Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (PGP 54)



  The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution welcomes and endorses the recognition in the Planning Green Paper that the town and country planning system has an important role.

  The Green Paper sees a successful planning system as having two characteristics: it should "fully [engage] people in shaping the future of their communities and local economies" and it should "promote economic prosperity by delivering land for development in the right place and at the right time". These are vital objectives, but the role of the planning system in safeguarding and enhancing the environment is also something of fundamental importance.

  The Green Paper adopts a narrow focus on people's views about their immediate environment and the effects of new developments on the surroundings in which they live and work. There is almost no reference to the wider environment or the value people attach to it. We are told only that the planning system "will value the countryside and our heritage while recognising that times move on". There is no recognition of the severe economic and social implications of ignoring fundamental constraints such as those analysed in the Royal Commission's report Energy—the changing climate (Cm 4749), published in June 2000.

  The very few references to sustainable development do not acknowledge that it is an environmental concept. Where a decision involves striking a balance, the Green Paper sees it as lying between "our desire for economic development and for thriving communities"; environmental sustainability is not mentioned. Yet a system for planning and regulating land use has effects on the environment which are at least as direct, and ultimately as important, as its effects on the economy or the community.

  The Royal Commission shares many of the government's concerns, but it approaches the planning system from a different standpoint. We have also concluded that "fundamental change" is necessary, but we believe it needs to go deeper and wider. We fear some of the proposals in the Green Paper are unlikely to succeed because they proffer over-simple solutions to complex problems. Others may well lead to increased uncertainty, and therefore slow down the system by increasing the number of legal challenges to decisions, one of the major cause of delays.

  The Royal Commission's Twenty-third Report, Environmental planning (Cm 5459) sets out in detail our conclusions and recommendations about the changes we consider necessary, not only in the town and country planning system, but in the wider system for environmental planning. The remainder of this submission is structured in terms of the questions posed in the response form at the end of the Green Paper and give cross-references to our report.


1.  Replacement of local plans and unitary development plans with a local development framework

  [Local plans are discussed in paragraphs 10.64-10.71 of the Twenty-third Report]

  The Royal Commission believes the local development frameworks proposed represent, in general, a sensible approach, but there are some serious practical issues which require further consideration, especially in view of some of the other tasks district and unitary authorities face. These include retaining all their current development control functions, fulfilling their new responsibility to prepare a community strategy, and preparing action plans. Rather than simplifying planning at the local level, the combined effect of these requirements threatens to create a more complex, less comprehensible, less effective and slower planning system than exists at the moment. It also represents a major challenge to many of the local authorities involved, in terms of their capacity to undertake this work given current limitations of resources and skills.

  [The relationship between local development frameworks and spatial plans is discussed on paragraphs 10.75-10.76 of the Twenty-third Report]

  Although local development frameworks are an appropriate way of dealing with local planning issues and providing a context for local development control decisions, and we endorse the idea that they should take full account of the land use consequences of other policies and programmes, we are concerned at the suggestion that they could also provide spatial strategies (Green Paper, paragraph 4.12). In addition to limitations on skills and resources, the areas that will be covered by local development frameworks are not sufficiently large or self-contained to provide a satisfactory basis for strategic planning. They certainly could not provide the basis for the integrated spatial strategies the Twenty-third Report advocates.

  Local development frameworks should give careful attention to all aspects of the local environment. They should also incorporate whatever constraints or targets are needed to contribute to the realisation of environmental policies for wider areas. It should be a statutory requirement that local development frameworks must comply with the spatial strategies for wider areas.

  The Green Paper proposes that local development frameworks should replace, not only part II of unitary development plans, but also the strategic element of unitary development plans (part I) in those areas not covered by structure plans. While such areas may well be too small themselves to provide a satisfactory basis for a strategic plan, it is essential that other measures are taken to provide a proper replacement for this loss of an existing mechanism for strategic planning.

2.  Inclusion of community-based action plans in local development frameworks

  [Engaging the public in planning issues is discussed in paragraphs 5.7-5.19 of the Twenty-third Report]

  Action plans for neighbourhoods and villages provide a promising mechanism for involving people in the future of their local environments. But many crucial environmental issues need to be considered over larger areas and longer timescales. There also need to be satisfactory procedures for engaging the public in decisions of that type.

3.  New arrangements for community involvement in preparation of the local development framework and in significant planning decisions

  [The relevant passages of the Twenty-third Report are paragraphs 5.13-5.14 and 10.70]

  The statements of community involvement proposed in the Green Paper, and some of its other proposals, will be valuable innovations if they lead to substantive improvements in public involvement in decisions on planning policies and planning cases.

  We are concerned, however, at the proposal not to allow objections to draft local development frameworks. Irrespective of any arguments derived from effects on property rights, we consider there should continue to be rights to object and provision for a public inquiry to be held into a draft local development framework, because this kind of public challenge is fundamental to the purpose of the town and country planning system. As local development frameworks would be much slimmer documents, handling objections should be a less onerous and costly process. The costs incurred for this should in any case be regarded as well justified in a wider perspective.

