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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 820-839)



  820. What we are saying are the key problems of the present system, and you have given us the figures this morning, are the time it takes to determine applications and the percentage that are done within eight weeks and those that are not, and the fact that 13 per cent of local authorities have not done a UDP. Now if your changes are to ensure that time limits are complied with, in that sense, in the future, what powers are you going to take to ensure that happens?
  (Lord Falconer) We would take some powers in best value, which already exist, would be some of them, but I think it is much more fundamental than simply saying, are you really, really, really going to get cross from the centre about this, because the history of the nineties indicates that Government has always said, "We really are going to enforce these time limits for plans, or for dealing with development control applications," and the statistics provided at the beginning of this—

  821. So what is going to change under your system then?
  (Lord Falconer) Because we simplify the system fundamentally.

  822. No, but, in the end, if authorities still do not deliver, are you going to take powers to force them?
  (Lord Falconer) Then we have best value powers to force them; but, more significantly,—

  823. Why do you not use those powers now?
  (Lord Falconer) We are using the best value powers as best we can, in order—

  824. But they are not working, are they, so why should they work under the new system?
  (Lord Falconer) Because the system that we are proposing is simpler. If you do not change the system then you are right, that you will not make progress using the powers you have already got.

  825. But is not the real problem that, in the last five years, you have given us some figures this morning showing that the percentage of applications determined in eight weeks has not risen; is not the real reason that the actual number of staff in planning departments has declined by 20 per cent during the last five years?
  (Lord Falconer) There is plainly a real resources problem.


  826. So, actually, these figures are a triumph for local authorities, are they not, that they have managed to maintain the status quo and yet they have had 20 per cent fewer staff to do it? So if you gave them the staff, they could have a wonderful (outcome ?) ?
  (Lord Falconer) I do not know whether they are a triumph for local authorities, they indicate that, over the last ten years, in relation to the time it takes to deal with development control applications, the figures have remained pretty steady, and I understand the position is that 90 per cent of local authorities do not deal with 80 per cent of their applications within the time proposed in the standard. So that target has been missed for the last ten years. I utterly and completely acknowledge that resources are one part of it, but I am quite sure that resources are not the only part of the story and there needs to be both increased resources, in local planning authorities, and change in the way that the system operates.

Chris Grayling

  827. Have you looked at what kind of applications are in the other 30, 40 per cent; are we looking at—
  (Lord Falconer) The other 30 or 40 per cent of what?

  828. In terms of the applications not determined in eight weeks. Because, if an application is to build a major new corporate centre in a green area, on the site of an old stately home, clearly, there is going to be a long process of debate, discussion, assessment, in the local community that is going to take more than eight weeks. If that 30 or 40 per cent is, in fact, the big, significant applications that have a real impact on local communities, and authorities are taking more time to think about them, that would be entirely reasonable; if the other 60 per cent are the smaller ones that are no problem, again, that would be entirely reasonable. So the question is, have you actually done an assessment of what kind of applications fall under each of these two umbrellas?
  (Lord Falconer) Yes, we have, and, indeed, because you are absolutely right to say there is a difference between, as it were, the domestic application and the application for a huge development, one needs to refine the targets to reflect the differences in time that it takes. Jeff, could you just deal with what our analysis shows, as to the extent to which those that are missing are the bigger sorts of cases.
  (Mr Channing) The information was actually set out on page 35 of the Green Paper, which analysed the distribution of major commercial and industrial decisions, compared with minor and compared with other groups of applications, and that is why the Green Paper proposes that the targets for a large application should be slightly extended in time.

  829. We have been talking about planners and resources in local planning departments. The reality is, today, that planning departments are, generally speaking, hard-pressed and underresourced, and I have had examples in my own constituency of major developments where actually planning decisions have been taken on the quick, because they have not had enough people to do the job properly. Despite all of your aspirations to improve the system, the reality is, we are where we are today with the resourcing of local authority planning departments, you cannot wave a wand and change that, so is there not going to be a substantial period of time of transition between the introduction of a new system and actually making it work, just simply while planning authorities gear themselves up to cope with the new approaches?
  (Lord Falconer) Your description of planning departments is one that is reflected, I think, right across England, not in every local authority but it is a problem everywhere. We need, do we not, in order to deliver the change, to have a commitment to change from the centre, the necessary changes in the system and the increase in resources that is required, and we need to get those resources into local planning authorities as quickly as reasonably possible. That has got to be done in parallel with the changes in the system.

