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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 750-759)




  750. Can I welcome you to the Committee this morning, to our Inquiry into the Planning Green Paper. Can I ask you to introduce yourself and your team, for the record, please?

  (Ms Essex) Good morning to everyone. I am Minister for the Environment, Planning and Transport in the National Assembly for Wales. On my left is Martin Evans, Director of the Transport, Planning and Environment Directorate. Kay Powell is Head of Planning Division; and Heledd Thomas is one of our Planning Officers, who has been involved in the document.

  751. Thank you very much. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction, or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
  (Ms Essex) Perhaps if I say just a couple of brief words about Wales and devolution. Even prior to devolution we had a considerable number of planning powers, particularly in the field of secondary legislation, so this document, "Planning: delivering for Wales", reflects the fact that we have those powers within Wales, but it also reflects, I think, the context in which we are developing it, trying to integrate with policy-setting, in also the Assembly context of a plan for Wales. So I hope that will give you a background context of what we have been trying to do.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

Ms King

  752. Good morning. I wonder if you could tell us, how are you going to get improvements in performance around planning if you do not adopt more radical change?
  (Ms Essex) We call this "Planning: delivering for Wales" and we think some of the elements that we have put in place already and proposed in our documents will, in fact, improve the system. We have got the integrated Planning Policy Wales document, it looks large, of course it is bilingual, but that is an integrated policy base, bringing all the key policy statements together, also linking it across to other Assembly policies, whether it is transport, economic development, sustainable development. So if we put in place that forward-looking process, if we put a greater emphasis into capacity, particularly of local authorities, to deliver—and I think the word "delivery" is key here, and what we anticipate doing is a considerable amount of work with local government in Wales to improve the delivery system—we think that we will actually give greater confidence to people in the system, but also ensure participation; it has got to be confidence, has it not, for everyone?

  753. So you are saying basically that the system is not actually "broke" at the moment?
  (Ms Essex) We do not think the system is broken in Wales, we think that it is essentially sound. We have a commitment in the legislation to sustainable development, which inherently means that you need a sound planning system. There are improvements undoubtedly, and we have identified some, out to consultation, in our document, but a key thing, I think, is putting in place a better delivery mechanism; that will need extra capacity, both skills, perhaps some resources too, it will need better training, it will lead us very much to concentrating on outputs. I think there is a danger in the planning system that you look very much at the process and take your eye off what outputs you are expecting, and that is where we see the emphasis coming.

  754. Could you tell us briefly what you see as being the advantages of the current forward planning system in Wales that you would not want to lose under new proposals?
  (Ms Essex) Yes; obviously, we would not want to lose any powers that we have on devolution. The planning guidance document we mentioned, this is an integrated policy base, we think that that works, and we would definitely want to keep this, and I think there has been general support for that principle. We think that we could speed up the development plan process by focusing on potential for change; at the moment the development plan process is probably the biggest problem, in terms of the documents that are coming through; that makes them very slow. And, in this, our suggestion is that we put in place local development plans, but that we would encourage local authorities to concentrate on the areas of change, via use of Action Plans, where there are anticipated changes, and we think that makes sense. Rather than trying to put everything in a development plan for every eventuality, let us look for them being a more slim-line, focused document but then has very intensive work on areas of change. I think the other thing to say, of course, is that, Wales, we are roughly three million people there, a large part of Wales has rurally-dispersed communities, we have smaller urban settlements overall, Cardiff being the largest one, 300,000, so we have to put together a planning process that reflects that kind of geography, that kind of social structure within Wales.

  755. Lastly, can I ask you about the timetables that you are looking at introducing, you are going to introduce tight timetables; what sanctions are you going to have for local authorities if they do not stick within those timetables?
  (Ms Essex) We are looking to work very much with the carrot; we have a system of policy agreements operating with local government in Wales; we are looking to working with local government on a concordat. So I think we are fairly positive that we will go, first of all, with that issue of encouragement, working together. We are seeing many fruits of that approach in Wales, actually, not least on transport, and we honestly believe that that approach, to start with, is the way forward, but putting an emphasis on skills within local authorities, both skills at the officer level and the Member level. And in our discussions with local government it has become very clear that they would appreciate that too, certainly Members, helping them to look at the outputs, looking at their decision-making, going back and revisiting decision-making, the times taken, the quality of the decision, the kind of thing that perhaps we have not done in the past, and that, I think, will put the encouragement there for them to deliver for their community. The other thing perhaps I have not mentioned, that I think is also important, is that local authorities are producing their community plans, which sets out a vision for their own local area, and I think that will focus minds in local authorities again on the delivery aspects.

Helen Jackson

  756. You are proposing to draw up a national spatial plan; what are you going to include in that?
  (Ms Essex) It will have, obviously, a spatial element to it, but we will need to set a way forward, linking in certainly economic development, transport, protected areas. We are still at the developmental stage, have a component which looks at opportunities for development, so that infrastructure can be linked together. It will also have regional, we must get the words right, if we look at a national spatial plan, it will have a regional element too, which maybe, in England, would be perhaps called sub-regional, just to make that clear.

  757. When you say spatial elements, do you mean a map?
  (Ms Essex) We do not envisage a detailed map, it will be a framework, a statement, and it will be there as a basis for both the regional elements to come forward and also the unitary development plans.

  758. To get a bit more exact description, will it include things like targets for wind farms, wind energy?
  (Ms Essex) No, because it would not necessarily go down to that level of detail, but it would actually be able to set a framework for the delivery of targets, the targets would be set within an energy policy.

  759. And who will draw that up?
  (Ms Essex) We are preparing the Wales Spatial Plan in conjunction, we have got a Management Board at the moment of interested, I will use the word, stakeholders, interested organisations; the regional element we see will be drawn up very much with local government, but probably with other key players as well, industry, the Welsh Development Agency, some of the other agencies that we have, Environment Agency and others.


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