Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Friends of the Earth (PGP 18)


  Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to the Committee on the Planning Green Paper. Friends of the Earth is an NGO with 200,000 supporters and local campaigning groups in 240 communities. We are a member of Friends of the Earth International, which has member groups in 57 different countries. Friends of the Earth has worked on the issue of planning for over 25 years, and has a strong commitment to enabling local communities to participate in the planning process. Friends of the Earth is also convinced that the land use planning system is a key mechanism for delivering sustainable development and has been active in promoting this objective in a variety if national land-use policy reviews.

  We have written this evidence by addressing each question outlined in the Committee's Press Notice. In addition to this memorandum we have attached two appendices. The first relates to Friends of the Earth's position on the consultation document for the reform of the decision-making process for major infrastructure projects. This statement includes provisional legal advice on the procedural aspects of the parliamentary approval of such projects. We would be grateful if this advice is treated in confidence. The second appendix is a short note addressing the case made by the CBI that the English planning system is more bureaucratic and burdensome to industry than those of our European partners. The note specifically addresses the comparative position between France and England and concludes that there is no evidence that the French local planning system is faster or more efficient that our own.


  Friends of the Earth is committed to a planning system which is fair, transparent and democratic for all participants and enshrines the objectives of sustainable development. We are concerned that the Planning Green Paper proposals fail to deliver this vision for the following specific reasons:

    —  The Green Paper is based on a false set of assumptions about the scale and nature of the problems facing the contemporary planning system and ignores the recent findings and recommendations from the Government's own research and those of other agencies. As a result the Green Paper has missed an opportunity to build on the strengths of the current system recognised, for example, in the consultation document for the reform of Welsh planning system.

    —  The Green Paper will lead to a loss of existing civil rights and in particular the right to be heard at a local plan inquiry. Rights to participate and rights of redress along with imaginative public participation are essential in delivering a socially inclusive planning system.

    —  The Green Paper proposals will end comprehensive plan coverage based on a detailed proposal map and therefore compromise the system's ability to deliver long term and coherent sustainable development.

    —  The proposals will significantly add to the administrative burden of local authorities.


  1.1  Chapter two of the Green Paper sets out an analysis of what the Government believes is wrong with the contemporary development plan system in order to give the context for the proposals for reform. What it does not do, however, is include an analysis of why these problems have arisen. This means that the resulting proposals do not address the cause of many of the problems with the operation of the current system but merely attempts to react to their symptoms. This has led to an emphasis on structural policy changes to the development plan system to address what are in essence managerial, cultural and resource-based deficiencies.

  1.2  The under-resourcing of local authority planning departments and its effect on planning services has been set out in DTLR-sponsored research.[14] Increased funding would address many of the problems which delay the preparation of local plans, particularly in terms of staff shortages, and could along with managerial reform deliver, increased efficiency without the wholesale dismantling of the existing local plan framework.

  1.3  Paragraph 4.5 of the Green Paper states that "the current arrangements for area-wide local plans introduced in 1992 have never been worked effectively." This is far too simplistic a statement upon which to base its reform and this kind of unsupported analysis underpins much of what is wrong with the Green Paper proposals. Recent research sponsored by the Government that looked at the system of structure plans did not recommend their abolition but set out a number of steps to improve their effectiveness.[15] A number of research reports sponsored by the Royal Town Planning Institute have also considered how the development plan system might be made "slimmer and swifter" and have "fitness for purpose".[16] None of these reports has recommended doing away with the structure of the system entirely but they have suggested that improvements should be made. It would have been more helpful if there were evidence that the Green Paper had built upon these recommendations rather than proposing wholesale abolition of the system. This is essentially the approached adopted by the Welsh Assembly in their consultation document "Planning: Delivering for Wales." Paragraph 10 of this document states "We consider that the existing planning system, deriving from the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, is basically sound."

