Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Sue Essex AM, Minister for Environment, Welsh Assembly Government (PGP 66)



  1.1  Since the National Assembly for Wales was established on 7 May 1999, it has taken responsibility in Wales for a wide range of policy areas including agriculture, economic development, education, health, planning, transport and environment.

  1.2  The Assembly's work is underpinned by its goals for:

    —  sustainable development;

    —  building a dynamic and advanced economy, supporting economic regeneration, creating wealth and good quality jobs;

    —  tackling social disadvantage, developing an inclusive society; and

    —  promoting equal opportunities, and a culture which values diversity, including promoting the Welsh language.

  1.3  The Assembly has no power to make primary legislation, but may make subordinate legislation. Wales shares with England the primary and much of the subordinate legislation which underpins the planning system.

  1.4  The Assembly has 60 elected members, and has delegated nearly all its powers to the First Minister. There are eight Cabinet Ministers who form the Welsh Assembly Government. My responsibility as Minister for Environment covers sustainable development as well as environmental protection; water and the water industry; transport and highways; countryside, coastal planning and conservation; spatial planning; land use planning and heritage.

  1.5  I am a member of, and work with, the Environment, Planning and Transport Committee. The "Committee" scrutinises and contributes towards, policy development, and provides members for the Planning Decision Committee which takes decisions on a small number of major planning cases each year. The Committee has proportionate representation from all four political parties.


  2.1  The Welsh Assembly Government is responsible for the procedural and policy framework within which the planning system operates. As in England, responsibility for the day to day operation of the planning system rests with the local planning authorities (22 unitary authorities and three National Park authorities) which prepare unitary development plans, determine the vast majority of the 30,000 planning applications submitted each year in Wales, and take enforcement action.

  2.2  The Assembly has power to intervene in the development plan and control process by the issue of directions, and by calling in planning applications for its own determination. It also has responsibility for deciding appeals; most of this work is undertaken on its behalf by the Planning Inspectorate, which is jointly sponsored by the Assembly and the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

  2.3  In recent years Wales has prepared its own planning policies. The latest major review of policy, Planning Policy Wales, was published on 16 April. It draws together in one document, policies on the full range of land use planning issues. Minerals Planning Policy Wales was published in 2001. The two policy documents are supplemented by a range of Technical Advice Notes which provide additional procedural and technical guidance. All policy documents are kept under review and are updated as necessary. They are used in the preparation of development plans and may be material to decisions on planning applications.

  2.4  Unlike England, there is no formal system of regional planning guidance. Local Planning authorities have formed themselves into informal groupings based on geographical or policy considerations, and have produced statements for different parts of Wales. These are used in the preparation of unitary development plans.

  2.5  Significantly, as a new initiative, the Assembly is committed to preparing a Wales Spatial Plan which will give spatial expression to the Assembly's policies and address land use planning issues on a broad scale. Work has begun, and we are making good progress on developing the content of the plan with a wide range of partners.


  Turning now to the topic under discussion, I will set out key points about the consultation document, "Planning: delivering for Wales" (a summary is in the Annex).

Opportunities for Change

  3.1  The introduction of the English green paper gave us an opportunity to review the planning system in Wales to ensure it fulfils the Assembly goals, and those of Welsh people, its organisations and businesses. We consider that an effective planning system is an essential tool to enable the Assembly and its partners to improve the quality of life in Wales.

  3.2  Many of the proposals which eventually appeared in the English Green Paper are relevant to Wales, and feature in our consultation paper, but there are some significant differences.


  3.3  Wales shares primary legislation on planning with England, but Wales has its own distinct characteristics. The Assembly has a duty to promote sustainable development and to support the Welsh language. It also addresses Welsh environmental, economic and social issues. Although diverse, Wales is a small country, with an already simplified local government structure and strong networks to enable different sectors to co-operate to address planning and other issues.

