Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by The Royal Town Planning Institute (PGP 52)



  1.  The House of Commons Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions has resolved to undertake an inquiry into the Government's proposals for the future of planning set out in the Green Paper Planning: Delivering a Fundamental Change and the accompanying papers on Major Infrastructure Projects, Reforming Planning Obligations and Compulsory Purchase and Compensation.

  2.  The Committee is particularly interested in:

    —  the effectiveness of the system of local plans and the Government's proposals to replace them;

    —  the role of regional planning bodies;

    —  the procedures for scrutinising major development projects;

    —  business planning zones;

    —  proposed changes to planning obligations, CPOs and compensation, and use classes;

    —  whether the Government's proposals will simultaneously increase certainty, public participation and faster decisions, particularly for business; and

    —  planning's contribution to the urban renaissance.

  3.  This submission seeks to comment briefly on each of these topics. The Institute's full and considered views on the proposals in the Green Paper were submitted to the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions on 18 March. It is understood that that response will be made available to assist the Committee's inquiry if it so wishes.


  4.  The Institute has generally welcomed the Green Paper. It represents the first comprehensive review of the planning system in over 30 years. It has raised the profile of planning, and engendered debate both within and outside the profession.

  5.  Despite the assertion in the Green Paper itself, the proposals relating to development control and processing of planning applications fall far short of a fundamental change, and many may feel that this represents a missed opportunity. This is not true of the proposals for development plans, which see the abolition of structure, unitary development and local plans, in order to start with a fresh development plan system. There is, however, much hard work ahead if we are to ensure that this new system meets the Green Paper's aspirations for it. It would be a pity if the opportunity to make a real change were to be lost in the haste to get new legislation on the statute book.

  6.  The Institute identified two significant omissions from the Green Paper:

    —  the idea of a statutory definition of the purpose and duty of planning; and

    —  any proposal for the preparation and maintenance of national spatial planning framework.

  7.  In the Institute's view, the forthcoming legislation, needs to address purpose and duty in order to ensure that the wider functions of spatial planning are properly sanctioned, and to situate the public activity of planning in relation to Section 6 of the Human Rights Act. It therefore needs to address purpose in terms of:

    —  promoting the economic, social and environmental benefits of an area; and

    —  addressing the spatial implications of any proposals as they relate to economic, social and environmental considerations, with regard to the United Kingdom as a whole, as well as to the area concerned, and over the short, medium and long term.

  This should be given effect, as a duty, through a requirement that these outcomes should be evaluated and pursued by all relevant authorities unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

  8.  The need for a national spatial planning framework is returned to below (see paragraphs 18 and 21).

  9.  Despite identifying these particular omissions, the Institute is not joining the ranks of those critical of the absence of detail from the Green Paper. Rather, it sees the Green Paper as a framework for a revitalised planning system, fit for purpose in the twenty first century. It is happy to work with the Department in putting flesh on the bones of the proposals.


The effectiveness of the present system of local plans and the Government's proposals to replace them

  10.  The Green Paper proposes to replace structure and local plans with a single planning document—the Local Development Framework (LDF). In reality, this will be a portfolio of plans and will cover two distinct tiers—the Statement of Core Policies operating at district-wide level, and Action Plans for the detailed planning of smaller, local areas. The Government's contention that it is removing a tier of plans (ie structure plans) from the development plans hierarchy is not strictly accurate. Moreover, the LDF is likely to prove a very complex document, unless care is taken in detailing the Green Paper's proposals. This is returned to in paragraph 14, below.

  11.  In the Institute's view, the Green Paper is too quick to denigrate the existing system of development plans. While much of the criticism can be supported, there are positive aspects that go unrecognised by the Green Paper. A very large proportion of England is now covered by development plan policies and proposals. These may be too comprehensive, too detailed, have cost too much to put in place, over too long a period, and may now be nearing the end of their shelf life, but they do provide a robust launch pad for the new Local Development Frameworks. Without the availability of all this earlier groundwork, preparation of the first LDFs would be very hard work.