4.  Simplification of the hierarchy of plans by strengthening regional planning and abolishing county structure plans

  [The respective roles of regional planning and structure plans are discussed in paragraphs 10.81-10.91 of the Twenty-third Report; the much wider set of plans produced by various public bodies at present are discussed in paragraphs 4.10-4.36]

  We have concluded that the unsatisfactory features of the present hierarchy of documents in town and country planning are a major obstacle to a coherent approach.

  Simplification of plans at local level (see above) will be a major contribution to resolving that situation.

  Regional planning should certainly be strengthened. The regional spatial strategies proposed in the Green Paper appear to be similar in content to current guidance on the content of regional planning guidance, although they would have the advantage of being a statutory document. We have concluded that regional planning guidance ought to be converted into integrated spatial strategies, which take account of all spatially related activities and all spatially related aspects of environmental capacity. This would be the most appropriate way of achieving the greater integration that is highly desirable between the various planning documents now produced at regional level.

  If and when elected regional assemblies are established in England, they are likely to provide the most satisfactory basis for spatial planning. It might be a number of years, however, before that position is reached. Even then, there is likely to remain a need to prepare spatial plans for some sub-regions, including some that cut across regional boundaries.

  The structure plan process has achieved a good deal. We do not consider it would be acceptable to abolish structure plans unless they are replaced by integrated spatial strategies with statutory force prepared by local authorities for areas no smaller than those for which structure plans are prepared at present. We have recommended increasing co-operation between county and unitary authorities to develop such integrated spatial strategies for sub-regional levels, where those reflect greater functional coherence.

  We see integrated spatial strategies as the key instrument for rationalising, not merely the present hierarchy of plans in the town and country planning system, but the present plethora of plans produced by a wider set of public bodies which either deal directly with, or have important implications for, spatially related aspects of the environment. The concept of an integrated spatial strategy is explained in paragraphs 10.13-10.21 of the Twenty-third Report. The scope of such a strategy would not be constrained, as structure plans are constrained at present, by a statutory limitation to issues capable of being addressed through the town and country planning system.

  At present the preparation of regional planning guidance is dependent on the skill base at county and unitary authority level. The Green Paper appears to envisage that local authorities will continue to make staff effort available for this purpose even if structure plans are abolished. It also proposes that in those circumstances county councils would retain responsibility for minerals planning and waste planning and for deciding planning applications for those purposes. We are opposed to the latter proposal, which would lead to even greater fragmentation than at present. More fundamentally, these features of the government's proposals are an acknowledgement that simply removing the role of the authorities responsible for drawing up structure plans would not be a viable solution. If county councils lose responsibility for drawing up structure plans, however, it must be questionable whether they would be willing to maintain the continuing planning capability the government is apparently expecting them to provide.

5.  Review of national planning guidance to reduce its volume and complexity

  [The need for improved policy guidance is discussed in paragraphs 8.38-8.42 of the Twenty-third Report]

  We strongly support the rationalisation of national planning guidance. In fact, we think there should be a more radical rationalisation to produce a single document updated at frequent intervals.

  An illustration of the failings of the present approach of piecemeal updating is the Planning Policy Guidance Note on renewable energy (PPG 22), which is now nearly nine years old (paragraphs 8.71-8.72 of the Twenty-third Report); this has been one reason for the difficulty in finding acceptable sites for wind turbines in England.

  National planning guidance should give clear guidance about the contribution local planning authorities ought to make to the protection and enhancement of the environment. In this respect, it should be based on the national statement of priority environmental objectives, with quantified targets, which we have recommended (paragraphs 8.5-8.11 of the Twenty-third Report) and should be an essential component in the programmes drawn up for achieving those objectives (paragraphs 8.12-8.18).

6.  Further comments on proposals for reforming plans

  The comments above cover related proposals in the Green Paper as well as those specifically mentioned in the headings.

7.  Speeding up the planning system by setting new targets for local authorities and central government for dealing with applications and appeals

  We support the general objective of a faster planning system, provided this does not prejudice its effectiveness, or public confidence. We did not, in the course of preparing our report, examine these specific proposals. We consider it most important that measures to speed up procedures do not prejudice the proper consideration of applications, and in particular their environmental implications.

8.  Imposing new performance standards for statutory consultees and allowing them to charge fees for consultation

  [Statutory consultation is discussed in paragraphs 5.26-5.29 of the Twenty-third Report]

  Establishing stronger links between local planning authorities and the specialist environmental; agencies is an issue of crucial importance. Requirements for consultation with those agencies are a basic mechanism for co-ordinating the regulation of land use with other environmental factors and ensuring that development control takes sufficient account of environmental issues.

  That mechanism is not working satisfactorily at present, because the agencies have had difficulty in allocating sufficient priority and resources to this work. We consider that, subject to practical difficulties being resolved, the measures proposed in the Green Paper will be an effective way of rectifying the situation, but only if new expectations and responsibilities are matched with appropriate resources.