  1.4  The analysis of the problems with the current planning system over-emphasises the needs of the business lobby. Paragraph 2.10 states that "there will be fundamental change in planning so that it works much better for business." The Government has chosen not to recognise that business interests are already in a dominant position when it comes to influencing the outcomes of local plans.

  1.5  There is equally too much emphasis on the perceived problem of "speed" in the planning process. It is assumed that the speed of plan preparation and decision-making is of the essence. It is stated in paragraph 2.12 that the Government "believe[s] in good planning" but the need for this "good planning" to be measured by its outcomes and the extent to which it leads to a sustainable future and equitable decisions is not emphasised enough in the Green Paper. Indeed, Friends of the Earth maintains that the proposals will undermine the ability of the planning process to deliver these outcomes.


  1.6  The Green Paper proposes that local development frameworks will not contain a detailed proposal map as do current local plans and UDPs. They will contain a statement of core policies and might include more detailed action plans for smaller, local, areas of change. Action plans might also be drawn up for topics such as green belts, housing allocations of major development proposals. A map will be included simply to show the areas for which these action plans will apply and to show designations such as conservation areas.

  1.7  Friends of the Earth believes that these proposals signal the end of a planning system that seeks to ensure coherent, comprehensive, sustainable decision-making. The system of plan-making and development control pre-1990 did not require local authorities to prepare comprehensive map-based plans for the whole of their administrative areas. This led to the loss of a strategic overview and confusion when many different types of statements, briefs and plans were drawn up to guide decision-making. Friends of the Earth predicts that the Green Paper proposals are a backward step to a time when a lack of coherence and certainty was disliked by business interests as much as other bodies.

  1.8  Friends of the Earth maintains that the local development frameworks should contain a proposals map that identifies major development constraints and sets out all significant new land use allocations. This would enable a strategic approach to be taken to decisions regarding the distribution of new development, and would require local authorities to ensure that more detailed proposals contained in action plans added up to a coherent, sustainable whole. In such a system, the action plans proposed in paragraph 4.15 for green belt boundaries, housing allocations, specific major development proposals and safeguarding of land would not be optional but would be a part of this overall map-based framework. Such a system is proposed in the current consultation paper "Planning: Delivering for Wales".[17] Without such a link between the strategic and the specific, a coherent planning system cannot operate.

  1.9  It is proposed in the Green Paper that LDFs will be the "spatial" element of the community strategy. This community strategy will be the responsibility of the local strategic partnership, which it is assumed will be an inclusive body consisting of representatives of the public, private and voluntary sectors and the local community. Local strategic partnerships are still emerging across the country and their position in relation to local authorities and their responsibilities have not yet been clearly established. Many people in the community will be unaware of their existence and the extent to which they can be accountable has yet to be clarified. In addition the guidance that has been issued for the preparation of community strategies does not provide for a right for individuals to be involved in their preparation. Instead there is only an assumption that the process will be participatory.[18]

  1.10  Friends of the Earth believes that land use decisions should remain in the hands of a democratically elected, accountable, body. Friends of the Earth therefore believes that the contents of the community strategy should not drive those of the local development framework, as proposed in paragraph 4.7, although this and other strategies will have a role to play as planning policies are drawn up.

  1.11  The Green Paper proposes that each LDF will have a statement of core policies setting out the vision and objectives for a locality. It is to include a "timetable" (paragraph 4.10 bullet point two) but there is no indication of the time horizon for which these core policies are to be established. Friends of the Earth believes that the statement of core policies should require local authorities to look ahead at least 5 years and at all times to consider the implications of their policies for a 10 year horizon. The statement of core policies is to include criteria-based policies that will form the basis for development control (paragraph 4.10 bullet point five). In areas not covered by action plans decision-making on applications will therefore no longer be "plan-led" but "criteria-led." Friends of the Earth does not believe that such a system is workable, nor that it has sustainability at its heart. The plan-led system was introduced due to the environmentally damaging ad hoc system that was in place pre-1990. The rationale for a plan led system was to reduce the burden of controversy and uncertainty which fell on the development control process. The Green Paper does propose (paragraph 4.13) that local authorities can identify where more detailed action plans should be produced. These plans will have a proposal map but the critical issue is that there is no longer a statutory minimum requirement for local authority to prepare any action plans. Instead local authorities have discretionary power to do so. Comprehensive plan coverage for all parts of a district will come to end and the principle of a plan-led system is inevitably undermined.

