Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Thirteenth Report

Proposals for reforming the planning system

9. We now turn to the proposals in the Planning Green Paper and other proposals included in evidence to the Committee and in responses to the Government's consultation, which set out how the planning system could be improved. We look at:

  • the need for a statutory objective;
  • the need for a national spatial strategy;
  • the review of Planning Policy Guidance notes;
  • reforms to regional planning;
  • reforms to sub-regional planning;
  • reforms to planning at district level;
  • reforms to the development control system;
  • specific initiatives to relax planning controls in business planning zones
  • Third Party Rights of Appeal;
  • proposals to introduce a tariff system to replace planning gain negotiations; and
  • proposals to revise the way major infrastructure projects are considered.

A Statutory Objective for the Planning System

  10. At present the planning system does not have a statutory objective or purpose. Professor Malcolm Grant from Cambridge University's Department of Land Economy pointed out that the legislation does no more than allocate power and establish procedural rights in decision-making but it has no statement of objective or purpose.[11] Several submissions to the Committee suggested that a statutory objective was also required. They argued for an objective of seeking to promote sustainable development, balancing environmental, economic and social objectives. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution argued that such an objective was needed to provide clarity and to avoid "oscillation between conflicting ideologies of planning law". It put forward as a purpose "to facilitate the achievement of legitimate economic and social goals whilst ensuring that the quality of the environment is safeguarded and, wherever appropriate, enhanced."[12]

11. Lord Falconer accepted that the planning system required a statutory purpose to promote sustainable development. The Government is now considering suggestions on possible wording. However, he was concerned that it should be meaningful, and noted that if the definition went into a great deal of detail "it [would] simply become[s] a lawyers' beanfeast."[13]

12. The inclusion of a statutory objective for the planning system would be helpful if one could be agreed. This will not be easy. Any objective would need to command wide acceptance and should not be a potential source of dispute at each stage of the planning system.

National Spatial Strategy

  13. Several submissions to the Committee called for a National Spatial Strategy and set out several ideas about its possible role and content. The Royal Town Planning Institute suggested that the strategy could make the Government confront major decisions about the distribution of people and jobs between regions which have up to now been avoided. The organisation argued: "It is impossible to determine inter-regional issues without a national spatial framework."[14] English Nature said that a national strategy could provide a context for protecting our national biodiversity, habitats and landscapes and assessing their varying capacity to accommodate development.[15]

14. The Royal Town Planning Institute also suggested that the national strategy could provide a context for major infrastructure proposals such as airport and port development, the north-south high speed rail route and the strategy for rail freight. We consider this topic under the heading of national policy statements in the section of this report on major infrastructure projects.

15. The National Assembly for Wales has published the first draft of a national spatial strategy. It aims "to address national issues of development and restraint on the broad scale, balancing the needs of environmental protection, enhancement and the sustainable use of environmental and other resources with development which is necessary to support economic well being and successful communities."[16]

16. The Government should evaluate the desirability of establishing a National Spatial Strategy.

Review of Planning Policy Guidance Notes

  17. Planning Policy Guidance Notes were introduced in 1988 to provide a systematic body of general policy on all national planning topics. There are currently 25 guidance notes which lay down national policies on which regional and local plans must be based. They are a material consideration when planning applications are determined. The Green Paper said that all PPGs would be reviewed and that the first six PPGs would be considered over the next two years.[17]

18. The Green Paper says that an extensive review is needed because: "The sheer amount of national planning policy reduces the effectiveness of PPGs as a means of communicating national policy." It suggests that the Government is prescribing too much at national level and "much guidance is insufficiently focused with little differentiation between statements of policy and advice on process and best practice."[18] The review will decide whether all PPGs are required, aim to reduce the length of PPGs that are retained, seek greater clarity in the expression of policy and put guidance elements into a separate document.

19. The Government cited the revised PPG3 on Housing as a model which could be followed. Alongside the main policy guidance note, a set of good practice guides has been produced, which include more detail about the application of the policies and examples of their application.

20. While many submissions welcomed the review in principle, there were concerns that it might lead to excessively brief PPGs which could not be understood without the additional guidance. We asked Lord Falconer about this matter and allegations that the PPGs could be as short as three pages. He confirmed that they would be substantially shorter but "the aim was that they should be short enough to be digestible, long enough to be sufficiently certain."[19]

21. PPGs play an essential role in defining national policy. The Committee welcomes any review which strengthens their role and makes them more user-friendly. The pursuit of brevity must not lead to the omission of essential policy. Distinguishing policy from guidance on its application is helpful provided the policy is not dependent on best practice guidance for its interpretation. PPG3 is an acceptable model. Good practice guidance should have the same weight as a PPG.