  We are opposed in principle to the separate proposal in the Green Paper that in future the only statutory consultees in development control should be bodies providing advice which has health and safety implications or which operate a parallel consent regime. We consider that there should be no reduction in the obligations on planning authorities to consult the agencies responsible for pollution control, flood defence, conservation of species and habitats, countryside and the built heritage. Indeed, we believe the views of these agencies need greater weight in some circumstances, such as vulnerability to flooding: we have recommended that the Environment Agency should become a statutory consultee in that context (paragraph 9.70 of the Twenty-third Report). In cases where a parallel consent regime does not operate, and sole reliance must therefore be placed on development control to safeguard the environment, statutory consultation is, if anything, an even more important mechanism.

  The administrative burden of consultation can be reduced if the relevant specialist agency can provide planning authorities with standing advice in advance, so dispensing with the need for consultation on individual cases. We have recommended that more effort be devoted to identifying categories of cases which are suitable for this approach.

9.  Other proposals

  We did not, in the course of preparing our report, examine the specific proposals listed under this heading in the response form at the end of the Green Paper.

  However, we are strongly of the view that local planning authorities must be properly resourced for their tasks.

10.  Further comments


  We have recommended that in certain circumstances third parties should have a right of appeal against decisions on planning applications (Twenty-third Report, paragraphs 5.40-5.47). Despite the arguments advanced in the Green Paper (paragraphs 6.19-6.23), we consider it is possible to devise a satisfactory set of clear criteria to differentiate the categories of cases in which that right would be available. These might include the size of a development and whether the applicant has been required to provide an environmental impact assessment. A clear candidate (assuming a more satisfactory system of development plans can be maintained) would be cases in which a local planning authority has taken a decision, which is not in accordance with the development plan.

  We also consider there should be a specific right of appeal for a statutory consultee if a local planning authority has taken a decision which is not in accordance with views expressed by the consultee. That would be an important further mechanism to secure greater integration between town and country planning and environmental regulation; even if the agencies exercised their right of appeal only on rare occasions, its existence would add weight to their views. This type of case is not mentioned in the Green Paper.

  Introducing a right of appeal for third parties in the circumstances described above should increase public confidence in the planning system and improve the quality of decision making. Strict time-limits for lodging appeals, and provision for costs to be awarded for wholly unmerited appeals, would reduce uncertainties. The availability of a right of appeal may also reduce the number of judicial review applications, which are more in the way of merits appeals disguised as challenges on grounds of legality; such applications also involve uncertainties and delay, as well as heavy costs in judicial time. In the Green Paper, the government concludes that a third party right of appeal could add to the costs and uncertainties of planning, a prospect "we cannot accept". Our view is that any costs imposed by introducing a third party right of appeal in the form we have recommended, and any resulting increases in the time taken by procedures, would be a price worth paying to ensure that environmental considerations are given their proper weight. In time, the possibility that there might be an appeal by a third party is likely to have a positive influence on the quality of applications for development.


  We have strong reservations about the rigour and validity of sustainability appraisals in the form in which they are usually undertaken at present. We have concluded that, if the government wishes to retain sustainability appraisal as a tool, the environmental component will have to be strengthened in order to satisfy the legal requirements of the European Directive on strategic environmental assessment (Twenty-third Report, paragraphs 7.43-7.48).


  We have concluded that the town and country planning system ought to be given a statutory purpose, and that an appropriate purpose would be "to facilitate the achievement of legitimate economic and social goals whilst ensuring that the quality of the environment is safeguarded and wherever appropriate enhanced" (Twenty-third Report, paragraphs 8.22-8.34). To complement that statement of statutory purpose, the legislation should stipulate key aspects of the environment and natural resources as material considerations that should be taken into account in considering all planning applications (Twenty-third Report, paragraphs 8.36-8.37).


  The Green Paper (paragraph 5.16) proposes a review of the case for integrating the present array of statutory regimes which can apply in a particular case. We support the consolidation of the legislation on development control, conservation areas, scheduled monuments, listed buildings and control of advertisements so that a single consent procedure can be introduced, provided that can be achieved without any weakening of the present safeguards (Twenty-third Report, paragraph 5.21).

  The Green Paper (paragraph 5.17) favours simultaneous application for pollution control authorisation and planning permission in cases where both are required. We agree, and have recommended that there should be a common environmental statement (Twenty-third Report, paragraphs 7.27-7.28) and, where appropriate, a joint public inquiry (Twenty-third Report, paragraphs 5.22-5.24).


  We have recommended that planning protection should be extended below high water mark and to the sea-bed (Twenty-third Report, paragraph 9.62).

  We have also recommended that the use of land for agriculture, forestry and countryside recreation should be issues covered in all spatial planning in future (Twenty-third Report, paragraph 10.16).

  We have recommended that the government review the respective roles of the town and country planning system and the building regulations in order to design and implement an effective system for achieving substantially better environmental performance in new or refurbished buildings (Twenty-third Report, paragraph 9.21).

21 March 2002

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