  12.  There is a view, held by many interests in planning, that just as much could be achieved by a radical review of the present system and process and that this, in providing continuity, would be much less disruptive. On balance, the Institute has concluded that a complete new development plan system—devoid of the baggage of the old—is the better way forward, but it does not underestimate the work involved in ensuring that the new system meets the Green Paper's expectations of it.

  13.  The Institute agrees that the underlying principles of the Local Development Framework make a lot of sense—broad, almost strategic policies for much of the district, which should be robust enough to stand the test of time, and detailed plans only for speedy implementation in areas of change. Overall, this should be a much quicker and efficient process than the present requirement to prepare, and keep under review, a detailed plan for the whole of a district. The devil, as always is in the detail, and the Institute has been invited to work with the Department in addressing this detail and producing a system that is as efficient, effective and comprehensible as the Green Paper seeks. There is some way to go.

  14.  The biggest concern is the potential complexity of LDFs—and this against a background quest for simplicity. At face value, the LDF, typically prepared by a single district planning authority (though there is likely to be provision for joint preparation) will consist of:

    —  district-wide policies;

    —  part district-wide policies;

—  a key diagram showing locationally-specific detail;

    —  an Ordnance Survey-based map showing Action Plan boundaries and other site-specific designations and information;

    —  a series of statutory Action Plans—detailed development plans for small areas, or topic-based plans for larger areas—to the adopted as part of the development plan; and

    —  a series of non-statutory Action Plans—development briefs, design briefs or conservation area plans—that will not form part of the statutory development plan, but will be material considerations in the determination of planning applications.

  As presently conceived, the LDF is likely to be difficult for professionals to understand, let alone the community at large, and attention must be focused on reducing this complexity.

  15.  The Green Paper makes much of greater community involvement in plan making (and in the decisions on major planning applications). The Institute believes that many LPAs have a good track record in consulting their communities and other stakeholders on local plan proposals. Certainly, consultation and participative processes have much improved in recent years. It is unclear at this stage how the Statement of Community Involvement will work, and whether the Government's references to "community engagement" mean anything different from current best practices.

  16.  In the context of community involvement, the other major issue to be resolved is the means of testing the various plans that will make up the LDF. The Green Paper stresses the importance of plans remaining up to date and their continuous review, but this is at odds with testing and certainty. The Institute favours examination-type testing for all but the site-specific proposals in Action Plans, where a more formal inquiry will be required to protect property rights. This, in turn, returns to the old issues of the right to be heard and whether the Inspector's recommendations should be binding.

The role of regional planning bodies

  17.  The Institute welcomes the Green Paper's proposals for strengthened regional planning through new Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs), which it sees as a major advance on the present regional planning guidance (RPG). The aim to make both regional planning bodies (RPBs) and the regional planning process more inclusive, and more representative of the full range of regional interests, is strongly supported. This is required whether or not there are directly elected regional assemblies since there are still questions of how effective consultation can be engineered at the regional level, of how "difficult" decisions will be approached in practice, of staffing for preparation and, equally importantly, monitoring of the RSS, and of funding. Inevitably, however, these proposals will have to be set in the context of the forthcoming White Paper on regional governance, having regard to the need for democratic accountability.

  18.  The Government has been critical of RPG. In particular it has complained that RPBs have avoided the difficult decisions on distributional issues, either between or within regions, such as the balance between people and jobs. One reason has been the parochial attitudes of the indirectly elected members of the RPB, where there are few able or prepared to take a genuinely regional view on the major issues. The second reason has been the absence of any guidance from a national spatial framework. It is impossible to determine inter-regional issues outwith a national framework. Similarly, regional planning needs a national context on major infrastructure proposals—such as airport and port development, the north-south high-speed rail route, or the strategy for rail freight.

