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


173. The Government argued that the key problems with the planning system were that it:

  • was too slow;
  • lacked clarity;
  • had lost public confidence; and
  • inhibited economic growth.

174. In this section we consider whether the Green Paper proposals would effectively tackle those problems or whether incremental reform would be more beneficial. We also consider other solutions which are required, most importantly the need to address the serious shortage of skilled planners.


  175. The preparation of Local Development Frameworks may be quicker to draw up than Unitary Development Plans or Local Plans, but they will need to be complemented by a wide range of action plans and master plans which are likely to be as time consuming as the current system. Moreover, the preparation of Unitary Development Plans and Local Plans can be streamlined which would be more effective than replacing them.

176. The introduction of what amounts to a new planning system will take time. Considerable delays can be expected.

177. While National Policy Statements about the need for new infrastructure are widely supported, the parliamentary procedure proposed for Major Infrastructure Projects is unlikely to speed up the authorisation process. The existing procedure can be simplified and made more efficient.

Simplicity and transparency

  178. Local Development Frameworks are unlikely to offer the clarity of Unitary Development Plans and Local Plans. The reliance on general criteria for what constitutes acceptable development and the lack of a comprehensive land-use map would introduce great uncertainties. The complex array of plans at a local level which will complement the Local Development Frameworks will be fragmented and difficult to understand and coordinate.

179. The regional and sub-regional planning arrangements which would be required to replace County Structure Plans would be complex with eight regional planning bodies having to negotiate with more than 230 district and metropolitan councils.

180. Rather than simplifying the planning obligations system, the tariff system could be highly complicated to set up and assess and would not necessarily realise a greater level of contributions from the private sector.

Public confidence

  181. The Green Paper proposes to find new ways of consulting the public but also proposes to limit the use of public inquiries for local plans and authorising Major Infrastructure Projects, and where they are required to limit their scope. This is likely to limit an individuals right to make representations and undermine public confidence in the current system.

The competitiveness of industry

  182. There is no firm evidence that the planning system imposes a major constraint on economic growth. The memoranda submitted and the oral evidence failed to demonstrate that the planning system was failing business. What we were told was anecdotal. The CBI told us:

"it had talked to hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of business and we have got loads and loads of examples of businesses which have had problems (with the planning system)."[113]

   183. Large companies such as Tesco and Sainsbury's have developed ways of working with the local authority planning departments to deliver joint objectives. Evidence submitted to the Committee by Sainsbury's showed that 91 per cent of its applications were approved by the local authority without going to public inquiry. The companies were concerned that the planning system should be improved through an evolutionary process building on current procedures, rather than revolution.[114]

184. The most telling argument is that since the current plan arrangements were introduced in 1991, the economy has enjoyed a long period of sustained growth. It is hard to believe that it is a serious drag on the economy,

185. The Government's theory that the planning system inhibits economic growth appears to be based on anecdote and prejudice. Well-planned land uses create a favourable climate for investment as many successful local authorities have shown. Attractive and well planned cities are often the most prosperous. With improvement, the existing forward planning system will continue to achieve this.

186. Finally, we examine two important issues, which the Green Paper does not adequately cover: how long it will take to implement the Government's proposals; and the need for more staff if there is to be an improvement to the planning system.

The implementation of the Government's proposals

  187. The Government's fundamental reforms proposed for the planning system will take a long time to introduce. It expects them to take about five years to be fully operational and has accepted that it is important to avoid any hiatus.[115]

188. However, submissions to the Committee raised concerns that there could be an extended hiatus as the new system is introduced. The Chief Executive of the British Urban Regeneration Association, John Walker, told the Committee that introducing the reforms "could possibly in the long term, but particularly in the short and medium term, lead to a hiatus and an inability to act, an inability to have clarity and certainty on the part of development industry, an inability to move forward on behalf of local authorities."[116]

189. The Housebuilders Federation urges the Government to ensure that local authorities continue to produce local and structure plans and that these are 'mapped' on to the new structures. It warned in its submission to the Committee that "without continuity in the development plan framework, there is a significant risk of paralysis, with no clear and coherent basis on which to make decisions."[117]

190. It could well take more than five years before the changes proposed in the Green Paper are fully operational and even longer. The development plan system introduced in 1991 has taken up to ten years to bring full benefits for its users, notably local authorities, developers and local communities. These should not be lost by adopting the Planning Green Paper proposals. With modification to existing Unitary Development Plans and Local Plans, the same objectives could be achieved without the delay which would be caused by the Government's proposals. Many of the other incremental reforms, which have been proposed in this report, could start immediately and not cause the hiatus which the fundamental proposals inevitably will cause.

