Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum from the Garden History Society (PGP 11)


  The Garden History Society is the national amenity society for the study and protection of historic parks and gardens, and since 1995 has been a statutory consultee on planning applications affecting sites on the English Heritage Register of parks and gardens of special historic interest. We will refer to the subjects you set out in the press notice, although we are also particularly keen to raise some questions on the subject of statutory and non-statutory consultees.

Statutory and non-statutory consultees

  We would like Ministers to explain on what basis the Green Paper asserts that consultees are "a major source of delay". We are not aware of any survey or research data to back up this assertion. The only research we have taken part in (David Tyldesley Associates for English Heritage, "Historic Parks and Gardens: a Review of Consultation Procedures in the Planning System", March 1998) indicates no such delay.

  Consulting amenity societies does not contribute to delay for the simple reason that authorities do not have to await their comments before making decisions. The majority of consultation-letters make quite clear that if no response is forthcoming within a stated time (between 14 and 28 days) the authority will proceed to make a decision on the basis that we have no comment to make. It may be true in the case of statutory consultees who advise on health and safety or who operate a parallel consent scheme, but in our case it is quite untrue that "most planning authorities will not take a decision in the absence of advice from a statutory consultee" (5.30). To us, this reads like buck-passing by an over-stretched and demoralised planning profession.

  Where consultee comments lead to delay is where they represent convincing, planning arguments about the shortcomings of an application which then need to be addressed. While we are quite prepared to acknowledge that our performance could improve, we would like to retort that delay is frequently caused by inadequately prepared applications from developers or by bureaucratic delays within planning authorities.

  We have no idea where Government came up with the assertion that "these bodies do not currently prioritise such work" (5.31)—it certainly was not from any national amenity society we know. In fact the opposite is true: the bulk of our professional efforts are directed precisely at dealing with statutory casework, as required by English Heritage in giving us a grant.

  It is far from clear who the statutory and non-statutory consultees referred to in the Green Paper actually are, but from discussions with DTLR officials, it seems likely that they include the national amenity societies, along with other local and national civic societies and conservation bodies. We are shocked by the attack on the local and national amenity sector in this part of the Green Paper, a sector which for well over a hundred years has pioneered the protection of the historic environment and the cherished local scene. We suspect that it is based on nothing more than the prejudices of developers and the excuses of planners, and is unwarranted and ill-founded.

  We would ask the Committee to note the irrational and aggressive nature of these paragraphs, and recommend that further research is needed to justify them and any subsequent action. A full public consultation should precede any final proposals.

The case for the Garden History Society

  We appreciate the Government's desire to speed up the planning decision-making process but we are concerned that the suggestion in the Green Paper that statutory consultees be cut back to those whose advice relates to health and safety or who operate a parallel consent system is too sweeping. In particular, we are concerned that the role of the GHS has not been fully understood.

  The GHS is a statutory consultee under the terms of a 1995 Direction, which for ease of reference is reproduced in DoE Circular 9/95. This was introduced by the Government in recognition of several facts:

    —  In the wake of the completion of the English Heritage Register of parks and gardens as a purely advisory document, there was little or no monitoring about subsequent development proposals which might harm those parks and gardens.

    —  As an interest of acknowledged importance it was desirable that registered parks and gardens be monitored.

    —  English Heritage did not have the capacity to monitor Grade II sites, representing some 60 per cent of registered sites.

    —  There is no statutory protection of parks and gardens, so that expert scrutiny and advice is particularly desirable.

    —  Because the Register contains only some 1,450 sites, consultation would not be an onerous burden on local authorities.

  In considering the importance of the Society's statutory role, we have asked DTLR to consider the following issues:

    —  EH resources for its work on statutory consultation on the Register remains limited: five regional landscape architects cover the nine regions, and combine casework with other duties.

    —  EH does not wish to take on Grade II casework: if the GHS did not do it, no one would.

    —  Apart from EH and GHS both having the opportunity to respond on Grade I and II* sites, there is no duplication with either other consultees, or with advice within local authorities, or in many places with other non-statutory amenity bodies.

    —  There is a continuing lack of guidance on how the planning officers should deal with parks and gardens. EH has issued none since a note on golf courses in 1991; the GHS has produced an advice note on development plan policies and also a handbook.

    —  There is little sign of increasing expertise at a local level. Only two county authorities have specialist historic landscape officers. While listed buildings and monuments benefit from a great deal of local expertise, parks and gardens do not.

    —  The GHS works closely in partnership with EH on casework.

