Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by England's Regional Development Agencies (PGP 32)



  The RDAs believe that it is necessary to modernise the planning system so that it promotes economic growth and regional prosperity and balances social, environmental and sustainable development objectives in a more efficient, effective, consistent, integrated and transparent way.

  We wholeheartedly endorse the analysis of what is wrong with the current system and the principles of the approach to reform set out in the Green Paper—our concerns principally relate to the detail of how those principles can, or will, be translated into practice.

  In this paper we address the specific issues addressed in the Select Committee's press notice based on the Green Paper's proposals.


  We welcome the simplification of the planning hierarchy with the abolition of Structure Plans and Unitary Development Plans as we believe it will enable a more responsive and up to date planning system to be put in place. However, this new simplified hierarchy will only work if there is a strong relationship between local Development Frameworks (LDFs) and the proposed Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs), given the higher number of LDFs which will exist in the absence of Structure Plans. It is proposed that each RSS contains a sub-regional dimension (in the form of a statement) to narrow the gap between the Regional and Local levels without creating another tier in the hierarchy of plans. This statement would clarify specific issues, which needed to be addressed in each sub-region's LDFs to reflect the RSS objectives. This could be reinforced by the proposed sub-regional strategies (where relevant), but it could also involve a new role for the counties ie freeing county planning from the constraints of the structure plan process could strengthen its relevance and coherence with other county-level statutory policy work. The counties could also have an informal role in using their expertise to assist the district and unitary authorities in preparing their plans and should be part of the Regional Planning Body preparing Regional Spatial Strategies.

2(a)  Regional Spatial Strategies

  Regional Spatial Strategies are a welcome development, although the RDAs believe that they should form part of Regional Economic and Regeneration Strategies in order to integrate the economic, regeneration, environmental and sustainability agendas. It is also particularly vital the RSS include all elements currently embodied in Regional Transport strategies to achieve effective integration.

  If they are to emerge as proposed, however, it is vital that there is a direct, formal relationship between the Regional Economic Strategies and Regional Spatial Strategies (see below), and that the critical role of the Regional Economic Strategies is recognised and not considered to be just "one of the other regional strategies". This should be reinforced by the RES becoming a material consideration for relevant planning permissions (ie those on which the RDA would be formally consulted).

2(b)  Sub-Regional Planning

  All RDAs are now pursuing the development and implementation of the Regional Economic Strategies through a variety of sub-regional partnerships. As a consequence, there should not be a presumption against total coverage with sub-regional strategies in any region—the option should be left open for the new Regional Planning bodies, including the RDAs, to determine as this could afford another opportunity to effect real integration between regional and local levels of activity.

2(c)  Local Development Frameworks

  We welcome the principle of Local Development Frameworks, in providing a responsive and up to date context within which development proposals can be brought forward. Given the increasing importance which the Government is giving to Local Strategic Partnerships, and the encouragement for Local Authorities to work with LSPs in developing LDFs, synergy with the Community Strategies is vital so that both plans, once produced, have widespread local support. As a consequence, the process for approving LDFs needs to attract public confidence and should therefore comprise a limited period of public consultation and a process of independent examination, the outcome of which should be binding on the Local Authority in all but exceptional cases.

  In order to streamline the process further and achieve synergy between the Community Strategy and the Local Development Framework, Local Authorities should be encouraged to hold a combined consultation process on both documents and, in due course, once the transitional phase is over, publish them at the same time. This will reflect the holistic way in which people see the communities in which they live, and thus bring coherence to their engagement.

2(d)  The need for a Transition Plan

  Close attention must be given to ensuring that there is no hiatus in the transition from the old system to the new. There is a real risk that delays in introducing Government guidance for the Local Development Frameworks will cause local authorities to tread water in the meantime. This could, for example, jeopardise the ability of some regions (as in the North East) to meet their brownfield housing targets, which are relying on the reallocation of significant areas of brownfield land to housing through the development plan process.


  These should have a number of characteristics:-

    —  effective bodies, say, 12-15 in size;

    —  all members to be trained;

    —  have a democratically accountable element;

    —  an independent chair;

    —  cross-sectoral;

    —  representative of key regional interests;

    —  capable of taking a strategic regional view;

    —  and of making difficult regional choices;

    —  consultative;

    —  ensure effective integration between the RSS and Regional Economic Strategies.

  It is recognised that elected Regional Assemblies are intended, in due course, to fulfil this role. In the meantime we propose that the following arrangements could apply:

    —  The Regional Planning Body would be separate from the current Assembly and independent of it.

    —  Size 12-15.

    —  Independent Chair appointed by Secretary of State.

    —  50 per cent appointed by the Assembly.

    —  50 per cent appointed by the RDA from their Boards.

  The rationale for this approach is that all (or most) Assembly nominees will have been elected and all RDA appointees will already have been appointed through Nolan principles.

  The responsibilities of Regional Planning Boards, as currently proposed, relate just to the preparation and oversight of Regional Spatial Strategies. In due course the RPBs could be given responsibility for calling in for determination applications of sub-regional significance so that only those matters of national importance would be referred to the Secretary of State. If this situation arose the composition may need to be reviewed.


  The RDAs welcome these proposals as an appropriate way of dealing with the frequent criticism of how these few major projects of national significance are handled. The approach to such developments should also be set out in the National Spatial Strategy which the RDAs are recommending.

