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


    (a)  The current planning system requires significantly more staff and resources than are currently available. The new system proposed by the Government will require even more staff, and any radical changes will not be possible until they are in post (paragraph 8).

    (b)  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 (paragraph 12).

    (c)  The Government should evaluate the desirability of establishing a National Spatial Strategy (paragraph 16).

    (d)  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 (paragraph 21).

    (e)  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 (paragraph 26).

    (f)  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 (paragraph 27).

    (g)  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 (paragraph 35).

    (h)  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 (paragraph 36).

    (i)  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 (paragraph 60).

      (j)  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 (paragraph 61).

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

        (l)  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 (paragraph 64).

        (m)  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 (paragraph 69).

        (n)  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 (paragraph 72).

        (o)  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 (paragraph 74).

        (p)  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 (paragraph 82).

        (q)  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 (paragraph 84).

          (r)  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 (paragraph 85).

          (s)  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 (paragraph 90).

          (t)  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 to the Local Plan or Unitary Development Plan (paragraph 91).

          (u)  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 (paragraph 97).

          (v)  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 (paragraph 103).

            (w)  The Government's proposals for tariffs would replace one form of complexity with another. Instead of site by site negotiated solutions after the submission of planning applications, enormous effort would be required to establish the basis for tariffs around the country, authority by authority, at the forward planning stage (paragraph 124).

            (x)  There is a danger that the change to the tariff system will affect the Government's grant to local authorities (paragraph 125).

            (y)  However, the Government's other proposals (see points above) for improving the practical operation of the planning obligation system would tackle many of these objectives without the need for changing the whole basis of the system. We recommend that the Government introduces those procedural changes first as outlined above, and only revisits more radical options for reforming the planning obligations system to improve its speed and transparency if significant problems remain in five years' time (paragraph 126).

            (z)  The Government needs to undertake substantially more work to demonstrate that funding affordable housing by tariff rather than by the current system of negotiation will clearly produce significantly more affordable housing (paragraph 131).

            (aa)  We were heartened that Lord Falconer wishes to consult on the details of the emerging scheme and on the Government's advice to local authorities, but, nevertheless, feel that the proposal to introduce a tariff requires considerable further development before the Committee can take a view on whether it is workable (paragraph 133).

            (bb)  We strongly support the proposal to introduce National Policy Statements. They should be the subject of public consultation after which they should be debated by Parliament on an amendable, substantive motion. If they are prepared well in advance of projects coming forward, they will be a major step forward. The policy statements could take a variety of forms:

              • in some situations they would indicate a need to make provision within a region, leaving the regional guidance to indicate a suitable site for the particular facility;
              •  in others, they would need to indicate a range of options or a precise location or route corridor.

            The policy statements should relate to the National Spatial Strategy (paragraph 141).

              (cc)  We recommend that the Secretary of State have the power to designate projects as Major Infrastructure Projects by the new Parliamentary process, but emphasise that he should only select Major Infrastructure Projects of truly national significance for authorisation. We are concerned that both the list of potential Major Infrastructure Projects in Annex C of the Government's paper, and the list contained in the Town and Country Planning (Major Infrastructure Inquiries Procedure) (England) Rules 2002 are far too broad (paragraph 144).

              (dd)  Based on the evidence received, there is unlikely to be any time saving by adopting the proposed parliamentary process. The Government has continued to stress the length of time taken by the public inquiry to consider Heathrow Terminal 5; this was wholly exceptional (paragraph 161).

              (ee)  If the Government were to go ahead with its Parliamentary proposals, the public would also lose confidence in the inquiry system since long established rights of hearing would be restricted. It will be very difficult for Parliament to give a fair consideration to Major Infrastructure Projects as required by the Human Rights Act. Even if there is no formal whipping of MPs by party managers, the influence of party discipline would be extremely difficult to avoid (paragraph 162).

              (ff)  Giving Parliament the power to decide on the principle, need for and location of a Major Infrastructure Project would lead to unavoidable duplication later at a public inquiry and the increased likelihood of legal challenge (paragraph 163).

              (gg)  It is not appropriate for MPs to be asked to consider the issues raised in Major Infrastructure Projects given the likely length of hearings and the probable need to sit part of the time away from the House. If implemented the proposal would constitute a retrograde step and would be counter to the report of the Joint Committee on Private Bills of Session 1987-8, which was approved and implemented by both Houses. Worse, the partial consideration suggested would add a further highly undesirable complication that would almost certainly increase the likelihood of delay, thus defeating the main object of the proposal (paragraph 164).

              (hh)  When it _approves_ Major Infrastructure Projects, Parliament should do no more than it currently does under section 9 of the Transport and Works Act for schemes of national significance. We therefore recommend that the scope of the Transport & Works Act be extended so that certain Major Infrastructure Projects may be selected by the Secretary of State to fall within an appropriately amended section 9 of the Act (paragraph 165).

              (ii)  Under our proposal, as with other Transport and Works projects, after completion of the Parliamentary stage the project would be scrutinised at public inquiry. At the inquiry the Inspector would be guided by a National Policy Statement and the approvals of both Houses of Parliament. These would be weighty material considerations for the Inspector to take into account. There would also be further guidance from the Secretary of State who will have issued a statement of the matters which should be considered at the inquiry. Nevertheless, the public inquiry would be the forum to consider all aspects of the proposed development (paragraph 166).

              (jj)  We welcome the Government's proposals for making public inquiries more efficient, and emphasise the need to keep the Major Infrastructure Projects inquiry rules under review and update them when necessary (paragraph 169).

              (kk)   We welcome the formation of the DTLR's Planning Central Casework Division to handle the Secretary of State_s called­in and recovered appeals, and Lord Falconer's statement that he envisages that within two years the Division will halve the time it takes for decisions to be announced. In the past the announcement of decisions has on occasion been delayed for political convenience. In this context we note that both the new MIP and the 2000 inquiry rules require the Secretary of State to notify his decision _as soon as practicable_ after taking it. We recommend that this rule be amended so that the Secretary of State is required also to take the decision itself as soon as practicable to ensure that decisions are made when required for the efficient operation of the planning system (paragraph 170).

              (ll)  By comparison with some of the relatively small savings that can be obtained by improvements to the current inquiry process, it is clear from the example given that very considerable time savings can be made by improvements elsewhere. We recommend that the Government conducts a thorough formal review, and reports upon both the pre application and post regulatory approval stages of all aspects of Major Infrastructure Projects (paragraph 171).

              (mm)  In combination the recommendations which we have made relating to national policy statements, Parliamentary procedures, public inquiries and the decision taking stage, will bring about the required improvement in procedures while at the same time providing a fair hearing for affected parties and retaining public confidence in the inquiry system. Of no less importance is the need for Ministers not to postpone taking decisions for political reasons after an Inspector's report has been received (paragraph 172).

              (nn)  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 (paragraph 185).

              (oo)  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 (paragraph 190).

              (pp)  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 (paragraph 202).

              (qq)  An incremental approach to reforming the planning system would allow the reforms to be introduced as the skills become available (paragraph 203).

              (rr)  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 (paragraph 204).

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