    —  The GHS offers good value for money by virtue of its use of volunteers, its tapping into the county gardens trust network, its low overheads and the dedication of its staff and members.

    —  There is little prospect of EH having the resources to act as a post box, and farming out applications to the GHS—this was specifically ruled out at the time of the 1995 Direction.

  There are other ways to speed up the decision-making process:

    —  A requirement covering what material should be sent to a consultee to ensure that a consultee is in possession of all relevant information.

    —  A requirement that consultations are issued on the date of the application's being registered by the authority, to allow the maximum 28-day period for a response.

    —  Increasing (as proposed) the number of pre-application consultations.

    —  Allowing consultees (as proposed) to charge for their responses, although we are uncertain how this would work in practice.

    —  Tying consultees (as proposed) into a decision-making timetable on major applications.

    —  A statutory deadline for consultation, after which decisions can be made regardless—a practice increasingly being followed already by local authorities as mentioned above.

Local plans

  We agree that the current system of local and county development plans or of lengthy UDPs, is creaking under the weight of detail contained in them, and that the current state of endless rounds of revision is confusing and inefficient. We can see the attraction of Local Development Frameworks containing core policies with detailed action plans for certain areas, but we are very concerned about the risk of gaps in coverage. We would welcome more detailed proposals on this idea but in the meantime we would ask the Committee to probe Ministers on the risk of ad hoc development in those areas not covered by action plans.

Major development projects

  We must object very strongly to the proposal to determine the principle of major development projects in Parliament. In place of an impartial Inspectorate, the Green Paper is proposing that development which by definition has an impact on a large number of people, will be determined in a party-political arena. The whole point of public inquiries is to remove major development from that arena (ie in a local authority) and allow for the fairest possible treatment of the issues and of public concerns. Determining such schemes "in principle" is also filled with danger: as the outline application system has frequently demonstrated, many matters of "detail" are fundamental to understanding and assessing a development proposal. The only possible means by which this could be dealt with fairly in Parliament is via the Select Committee system, but we suspect that if Select Committees were seriously to examine major infrastructure projects and their desirability, their programme of inquiries would rapidly become congested.

Business Planning Zones

  We are alarmed at the proposal to introduce Business Planning Zones (5.36-8). Simplified planning zones of one sort or of another have been tried out repeatedly in the last 25 years, most notoriously in the Development Corporations set up by Mrs Thatcher. While they encouraged development, balancing their priorities with those of the local development plan (which represented public interest) was a constant problem. The same would apply to BPZ's and Local Development Frameworks.

Planning obligations

  Your Committee's inquiry into PPG:17 highlighted the potential role of planning obligations in delivering enhancements to open space—both in terms of provision and of management. We thoroughly support your view that a sustainable approach means addressing not just the provision of new open space, but the maintenance of existing. Provision of new, without the means to maintain it, is not sustainable. Rather than adding to the stock of open space, we need to ensure enhancement to much of the existing which at present has a neutral or even negative impact on the urban environment and its liveability.

  The Green Paper daughter document, "Reforming Planning Obligations", gives considerable attention to the use of obligations to deliver on affordable housing but no specific reference to open space. We believe this must be rectified if we are to see the different government agendas properly joined up. We see no reason, provided the sum is agreed, why planning gain in terms of open space should be restricted, as currently advised in Circular 1/97 to works "directly related to the proposed development". Moreover, we see no reason why contributions should not be used further afield within the borough or district: in the interests of social inclusion and sustainability, funds should be used where need is greatest, which may not always be in the vicinity of an attractive new development.

  It is essential that strong endorsement and clear guidance is given on the use of obligations for:

    —  Creation of new on-site open space.

    —  Maintenance (via one off commuted-sum payments) of new on-site open space.

    —  Creation of new off-site open space.

    —  Maintenance (via one-off commuted sum payments) of new off-site open space.

    —  Enhancement of existing off-site open space via new capital works.

    —  Enhanced maintenance of existing off-site open space via one-off commuted sum payments to be spent by the local authority over a number of years.

Certainty, public participation and faster decisions

  We have no objection to the principle of revising Planning Policy Guidance and separating broad policy statements from advice on implementation (4.60). However, it does seem to us a course that risks creating uncertainty. The former in order to be brief will be general, and therefore in practice will be open to interpretation, and the latter is avowedly to be interpreted flexibly. It seems to us that there is a danger of losing any kind of consistency or clarity in a welter of flexible guidance. This will be bad news for developers as well as planners and the public. In our field there is actually not enough national guidance: we have paragraph 2.24 of PPG:15 and little else. That paragraph raises several questions with which planners have made us very familiar over the years: it gives no guidance on the level of protection which authorities ought to seek in preparing development plans, no guidance on how registered parks should be protected in determining planning applications; no guidance on what weight to give to their settings; no guidance on good management or conservation. The last piece of guidance on planning for parks and gardens published by English Heritage was on golf course developments in 1992. Our guidance note on development plan policies (1992, revised several times up to 2000), and our handbook on parks and gardens in the planning system (1996), remains the only source of such guidance.