Regional Planning

  22. Regional Planning Guidance currently sets out the priorities for development in each region, identifying areas for new development and the growth of major urban centres. It includes the scale and distribution of the provision of new housing and sets a target for brownfield development. Guidance is currently drawn up by associations of local authorities in some areas, and in others areas by chambers comprising local authorities and representatives from the private and voluntary sectors.

23. The Green Paper proposes to replace Regional Planning Guidance with statutory Regional Spatial Strategies. The new Regional Spatial Strategies would be drawn up by representatives from a larger group of organisations from the private and voluntary sectors including the Regional Development Agencies as well as local authorities. The strategies will be expected to make clear strategic choices for accommodating demand for new housing or the location of areas of key employment or retail growth.

24. Since the Planning Green Paper was issued, the Government published its White Paper on Regional Government in May, which proposes that, in regions where directly elected Regional Assemblies are established following a referendum, that Assembly would take over responsibility for the preparation of Regional Spatial Strategies.[20]

25. Witnesses raised a number of concerns about the Government's proposals:

  • Regional boundaries pose a problem. It would be particularly difficult to consider new house building targets in the South East region separately from London. Some submissions suggest that strategies may be required to work across regional boundaries.
  • The danger of economic development interests dominating the preparation of the new Regional Spatial Strategies was also raised by English Nature's chairman Sir Martin Doughty. He thought that it was very important that the Regional Economic Strategies, prepared by the RDAs, were "set within an overall sustainable development framework."[21] The Local Government Information Unit also pointed out that it would be very difficult for non-elected individuals who would be representing land and property interests on the boards preparing the new strategies to make the hard strategic choices about the location of development "when they are not bound by ethical standards in the same way as elected members of local authorities."[22] The same applies to single-issue groups.
  • The Council for the Protection of Rural England pointed out that there are an increasing number of regional strategies on public policy issues and that it is important that the Government should "explicitly emphasise the pre-eminence of the Regional Spatial Strategies "as forming the framework with which all other regional strategies and initiatives should comply."[23] English Nature also suggested that the Regional Spatial Strategies should be central to integrating a comprehensive range of strategies around environmental management, issues of rural development, agriculture and transport planning.

26. Decisions about regional planning should be taken by groups of democratically-elected members of local authorities. Wider interests should be consulted but not make the decisions. We support the proposal in the White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions, that where elected regional assemblies are set up, they should take over regional planning functions. Where elected assemblies are not set up, the present system should remain.

27. The Regional Spatial Strategies should take precedence over and guide the land-use aspect of all other regional strategies drawn up by other regional agencies including the Regional Development Agencies' regional economic strategies.

Sub-regional Planning

  28. At present county structure plans form an intermediate tier in the planning system between Regional Planning Guidance and local plans drawn up by district councils (or in unitary authorities Unitary Development Plans). They are currently drawn up by county councils and translate regional policies into more detailed local objectives.

29. The Green Paper is proposing to abolish structure plans. It suggests that county boundaries are no longer relevant and the role performed by structure plans could be filled by the new statutory Regional Spatial Strategies and the Local Development Frameworks. It accepts that there may be a need for some sub-regional strategies but rejects the idea of comprehensive coverage and is unclear whether such strategies would have formal status.

30. Many submissions to the Committee argued that the abolition of structure plans would create an undesirable gap between the Regional Spatial Strategies and Local Development Frameworks, so making it difficult to implement regional policies unless there were alternative sub-regional strategies.[24] Structure plans were described as the glue between the regional and local plans.[25] The Royal Town Planning Institute stated: "Sub-regional strategies are an essential, not an add-on as implied in the Green Paper."[26]

31. North Yorkshire County Council pointed to the fact that there is national coverage of the structure plans and many have been reviewed and updated on several occasions. The county council argued that the new Regional Spatial Strategies would be too remote to address sub-regional issues in an accountable way. It warned that giving the Regional Spatial Strategies control of sub-regional planning "would seriously undermine the principle of subsidiarity and result in greatly diminished accountability."[27] Oxfordshire County Council stated that while a key aim of the Green Paper was to make planning more locally responsive, strategic planning decisions would be made by a body remote from local communities.