  1.12  Paragraphs 4.18 to 4.20 of the Green Paper illustrate the extent to which the proposals as they stand will increase the uncertainty about the acceptability of sites proposed outside Action Plan areas. Paragraph 4.18 states that "decisions about planning permission should be made in accordance with the statement of core policies in the Local Development Framework and action plans where they are in place. The option exists for action plans to cover the majority of major development sites." There is thus no requirements for all sites where major development well be considered to have been identified in principle nor for the detailed matters of concern no these sites to have been analysed before a planning application is received. The decision-making system will thus be ad hoc.

  1.13  Paragraph 4.20 then goes on to state that there will be a requirement for "the statement of core policies . . .to be continuously updated, so that it is consistent with national and regional policies." If this proposal is followed through, there is likely to be constant uncertainty about the status of the statement of core policies. It is important to clarify at what point constant review in order to be in line with national and regional policies becomes a change of policy at local level that requires consultation? Paragraph 4.30 does nothing to clarify this matter. The implication is that significant policy changes can be made to an LDF without any formal process of public examination and therefore no right for the public to participate.

  1.14  Friends of the Earth is concerned that the Green Paper does not include details of what the Government believes will be "proper community participation" (paragraph 4.16). The rhetoric of "closer involvement" and "direct participation" is not enough to demonstrate how all those with an interest in local planning decisions will have a right to be involved. Public participation can only be meaningful if it is backed by legally enforceable rights of access and of redress. Friends of the Earth therefore believes that allowing all parties to be heard in the process of drawing up of reviewing the statement of core policies and action plans and any review of these plans is a vital minimum requirement. Friends of the Earth believes that the key to the effective, efficient and equitable running of the new style planning process will be the clarity of the system, its coherence and the chance for all parties to be involved. At present the Green Paper proposals do not fulfil these criteria and instead will lead to confusion, chaos and conflict. One of the fundamental problems lies in the proposals for adopting the local development frameworks as set out in paragraphs 4.26 and 4.27.

  1.15  Friends of the Earth believes that whilst the style and management of the current system of public local inquiries does present problems for non expert participants, they do at least guarantee proper scrutiny of the policies and proposals put forward by the local authority. Friends of the Earth does not agree with the statement in paragraph 4.26 that a "better way to test" the proposed local development frameworks is needed and does not accept any of the three options put forward. An examination-in-public style approach does not ensure scrutiny of the entire plan, nor does it offer a right to be heard in person of through written representation.

  1.16  Friends of the Earth maintains that there should be a right for any party to be heard in a public local inquiry presided over by an inspector, the report of which should be binding on the local authority. This right could be exercised by appearing in person of by submitting written representation. The inquiry should consider all of the contents of the core statement of policies and the proposals map that Friends of the Earth believes should be an integral part of the local development framework. The current system of public local inquiries could be imaginatively reformed without removing these minimum rights. Negotiation prior to the inquiry, more efficient timetabling and a better-resourced planning inspectorate would all contribute to a more efficient process.

