. May I welcome you to the third session of the Committee's inquiry into the planning Green Paper and ask you to identify yourself for the record, please.

  (Professor Grant) Thank you, Chairman. My name is Malcolm Grant. I am Professor of Land Economy and Pro-Vice-Chancellor in the University of Cambridge.

  606. Thank you very much. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy to go straight to questions?
  (Professor Grant) I am very happy for you to go straight to questions, Chairman.

Helen Jackson

  607. You recognise that the Green Paper is intended to speed up decisions and simplify the system, but do you think the objectives behind it are going to deliver that end?
  (Professor Grant) I am very much in favour of the objectives of the Green Paper. I think we have reached a position with planning in this country where the best has become enemy of the good and in which delays in taking decisions, particularly in the preparation of local plans, has to some extent defeated the object of decisions that people can rely upon and be delivered to them on a speedy basis. So I share the aspirations the Government has and probably share much of the rhetoric in the Green Paper. For me the problem comes with the detail and with the implementation, which is not spelt out to the extent that one would have wished in order to be able to judge whether the Government is going to be able to achieve its objectives.

  608. You mention transparency. There is no mention in the Green Paper of the Government's proposals on open government, for example. Do you feel that transparency, better transparency in the planning system, will come out of these sort of reforms?
  (Professor Grant) Again that is partly a process issue. There are one or two transparency issues that one can find in the thickets of the Green Paper: for example, the proposed right of people to address planning committees of local authorities.

  609. Do they not already have that right?
  (Professor Grant) They do not have that right. It is something which a planning committee may extend to members of the public by invitation but it is not a right. There are, if you like, within the Green Paper, some processes which point in the direction of transparency, but I think that the accurate answer to your question is that the detail about process in the Green Paper is sufficiently lacking for us to worry about whether transparency will be delivered.

  610. Can you give an example of how the absence of detail in the Green Paper makes it difficult to assess whether this is actually going to change the culture behind the planning system?
  (Professor Grant) The example I would suggest is to do with the way in which decisions are to be taken around the content of local development frameworks and action plans. This is left wide open by the Green Paper. It suggests that the Government would welcome further representations. It has specified in the Green Paper a range of options. There could be public local inquiries; there could be informal hearings; there could be meetings. The problem with working out the impact of the Green Paper on practical planning is that so much depends on which of those options is chosen and how they are implemented.

Sir Paul Beresford

  611. Which of the options would you choose and how would you like them implemented?
  (Professor Grant) I will give an answer which sort of spans the spectrum, if I may. The Green Paper is proposing the scrapping of structure plans. It is proposing the translation of regional planning guidance into regional spatial strategies and it is proposing the introduction of LDFs and APs. Those involve a spectrum which runs from the vaguest aspirations of policy, sometimes for an entire region, down to the most specific decisions that will need to be taken in advance of granting or refusing planning permission to an individual. So we need, I would have thought, to have a clear understanding of how one reconciles this rather abstract notion of collective welfare to be advanced at policy level (for example, the advancement of affordable housing as a policy objective) in which there may not be specific, individual land-owning rights that are affected. That suggests that at policy level one can have a much more open procedure for taking decisions. Through the spectrum, we come down to local development frameworks. The suggestion in the Green Paper is that these will be primarily criteria-based policies—they will not have a site-specific implication to them—so they bear that resemblance, at least, to structure plans. The current process for structure plans is called an "examination in public". That was introduced in 1972 because public inquiries into development plans were taking far too long. This is not an unfamiliar complaint and it is one that goes back through the entire history of land-use planning. So the examination in public is not one in which the public have rights to participate. The topics for discussion are selected by the panel and the people who are to attend are selected by the panel and the discussion that takes place, rather like this, is a discussion of representatives of different interests around a table. The other model at the moment in local plans is the public inquiry. It is not clear from the Green Paper as to whether it is to be the model being proposed for action plans. I would have thought that for the local development frameworks the use of an examination in public is an entirely appropriate and sensible approach. To use a public local inquiry at that level would seem to me to lead far too quickly to long drawn-out processes. The point about public local inquiries is that they are led primarily by objectors. Those objectors may be landowners. They have the greatest incentive to object, often if their land is included in the Green Belt rather than in a development area, but it means that the policy thinking gets distracted into a debate about individual sites and I would have thought that at LDF level policy thinking should still dominate.

