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

Development Control

  63. The Green Paper sets out a large number of proposals designed to speed up the processing of planning applications and to encourage developers to start on site more quickly. Our terms of reference did not include a special focus on the development control aspects of the Green Paper, so the submissions we received on this were not extensive. Nevertheless there was a broad welcome for many of the Government's detailed proposals for improving the development control system, notably:

  • the project management of planning applications with 'delivery contracts' for large developments;
  • improved councillor training in planning issues;
  • greater use of pre-application consultations;
  • greater use by local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate of electronic media for consulting and involving the public;
  • the requirement for the Secretary of State to give reasons for not calling in planning applications;
  • a user-friendly checklist to assist applicants for planning permission.

64. The Committee welcomes some of the adjustments to the present development control system. We strongly support the proposal that re-applications should not be automatically accepted. None of these proposals requires primary legislation, and they illustrate the kind of evolutionary approach to improving the planning system which will bring general benefit.

65. Separately from those proposals in the Green Paper's for development control on which there was general agreement, submissions highlighted four areas of particular concern, all of them aspects of the Government's efforts to speed up decisions on planning applications: Submissions to the Committee raised concerns about four proposals:

  • the timetable proposed for local authority consideration of planning applications;
  • limiting planning approvals to three years rather than the current five;
  • a target of 90 per cent of planning decisions being taken by officers on delegated authority and;
  • statutory consultation.


  66. The Green Paper proposes a series of targets for the consideration of residential and business applications by local authorities. The timetable is more sophisticated than the current eight weeks target for 80 per cent of planning applications. The Green Paper suggests that 60 per cent of major business or industrial applications should be considered within 13 weeks.

67. Witnesses were concerned that allowance needs to be made for the schemes which are complex and contentious and cannot be considered within the tight timetables. The Environmental Services Association pointed to the time required to consider complex applications for waste and secondary resource management developments. "We believe that the Government must closely monitor the management of applications to ensure that the targets are not met through prematurely curtailing debate and discussion."[53]

68. We were told that rather than being bound by a set of general targets, local authorities and developers should jointly agree individual timetables for the processing of complex major schemes.

69. Targets for reaching decisions are useful to provide guidance for local authorities on operating an efficient development control system, but considerable flexibility is required to allow for complex applications which cannot be considered within the timescales. It should be remembered that delays can be due to the developer as well as the local authority.


  70. The proposal to limit planning permissions to three years rather than the current five years was criticised on the grounds that complex regeneration schemes required a considerable time to assemble sites and secure funding. The British Urban Regeneration Association warned that "It would undermine an investor or developer's appetite for larger and more difficult regeneration schemes."[54]

71. In contrast, the Local Government Association supported the proposal to limit the life of a planning application to three years on the basis that it would act as a spur to developers to start on site. However it suggested that some local discretion should be allowed "where applications are reliant on complex land assembly."[55]

72. The Committee supports the proposals to reduce planning permissions to three years. However it is important that a 'standard' time limit is not applied in cases where a longer implementation period is justified by the applicant. There should be an opportunity for local variation where appropriate.


  73. The proposal that 90 per cent of planning decisions should be taken by local authority planning officers under delegated authority is intended to reduce delays caused by applications having to be considered by planning committees.[56] This would standardise the system of formal delegation on schemes which most local planning authorities already have in place to varying extents. Submissions argued that many applications can be determined by officers, but the decision to delegate an application should not be influenced by having to achieve an arbitrary target.[57] The Local Government Association considered that the target is not consistent with good practice. It urged that increased delegation should be at the discretion of local authorities and not an imposed national directive.[58]

74. The delegation of planning decisions to officers should be based on their nature and not subject to an arbitrary statistical objective. The 90 per cent target is arbitrary, and no justification was given for it. If the Government decides to go forward with the target that 90 per cent of planning applications should be delegated to officers, it should advise Local Planning Authorities on the types of application which might be suitable for delegation to officers (eg householder applications) and the circumstances in which officers could decide applications without infringing democratic accountability (eg where there are no local objections and the Chief Planning Officer would recommend approval). All local authorities should be required to monitor delegated decisions. The Government should reiterate the seriousness with which it would view attempts to influence officer decisions by inducements.


  75. The Green Paper suggests that statutory consultees, who by law have to be consulted on particular types of planning applications, are a major source of delay when local councils determine planning applications.

76. There are two kinds of consultees:

77. The Green Paper sets out a number of proposals that are designed to speed up consultation. These include:

  • limiting statutory consultees to bodies whose advice has health and safety implications or which operate another parallel consent regime;
  • encouraging developers to consult statutory and non-statutory consultees before making a planning application and allowing consultees to charge a fee for these pre-application discussions;
  • enabling consultees to charge for their responses if delivered within an agreed timescale; and
  • imposing a statutory timetable for responses by consultees to consultation requests.

78. Some of the statutory consultees have made submissions to the Committee highlighting the value of their specialist input into the consideration of planning applications. The Garden History Society pointed to its role in protecting historic parks and gardens which complements the work of English Heritage.[60] The Environment Agency highlighted its role in making important representations about development proposals on flood plains.

