Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Professor Howard Elcock (PGP 07)



  1.1  Previous reform. The Green Paper begins by stating wrongly, that the planning system has continued largely unchanged since its introduction by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Richard Crossman initiated a radical revision of the planning system as a result of the Planning Advisory Group's work when he was Minister of Housing and Local Government between 1964 and 1966, which resulted in the Town and Country Planning Acts of 1968 and 1971. These reforms, which included the introduction of the present Structure Plans and Local Plans, were introduced for many of the same reasons as those being given for the present proposals: excessive delays and bureaucracy that were seen to result from an excessively detailed planning regime: Present Ministers appear to believe that the Crossman reforms were a failure, which their present proposals are intended to reverse. If this is indeed the case, then care must be taken not to repeat the mistakes made then. If the Crossman changes were not a failure, the question ought at least to be asked whether the system is at present sufficiently broken to require radical fixing. The essential question is whether fundamental change is necessary for a system which despite its failures, has enjoyed many successes in protecting and improving the environment and at least partially resolved the difficulties of the 1947 system.

  1.2  One effect of the 1968 and 1971 Planning Acts, coupled with the 1973 reorganisation of local government, was to increase the number of planning departments, because planning functions were granted to both tiers of the two-tier systems of local government introduced throughout England at that time. This may have increased both bureaucracy and delays but it had two substantial benefits. These were:

    —  A pluralist planning system in which no one planning authority or majority party on a local planning authority could control the entire planning process. This might render consultation and participation nugatory when planning powers were exercised only by county and county borough councils. Unitary planning authorities which are dominated by secure political majorities and advised by confident professional officers, sometimes created the kind of autocratic planning system denounced as "evangelistic bureaucracy". These dangers were reduced by the introduction of two-tier local government throughout England and Wales in 1973.

    —  The development of two perspectives on planning: a strategic view which could be taken by county councils able to consider relatively dispassionately the needs of their sub-regional areas without having to become involved in purely local issues and disputes. The district and borough planning authorities could discuss and resolve local issues concerning specific sites. Both systems were "plan led", with the county councils preparing Structure Plans and the districts or boroughs preparing Local Plans, which allowed policies to be developed from both strategic and local viewpoints. The result was a system in which checks and balances inhibited the overriding of local views and interests by either tier of local government.

    —  However, the effect of the introduction of the proposed Local Development Frameworks (LDF) and the abolition of Structure Plans will be once more to make planning a unitary local government function throughout England. The advantages of this in terms of quicker and more coherent decision-making are apparent but the loss of opportunities to express and negotiate conflicting views about plans and planning applications ought not to be dismissed out of hand in the current enthusiasm for speeding up and simplifying the planning process. Increased speed and efficiency may be achieved by re-establishing unitary local planning authorities but this is likely to be achieved at the expense of local democracy and participation.

  1.3  Planning Inquiries. The other headline issue addressed in the Green Paper: the excessive length, formality and cost of planning inquiries, has also had a long historical pedigree. Those groups who are opposed to the government's proposals for replacing such inquiries with a Parliamentary procedure to consider major infrastructure projects need to consider, therefore, whether the public inquiry as at present constituted is worth dying in the last ditch to defend.

  1.4  The most fundamental problem with the planning inquiry system is that the Secretary of State is under no obligation to accept the Inspector's recommendations. Indeed, in the words of Lord Justice Thankerton in the Stevenage case in 1947, the Inquiry exists "only to inform the mind of the Minister". Until 1958 the Minister did not even have to give any reasons for overriding the Inspector's recommendations. If a Parliamentary procedure were to be safeguarded against Ministerial rejection of its decisions and against control by the Whips, it would improve the value of the proceedings for the participants. They could be more certain that if the Parliamentarians accepted their case, their views would also be likely to prevail in Whitehall.

  1.5  The reforms of the planning inquiry system introduced in 1977 remedied these defects to some extent in the case of the vast majority of planning inquiries, because Planning Inspectors were able to determine most planning appeals themselves. This eliminated the time needed for a Ministerial decision upholding or rejecting the Inspector's report to be taken, which has been a major cause of planning delays. It also removed the possibility of the Minister rejecting the Inspector's recommendations, thus making such inquiries more credible quasi-judicial procedures. It has also facilitated the holding of relatively informal local planning inquiries into the vast majority of planning appeals.

  1.6  It might be possible to reduce the length and complexity of many public inquiries by barring legal representation at them but clearly this would not be appropriate for the largest inquiries into major proposed developments which are contested among major organisations, such as the Heathrow Terminal 5 Inquiry. In these cases, the Green Paper proposes the substitution of a Parliamentary procedure for the present public inquiry procedure, at paragraph 6.4 and following. A more satisfactory alternative to the present system is needed, especially where a large organisation's proposals are being resisted by small and relatively poorly funded environmental organisations such as CPRE, Friends of the Earth and Transport 2000, as was the case at the Sizewell B Inquiry. However, such decisions ought not to be made by whipped majorities subservient to the Executive in the House of Commons. If a Parliamentary procedure were partially to replace public inquiries into major developments, it should be conducted through a procedure that does not entail the application of the party Whips, such as a Select Committee investigation to which the parties to the decision could make representations.