  It should also be made clear at what stage the Secretary of State will exercise his powers to start the process so there is no doubt that the new procedures will result in a more streamlined approach. The RDAs would also wish, at the appropriate time, to make a collective contribution to the debate on such issues owing to their economic significance.


  We welcome the principle of Business Planning Zones as a means of promoting sustainable economic development and regeneration provided they add value. The proposed limitation to high tech industries, and the proposed restrictive criteria, will potentially limit their benefits and, as a consequence, their application.

  With regard to the types of use, given the rationale for BPZs they should be potentially open to any of the key clusters and target sectors identified in the Regional Strategies and regionally strategically significant investment sites. The process for their designation should be part of the preparation of the Regional Spatial Strategy, the arrangements for which must include a formal link to the Regional Economic Strategy ie it would be for the Regional Planning body, including the RDA, to decide. They should not dogmatically be limited to one per region but applied where they will demonstrably assist the RSS and RES proposals.

  With regard to the criteria that should apply to BPZs, these should be as flexible as possible to facilitate the desired developments, whilst having the minimum safeguards to address environmental and sustainability issues. For example, if the detailed criteria are agreed at the regional level, this could enable clarity on issues such as ensuring contributions directly related to infrastructure and transport impacts being incorporated in the BPZ criteria.

  This approach would avoid the pitfalls associated with many Enterprise Zone developments which, whilst they encouraged enterprise, often achieved this at the expense of environmental and design considerations, the costly rectification of which was usually picked up by the public purse.


6(a)  Planning Obligations

  Whilst we support the aims of streamlining and rendering the planning obligations system more equitable and transparent, and there are attractions to the proposals from the point of view of enabling new development to contribute to a wide range of infrastructure provision in a local area, and especially affordable housing, there are real concerns that it could lead to the planning system simply being seen as a tax on new development.

  The original purpose of planning obligations was to enable developers to provide a contribution towards new infrastructure required as a specific consequence of the scheme in question, not as a means of local authorities extracting development contributions to top up their normal spending programmes. Current Government policy sets out a tightly drawn regime on the use of planning obligations, incorporating a series of policy tests that collectively determine the necessity of the obligation to the proposed development. Whilst it appears it would be for local authorities to determine the most appropriate level of tariff, the fundamental difficulty seems to arise in applying the development contribution to all types of development and for purposes not related to them. From a business point of view, it seems inequitable that a developer of a business park, for example, should be forced to contribute through the tariff system to a wide range of local authority infrastructure activities, which have no direct relationship to the development in question. It could also act as a real disincentive to bringing forward marginal regeneration schemes, though it is recognised some classes of development would be automatically exempt.

  The view of the Nolan Committee was that the scope of planning obligations should be restricted by strictly enforcing the necessity test, whereas the Government proposals favour widening the scope. Local authorities would have the discretion to determine the types and sizes and location of development on which the tariff would be charged, and how it would apply in different circumstances, subject to national policy considerations, and how receipts from the tariff are spent, including affordable housing.

  In general, therefore, the reform of planning obligations through a tariff based approach to apply to most forms of new development is not something we can support primarily because the burden on the individual developer (all of which will no doubt be passed on to the occupier) to contribute to community needs on a general basis is likely to be a serious disincentive to business.

  The imposition of such a system would also result in yet further burdens on Local Authorities (and hence delays) as the flexible aspects of tariffs are negotiated.

6(b)  CPOs and Compensation

  The RDAs have made a separate submission on these much needed reforms, a copy of which it is presumed the Select Committee will have access to.

6(c)  Use Classes

  The overall intention of the reform of the UCO ie to allow maximum possible deregulation consistent with delivering planning policy and wider objectives is welcomed. However, in practice it can be seen that whilst this manifests itself in greater flexibility in certain areas eg with regard to retail, in others it will result in additional controls. For instance the proposed reforms of the B1 "Business" class would mean that the need for decisions on which use (office, clean production or research processes) was primary on any particular site or building with the potential to create both uncertainty and delay. This would seem to be contrary to the Green Paper proposal to introduce Business Planning Zones to attract high tech industry and where certain types of development would not require planning permission. This provision should apply equally to changes of use as well as operational development in order to ensure the success of the zones.

  The sub-division of the Business class (B1) is also of particular concern. It is arguable that the fact that this class has specifically not differentiated hitherto between research and development and office uses has given developers greater confidence in bringing forward proposals. Even if the science park concept was unsuccessful the developer was assured that this could be changed to a broader business park without the need to apply for planning permission. There is thus a danger that the promotion of a science park rather than a general business park being achieved through carefully specified and justified allocations within development plans could, ultimately, adversely impact upon the RDAs approach to cluster development.


  Whilst we applaud the Government's intent and overall approach to the proposed reform of the Planning System, for these objectives to be realised it is vital that:

    —  there is a National spatial strategy (not just national statements about major infrastructure needs);

    —  there is a clear, unambiguous relationship and complementarity between the RSS and RES;

    —  there is a clear, unambiguous relationship between the RSS and the LDFs, together with any sub-regional strategies;

    —  there is a review and simplification of PPGs/MPGs and clarity about the role of ministerial statements;

    —  there is a commitment to improving development control performance in Local Authorities;

    —  there is a commitment to ensuring that the planning system is adequately resourced and planning fees are hypothecated;

    —  the new Regional Planning bodies are effective and linked into the RES agenda.

  Some of these issues are expanded upon in more detail in the RDA collective consultation response, to which it is presumed the Select Committee has access.

R M C Shields

Lead Chief Executive, Northwest Development Agency

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