32. The County Councils Network pointed to the complex arrangements which could be introduced if the Regional Planning Bodies had to deal directly with all the district authorities. It added that "by transferring responsibility for strategic land use from the 34 county councils to the 238 district councils and eight regional bodies, and leaving districts to prepare both Local Development Frameworks and Action Plans, the system would become more complex and less democratic."[28] Oxfordshire County Council argued that in the south east, the regional planning body would have to deal with 65 district and unitary authorities. "The result is likely that councils will feel increasingly disenfranchised from the regional planning system."[29]

33. Many submissions pointed out that the proposed abolition of structure plans would pose problems for other strategic planning functions which are currently carried out by county councils including the management of waste, transport and, minerals.[30] As the County Councils Network explained, these functions need to be integrated into a land-use planning framework; it is not clear under the Green Paper proposals how that would happen without integrated and comprehensive sub-regional plans.[31] The National Trust argued "The new sub-regional framework needs to be both universal in its coverage and as effective at engaging community interests as Structure Plans, if it is to provide a substitute."[32]

34. Several witnesses supported sub-regional strategies, and a number of views were put forward about the form they might take. The TCPA argued that "the administrative boundaries are rarely relevant to the geographical areas that need strategic planning." It proposed that several districts and counties in an area should jointly develop strategic plans. The LGA proposed that Local Development Frameworks could in effect be strategic plans, if they were drawn up by several neighbouring authorities. "The emphasis would be on counties and districts agreeing an appropriate pattern based on arrangements that make sense geographically and socio-demographically."[33]

35. There is a need for an effective sub-regional planning system between the regional planning level and local plans. In addition, planning for waste, transport and minerals, which would continue to be carried out by county councils or their successors, should be effectively integrated into comprehensive sub-regional plans.

36. Some county boundaries are still relevant but others no longer reflect the way people live or work. Councils should be allowed to agree amongst themselves the appropriate strategic planning arrangements, which could include retaining county structure plans in some areas.

Planning at a district level

  37. Local Plans are, for the most part, drawn up and adopted by district councils and National Park Authorities and Unitary Development Plans by unitary authorities, each being adopted following a public inquiry. The plans identify particular areas for housing, industry, retail or other uses, and set out the policies which the authority applies in deciding whether or not development will be permitted. In unitary authority areas, the UDP combines the function of the structure plan and also includes a broader set of strategic policies.

38. The Government argues that the local planning system is too complex, and that Local Plans and Unitary Development Plans are too long and inflexible and their preparation is expensive and slow. The Green Paper proposes that they be abandoned and replaced by Local Development Frameworks, which "would take less time to prepare, amend and keep up to date. They would provide business with greater certainty and provide communities with a clear means of getting involved."[34] The frameworks would comprise a set of criteria for acceptable development but not include a comprehensive land use plan. The frameworks are intended to set out the land-use aspects of the proposals in local authority Community Strategies.[35] A range of detailed action plans, village plans would be prepared for smaller areas, and masterplans where major regeneration schemes are envisaged.

39. The Green Paper envisages a streamlined process for the preparation of the Local Development Frameworks suggesting that it would only take months. They would be reviewed annually and updated every three years. New forms of public consultation are also proposed (see para below).

40. The proposal for Local Development Frameworks was supported by several of the submissions to the Committee. Tesco suggested that they would be simple and straight forward, setting national and regional policy in context.[36] The CBI suggested that the frameworks would be effective if they were "concise and coherent."[37] The Countryside Agency said that the Local Development Frameworks would help to coordinate the activities of a range of other bodies "to provide a truly integrated strategy for local areas."[38]

41. However, a number of shortcomings in the Government's proposals were highlighted.

  • The new system would not be simpler than the existing one;
  • The reforms do not appreciate the importance of comprehensive land-use maps in local plans to provide clarity;
  • The general criteria in Local Development Frameworks could be too vague to provide clarity for planning decisions;
  • The new system may not gain the public confidence because individuals would lose the right to appear at a public inquiry to object to proposals in the local Development Framework;
  • Many submissions questioned the scale of the problems said to be associated with current Unitary Development Plans and Local Plans. They suggested that the fundamental reforms were not necessary because the system had already been improved and they highlighted further changes which could speed up existing plan-making processes.


  42. While some submissions to the Committee accepted that the current system was unnecessarily complex, they raised concerns that the new Local Development Frameworks would not be any simpler.