Staff and Resources

  191. The need for additional staff and more resources was a key issue raised in a large proportion of the submissions to the Committee. More than 75 per cent pointed out that a major problem with the planning system if local authorities employed more skilled staff, and particularly planners.


  192. A study for the DTLR Resourcing of Local Planning Authorities by the consultants Arup, pointed to high levels of staff turnover and major recruitment problems faced by local authorities. It said that the image of planning has been undermined and needs to be improved to attract the best graduates. It concluded that the popularity of planning as an undergraduate course was declining and funding was limited for postgraduate courses.[118]

193. Arup estimated that to keep up with the increased number of planning applications, each authority required a 27 per cent increase in the number of development control staff which equated on average to an additional four or five members of staff.[119]

194. The Green Paper reforms will increase the demands on already overstretched planning departments both in terms of skills and resources particularly so if they are required to draw up the new plans and strategies. Planning officers with new skills will be required that are not generally available in planning departments. The Planning Officers' Society suggested that staff with skills to handle negotiation with the private sector and property valuation would be necessary to set the proposed planning obligations tariff.[120]

195. Greater co-operation between local authority planning departments and their economic development, housing and valuers departments could help meet some of the skill needs created by the Government's reforms.

196. It is by no means clear that it will be easier to recruit staff for the development control functions in planning departments if the Green Paper reforms are implemented. Appearing with the County Surveyors' Society, Mark Baker from Manchester University said: "The reforms will actually make the job seem more bureaucratic and regulatory. Planners will be making decisions on a planning application based on a set of criteria that are read from a book and the job will not necessarily provide the challenges that will encourage people to get into planning more than they do at the moment."[121]


  197. Lord Falconer accepted that planning departments are under-resourced and that one of the main reasons the targets for the determination of planning applications were not being met was that the number of staff in planning departments has declined by 20 per cent during the last five years. He commented to the Committee: "I utterly and completely acknowledge that resources are part of the problem."[122]

198. Council funding to planning departments has declined considerably over the last five years. Arup's report revealed that spending levels have declined by 37% for unitary authorities and 23% for county authorities between 1996/97 and 2000/2001. The report says an increase of 20 per cent was required to compensate for the increase in workload as the number of planning applications had increased.[123]

199. Lord Falconer set out three options for increasing the funds going to planning departments. These included:

  • raising the application fee;
  • local authorities reallocating existing resources, and
  • more money being allocated from central Government.

Fee income

  200. The fee charged for making a planning application fees has fallen behind inflation since they were previously raised in October 1997 according to another study, entitled Planning Fees[124] by the consultants Arup, for the DTLR. The Government increased fees by 14 per cent in April to help local authorities recover a high proportion of their costs in handling planning applications. Arup estimated that this increase would only contribute an extra 7 per cent to Local Authority planning budgets. Submissions by the private sector indicated that they would be prepared to accept higher fees on condition that system was speeded up and decisions were made more quickly.

Local authorities' funds

  201. Fee income only contributes towards the processing of planning applications and not plan preparation which is funded by local authorities. Far from allocating additional funds for their planning departments, the Chairman of the Local Government Association, Sir Jeremy Beecham, told us that councils were prioritising investment in other key services like social services and education.[125] Lord Falconer however ruled out ring fencing funds for local authority planning departments.[126]

  202. Local Authority Planning Departments are short of staff. The Green Paper does not give sufficient weight to the need for councils to retain their planning staff or for the profession to attract new graduates so as to make the current system work effectively. The Government needs to be working more closely with local authorities to improve staff retention, and with schools, universities and the professional bodies to make planning a more popular career. The Government's reforms are unlikely to change the image of the planning profession and raise the status of planners.

203. The Government's reforms would require more staff with new skills and cannot be introduced until they are in place. An incremental approach to reforming the planning system would allow the reforms to be introduced as the skills become available.

204. Additional funds can be secured by raising application fees but they will not in themselves be sufficient. Local authorities must recognise the important strategic role performed by their planning departments and to allocate a higher proportion of their budgets to them.

113   Q583/584 Barney Stringer the CBI's Head of Infrastructure Group accepted that this evidence was anecdotal, although he said "that they "were very consistent" Back

114   Q388 & 393 Back

115   Q842 Back

116   Q427 Back

117   PGP17 Back

118   Resourcing of Local Planning Authorities DTLR February 2002 p73 Back

119   Ibid  Back

120   PGP60 Back

121   Q266 Back

122   Q826 Back

123   Resourcing of Local Planning Authorities DTLR February 2002 p17 Back

124   Planning Fees DTLR December 2001 Back

125   Q702 Back

126   Q858 Back

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