Examination of Witnesses (Questions 720-739)
SIR JEREMY BEECHAM AND MR LEE SEARLES
WEDNESDAY 1 MAY 2002
720. You support the proposals to integrate the planning system into the wider functions of local authorities. Do you think community strategies and local strategic partnerships are able to do that?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think they are able to play their part in that and they will be an important part of the consultative process. It is critically important that the public feels that it is able to participate in the planning process, that it is not simply the subject of the planning process.
721. Do you have any doubts about that being the way forward?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) Experience of local strategic partnerships is variable. We are in early days. There are some places where it seems to be working very well. In some places there are some tensions, not unnaturally, between the local authority and LSP, but there are going to be tensions anyway. It seems to the Association that they are a suitable vehicle for promoting the consultative process.
722. You say in your written evidence that regional planning bodies should have powers commensurate with their level of accountability. Does that mean that people taking planning decisions should be directly elected?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) Yes.
723. What about the tariff proposals, are you in favour of those?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) Yes, we like the principle. As I said, a lot of the detail clearly needs to be resolved, in particular on what basis the tariff is levied. As I was indicating, it could be done in a variety of ways based on the value of the development, which would make sense in many ways. You could do it in a rather cruder fashion simply by the scale of the development but that does not compare like with like. There are also issues around the extent to which they can relate to other policy areas like the need for affordable housing where we would want to preserve the possibility of requiring on-site affordable housing. In principle, yes, we would certainly want to talk to government and indeed other social partners about the details around implementation.
724. We have been told by some witnesses that a tariff system would deter development in difficult areas. Would you agree with that?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) I assume that those making that point are developers and I do not know of any developer who would say that any proposal does not deter development. In practice, I doubt whether it would, but the point would be that there would be an element of discretion about whether or not to apply the tariff. For example, if you had a particularly difficult area, brownfield site, you could in the development framework indicate that would be an area to which you would not apply a tariff and that would be an inducement perhaps if it was marginal for developers to come in.
725. Do you expect the tariff system to produce a windfall for the local authorities?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) I expect it to produce benefits for the local communities.
Sir Paul Beresford
726. Do you anticipate that eventually it is going to be a Treasury-driven stealth tax, equalisation, shifting o your ground?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) There is always a danger that any form of revenue that is raised by local government would be discounted in revenue support grant, as Paul is well aware having practised the art for some years in a previous existence.
727. Take it as a warning!
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) It would be important to establish that the tariff system is a tool of the planning regime and that it is not to be offset against authorities' grants collectively or individually.
728. It does mean that the rich parts of the country are going to get more and poor parts are not going to get any money.
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) The overall grant system really ought to reflect those differences and I do not think you can do it case-by-case looking at individual income streams.
729. So when the Government is reforming the standard spending assessment it should take into account the sort of income local authorities should get from tariffs?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) It should take into account the tax base of the area and other indices of need and deprivation.
Sir Paul Beresford
730. The answer you should have given to me was yes.
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) No it is not.
Sir Paul Beresford: Look at your words tomorrow.
731. What are your views on the proposed abolition of county structure plans? Secondly, what role do you see in planning for counties in the future? Thirdly, does it really make any sense to leave with county councils the responsibility for waste and minerals when you are taking all their other planning powers away from them?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) That is a question that is directed to the authors of the Green Paper.
732. This is your opportunity to tell us how well they did.
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) Not terribly well on that. Our view is that given the functions of county councils which cover significant areas of public policy which relate clearly to land use planning issues, ranging from education provision, social services, highways and waste, that you cannot bypass county councils and rely on a structure with the region at one end and the district at the other not least because of the variability of size and capacity of district councils, to which I have already referred in relation to another question. So the county role needs to be maintained but in the context of shared responsibilities for development of the local development frameworks with district councils.
733. Is that not just duplication?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) No I do not think it is. Whilst you have got two-tier local government both have got to be involved in the process.
734. What if they disagree with each other?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) If there is a disagreement there has to be a recourse first in terms of definition of the areas, which might be done regionally and, secondly, if a county and one or more of its districts cannot agree with each other about a framework then there has to be a mechanism to mediate that. It might be an elected body or it might be ultimately the Secretary of State. I acknowledge that there is the possibility of conflict but there might also be the possibility of conflict between regional authorities within different regions or between different regional bodies because some of these issues cross regional boundaries in any case. There must be a fallback position.
735. Do you think the public is going to be happy with the suggestion that major infrastructure projects are considered by Parliament rather than locally?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) I would not like to speculate about the standing of parliamentarians in this assembly. I would have thought the public has little faith in procedures that can take five to eight years to resolve a planning issue. Providing Parliamentary structures are such that it is perceived, for example, that the Whip does not apply, that it deals with it objectively and that it is a proper process
736. You must be an expert in the way Whips apply. Do you think you can ever get rid of Whips?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) I think they are a life form that will remain in the political system for a long time but their influence can be restrained, as some members of this Committee are well aware. In local government there has been a very clear policy for many years that on development control committees, as far as planning matters are concerned, there is no right of reply.
737. Do you think that has really happened?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) Yes.
738. Do you not think there is an informal meeting of a group who reach a view that may be very unpopular?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) That may happen. It is impossible to say it does not happen, but the prevailing practice is that people take what is regarded as a quasi judicial responsibility seriously and people of all parties operate in the spirit of an unwhipped system and one would expect that, and indeed one would require it of the Parliamentary process.
739. Can I ask for your comments on a situation where perhaps the local authority local development framework which has had public consultation is not in favour of a major infrastructure project, and thus there is a contradiction. What are the factors that will enable any Parliamentary committee to win the support from the public in those circumstances?
(Sir Jeremy Beecham) As I understand it, the proposal is that the Parliamentary select committee determines the need for the project. There is still an inquiry process, is there not, to follow. It is just that whereas the Terminal Five inquiry spent years deciding whether there should be a terminal as opposed to where it might be and the detail of it, that end of the process should be resolved in Parliament. It is the not the beginning and the end of a process. The Parliamentary part of it is the beginning and other procedures then follow. If there is a flaw in the present proposal it is that you could get a series of unrelated policies around infrastructure proposals dealt with instead of having a national infrastructure.