  830. But that will take some time, inevitably, because you cannot just wave a wand and have new planners walk in through your front door, new skills; clearly, the new system will also involve some degree of retraining for local planning officers?
  (Lord Falconer) Indeed, and it will need, I think, a greater number of qualified planning officers, and I think it will need a change in the perception of planners, who, whereas 30 years ago they were regarded as high status employees in local authorities, I think their status has gone down in local authorities over the last few decades; that will take time. But, on the quickest legislative track, the commencement of legislative changes could not occur before the beginning of 2004, and then there would need to be a period thereafter in which the changes brought about by legislative change would then have to be gradually introduced. So it is a period of years that is required to get the change done, but I do not think it is impossible to have both the increase in resources and the changes in the system going on in parallel.

  831. So, as examples, are you currently working with, for example, universities to look at expanding the number of places on planning courses, are you looking at resource plans and development plans for local authorities, the personal development plans for local authority staff; so is there a framework which local authorities will be able to use, tap into, additional resource they will be able to grasp, in order to get these extra people and skills that they will need?
  (Lord Falconer) There is not a detailed framework in place, obviously, at the moment; but we need, in parallel with the reform process, to discuss with the local authorities, the professional bodies, institutes of higher education, how you do expand the planning profession. Mike, do you want to say anything about this?
  (Mr Ash) I was only going to add the fact that, as part of the transition that the Minister has talked about, we will need to help that process as best we can. We have, for example, coming out soon a Good Practice Guide on the preparation of development plans; now this is something that we were doing under the old system, it predates the Green Paper. Research consultants have produced this for us; we have asked them to add a commentary into their document which would indicate those elements of it which would flow across into the new arrangements when they—


  832. But this is not going to get any extra staff doing the work, is it?
  (Mr Ash) No; but it helps the existing staff in doing the job that has to be done, that is the key point.

Chris Grayling

  833. Forgive me, but there is a classic response from Government, which is to issue a document, and it is terribly easy to print and produce and distribute a document.
  (Mr Ash) Can I carry on. We have that in process. The Planning Officers Society are revising their guide on how policies can best be produced in the new system. We propose to issue advice over the summer on the degree to which local authorities can, within the constraints of the existing law, start moving in the direction of the new arrangements. We have been approached by a large number of district authorities who want to move on to the new system, and what we propose to do is work with them, in a pilot way, to try to work out how best to manage this process and what additional advice and guidance authorities may need. So all of that is in addition to what we may do through the sorts of measures that the Minister has already referred to, to work with the Royal Town Planning Institute, for example, who are doing their investigation into the training of planners, to look at the delivery of people into the system, how that can be encouraged, how they can be better prepared for the task ahead, etc.


  834. Can you just put it into words for me; how many extra planners do we need?
  (Mr Ash) It is very difficult to give you an estimate of that. Clearly, we need more information about what is out there at the moment, and also to what extent people might be redeployed within the system.

  835. There is a spending review going on, you must be making some submissions to the Chancellor, and you must have some idea of the sort of extra staff that are needed; now cannot you tell me?
  (Lord Falconer) Could I help you there. There is a report by Arup about the need for additional planners in local authorities, that is a detailed analysis of it which the Government commissioned. Can I provide that to the Committee, which I think might be of assistance in relation to addressing the very issues which I know you are interested in. I cannot give you, off the top of my head, the precise figure per local authority, but it is precisely that sort of issue that it addresses, and, obviously, that is an important document, in the context of addressing what additional resources are required.

Helen Jackson

  836. But there has always been this split in local government between planners and developers, economic developers; is what you are proposing an integration of those two disciplines?
  (Lord Falconer) No, it is not; it is not remotely. I think, in terms of the way that the planning—

  837. If not, why not, I would suggest, because perhaps the resources necessary to develop a Local Development Framework are precisely with the staff in the authority that are classed as developers, not planners? Why are you not proposing an integration of the two?
  (Lord Falconer) In terms of outcomes, we are specifically saying that the planning system does not connect in enough with the other outcomes sought by local or central government. I do not think that leads to the conclusion that you then absorb the whole planning department into the economic development department. They have got to work closely together, but there have got to be, I believe, independent planning departments in local authorities.

Chris Grayling

  838. Lord Falconer, I have been listening to what you and your colleagues have been saying. We are talking about a process that would come into effect, at the earliest timetable, in 20 months' time.
  (Lord Falconer) A change in the law would come into effect in 2004, but there would need to be a transitional period thereafter.

  839. And what I am hearing from you is, you are having various conversations about what might happen; but, in reality, the practicalities of that timetable mean that, for example, you would need to have universities with additional places for town planning trainees, planning trainees, this September, you would need to be working with them now to have courses for retraining planners to start in September of next year. I do not hear any clear evidence that the work you are doing has reached that level of practicality to avoid a hiatus when you come to actually make the transition, and that is an area of concern?
  (Lord Falconer) I think it would be a mistake to rush off now to universities and start to suggest what extra courses they have, when the precise detail of the changes is not yet clear.


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