Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by The County Councils Network (PGP 35)


  The County Councils Network (CCN) is a Special Interest Group within the Local Government Association (LGA), with all 35 English Shire Counties in membership. The County Councils Network exists to promote the voice of counties within the LGA and the values and interests of the English Counties. Together these authorities represent 47 per cent of the population of England and provide services across 84 per cent of its land area.

  In preparing this evidence, the CCN has responded to the seven questions which have been raised rather than repeat the material which it has submitted to the DTLR in response to the Green Paper. However, the CCN would wish to draw the attention of the Select Committee to the fact that in its submission to the DTLR it has affirmed its view that the proposals in the Green Paper are significantly flawed and may not be workable in practice. The CCN has used the consultation period to develop an alternative approach which has been developed with the support of a range of stakeholder bodies from the business, environment and community sectors and which it considers meets all the criteria which have been set by the Government to improve the planning system. The CCN would commend this alternative approach to the Select Committee and would encourage it to give consideration to these proposals during the course of its inquiry.


  1.1  The present system of district-wide local plans prepared by 262 Councils (District and Unitary) has not been effective. The Green Paper is right to portray this element of the planning system as painfully slow. It is an indictment that 20 years after the introduction of these plans and 10 years after the plan-led system became mandatory 13 per cent of the plans have still to be put in place. Because of the cumbersome nature and turgid pace of the local plan process the intention to set out a land use pattern looking 10 years ahead has not been realised. At the stage of their final adoption, few plans provide guidance beyond five years.

  1.2  So the case for change in plan-making is clear—but the Green Paper's proposals are not the right answer. By transferring responsibility for strategic land use planning from the 34 County Councils to the 238 District Councils and eight Regional bodies in England and leaving Districts to prepare both Local Development Frameworks (LDF's) and Action Area Plans the system would become more complex and less democratic.

  1.3  It is difficult to see how the Government's aim of reducing the number of tiers of plans will be achieved by these proposals. The system of Regional Planning Guidance—Structure Plan—Local Plan will be replaced by Regional Spatial Strategy—Sub-regional Plan—Local Development Framework—Action Plan. Given the experience of district-wide local plans is no guarantee that District-based LDF's would be prepared with sufficient speed to make a real improvement to the planning system.

  1.4  LDF's need to integrate land use with other services. In two-tier areas county councils are the key players in partnerships for economic development, lifelong learning, AONB's waste and mineral extractions and land use, for example—as well as having responsibility for transport and highways. If counties cease to have a statutory plan-making role the resultant weakening of the link between infrastructure planning and land use would have a serious impact on the effective implementation of planning policy.

  1.5 The Government's objective for a more effective system of plans below regional level would best be achieved by the preparation of Integrated Development Frameworks (IDF's) at a sub-regional scale rather than district level. This would mean that stakeholders would have to participate in fewer consultation processes, there would be more joining-up with the Local Transport Plan and economic partnerships, and district councils could concentrate on action plans and development control in the context of binding sub-regional policies.


  2.1  The Government's position is that elected regional assemblies would only be introduced with popular support and where predominantly unitary local government is established. Unless these tests are changed by the forthcoming White Paper it is unlikely that such bodies will be achieved in most regions in the foreseeable future. In that case, the new arrangements for Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) would apply in the context of a regional planning body which was unelected and democratically unaccountable; with approval of RSS by the Secretary of State.

  2.2  While this situation already exists, the RSS would include sub-regional planning. Decisions now taken by county councils in structure plans would be passed to a more remote regional capital, or, more likely, to Central Government. This is quite contrary to the assurances given by the Government on regionalism and also conflicts with the spirit of the recent White Paper on local government. The democratic deficit created by this proposal is a point raised by many in response to the Green Paper.

  2.3  The level of detail needed in the RSS to accommodate sub-regional issues is not only likely to lead to delays in the regional planning process but is unlikely to be matched by the sub-regional knowledge of the regional planning body. It is worth noting that the Government's own research on structure plans (1999) expressed doubt that enhanced regional planning arrangements "could fulfil an effective role in providing an efficient, accountable and statutory system of sub-regional strategic planning within the medium term".

  2.4  Some of the most challenging and difficult planning decisions arise at sub-regional level and some regions cover too extensive an area to have a universally relevant regional strategy. So an accountable strategic planning framework at sub-regional level is a pre-requisite for an effective planning system. RSS prepared by the present regional planning bodies is not an acceptable substitute.