79. The Garden History Society pointed out that local authorities do not have to wait on a response from statutory consultees before determining a planning applications if they do not respond within the consultation period.

80. English Nature suggested that the proposal to allow consultees to charge applicants a fee for pre-application discussions could be counterproductive. It was concerned that charging fees would deter applicants from consulting it and could compromise its independence.[61] "If a fee arrangement was introduced, it would give our organisation a quasi-consultancy role in the planning process which would compromise our independence as Government's statutory advisor."[62]

81. The Government published a report last year, which recommended ways to speed up the input from statutory consultees.[63] The proposals included:

  • local authorities encouraging and facilitating pre-application discussions and ensuring that all the necessary information is sent to consultees; and
  • ensuring that consultees make available resources and staff to facilitate and participate in pre-application discussions and make prompt submissions.

82. Statutory consultees have an important role in contributing specialist advice to local authorities on planning applications. The proposal to reduce the number of statutory consultees would not in itself reduce the time taken for consultees to respond, since it takes only one key consultee to cause a delay. Furthermore, authorities are not obliged to wait anyway.

83. The proposal that statutory consultees should charge for pre-application discussions would not be helpful and could compromise their independence.

84. Last year the Government published a report which sought to improve the current arrangements by ensuring that:

  • local authorities facilitate pre-application discussions with statutory consultees;
  • consultees are required to allocate sufficient resources and put in place systems to respond promptly to planning applications.

We recommend that in place of its proposals to reduce the number of consultees, the Government introduce these recommendations.


  85. Witnesses recognised that there was a need for better consultation. We support the proposal that all local authorities should be required to publish their consultation arrangements. The Department should issue clear guidance and examples of best practice.

Third Party Rights of Appeal

  86. Many organisations, particularly environmental groups have in the past called for third party rights of appeal against planning decisions. The Green Paper dismisses this proposal which would allow people who have a view about a planning application, whether they are, or not affected by it, to appeal to the Secretary of State against a local authority's decision. It suggests that third party rights of appeal could add to the costs and uncertainties of planning. It says "the right way forward is to make the planning system more accessible and transparent and to strengthen the opportunities for community involvement."[64]

87. Many submissions to the Committee argued that third party rights of appeal would help to build up confidence in the planning system. Neil Sinden from the CPRE told the committee "Sometimes things go wrong and for public confidence to be maintained, there needs to be a safety net."[65]The CPRE suggested that third party rights of appeal should be allowed against decisions on major schemes which were departures from local plans or where a local authority grants planning permission to itself. Professor Macrory from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution accepted that giving third party rights of appeal would be unlikely to speed up the planning system but said that it would strengthen the planning system's ability to deal with public concerns. Moreover, they could reduce the number of judicial reviews which were in fact challenging the merits of schemes although they were disguised as legal appeals.[66]

88. There is a particularly strong case for the additional scrutiny of decisions where a council is determining an application, which it has made to itself. In Wales, the possible conflict of interest has been identified, and the Assembly's planning reforms set out two options for considering major planning applications made by a local authority. Either an independent hearing would be set up to consider the planning application or it may be called in for public inquiry. The Minister for the Environment, Planning & Transport in the Welsh Assembly Sue Essex emphasised to the Committee the importance of transparency of local authority decisions when their own interests are concerned.[67]

89. Rather than maintain third parties' existing rights in the planning system, the Government's proposals will erode them. Although interested parties - from individuals to large corporations - currently have no right to a hearing for their grievances about a local authority's intention to approve a planning application, they do all have a right to pursue objections to proposed policies in Local Plans and Unitary Development Plans. These objections can be heard in front of an independent Inspector. This enables a sound policy basis to be established for deciding subsequent planning applications. By proposing to remove third parties' rights to have their objections to draft policies heard formally, substituting a vaguer system of 'examination', what is in effect a third party right of appeal against a draft policy will be removed from the one arena where this now exists.

90. The Green Paper does not adequately consider the need for third party rights of appeal. Greater community participation at the pre-application stage is not a substitute for the legal right to appeal against a decision. External scrutiny is required to avoid the potential conflicts of interest between the local authority as planning authority and the local authority as property owner or developer with a pecuniary interest in the result of a planning application. The National Assembly for Wales' approach to reviewing planning decisions made by councils concerning land that they own should be monitored with a view to its possible adoption in England.

91. The existing right of third parties to object to draft policies in Local Plans and Unitary Development Plans, and to pursue these to inquiry in front of an independent Inspector if unresolved by the local authority, is a vital third party right. We recommend that it should not be watered down. Third parties should have the right of appeal where there has been a significant departure from the Local Plan or Unitary Development Plan.

Business Planning Zones

  92. The Green Paper proposes to create 'Business Planning Zones' where a proposed development would not require planning permission if it conformed with a set of tightly defined parameters.

93. The Government says there would be at least one zone in each region which would be planned by the local authority in collaboration with universities, RDAs and 'leading edge' companies. They would provide sites "to meet the needs of fast moving businesses such as our leading-edge technology companies."[68] It is envisaged that the kind of industry attracted to the zones would have no significant impact on the infrastructure. Attractive locations rather than those in need of renewal are likely to be targeted.