  2.1  Two general issues must be borne constantly in mind. First, the essential purpose of planning is to reduce uncertainty about the future—not only for planners themselves but also for developers, property purchasers, statutory undertakings, transport operators and many others. A virtue of the present "plan led" system is that all these and other interested parties can gain a relatively clear idea of where particular kinds of development are likely to be permitted or encouraged to take place, by consulting Structure and Local Plans. However, plans need to be updated as circumstances and policies change. All planning procedures now include provisions for the monitoring, review and amendment of plans and the need to do so is generally acknowledged by the planning profession.

  2.2  The second feature of the present planning system that should not be lost sight of is that the process of preparing Structure, Local and Subject Plans produces benefits in terms of improved information, communication and co-ordination not only for local planning authorities themselves but also among other private and public sector agencies. Demographic work undertaken for plan preparation may reveal previously unnoticed developments or problems, such as growing concentrations of elderly residents in particular locations who are likely to require increased social and health care provision. Plan preparation thus becomes a collective learning process which produces benefits beyond those which may result from the resulting documents, causing Tony Eddison to suggest that "planning is more important than plans".

  2.3  A final general problem is that because of their large size, few of the present English local authorities can be regarded as being in any sense community councils or as able to represent community opinion, because they are too large to do so. Most of them are combinations of communities, which in some but by no means all cases have their own community governments in the forms of parish or town councils which are consulted as a matter of course on plan preparation and planning applications. Although the powers of these councils are very limited, their main value to the planning process is their ability to represent community views and interests to the regional, structure and local planners.


  3.1  Paragraph 4.1 usefully summarises the roles of plans as being "to describe the intended use of land in an area and to provide an objective basis for the consideration of planning applications", which might further be summarised as reducing uncertainty about the future. The defects raised in paragraph 4.5 are significant but many of them were also raised during the Crossman review in the 1960s. If they were not resolved then, one must ask whether the present proposals are likely to fare any better. The proposed Community Strategies may enable local planning authorities to take a broad brush view of the future development of their areas but they need to maintain both the strategic and the local focal points of planning, especially if both plans are to be prepared by the same council. However, the question raised earlier as to whether the present local authorities can be in any true sense regarded as community councils must cast doubt on their ability to develop truly community perspectives in preparing these plans.

  3.2  The proposal to restrict the core policies of Local Development Frameworks to land use issues is unduly restrictive and is redolent of the previous Conservative Governments' planning reforms in the early 1980s. Transport in particular must be considered alongside land use and other social, environmental and economic matters are inextricably entwined with land use considerations. They must therefore be discussed as the essential premises for the spatial policies proposed in the Framework documents and related to the new Community Strategies.

  3.3  In paragraph 4.20 the need continuously to update the LDF is desirable but this process must not become so demanding that the local planning authority is unable to undertake other work or to process planning applications with due dispatch. The three-year revision period proposed in paragraph 4.31 is probably too short, for exactly this reason.


  4.1  The proposals for strengthening the role of regional planning contained in paragraph 4.42 and following are welcome but at present there are no elected bodies at the regional level which can legitimate the proposals made by the professional planners. These must include assumptions about the economic, political and social values to be followed in developing regional strategies. Some members of these regional bodies are councillors nominated by their authorities and hence indirectly elected but they cannot exercise the authority conferred by direct election. Many regional planners are concerned that the decisions they are responsible for making, which affect the long term spatial, economic and social development of their regions, cannot be tested against and legitimated by public opinion as represented by elected assembly members. The Government is preparing a White Paper on elected regional government in England that may address this weakness of the present system.

  4.2  The proposed development of the present Regional Planning Guidance into the Regional Spatial Strategies proposed in paragraph 4.44 and following, is welcome. It should strengthen regional environmental and social protection from the adverse consequences of development but they should remain the property of the regional authorities which have prepared them, especially when some of them possibly become directly elected bodies. They must be subject to Ministerial approval to ensure that they comply with national policies but they should not then become statements of Ministerial policies for the region, as is the case with the present Regional Planning Guidance documents. However, such regional strategies will lack democratic legitimacy unless their preparation is supervised by elected regional assemblies.

  4.3  In view of the need for sub-regional strategies in many areas (para. 4.49 and following), coupled with the development of sub-regional policies including Sub-Regional Partnership Areas as part of the Regional Economic Strategy process, the proposal to abolish Structure Plans should be dropped. Structure Plans are now well established sub-regional strategic plans and an extensive methodology has been devised for their preparation, including a focus on key issues and means to cope with issues which cross county borders. Their scope might be modified in order to encourage councillors and officers to concentrate on the major issues and most important sites or areas within sub-regions. They can also ensure co-ordination of plans with other remaining county responsibilities, including mineral working and waste disposal. They should be approved by the Regional Planning Bodies, thus removing a further cause for delay because they would no longer need to go to Ministers for approval, with the resultant delays rendering them out of date before they have come into force. It would be quicker and more efficient to modify an existing process, to which councillors, officers and participants have become accustomed, than to abolish it and replace it with a new and untried process of sub-regional planning.