  3.1  The new procedures would enable the Secretary of State to impose a fast-track timetable on the assessment of these projects. If applied rigidly the procedures would be likely to speed up decision-making. However, the probability of the public becoming involved in a process as complex as the Parliamentary system is minimal. So the price of greater speed may be less public involvement and discussion—with the key debate on approval of the principle of a development moving to Parliament from a local Public Inquiry.

  3.2  Since the subsequent Inquiry would only consider matters of detail the local perception is likely to be that debate has been stifled and curtailed. Some of the concerns over local consultation could be mitigated by allowing for a longer period of representations to Parliament and by consulting on the terms of reference etc for the local inquiries.

  3.3  Whilst the procedures should be welcomed in principle, what is missing from the Green Paper is a commitment from Government to produce some form of national spatial strategy. The plethora of Planning Guidance notes should be replaced by clear and consistent national spatial policies on the key policy issues, including housing, economic development and transport.


  4.1  There is little evidence that the planning system has acted as an impediment to competitiveness or that the earlier deregulated approaches embodied in Enterprise Zones and Simplified Planning Zones delivered significant benefits.

  4.2  The intention is to apply the BPZ concept to "low impact" development with Zones identified in regional strategies. Despite the assertion that hi-tech companies do not need much infrastructure, any development of regional significance is certain to have transport impacts that a developer would be expected to address. But if no planning permission is needed, this infrastructure would have to be paid for from the public purse. Moreover, it is in the economically buoyant areas that the development market can most readily fund highways and transport improvements (as well as community facilities).

  4.3  Modern companies are also likely to want some guarantees that the planning process would ensure that adjoining developments are compatible with their own activities. On this basis very tight parameters would need to be drawn up for BPZ's. This could create as much inflexibility as conventional planning procedures.

  4.4  We believe that it is important to spread the benefit of economic growth. Local authorities are in the best position to judge the location of BPZ's. These should be located in a manner to ensure and promote the rippling out of economic growth.

  4.5  If BPZ's were linked to regeneration initiatives they may be worthy of further consideration, but they are likely to be few in number and offer only marginal advantages over the mainstream planning process.


Planning Obligations

  5.1  The proposal for a tariff-based approach to replace the present system(s) would be a fundamental change. It would provide more certainty, openness and transparency and could enable contributions to be sought from smaller developments than at present. There are however some practical concerns.

  5.2  Whilst new sources of income are welcomed by local government it is not clear whether government sees the new tax as a net additional resource for local authorities. The areas of greatest development pressure could be expected to benefit significantly from the extension of developer contributions but there could be losers as well as winners and the distributional effects will have policy implications.

  5.3  The Green Paper recognises that there may be circumstances where contributions could be reduced or waived, particularly if a tariff on brownfield land made a scheme unviable. However, this raises the issue of who pays for the necessary services and the risk that development could proceed without those facilities. Government grant aid policy should therefore be linked to these cases.

  5.4  Whilst the priority to be given to affordable housing is understandable, it could be at the expense of requirements for highways and transportation or education provision. In two-tier areas the tariff proposed would pose most problems. To avoid undermining the delivery of such infrastructure and to provide a degree of consistency at the sub-regional level it would be appropriate for tariffs to be set by County Councils. This would be consistent with the suggestion in the CCN response to the Green paper of a County lead on Development Frameworks.

  5.5  The provision for site specific variations would certainly be essential with regard to transport where each development will require different solutions. This will not be an exception, since individual accesses onto the highway network will need to be negotiated on a site-by-site basis with the highway authority.

  5.6  The overall taxation effects on the public and private sector and on sustainable economic development clearly require further discussion along with the practical arrangements.

Compulsory Purchase and Compensation

  5.7  The proposed changes would enable authorities to acquire land compulsorily for planning and regeneration, with greater flexibility in the "public interest" justification of proposals including reference to the Development Framework. Since full planning permission would not be a pre-requisite this should speed up the process.

  5.8  The proposals to clarify the basis of compensation should provide a more acceptable package to those whose land is acquired and are to be welcomed.

Use Classes Order (UCO)

  5.9  The aim of making the General Development Order more comprehendible is certainly supported. On balance the suggestion that permitted development rights could be varied locally is not supported as it could give rise to confusion between different local authority areas.

