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

Memorandum by North West Regional Review (PGP 67)



  1.1  Regional Review's principal purpose is to develop working relationships between the North West Regional Assembly, North West Development Agency and Government Office North West; and scrutinise the Agency's plans and policies with the aim of facilitating improved performance in relation to the implementation of the Regional Strategy and assisting the process of regional consultation and accountability in accordance with the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. The Group also acts as a think tank to explore ideas collectively for improving the North West's regional economic performance, image and quality of life. The Group includes representatives of each of the three aforementioned bodies and is chaired by a senior business partner.

  1.2  On Monday 4 March, the Regional Review held a "select committee" style hearing on the Planning Green Paper. The day consisted of a series of short presentations followed by questions and answers sessions. The following is a summary of the discussions and conclusions.


  2.1  There was general agreement with the need to review the existing planning system which was felt to be too complicated and cumbersome and not inclusive enough. There was also agreement with the Government's objectives of speeding up decision making, greater transparency in the system and better community engagement. In particular, in the North West of England the aim must be to provide a planning system that assists and facilitates sustainable investment in the region and helps to address the needs of deprived urban and rural communities.

  2.2  However, during the session, a number of concerns were expressed which it is felt the Government needs to address:

    —  Achieving sustainable development is a key Government objective yet there is little mention of sustainability in the Green Paper, apart from the daughter document on Planning obligations. The Local Government Act 2000 and the Draft Guidance on Community Strategies places a duty on local authorities to deliver sustainable development. The need to make development sustainable should also be embodied in the planning system.

    —  Whilst there is a great emphasis placed on the speed of decision making in the Green Paper, there was concern about the lack of emphasis either on the quality of development or in the decision making process.

    —  The proposed simplification and understandability of the system is welcomed, particularly the two tier approach at regional and local level. However, the Green Paper is short on process and did not convince everyone that the two-tier system could be genuinely achieved. There remains the potential for the same complexity and delay that occurs with the present system.

    —  The need for genuine community involvement was welcomed but this must embrace all sectors of the community, including the business community. However, discussions centred on the need to achieve the right balance between an appropriate level of involvement and avoidance of delay.

    —  There was also real concern that whatever change is made to the planning system, it will not be effective unless the system is properly resourced. This is one of the major causes of delay at present and local authorities and other organisations will need to be adequately staffed to deliver the proposed system. There is already difficulty in attracting people into the planning profession and this needs to be urgently addressed.

    —  Concerns were expressed about delays throughout the present system being caused by the Government and the Secretary of State from issuing Regional Planning Guidance to decisions on individual planning applications.


  3.1  Most people recognised and welcomed the need to review national planning guidance and to separate out policy and advice on PPG's and MPG's and in particular the ability for greater flexibility of interpretation at regional level. However, it was considered important that guidance remains sufficiently prescriptive to aid decision-making and that the review needs to be carried out as quickly as possible.

  3.2  However, there was a unanimous view that this review on its own is inadequate for setting national policy and that there is a clear need for a national spatial strategy to address issues of regional disparities, national infrastructure investment and address development choices between regions. The preparation of such a strategy would move closer to the systems in other parts of the UK and Europe and would assist in addressing major cross boundary and transnational issues.


  4.1  The approach to the preparation of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) which clearly addressed regional priorities and assumed statutory status was endorsed, but the Regional Review felt that there were still a number of issues which needed to be addressed. In particular:

    —  The need for greater clarity as to how various topics will be addressed between the regional and sub-regional levels.

    —  The relationship with and the need to avoid conflict with other regional and sub-regional strategies, particularly the Development Agency's regional economic strategy and local transport plans. As far as the latter were concerned it was felt there needed to be more positive links with transport in the Green Paper.

    —  How to ensure genuine and comprehensive stakeholder and community involvement in the process and at the same time to resolve conflicts and make the necessary hard choices required for an effective RSS.


  5.1  There was considerable discussion and considerable uncertainty about the Green paper's approach to planning at the sub-regional level:

    —  Some felt the Green Paper's proposals for sub-regional strategies based on a small number of areas such as the conurbations was appropriate, whilst an alternative proposal was put forward which involved the preparation of comprehensive sub-regional "Integrated Development frameworks" based on existing county and unitary authorities. There was clearly no agreed approach for sub-regions from the Group.

    —  There were mixed views about the abolition of structure plans which some felt adequately carried out the sub-regional role.

    —  It was considered that the responsibility for the preparation of sub-regional strategies needs to be clarified but needed to involve the Regional Planning Body in identifying and coordinating their preparation. It was also considered important to utilise the great degree of expertise and resource that exists within the County Councils. These skills should not be lost.

    —  Appropriate sub-regions may cross national or regional boundaries and this needs to be addressed.

    —  The role of the National Parks and how their particular issues are dealt with needs to be addressed.


  6.1  The Regional Review is primarily concerned with the regional level. However, a number of comments were made with regard to the proposed system of Local Development Frameworks (LDFs).

    —  It needs to be made clear as to how the LDFs will fit into the sub-regional level.

    —  There is a danger that the preparation of LDFs with the statement of core policies, action plans and community involvement could become as time consuming to prepare as development plans under the current system, with the consequent problems for the business sector. For example, will action plans all have to be prepared at once or sequentially and will this lead to a series of time consuming and resource intensive public inquiries or hearings.


  7.1  Some parties expressed concerns that as currently interpreted the Green Paper may result in a loss of community rights, in particular with regard to the proposals to introduce Parliamentary Procedures for major infrastructure projects; appearances at public inquiries and the decision not to allow limited third party rights of appeal. The Groups main concern, however, was that community involvement is important at all levels of the planning system, and should be an integral part of the process, it should not create undue delay.

  7.2  One particular point is that the Green Paper gives the impression that if a Statement of Community Involvement is submitted with planning applications, the proposal will be agreed irrespective of community views (paragraph 5.55). This needs to be clarified.


  8.1  The following points emerged from the proceedings:

    —  Differing views were expressed on the level of delegation to officers between loss of democratic accountability and efficiency, however overall this approach was supported by the Group;

    —  Pre-application discussion were generally welcomed but there were concerns about staffing resources and loss of transparency if fees were to be paid. Removal of the approach for outline planning permission was raised as a concern;

    —  Some participants welcomed business planning zones and asked for them to cover wider industrial and business sectors; others felt the existing system is adequate;

    —  There were concerns about reducing planning permission to three years particularly for larger and more complex proposals. The proposal to allow for flexible time limits was felt to be a useful method of overcoming this problem;

    —  The introduction of tariffs was not welcomed and seen as an additional burden on companies who already pay business rates towards local communities. In deed representatives of business expressed a degree of nervousness about the introduction of standard tariffs.


  9.1  Following proceedings five key points emerged:

    —  Need for national spatial development framework;

    —  Need for a streamlining of national planning policies providing greater clarity which will be key to delivering plans at regional and local level;

    —  General acceptance of the role of statutory planning at the regional level but uncertainty of the appropriate way forward below this level;

    —  Need for the quality on decision making to continue to improve and be consistent but with the recognition that this requires increased resources and training of planners and members.

    —  Need for a defining and workable process—which provides speedier decision making to meet the requirements of business while providing for greater community participation.

April 2002

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