94. The proposal was welcomed by the CBI which argued that the zones would positively encourage business development.[69] However, it was strongly opposed by a large number of the submissions to the Committee which suggested that:

  • the zones were not needed: Simplified Planning Zones, a similar initiative, dating back to 1987 resulted in very few zones being created and little allowable development in them; and
  • the zones could lead to unsustainable car-based development.

95. There is little evidence that planning controls are restricting technology-based development. A study for the DETR in 2000 by the consultancy ECOTEC into the planning system and the creation of clusters suggested that few councils had developed effective planning policies to promote clusters "however there were few examples where planning controls had constrained development."[70] The report also highlighted examples of how councils have used the current planning system to encourage the growth of clusters. There are many examples of new developments for high technology companies on brownfield sites, which have been promoted without the need to relax planning controls.

96. Many submissions suggested that almost all development places some demands on the surrounding area. The National Housing Federation pointed to the need for housing for the employees in the development in the zones. The submission by the Institution of Highways and Transportation highlighted major problems with controlling the impact. "Many of the impacts of the zones would be outside the zone and possibly in a different administrative area".[71] It also raised concerns that the zones would be detrimental to wider sustainable development objectives if there were no controls on parking, leading to car-based development and additional demand on already congested roads. The Surrey Local Government Association commented: "Business Planning Zones appear simply to recreate the unsuccessful Simplified Planning Zones."[72]

97. The proposal for Business Planning Zones appears to be based on the misconceived idea that the planning system is stopping desirable development rather than helping to enable it. There is no evidence of this. The zones are unlikely to encourage significant amounts of development, but there is a serious danger that the development which they will attract, will be car-based and of a lower standard than if they had been subject to normal planning controls. The best means of promoting sites for high technology development is using the existing planning system.

The Environment

  98. An important underlying theme in the Green Paper is to make the planning system meet the needs of business. It states: "There will be a fundamental change in planning so that it works much better for business."[73]

99. Many submissions to the Committee raised concerns that the reforms put the interests of business ahead of social and environmental issues. The Council for National Parks said that the key role of the planning system was to deliver sustainable development and to ensure effective protection of the countryside. It argued that the Green Paper puts economic before social and environmental progress "which does not accord with the principles of sustainable development."[74] Friends of the Earth suggested that the Government was ignoring the fact that business interests were already in a dominant position when it comes to influencing the outcomes of local plans.[75]

100. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution argued that the general presumption in favour of development which has been a strong implicit feature in the planning system, should no longer apply.[76] It recommended that new legislation governing the planning system should stipulate the key aspects of the environment and natural resources to be taken into account in considering all planning applications.

101. The Green Paper seems to take the superficial view, supported by the Treasury, that the reforms of the planning system are needed because it is acting as an inappropriate constraint on commercial freedom. Whilst obtaining planning permission is a chore for the business community, they see high quality development and surroundings as very important at the same time. This can only be secured through an effective planning system. However, the vast majority of the business community sees high quality development as very important which the planning system can help to facilitate.

102. We agree with Lord Falconer, who responded to some of the fears expressed to the Committee that the planning system should encourage sustainable development which "promotes the environment. It has got to have an economically sustainable future and it has got to make a significant contribution to the social fabric."[77]

103. There is a 'business' agenda running through much of the Green Paper. It largely ignores the environment while supporting business development. The planning system is the key bulwark in preventing urban sprawl and restraining unsustainable development and should not be subservient to the requirements of business. The reforms should stress the need for the planning system:

  • to protect the countryside and improve the quality of the built environment;
  • to minimise the use of natural resources; and
  • to reduce the need to travel.

53   PGP25 Back

54   PGP48 Back

55   LGA response on the Green Paper to the DTLR Back

56   Q286 The Planning Officers' Society told the Committee that currently between 75 and 85 per cent of planning applications are delegated to officers Back

57   The Bloomsbury Conservation Area Advisory Committee (PGP61) suggested that the 90 per cent target "would ensure that the vast majority of decisions will be taken behind closed doors." Back

58   PGP65 Back

59   Article 10 of the Town & Country Planning (General Development Procedure) Order 1995 lists the 'statutory consultees which local authorities are required to consult about specific categories of planning applications. 'Non-statutory' consultees are listed in Appendix B to DoE Circular 9/95 and a range of other planning circulars and guidance notes.  Back

60   PGP11 Back

61   Q683 Back

62   English Nature's response to the DTLR on the Planning Green Paper para 8.8 Back

63   Statutory and Non-Statutory Consultation Report DETR 2001 Back

64   Planning Green Paper 6.23 Back

65   Q242 Back

66   Q320 Back

67   Q780 Back

68   Planning Green Paper 5.36 Back

69   Q592 Back

70   Planning for Clusters DTLR June 2000 p50 Back

71   PGP49 Back

72   PGP16 Back

73   Planning Green Paper 2.10 Back

74   PGP 14 Back

75   PGP18 Back

76   RCEP's 23rd Report on Environmental Planning March 2002 p4 Back

77   Q891 Back

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