Select Committee on Environmental Audit Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 30)



  Q20  Gregory Barker: You have said it is easy to nail the planning system. Part of the reason why people are critical of it is the plethora of public documents that contribute to it, and also the guide to how sustainability is incorporated into planning policy and construction. Can you give us your views on the principal documents that I refer to, mainly the Sustainable Communities Plan, the Draft Planning Policy Statement 1 and the Sustainable Development Strategy? Is there enough in these to ensure that we generally build houses in a way that is compatible with the principles of sustainable development?

  Dr Ellis: There certainly is not enough in any of those documents to deliver the step change in where we build and what we build to deliver sustainable development. In the order in which you took them, the Communities Plan is a very difficult beast because it has emerged in several parts, dealing primarily with the housing crisis in the South East and then turning to the Northern Way, which is part of the Communities Plan, obviously much later. It is a piecemeal approach to a housing crisis and, as I said, it makes political judgments about growth and where it will take place before any effective assessment of environmental limits has been made. But the effect of the Communities Plan has been very interesting in relation to sustainable development. If you examine PPS1, particularly the drafts before the one that was issued . . .

  Q21  Gregory Barker: Before you leave the Communities Plan, I think it actually mentions environment in one place, where it says "A safe and healthy local environment." What do you think that says about the Government's commitment to practical measures?

  Dr Ellis: That they are not serious, and the reason I would say that is that the Communities Plan definition of sustainable communities is beginning to replace the objective of sustainable development. That is vitally important in planning. PPS1 in the opening paragraph talks about the importance of sustainable communities, and, from memory, in paragraph 7 or 8 it talks about the importance of sustainable development, without ever telling us the relationship of those two ideas. If you go to Annex A of PPS1, "sustainable communities" is defined without any reference, for example, to nature conservation. That is just an example. Already, in some local plans that I have seen in the North, the objective of the plan, sustainable communities and sustainable development, does not actually feature in the policy at all. What the Government has done is confused two distinct ideas. I think the way it should run is this. Sustainable development is our objective, and sustainable communities might be one sub-agenda of the way we want to achieve sustainable development, but because PPS1 is not clear about that anywhere, what you get is a confused mess in which people take "sustainable communities" to mean a very pro-development agenda, particularly in the South East, and that sustainable development has been put on the back foot. The Government has not made those linkages, and without those linkages, planning in policy terms is in a real mess. We have to sort that out, I think, by saying the core objective and purpose of planning must be delivering sustainable development.

  Q22  Gregory Barker: Perhaps you could give us your views on the powers that planners actually have to insist on sustainable construction methods, for example.

  Dr Ellis: I do not think that they have those effective powers. My colleagues who are giving evidence later will give you more detail. Our view is that we have to deliver a huge step change in construction quality and design quality. That is about design and layout, what we build and how we build, building small-scale renewables and energy efficiency into our housing. The only way you can do that is to be very, very prescriptive, and in fact, I would go further and say you have to be mandatory to persuade the industry to deliver the kind of change that we need.

  Q23  Gregory Barker: Do you think the planners themselves would want that role?

  Dr Ellis: I think the planners themselves must have that role. It seems to me that the whole purpose of  planning must be to deliver sustainable development, and if these houses, wherever they are, have to be built—and we do not dispute need; it is about where, how and when and what—then we have to build to those high standards.

  Q24  Gregory Barker: Do you think the planners, the individuals, who currently make up the profession of town planning, actually have the qualities and the capabilities to do that job properly?

  Dr Ellis: You are asking me to be critical of my profession?

  Q25  Gregory Barker: Yes. For example, in your average town hall.

  Dr Ellis: No. I do not believe we have always—this is a generalisation—had the quality in planning that we need, because planning has been run down as a profession, run down as an activity, considered to be the sort of thing that you can clear a bar by announcing that you are one. That may be a generalisation, but it is really a profound problem, and it is profound in two ways: what is the purpose of planning, and therefore what is the purpose of the profession? It is true to say that there are a lot of highly skilled planners out there with important things to say, and the discretionary nature of our planning system, which Barker would undermine, means that those planning professionals' role is really key. But we have to find ways of making it clear what their purpose is and educating them properly for that.

  Q26  Gregory Barker: I think it is also the fact that they are not paid anything. It is a relatively low-grade, civil service job in the scheme of things, although it has the potential to be incredibly creative. If you compare the planner's role to a well paid architect or private sector job, it is light years away, yet their impact on the system could be huge.

  Dr Ellis: Yes. That is certainly a very big issue. I think ODPM in the culture change programme have tried to address some of those issues, but it is not helped by this confusion of purpose about what planning is for.