  19.  The current standard regions in England are too big—many of them could form three or four functional regions—and do not form coherent areas for spatial planning. The proposed abolition of structure plans (and unitary development plan part Is) leaves an enormous gap between these large regions and the district-based LDFs. In the Institute's view, this makes sub-regional strategies an essential, not an add-on as implied in the Green Paper. For example, it is unrealistic to expect the RPB to make allocations of the new housing requirement direct to individual districts.

  20.  The Institute has identified two possible forms for sub-regional planning:

    —  sub-regional spatial strategies (SRSSs), prepared alongside the RSS by the regional planning body, and providing a strategic framework at a more appropriate scale—eg for the metropolitan areas; or

    —  joint LDFs, prepared by two or more district LPAs, or in combination with the county, preferably through a statutory joint committee.

  Either arrangement could be adopted, side by side, as might be dictated by local circumstances. It would be a requirement for the RPB to identify and specify the proposed arrangement(s) for the preparation of sub-regional strategies in its RSS.

The procedures for scrutinising major development projects

  21.  The Institute is in the process of responding to the separate consultation paper on procedures for processing major infrastructure projects. It believes that a national spatial planning framework is an essential pre-requisite for speedier and more acceptable decisions. It is the absence of a spatial, and scrutinised, national policy base that is the single greatest defect of both the current and the proposed arrangements. Its absence assists neither applicants nor objectors, and leaves too many issues open to the ultimate decision-maker—ordinarily the Secretary of State.

Business planning zones

  22.  The Institute is unenthusiastic about the Green Paper's proposals for business planning zones (BPZs). Their object appears to be to provide more certainty for business, but the concept is difficult to handle and is unlikely to be capable of widespread application. The required certainty would be available to all prospective applicants for planning permission—not only to high-tech businesses—if the site-specific land use allocations of Action Plans carried with them an "off the shelf" outline planning permission for the specified use, or range of uses. This would take the plan-led system a step further, and simplify consultation on the subsequent detailed planning application by allowing this to concentrate on the detail rather than the principle of the development.

Planning obligations, CPOs and compensation, and use classes

  23.  The Government's proposals for modernisation of compulsory purchase and compensation procedures are strongly supported. They should greatly facilitate the process of site assembly for regeneration projects, especially in inner cities, where fragmented ownerships have proved to be one of the most intractable problems.

  24.  The Institute has submitted its detailed comments on the proposed changes to planning obligations, in response to the Department's consultation paper. The approach to improving the process, particularly the requirements of transparency and openness, is strongly supported. The process should ensure that the whole package of application and obligations is before the public before a decision is made. The Institute is delighted that the Department has not only embraced a tariff approach, but has also recognised the Institute as its origin. It is clear, however, that considerable further detailed work is required before the tariff approach can be implemented.

  25.  The Institute is still considering its response to the current consultation on use classes. However, as with the GPDO, it is clear that a fundamental review is required. Marginal changes will be insufficient to overcome the inherent complexity and incomprehensibility to most users of the current Use Classes Order.

Certainty, public participation, and faster decisions

  26.  The Institute has drawn to the Department's attention the inherent tensions in the quests for greater community involvement and faster decisions. It is inevitable that increased consultation and participation will slow the decision-making process. Moving the main consultation input to the pre-application stage may massage the figures for determination rates, but will not reduce the overall time required. The Government must decide where the greater priority lies, though ensuring that local planning authorities are properly resourced for the job they have to do may allow a bit of the best of both worlds.

Planning's contribution to the urban renaissance

  27.  As far as the Institute can assess, there is little in the Green Paper that will have any direct bearing on delivery of the urban renaissance. Implementation of the proposals in the associated "daughter document" on CPOs should facilitate site assembly for urban regeneration schemes.


  28.  In the space allowed, it is difficult to do justice to all aspects of the Committee's wide-ranging enquiry, and this submission is little more than a summary of the Institute's views. The Institute would be happy to amplify its comments in oral evidence, if this would assist the Committee's inquiry.

March 2002

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