  5.1  The proposal to simplify the present plethora of Planning Policy Guidance Notes made in paragraph 4.59 is welcome. The regional planning bodies should be given more discretion. However, the substance of the environmental protection guaranteed by the present PPGs, with their emphasis on sustainable development, needs to be maintained. The Royal Town Planning Institute and CPRE have argued for the creation of a National Spatial Framework, into which many of the present PPG Notes could be consolidated.

  5.2.  The LDFs should be approved at the regional rather than national level if they conform to the Regional Spatial Strategy, as Local Plans are now approved by County Councils if they conform to their Structure Plans. They should not then require Ministerial approval, a major cause of delay in approving plans. This was a major reason underlying the 1968 reforms of the planning system, which laid down that the Minister should only approve Structure Plans, hence removing many other plans from delays within the Ministry.


  6.1  Again the need for a quicker, more user-friendly set of procedures as proposed in paragraph 5.1 is welcome but this ought not to be achieved by the undue truncation of public consultation processes. These are important for building local consents, without which proposals may meet with lengthy and stubborn resistance, perhaps including lengthy court cases or even public disorder.

  6.2  The more extensive use of electronic media proposed in paragraph 5.12 and following is particularly welcome in this context, because they should make responding to consultations easier and quicker. However, e-planning is confined to those with access to computers and the Internet and this does not yet include anything like the entire population. Only around 45 per cent of the people have access to computers and the Internet. Hence, it may result in discrimination against the information poor, so alternative means of participation must continue to be provided.

  6.3  The strict conditions proposed for the establishment of Business Zones in paragraph 5.36 and following, within which planning regulations will not operate, might have rendered them less unacceptable to environmental and conservation groups such as CPRE and Friends of the Earth but they still regard them with considerable hostility. They are welcomed by business, although there is evidence that business people do not regard planning as the most important obstacle to development. The effect of earlier such initiatives introduced by the previous Conservative Administrations was to cause existing employers to move their plants into Enterprise or similar Zones, rather than attracting new employers to them. Similar arguments may apply to the permitted development rights proposed in paragraph 5.45 and following. It is by no means clear that the exemption of most agricultural buildings from the present planning regime has been beneficial to the rural environment.

  6.4  The recognition of the importance of the democratic and representative roles of councillors in paragraph 6.21 is welcome, especially since in planning they are often faced with issues of considerable complexity. The discipline of having to explain complex issues to lay representatives may be tedious for technically qualified officers but it is vital to the effective working of representative democracy. This needs to be extended to the regional level if the planning roles of regional agencies are to be increased as proposed in this Paper.

  6.5  The statements about better skills and more user-friendly systems contained in paragraph 6.38 and elsewhere are welcome but planning is in part a regulatory activity which may obstruct potential developers' intentions by the refusal of planning permission or the imposition of more or less onerous conditions for approval. It is also in part an enforcement activity, which may require recalcitrant developers to remove buildings or appurtenances for which planning permission has not been granted, as well as to enforce building control and other regulations. As with any other public service concerned with regulation and enforcement, there is therefore a limit to the extent to which planners can be user-friendly.


  7.1  The Government's Planning Green contains much that is welcome but there are also major deficiencies. It proposes a major upheaval where one is neither necessary nor desirable. It would be cheaper, quicker and easier to modify the existing system than to impose a radically new one.

  7.2  Actions recommended on the basis of the above arguments include the following:

    —  The number of plans requiring Ministerial approval should be reduced to the absolute minimum.

    —  Major national infrastructure proposals should be considered by a Joint Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament, with full investigatory and interrogatory powers, not controlled by the Whips.

    —  The proposed Regional Spatial Strategies should become statements of regional policy, preferably approved by elected representatives.

    —  County Structure Plans should be retained but their scope and functions could be modified as the Regional Spatial Strategies are developed.

    —  Local Development Frameworks should be prepared on the basis of existing local plans but should be flexible and subject to frequent review and amendment. They could be approved either by County councils if Structure Plans are retained, or by Regional Planning Bodies.

    —  Local Business Zones are unlikely to be effective and should not be proceeded with.

    —  Mechanisms for public consultation and participation should be extended. In particular, steps should be taken to encourage individual as well as group participation.

    —  The importance of elected representatives at all levels of the planning system should be recognised as vital to securing consents.

    —  Both participatory and representative democracy require expenditure of time. Critics of delays resulting from such democratic procedures should recognise that if consent is obtained through participation and elected representatives, co-operation in implementing developments is more likely to be forthcoming.

Howard Elcock AcSS

University of Northumbria at Newcastle

March 2001

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