  Q27  Gregory Barker: If we did have a national strategy for housing, would that be on its own a strong enough driver to ensure sustainability? Would it be of help to those local authorities that do not have the calibre of people?

  Dr Ellis: I think a national strategy for housing would have to be part of what we have called in our evidence a national spatial framework, which many organisations have called for, and that is a framework which sets out firmly the regional inequalities agenda and tries to seek sustainable solutions to it. That strategy, as I said, would deal with decentralisation and relocation perhaps of public and possibly private sector measures. I would say this about the detail of what planners need to know about sustainable development: ODPM is pushing for much slimmer national guidance in many areas in the PPS series that it is producing now. Planners actually benefit from more prescription almost always rather than less, in my experience. We need to be clear what that framework is. After all, PPSs are not something that they are forced to follow; they are guidance, but that kind of guidance, in detail, is really important. For example, if we want to build a sustainable village on a brownfield site, issues of design and layout are as critical as building techniques. So building regs can deal with part of this agenda, but PPS3 on housing needs to have much more content on sustainable construction and design in it than it has at present.

  Q28  Mr Francois: On a related point, there has been major legislation going through Parliament precisely on this, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, and a lot of these new documents flow from that. What is the view of Friends of the Earth about that Bill?

  Dr Ellis: There are two questions really. The relation of the Communities Plan to the Bill is difficult to see. I do not see any relationship to national policy to the Bill. The Bill itself was always desperately flawed. It was not based on an evidenced view of what was wrong with the existing planning system, and as a result of it has delivered a system which is highly complicated, highly fragmented, difficult to administer and a barrier to sustainable development.

  Q29  Joan Walley: If I could pick up one aspect of the replies you gave to Mr Barker, and that is the ability of planners locally to have the capacity to actually deliver what is needed in terms of sustainable communities, however that is defined, I would define it in relation to sustainable development, but do we not need a step change too in respect of education in sustainable development? It is not just about the ability of the planners to deliver and the capacity that they have and the way of bringing all this together, but it is their understanding, or maybe even in some places their lack of understanding of sustainable development. I just wonder, in terms of the review that is going on within the Department of Education and Science, how we can be training planners to have this whole understanding of sustainable development integral in the work that they do.

  Dr Ellis: I think that is really key. It is so important that that education on all levels takes place. The education of planning has become very procedural, very "staring at your boots", very legalistic, whereas it needed to be much more visionary and to understand sustainable development, I think. However, there is another dimension to this, which is that when people want to engage in planning, the language of sustainable development is fairly meaningless to them at the moment, but 30 years ago there were many projects which were putting planning into schools and higher education, taking plans for local towns to teenagers and saying "What will we do with this? What would your vision be?" A lot of that has fallen away, and so it is not surprising that the understanding of what a sustainable community might be and how we might contribute to it has also diminished. That is key about political controversy, because if there were a shared understanding in the body politic at large in places like the South East, that there are times and places that we can build sustainably for environmental benefit, then it is not simply a NIMBY, no everywhere; it is about what planning should be, which is the right type of houses in the right place, meeting the right kinds of needs. That depends on education in the widest sense.

  Q30  Mr Francois: You have made some candid comments about the planning profession and about some of the challenges that it faces. In your view, do our planners need to be reinforced? What often happens practically when you have a controversial planning application is that you have an under-resourced planning department at the local authority, which is being taken on by a well-off housing developer, usually with a battery of very expensive lawyers, waiting to go to appeal, and the implication to the planning department is "If you say no, we will appeal anyway and you will pay the costs" and it goes on the council tax. So very often it is not actually a fair fight. Do you think our planners need to be reinforced in order to balance the equation?

  Dr Ellis: Yes, I do. I would have been extremely unfair to suggest that planners are not capable of this vision, but they are essentially a browbeaten bunch at the moment, for the reasons that you very accurately describe. Planning has been shoved around in many local authorities, re-titled, and certainly chief officer representation in the hierarchy of local authorities has been diminished. Planning has sometimes been called "economic development", and all of those things have contributed to the planning function in local authorities becoming a solely target-driven, procedural activity, which is in fact what the effect of ODPM setting targets so rigorously in planning contributed to. If you want people to think creatively, then you have to give them time and space and the political backing to do it. That is crucial. So we do need to support them, and supporting them is based on the idea of supporting the principles of planning that we have had for 60 years. We are always being undermined; we are always in an environment where we are being told we are anti-competitive, we are dull and we are slowing down the system, rather than a mechanism which mostly, on a good day, has been delivering some really positive public sector outcomes, in the public interest, for a very long time.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. That has been most helpful.

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