  1.17  Friends of the Earth believes that all parties should have a right to be involved in the preparation of all action plans or supplementary planning guidance. This should not be limited to those with "property rights" as specified in paragraph 4.27. There should be a universally recognised system for the scrutiny and adoption of all action plans or "supplementary planning guidance." If this is not the case then important lessons of planning practice over the last twenty years will be ignored.[19] In the 1970s and 1980s, the ability to draw up a range of types of plans without specified preparation of adoption processes led to a plethora of "bottom drawer" plans being used in the decision-making process. Their use meant that applicants and others with an interest in a proposal were never clear what documents would be used for guidance by the local authority.[20]


  1.18  Friends of the Earth believes that no more weight should be attached to regional spatial strategies until they are the responsibility of an elected, accountable regional body. It is not enough to suggest that regional planning bodies should involve and consult a wide range of stakeholders. The decision-making body at a regional level has to be accountable to the regional electorate and there must be a right to participate in the regional strategy-making process. Friends of the Earth believes that the public examination of regional spatial strategies must, in addition to enabling all interested parties to participate, examine all of their constituent parts. This would be a change from the current system that enables the regional planning body to decide which parts it wishes to open up to discussion.

  1.19  Friends of the Earth believes that sub-regional planning should remain the responsibility of elected, accountable bodies and should not be a part of the unaccountable regional planning machinery. Existing county councils and metropolitan authorities should be required to work together where the need for functional sub-regional planning means that one or more administrative areas will be covered. This system works successfully at present in parts of the UK and these successes should be built upon so that existing skills, resources and relationships are effectively utilised.

  1.20  Paragraph 4.50 states in its first sentence that sub-regional planning strategies are not envisaged "for all areas" but points out later on that "some matters and in particular the distribution of housing provision to districts, will need to be addressed on a comprehensive basis at the sub-regional level ." Friends of the Earth believes that there is a set of strategic decisions to be made between the regional and the local level and therefore that it is necessary to utilise the existing structure planning authorities to undertake this task. This implies the need to retain a level of sub regional planning currently delivered by Structure plans.

  1.21  In proposing to abolish structure plans, the Government is ignoring the findings of its own research undertaken just three years ago.[21] This research took an in-depth look at the structure planning process and the potential for it to be replaced by a system of regional and/or sub-regional processes. It concluded that the structure plan should not be abandoned and the researchers doubted that an enhanced role for regional planning would be "capable of also fulfilling an effective role in providing an efficient, democratically accountable and statutory system of sub-regional strategic planning . . . unless there are further radical moves involving regional devolution and local government reform".[22]

  1.22  In line with the above findings, Friends of the Earth does not support the move to abolish structure plans. Friends of the Earth believes that there is the opportunity for more effective, functionally based sub-regional planning to be undertaken by co-operation between structure planning authorities and metropolitan authorities that would overcome some of weaknesses of the current system.

  1.23  Friends of the Earth believes that a different style of structure plan could emerge that would be in line with the recommendations of the Government research. This research recommended that structure plans could be renamed to reflect a new emphasis in their role as overarching "sub-regional strategies." The report recommended that such strategies should provide:

    —  an overall sub-regional framework that integrates a range of sectoral concerns and issue associated with land-use matters;

    —  a framework for detailed land use planning at a local level;

    —  an interface between regional planning guidance and local planning;

    —  the basis for other corporate and strategic plans at the sub-regional level (eg, transport, European Union Structural Funding programmes, leisure and recreational strategies etc.).[23]

  1.24  It is clear that such a revision of structure plans rather than their abolition would ensure that the link between land use and other planning activities related, for example, to transport and minerals and waste would be retained at a county level. In addition, this would mean that the knowledge, skills and resources that have been built up in county councils would not be lost but would be utilised in a more effective way.


  1.25  The Green Paper proposes to significantly reduce the amount and type of guidance contained in the current system of PPGs and MPGs. Whilst it is difficult to comment on what is envisaged until examples of the proposed changes are available, Friends of the Earth would offer the following comments on the concept and purpose of a national planning policy framework.