  We welcome the idea of a Statement of Community Involvement in the Local Development Framework (4.22), although we are wary of consultative exercises which although more widespread, do not allow for a fundamental and decisive input such as can be achieved by local groups via the examination in public of development plans. Meaningless consultation is leeching out the lifeblood of democracy, leaving people disillusioned, sceptical and at worst, disengaged from the democratic process. The proposals in paragraph 4.26 on options for real participation therefore are very welcome, and we particularly welcome the idea of an inspector's decision being binding on the local authority rather than merely advisory as at present.

  We welcome the idea of Planning Portals (5.12), although we are concerned about how genuine consultation can be based on the computer screen, when a 1:500 plan showing the kind of detail necessary to understand the development proposal will often be on sheets up to A1 in size.

  We very much regret the decision in the Green Paper not to introduce a third-party right of appeal, which seems to us a progressive and democratic move which would have befitted a liberal Government. We would commend to you the report "Third Party Rights of Appeal in Planning" prepared by CPRE, RSPB, Friends of the Earth, Civic Trust and others (January 2002). This sets out suitable safeguards against frivolous third-party appeals, and we are dismayed at the dismissal of the rigorous case, which has been made.

  Repeatedly in the Green Paper, we see a Government, under the regrettable influence of business lobbying and market-forces, turning away from a democratically accountable planning system, in favour of the single goal of speed. This seems an entirely false goal: what is needed is quality. If quality is lacking, delay will naturally ensue but it is not in itself the problem. Delay has been made into a paper tiger much as consultees have: what is wrong with delay if a proposal is objectionable or controversial? Delay is the space in which public accountability and public participation take place: why is the Government so set on attacking that rather than the poor quality of far too many development proposals?

The urban renaissance

  Good planning should be completely bound up with good architecture and good landscape design. The three are complementary arts. Planning has a key role in the urban renaissance: its fundamental role is to represent the public interest against the ad hoc forces of the free-market. We agree that the system has become clogged and that planning often fails to have this constructive, partnership role. However, we disagree with the Green Paper's targeting of delay—it is a symptom not the cause of planning's problems.

  We are concerned that the Green Paper does not acknowledge the enormous problems being caused in the planning system by a lack of proper resources. Planning is a service to the community and ought to be funded as such. Like all public services it has been run down as a matter of successive Governments' policy, determined to ease the burden of taxation, to lift constraints on the market and to centralise power in Whitehall.

  The Green Paper fails to recognise that most of the problems in the planning system are to do with insufficient staffing, inadequate training opportunities, demoralisation and low esteem. In only two county authorities are there historic landscape officers, and there are none in any district or unitary authorities. The opportunities for officers to train up in this field are extremely limited by training budgets. Specialist knowledge on the historic environment tends to reside at county level (many district and unitary authorities do not employ a conservation officer at all) and with the abolition of structure plans we are concerned that this resource may also come under threat.

  The absence of any recognition of the enormous achievements of the planning system in protecting the environment and improving quality of life in this Green Paper is particularly mean-spirited and unfair. Despite some valid points and some good proposals, it is over all a shocking betrayal of a democratic and essential public service, albeit one suffering from acute and chronic problems of under-funding, to the vested interests of business.


  The Green Paper contains an unwarranted and ill-founded attack on statutory and non-statutory consultees: we suspect there is no rational basis for the proposal to cut them, only prejudice and an easy target.

  A new system of development planning must address the risk of planning free zones, whether those outside Action Plans areas, or inside Business Planning Zones.

  The proposal to determine the "principle" of major development projects in Parliament is retrograde and undemocratic and should be firmly dismissed.

  Proposals for reform of planning obligations must include open space, and its management in their focus, as well as affordable housing.

  We have doubts whether the new system of PPG's will result in greater clarity.

  We deplore the simplistic emphasis on tackling delay (a business perspective) when the real problem is poor quality applications.

  Much of the Green Paper will militate against real public involvement and fail to protect the public interest against ad hoc market forces. The need for strong, well-resourced planning is as urgent now as it has ever been.

March 2002

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