43. In its evidence to the Committee, The Royal Town Planning Institute, which in general supported the Green Paper proposals, highlighted the potential complexity of Local Development Frameworks. "As presently conceived, the LDF is likely to be too difficult for professionals to understand, let alone the community at large."[39]

44. The House Builders Federation warned that the frequent reviews proposed for the Local Development Frameworks will make them less comprehensible. "A constantly changing strategy will fail to deliver the certainty that developers need. This is particularly true in regeneration areas where developers and other investors need the confidence of continued local authority support."[40]

45. The proposals for a number of plans are seen as a problem. Surrey County Council and others raised concerns about the wide range of different plans being proposed - action plans, masterplans, village plans - alongside Local Development Frameworks and subregional strategies. It called on the Government to make sure that there is a clear relationship between them.[41] The Royal Town Planning Institute pointed out that the LDFs may be shorter but there will need to be a portfolio of plans alongside them to cover all the issues affecting area. The Planning Officers' Society pointed out the need for close coordination between the various plans across a whole district. "There is concern that the proposals in the Green Paper for specific proposals to be contained in action plans would not work well in many areas because of the need to allocate and phase the release of sites for housing across a whole district and to define the operative areas for a number of different policies."[42]

46. Lord Falconer acknowledged to the Committee that "there is too much fragmentation in the detail of the proposals," and accepted there will be a need to bring all the different plans together to provide clarity.[43]


  47. There are concerns that the criteria-based approach in Local Development Frameworks will not offer the clarity of UDPs and local plans. Professor Grant told the committee: "Criteria-based policies, as we know them in other contexts (for example, structure plans, and local plans) are often 'aspirational' sometimes conflicting and inconsistent and sometimes so open-ended as to be of little value in decision-making."[44]

48. The CPRE warned that if Local Development Framework policies are not sufficiently detailed the result will be longer delays and greater confusion as developers are encouraged to lodge speculative applications for 'white land' which is not subject to detailed planning policies.[45]


  49. Maps designating land uses have been the basis of local development plans since 1947, and in 1991 authority-wide land use plans were made a statutory requirement for both district and county authorities. However, the Green Paper argued that the preparation of comprehensive land-use maps was a key cause of delay in the adoption of Unitary Development Plans and Local Plans.

50. The need for a detailed, comprehensive land-use map in local plans was highlighted in many submissions. They were considered important in allocating sites for unpopular but necessary development. The National Housing Federation pointed to problems before 1991, when comprehensive plans were first required, that unpopular development was sometimes not allocated within the properly planned area and assumed to go in the area not mapped. "It is important that the new system does not allow that kind of buck-passing,"[46] it warns. The Environment Agency also argued that policies in the Local Development Frameworks should not apply to Local Waste Plans because of the need for detailed site allocations for facilities.

51. Hugh Ellis from Friends of the Earth told the Committee that the lack of a comprehensive land-use map would make Local Development Frameworks much harder to understand. "Everyone I work with in communities understands what a proposals map is. It is a colouring-in exercise and they can see development by their houses and where things happen," he said.[47]

52. Lord Falconer indicated to us that a relatively detailed map would be required in Local Development Frameworks. He told the Committee that the maps would highlight major housing and employment sites, the green belt and conservation areas but that there would not be a specific designation for every part of the district.[48]


  53. The Green Paper sets out a range of options for the public scrutiny of Local Development Frameworks and Action Plans;

54. Unitary Development Plans and Local Development Plans are subject to a public inquiry which are open to the public to make representations. Many submissions to the Committee objected to the removal of the public rights to make representations about policies under the new proposals for Local Development Frameworks which limit the use of public inquiries. Hugh Ellis from Friends of the Earth commented that this would reinforce a trend of only recognising the rights of property owners. "We already live with a planning system where property rights almost uniquely give a privileged civil right of objection."[50]


  55. The delays in the preparation of Unitary Development Plans and Local Plans are no longer as great as the Green Paper notes. When the Green Paper was published, 13 per cent of local authorities had not yet adopted a Unitary Development Plan or Local Plan. The May 2002 report by the DTLR Progress on Adoption of Area Wide Local Plans and UDPs[51] says that by the end of 2002, only five per cent of the local authorities will not have an adopted local plan which is only about 22 areas. Most of them are small district authorities, covering far less than 5% of the total population. Amongst Unitary Authorities, only Warrington is not expected to have adopted a UDP by the end of 2002, and this is a recently created unitary authority.

56. The Green Paper also argues that 214 current plans are now out of date, as they expired in 2001. However, the Government's own assessment is that more than half of those authorities have placed an alteration or replacement plan on deposit, with the majority of the remainder expecting to do so this year. This does not amount to a hiatus in local development planning.