  1.26  Friends of the Earth believes that a national framework for sustainable development is required. As regional competition increases and regional devolution is more pressing, a national set of guidance is indeed needed to a greater extent than at present. The RTPI is calling for a national policy framework to be drawn up which can overcome some of the discrepancies which exist between PPGs and help to fill in gaps which can be identified (such as a national policy on airport development)[24]. In terms of the detailed format of PPGs Friends of the Earth is not, in principle, opposed to the effective and concise explanation of policy. However, some issues such as nature conservation involve considerable detail in terms of obligations under national, European and international agreements. Local authorities need detailed interpretation of these obligations and this should not be sacrificed by rigid standard templates for PPGs. We are concerned that if detailed guidance is shifted from PPGs into best practice guides then local authorities may be uncertain as to the legal status of these guides and therefore to their materiality in planning decisions.


  2.1  Friends of the Earth has strong reservations about the development of business planning zones. Simplified planning Zones already exist and have already proved popular of effective. (There is a considerable weight of research which highlights the shortcomings of the SPZ model. In particular Blackhall 1994 and Allmendinger 1996[25]). We are concerned at the scale of these sites and the removal of democratic accountability and rights of scrutiny over industrial developments inside these zones. The designation of these zones may also remove the ability of a local authority to control important issues such as car parking standards and other policy requirements which contribute to sustainable development. Enough scope already exists inside the planning system to designate sites for industrial and commercial development inside the plan-led system. It is important to note that there is little evidence that planning control is a major factor in deterring inward investment. The limited success which some claim for Enterprise Zones was largely the result of fiscal incentives not primarily planning de-regulation.


  Please see appendix 1.


Planning Obligations

  4.1  Friends of the Earth welcomes the Government's attempt to increase the transparency and certainty of the current planning obligations system. There is a widespread acknowledgement that the current system is deeply unpopular with the public and leads to the impression that planning permission can be "bought."

  4.2  Recent research carried out by a team from the University of Sheffield, investigated planning obligations and the resultant "planning gain" in some detail. The results of this research indicate that planning gain is deeply regressive taxation instrument delivering most to those areas where development values are highest. The system of negotiating planning gain is lengthy and inefficient and very often unfair to the private sector. Such negotiations are viewed with deep suspicion by the general public who believe they amount to the purchase of planning permission. Most worryingly of all the research confirmed that planning gain was having a significant impact on land-use patterns by, for example, the allocation of larger housing sites in order to maximise the potential "gain." (Campbell et al, 2000, Panning Obligations, Planning practice and Land use outcomes, Environment and Planning B Vol 27 pages 759-775).

  4.3  Friends of the Earth is concerned that while codifying fees for development may allow a more open understanding of the negotiation of planning gain it will not deal with two significant defects of the current system:

    1.  The present proposals do not address the regressive nature of a locally charged and collected development fee. While commuted sums may allow some redistribution of resources within a local authority area they do not overcome the regionally and nationally regressive nature of the system. In short those areas in the South East with high development pressure will generate much higher levels of fees than those in the north and west where there are generally much higher social and environmental needs.

    2.  The proposed changes will not address the issue identified in Campbell's research, that the prospect of planning gain is an influential factor on land use patterns. Local authorities have a powerful incentive to maximise fees in order to deliver services for which there is no other prospect of funding. This incentive is likely to lead to the allocation of larger sites in locations more attractive to private sector developers. This powerful financial influence may not be in accord with the wider and more traditional planning criteria and in particular with the long-term sustainable development of land use patterns.

  4.4  In the light of existing research and the issues discussed above Friends of the Earth is attracted to the reintroduction of a modest betterment taxation levy. We are aware of the difficulties which surrounded betterment taxation when it was introduced in 1947 and by subsequent Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s. Betterment taxation is, however, a progressive taxation instrument, fair and transparent, easily understood and could be graduated in such a way as to promote development in regions that require inward investment and to deter the development of greenfield sites. The major drawback of betterment taxation remains the calculation of development values and this issue would need to be resolved in order to make such a system manageable. The level of betterment taxation would need to be modest so as not to pass on undue costs of consumers. Friends of the Earth is also exploring the concept of Land Value Taxation (LVT) which might provide a more focused way to pay for major infrastructure projects in urban areas.