  3.4  Nevertheless, there are similar concerns in Wales to those in England. Some development plans are too long and detailed, and take a very long time to prepare. Whilst overall performance on decision-making is reasonable, some planning authorities are slower at processing planning applications than others, and decisions on many of the major applications take too long. There is evidence from the representations I receive, that many members of the public, businesses, and other organisations do not have confidence in the ability of the planning system to deliver speedy, clear and consistent decisions in a transparent way.

  3.5  It is important to state that we do not want to tackle this by increasing the Assembly's involvement unnecessarily in the day to day running of the planning process. The job of the Assembly Government is to set an appropriate framework for local decision making. Looking at our objectives, it seems sensible to build on the strengths of the current planning system, to retain those elements which are working well and to change those which are not.

  3.6  In doing this, we will need to strike a balance between the pace of delivery and ensuring that people's views, interests and other material factors are taken into account. We believe that when people and organisations are involved early in the planning process and get a chance to make their views heard, it contributes to better policy and more informed decision making. For example, we used such an approach when we reviewed our planning policy guidance, by involving the Planning Forum from the outset.

  3.7  In that same spirit, the consultation document "Planning: delivering for Wales" was prepared in partnership with a wide range of Welsh interests. A meeting of our Planning Forum in December allowed invited representatives of business, public, voluntary and other sectoral interests to input to the thinking at a formative stage in drafting the document.

  3.8  Most of the measures to improve the operation of the development control system set out in the English Green Paper have been included in "Planning: delivering for Wales". We too need improvements in the provision of access to the planning system for all its users and to ensure that people are consulted and involved in the planning process. In order to achieve this we want to see a measurable improvement in performance in handling and determining planning applications by local authorities, statutory consultees and the Welsh Assembly Government.

  3.9  We also think there is a need for effective officer and member development, to ensure that they are equipped to take good quality decisions in which the public are involved and in which they can have confidence. We want to work with partner organisations in Wales to ensure that the necessary framework to provide this training is in place.

  3.10  The Assembly Government is working with the DTLR to establish the Planning Portal which will be a major vehicle in delivering a modern planning system and e-democracy.

  3.11  However, as a direct result of concern expressed to the Assembly by individuals and communities in Wales we have, in addition, consulted on ways to improve public confidence in the system for handling development proposed by local authorities. We have also consulted a consistent approach to neighbour notification about planning applications, and ways of ensuring that the planning system takes into account public health risks. The proposals for a new Parliamentary procedure set out in the English Green Paper relate only to decisions that are not devolved to the National Assembly. We have yet to decide on whether new procedures should be introduced in Wales.


  4.1  "Planning: delivering for Wales" was published on 1 February . When consultation ended on 29 April we had received approximately 170 responses. These are now being analysed to enable us to decide which proposals to take forward, but I can say that there has been a positive and encouraging response to the proposals. After the initial analysis has been completed, I will share a summary of results and preliminary conclusions with the Welsh Local Government Association, and a re-convened meeting of the Planning Forum. Their views will be fed into the analysis, and I will then consult with the Environment, Planning and Transport Committee before coming to conclusions, and making an announcement, on the way forward.


  4.2  We propose to continue to work with local government and other key players to implement the changes needed to meet our objectives, in particular to ensure that the planning system in Wales is more open, fair and consistent. We are very keen to ensure that there is more integration between the forward planning and development control processes and between the system and other plans and processes, including community strategies, transport and housing plans. Integration will allow us to build confidence and to maximise the value of use of evidence, consultation and partnership on a more continual basis. It should allow speedier plan review and updating.

  4.3  We will also continue to work closely with Lord Falconer and his colleagues to introduce the changes in Wales that need primary legislation, and will prepare subordinate legislation for consideration by the Assembly to implement other proposals.

  4.4  I welcome the opportunity to address the Select Committee on this important topic, and to share views and experience. The planning system has a vital role in delivering sustainable development. The Assembly Government is committed to ensuring that the system delivers this in Wales. We are also very keen to continue to work with Ministers and officials in England (as well as Scotland and Northern Ireland) to ensure that the right planning framework is in place to ensure sustainable development for the UK as a whole.

April 2002

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