57. The drawing up and agreeing of Local Plans and Unitary Development Plans was initially slow. The process for drawing up local plans and Unitary Development Plans in 1991 was expected to be five years. After ten years it is almost complete. And the process is now much faster. David Lock, Chairman of the Town & Country Planning Association told the Committee: "It has been terribly slow, very expensive and unsatisfactory in many ways but we have been through that great loop, and amendments, revisions, updating of local plans are happening now very quickly. Many years of investment are now yielding results."[52]

58. Some submissions proposed ways to speed up the current plan-making system. The TCPA suggested that the introduction of a statutory timetable "could drive the local authority on and discourage or prevent members of whatever party prevaricating, delaying and ducking and weaving, which has certainly been the experience of the last ten years and has caused much delay." The organisation argued that the preparation of local plans would be speeded up if the recommendations in an inspector's report on a UDP or Local Plan after a public inquiry were made binding on the local authority. Increasing the number of skilled staff in planning departments would also have an important effect on the preparation of UDPs and Local Plans. We consider this in more detail below.

59. In addition, several submissions suggested that the Green Paper is unrealistic in suggesting that Local Development Frameworks could be drawn up in months: Tesco thought that at the very least it would take 18 months rather than the few months which is proposed.

60. The proposals for Local Development Frameworks have many failings and lack many of the advantages of Unitary Development Plans and Local Plans. The new Local Development Frameworks may be quicker to draw up but they are unlikely to be as clear.

  • They would be more complex than the simplicity offered by Unitary Development Plans and Local Plans and would provide less certainty;
  • A complex array of plans at a local level would be created which would be fragmented and difficult to understand and coordinate;
  • The frequent review of frameworks is also unlikely to provide the clarity and certainty sought by the Government and all parties;
  • The Local Development Frameworks could cause considerable confusion because of the reliance on vague criteria;
  • A plan-led system without a comprehensive land-use map would give rise to a great deal of uncertainty, delay in determining planning applications and a significant increase in planning appeals;
  • The proposed Local Development Frameworks may not gain the confidence of local people. The new forms of community consultation for Local Development Frameworks are welcome as is the linking of the frameworks to Community Strategies, but they will not be an adequate replacement for the rights to appear at a public inquiry which are required for Unitary Development Plans and Local Plans.

61. Retaining and improving Unitary Development Plans and Local Plans would be a better option than introducing Local Development Frameworks, since there would be certainty and continuity as well as the retention of public confidence in the system. The process of drawing up and adopting Unitary Development Plans and Local Plans has been slow, but it is now almost complete. Considerable progress has been made in solving the problems and further improvements could be made if:

  • the plans were approved by inspectors after a public inquiry;
  • rigorous preparation timetables were laid down and enforced with appropriate penalties; and
  •  repetition of policies in structure plans and regional planning guidance was removed.

62. The revision of plans should not cease because of the proposals for reform, as Lord Falconer stated.

11   PGP64  Back

12   PGP54 Back

13   Q894 Back

14   PGP52 Back

15   PGP19 Back

16   Wales Spatial Plan - Pathway to Sustainable Development - Consultation September 2001. Page 2 Back

17   The Government has since provided the committee with the timetable for the review of all PPGs which is expected to continue until at least January 2005. The review of PPG6 is expected to be completed by February 2003 Back

18   Green Paper 4.58 Back

19   Q799 Back

20   Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions Cm5511 p34 Back

21   Q676 Back

22   PGP02 Back

23   PGP38 Back

24   A submission by England's RDAs (PGP32) argued that there should not be a presumption against totally coverage of sub-regional strategies pointing out that most RDAs are pursuing development and implementation of their Regional Economic Strategies through a variety of sub-regional partnerships. "The option should be left open for the new Regional Planning Bodies including the RDAs to determine as this could afford another opportunity to effect real integration between regional and local levels of activity."  Back

26  25   PGP52 Back


27   PGP24 Back

28   PGP 35 The County Councils Network proposes that Integrated Development Frameworks should replace county structure plans that would help coordinate a wide range of sub-regional strategies. Back

29   PGP34 Back

30   The Quarry Products Association in its submission (PGP3) said that county councils have been drawing up mineral plans since 1982 and that if they lose their structure planning role, they may not have the resources to continue drawing up the plans. Back

31   PGP35 Back

32   PGP33 Back

33   PGP65 Back

34   Green Paper para 4.9 Back

35   The Local Government Act 2000 gave local authorities the duty to prepare Community Strategies which coordinated the actions of the council, the public, private, voluntary and community organisations and allowed local communities to articulate their aspirations, needs and priorities. Back

36   PGP51 Back

37   PGP43 Back

38   PGP29 Back

39   PGP52 Back

40   PGP17 Back

41   PGP28 Back

42   PGP60 Back

43   Q933 Back

44   Q631 Back

45   PGP38 Back

46   PGP55 Back

47   Q235 Back

48   Q936 Back

49   Planning Green Paper 4.26 Back

50   Q237 Back

51   Progress on Adoption of Area Wide Local Plans and UDPs DTLR May 2002 Back

52   Q519 Back

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