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

Conclusions and Recommendations

205. The Planning Green Paper rightly identifies room for improvement in the way the town and country planning system operates. There is little dispute that decisions on planning applications should often be reached more quickly and particularly that the time taken to prepare and revise plans in past years has been depressingly slow. Whether this amounts to a need for the radical reforms does, however, need to be questioned.

206. The alternative, of continuing an evolutionary process of revision to the planning system has been contemplated only patchily in the Green Paper. It does propose many simple changes to the development control part of the system, which will continue the process of modernising planning rules. However, the proposals on forward planning pay far too little attention to modest, practical measures which could simplify the system and save time with few adverse side effects. These should be introduced and tested first before radical measures are introduced.

207. We conclude that the Government's proposals will not for the most part achieve their key objectives of introducing greater speed, simplicity and certainty to the system. Our review suggests that the arrangements for tariffs and deciding major infrastructure projects will take longer than the present system, for example. The emphasis on criteria rather than comprehensive land use maps for forward planning at the local level would no doubt allow plans to be prepared more quickly, but have the effect of encouraging disputes at the planning application stage and invite many more appeals. The benefits of the 1991 legislation in these respects would be lost, and the overall result would be a more contentious, expensive, uncertain and time consuming system.

208. The Green Paper has been quick to spot, and in our view in some cases exaggerate, the problems with the current system, but it has played down the strengths of existing practices. By focusing on outputs and the mechanics of planning it has largely overlooked the central value of the planning process as a brokering mechanism between competing interests in deciding how land and buildings should be used. The means by which decisions are reached must be seen to be fair if participants are to accept the outcomes, especially the ones they do not like. The present system commands public confidence because it affords a fair hearing at all stages of the process. The Government ignores at its peril warnings of a perception that the proposed new system will constrain effective participation by those with real interests. The Government's radical reforms are in danger of spawning a new generation of Swampies.

209. It would take at least five years to establish the new system. The Government has been quick to complain about the length of time taken by local authorities to implement the unexceptional obligation of preparing an authority-wide plan, yet retains an incompatible belief in their ability to reinvent quickly the entire forward planning process at the local level. There are already indications of reluctance by local authorities to keep their policies up-to-date, and a hiatus is virtually inevitable as authorities make up the details of the Government's new system as they start to apply it. There is a substantial price to pay in the transition for any new procedures, only worth paying if the resulting framework is a substantial improvement over the existing one. We have found little evidence that it would be.

210. We conclude that the Government's proposals are unworkable as a whole. We share the Government's enthusiasm for clearing the stuffy air which surrounds planning. We wish to encourage innovation and enthusiasm for the immense positive contribution which planning can make to public life. Yet the Green Paper shows a lack of grasp of the real issues over outward appearances. For example:

  • the important issue is how Government planning policy is implemented, not how many pages it is;
  • the case for Business Planning Zones fundamentally misconceives planning as a drag on the economy rather than a contributor to securing high quality development in the right places;
  • the length of the Heathrow Terminal 5 inquiry is legendary, but a poor basis for choosing a new system to decide major infrastructure projects;
  • Local Plan Inquiries may seem ripe for abolition because of the time they take, but they are a significant contributory force in establishing quality in the planning process, where outcomes are seen as rational, democratic and driven by a commitment to the wise use of land in the public interest.

211. The Committee was astonished by the lack of attention to the most obvious problem facing the delivery of an effective planning service, namely its under-resourcing. There is a shortage of professional and experienced planning staff in most local authorities, low morale and a recruitment problem. Ministers' obsession with shaming authorities with poor performances, measured largely in terms of speed rather than quality of decisions, has no doubt contributed to this. Meanwhile, local authorities divert money away from planning to other more politically attractive uses.

212. The Government accepts that its proposed new system will take more planners to operate than the current one, but has no serious proposals in hand to train and attract staff even to fulfil current requirements. We have no hesitation in recommending that significantly more money and staff should be ploughed into planning long before any major revision of its practices is contemplated. We suspect that some at least of the problems identified would diminish or dissolve if more and better qualified staff were in post to address them.

213. We conclude that the requirement is for different priorities than the ones the Government has selected. The current system would benefit from gradual modernisation. There is widespread understanding of how the planning system works, in general, if not in detail. The Government will reach its objective much more effectively by working with the grain of over 50 years of experience rather than stubbornly discarding it.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 3 July 2002