  5.1  In our view the Planning Green Paper will not deliver these objectives for the following reasons:

    —  The LDF structure is complex with multiple adoption processes for both LDF and action plan policy. The administration of LDF's is likely to increase the burden on all parties for reasons set out earlier in our evidence.

    —  The Green Paper removes key rights from the public to be heard in the local and national planning context and will therefore be unfair and increase conflict and uncertainty.

    —  The LDF model contains no detailed land-use proposals map for all parts of the district and will lead to greater uncertainty as to the suitability of individual development sites for the business community.


  6.1  FOE recognises that current planning system has many shortcomings and wishes to see the system reformed to enshrine both procedural fairness and the principles of sustainable development. Equity and quality of life and environmental protection were part of the radical aims of the original planning system introduced by the 1945 Labour Government and should continue to underpin future reform. We want to see a system which is fair, transparent, participatory and accountable. The Government has the opportunity to deal with some the significant disadvantages which individuals and communities face in trying to involve themselves in planning by creating greater access to information and by creating a qualified third party right of appeal. These measures would empower local communities to participate in the governance of the localities on equal terms with the private sector.

  6.2  While the government's attempt to remove basic civil rights from the planning system is un-acceptable it is also profoundly disappointing that the Green Paper has ruled out any consideration of introducing at third party right of appeal. Third Party Rights would have addressed the most basic inequality in the planning system and its introduction in qualified form was administratively possible, legally practical and morally right. In fact, introducing such a right would have been a defining signal of the Government's commitment to increased public participation in the planning system. The joint research "Third Party Rights in Planning" sets out the powerful administrative, legal case for right of redress in the development control process.

FoE England, Wales and Northern Ireland

March 2002

14   Arup Economics and Planning & Bailey Consultancy (2002) Resourcing of Local Planning Authorities, London: DTLR Publications. Back

15   Baker, M and Roberts, P (1999) Examination of the operation and effectiveness of the structure planning process, London: DETR. Back

16   Cardiff University & Buchanan Partnership (1997) Slimmer and Swifter-a critical examination of local plans and UDPs, London: RTPI; RTPI and Cardiff University (2001) Fitness for Purpose-a guide to good practice on the quality of development plans, London: RTPI. Back

17   National Assembly for Wales (2002) Planning: Delivering for Wales Consultation Paper, Cardiff: National Assembly for Wales. Back

18   Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (2000) Preparing Community Strategies: Government guidance to local authorities, London: DETR. Back

19   Poxon, J (2000) "Solving the development plan puzzle in Britain: learning lessons from history", Planning Perspectives, 15, 73-89. Back

20   Davies, HWE., Edwards, D and Rowley, AR (1986) The relationship between development plans, development control and appeals, Working Paper No 10, University of Reading: Department of Land Management and Development, Healey, P (1986) "Planning policies, policy implementation and development plans", The Planner, 72(9) pp 9-12. Back

21   Baker, M and Roberts, P (1999) Examination of the operation and effectiveness of the structure planning process, London: DETR. Back

22   Paragraph 4.29, bullet point 3, page 50 in Baker, M and Roberts, P (1999) Examination of the operation and effectiveness of the structure planning process, London: DETR. Back

23   Annex A, page 55, in Baker M and Roberts, P (1999) Examination of the operation and effectiveness of the structure planning process, London: DETR. Back

24   Royal Town Planning Institute (1999) Improving the development plan system in England: process and procedures, A Policy Statement, London: RTPI. Back

25   Allmendinger, P (1996) "twilight zones", Planning Week 4 (29) 18 July 1996, 14-15. Blackhall, JC (1994) Simplified Planning Zones or simply Political zeal? Journal of planning and Environmental Law 1994, 117-23. Back

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