  5.10  The idea of revising the UCO to enable more flexibility to move between Classes without planning permission is welcomed, provided that these changes are consistent with sustainable development principles.


Increasing Certainty

  6.1  The Green Paper envisages a gap between Regional and District level plan-making which is not conducive to certainty about long-term policy. Although acknowledging the need for a sub-regional process, no proposals are made. It leaves housing, frequently the single most controversial issue, to be resolved in unspecified ways.

  6.2  To give business the certainty it needs requires a planning system with the capacity to take tough (and often locally unpopular) decisions. This requirement is more likely to be met by the CCN's proposal for Integrated Development Frameworks, which would allocate firm housing totals and by linking directly with other sub-regional strategic functions, including transport, minerals, waste and education and would offer more certainty about future policies for development and investment. The preparation of only 50 sub-regional strategies, compared to more than 250 as proposed in the Green Paper should also provide a more predictable response to development proposals.

  6.3  The replacement of Local Plans with "not overly prescriptive" criteria-based Development Frameworks and specific land use allocations in Action Plans may also add to uncertainty—at least until sufficient Action Area plans are prepared.

Public Participation

  6.4  At national level, while there is a strong case for nationally important projects to be scrutinised in a different way, the lack of an independent inquiry into the principle of development and which is open to the general public must reduce the scope for public participation. Unlike the Green Paper, local communities may not see Parliament as a substitute for public consultation.

  6.5  The regional bodies suffer from remoteness compared to county planning authorities. That affects businesses as well as residents, though the inclusion of business stakeholders in regional groupings may encourage greater private sector involvement in the formulation of planning policy.

  6.6  Removal of structure plans will not only reduce bottom-up influence into strategic thinking at regional level but removes the possibility of commenting on proposals at this stage. Development Frameworks are also be likely to limit the number and range of issues to be raised at the public inquiry compared to existing Local Plans.

Faster Decisions

  6.7  The Government's timetable for Regional Planning Guidance is already ambitious and the widened scope of RSS (especially if sub-regional policies are incorporated) means that speedy approval of regional strategies is improbable. A realistic assessment of the RSS programme needs to be undertaken.

  6.8  Development Frameworks should be prepared and updated more quickly than Local Plans. But there are three caveats. First, the Green Paper acknowledges lack of capacity in district councils to deliver local plans and then compounds these problems by adding to the slowest component of the current system. We are concerned that the proposals will further stretch the capacity of district councils which are already overburdened. Second, much depends on the number of new Action Area Plans which it is proposed should form part of the Development Framework. Third, the Public Local Plan Inquiry is extremely laborious and the Green Paper does not make clear what form of Inquiry the Government has in mind for Development Frameworks.

  6.9  From a business point of view it is undoubtedly the speed of development control decision-making which is most important. In this respect it is paradoxical that the key proposals in the Green Paper involve changes in the development plan system. Most of the proposals for processing planning applications—many of which are already best practice—should speed up the process.


  7.1  Planning involves (a) the management of competing uses for space and (b) the making of places that are valued and have identity. Both are fundamental to enhancing towns and cities. This is the context for assessing the Green Paper's proposals—though it is only concerned with processes and not planning policy.

  7.2  Concentrating housebuilding in urban areas and/or on brownfield land is central to Government policy for urban regeneration. This requires both clear strategies for new housing allocations and the ability to deliver those targets. This will be more difficult in the absence of structure plans—since many housing land issues cross district boundaries. Ensuring that urban sites are developed before release of further greenfield land is already proving problematic, and under the Green Paper this sub-regional dilemma is thrown into sharp relief.

  7.3  Influencing housing density (and quality) are also important and, again, the negotiating strength of an urban authority will partly reflect the ability of the surrounding rural planning authorities to apply the sequential test before granting permission in more commercially attractive locations.

  7.4  Similar issues arise in relation to economic development. The influence of eight regional strategies on 250 districts is unlikely to be sufficiently robust to deliver renaissance objectives—particularly if the economic hotspots have the advantage of Business Planning Zone status.

  7.5  Finally, infrastructure investment as much as planning control will determine the attractiveness of urban sites to developers. By separating strategic land use planning from the transport planning undertaken by county highway authorities the proposals will frustrate the integration of services which are vital to urban renaissance.

March 2002

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