Helen Jackson

  612. I think that is right, but is it not almost human nature in the public that they become interested enough to come to meetings and express their voices at the point at which a specific proposal arouses. Is there not a problem that if the suggestion is simply a strategy they will say, "That's fine, that is the job for the authority," and leave it to you?
  (Professor Grant) That has certainly been true throughout the history of strategic planning.

  613. Do we not learn from history that this is part of human nature, that they want to see the goods on the table before they take part?
  (Professor Grant) Yes, indeed, and that is why the sort of policies that you make at structure plan level, and I would assume also in the LDF, are sufficiently flexible to allow for their application ultimately, usually through an application for planning permission.

  614. Finally, do you think it would be helpful if the Minister produced a White Paper before preparing any draft legislation?
  (Professor Grant) Yes, I do. I understand, from having read the report of the debate in the other House a couple of weeks ago, that there is now a proposal to bring forward a policy paper, though not a White Paper. It does seem to me that the implementation proposals in this Green Paper are not yet near the stage where they could be readily converted into primary legislation.

Mr O'Brien

  615. Professor, we are looking at this Green Paper to try to decide which is the good and which is the bad. The Green Paper proposals take away the right of people to appear at a public inquiry to hear objections to local plans and unitary development plans. They are also saying that the Green Paper proposes to increase the effectiveness of public participation in plan preparation. Do you think it is a good thing to take away the right of people to attend public inquiries?
  (Professor Grant) The answer to that must depend on the extent to which the inquiry is dealing with policy and the extent to which it starts to impinge upon people's direct environments. To the extent that it is to do with policy, the better arena, at least in theory, is a political policy oriented arena—but not unbounded politics—politics bounded by a procedure that at least subjects those draft policies to some form of examination.

  616. Are you suggesting that an examination in public, the offer made in the Green Paper, is an effective substitute for a public inquiry?
  (Professor Grant) I would have thought that at the stage of the local development framework the answer to that is yes. Can I develop on my reasons for that.

  617. You agree with that.
  (Professor Grant) I agree with the proposal that you should have an examination in public for the local development framework. We have not yet talked about action plans, but for the local development framework there is proposed by the Green Paper something which we have not had before but which I would commend to you for further consideration, and that is a process of regular monitoring and updating, a process which could take place, at least at a monitoring level, every year and, at an updating level, every three years. Unless you make a sacrifice in terms of the time required to prepare the policies in the first place, you will never achieve that iteration. One of the problems with the Green Paper that I have is that it fails to prioritise and to identify what are the trade-offs. Green Papers are "aspirational". Green Papers would like to persuade us that everything is possible. But it is not. Time is the lost discipline of planning. Local plan inquiries consume time. They consume time in a manner which is not always the most effective use of time. Local plan inquiries are—how should I put it?—polycentric. They are dealing with multiple issues all in the same plan over the whole of a local authority's area. Some of those issues may be party-by-party issues which are well enough suited to a public inquiry, others are quite important policy issues which affect the whole of an area which really are not so suitable to being resolved by a process in which two or three interests are represented—often because there is a financial inducement for them to represent their interests—and there is of course a large unrepresented proportion of the population.

  618. Is that not democracy?
  (Professor Grant) No, that is not democracy, that is legal process.

  619. The situation is that under these proposals a lot of objectors will not be inclined to take part in the public examination according to the Green Paper. Where do you stand on that?
  (Professor Grant) I would have thought the examination-in-public process is capable of taking care of the sort of issues that are likely to be emergent in a local development framework. My reason for that is two-fold. First of all, we have had experience of it with structure plans. It has not been hugely controversial. It has worked at the structure plan level relatively well with criteria-based policies. Provided the LDFs are primarily criteria-based policies, I would anticipate that they could work reasonably well there.


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