Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies: a planning vacuum? - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

6  Evidence and monitoring

A lack of consistent, current planning evidence

134. Local authorities need current, relevant data—and skilled people—to ensure that their planning decisions are seen in context and are based on sound evidence. Local Development Frameworks must be underpinned by evidence and it is for local authorities to demonstrate that they have produced reasonable plans. Much of the evidence to support LDFs was provided by the regional spatial strategies. Without RSSs, local authorities need to ensure, extremely quickly, that their current and future LDFs are supported by robust evidence. Greg Clark, the Planning Minister, reinforced this point in oral evidence:

It is open to the local authority to collect the evidence that they feel justifies the decisions they want to take. If they feel that the number imposed on them by the RSS does not make sense and they can collect evidence that demonstrates a different number is appropriate, we have been clear from the outset that that is what they should do.[153]

135. Regional Observatories were established to provide analysis of data to support planning and other decisions at a regional and sub-regional level, including local authorities. The Association of Regional Observatories summed up their work:

The Association of Regional Observatories represents England's Regional Observatories that historically have satisfied the data and intelligence needs of the Regional Development Agencies, amongst others. Our work covers the economy, labour market, employment and skills, as well as sustainability and environmental issues.[154]

136. The Association notes that information previously collected as part of the RSS monitoring process will still remain crucial for local authorities, including housing information and waste management data.[155] The same point is also made by other witnesses. The RSPB, arguing that the local economy and the state of the environment should be assessed by 'robust evidence', suggested that the location of regional environmental, economic and social data is a key priority.[156] The West Midland Regional Sustainability Forum wrote "there is an urgent need to consider at what level future data will be collected, especially where it is appropriate at a level between the sub-regional and national level (eg journey to work areas)".[157] The Chartered Institute of Housing agreed, and added concerns about the potential lack of consistency of data when RSSs are abolished:

The research gathered at the regional level enabled a greater methodological consistency across local areas, and the regional structures and process were well developed; it is likely that, in some areas, there will be a gap in the policy and evidence at the local level, where there was reliance on the shared evidence base.[158]

137. The guidance issued by the Chief Planner at DCLG, Steve Quartermain, covering the period between revocation and abolition, states the following about data and research currently held by Regional Local Authority Leaders' Boards:

The regional planning function of Regional LA Leaders' Boards—the previous Regional Assemblies—is being wound up and their central government funding will end after September this year [2010]. The planning data and research they currently hold will still be available to local authorities in the preparation of their local plans whilst they put their own alternative arrangements in place for the collection and analysis of evidence. Notwithstanding, the new Government regards the Regional Leaders' Boards as an unnecessary tier of bureaucracy.[159]

138. However, the data held at the time of the dismantlement of the Regional LA Leaders' Boards, while relevant, is fast becoming out of date, a point made by Cameron Watt, from the National Housing Federation:

CLG has said it has made good arrangements for the data that were previously collected by regional leaders' boards to be looked after and updated by other organisations. I believe that for the south-west the data have been deposited with the British Library, which to me does not suggest that these are living, active data sets that will be made freely available to local authorities to help inform their new-style local plans. We have real concerns that the evidence base for local authorities to develop their new housing numbers just won't be there.[160]

Who should have responsibility for data collection?

139. The Secretary of State told us that local authorities should have the responsibility of collecting data relevant to planning:

We are very content for local authorities to collect that information that is important to them. We will continue to produce national indices to help them in that process, but leaders' boards existed before and had the ability to bring authorities together to retain that information. We are confident that they will continue to do so.[161]

He added: "We are trying to get away from prescribing, and over-prescribing, the kind of data that it is necessary to keep".[162] When asked whether it was important that there should be consistency in the methodology used in collating data from one authority to another, he replied,

I am very confident that, without the need to legislate or bother them, local authorities between them will be able to put together this package in a sensible way. I do not think this is something that the Mother of Parliaments should prescribe.[163]

140. It is unclear how to reconcile the Secretary of State's initial comment with the Government's view that Leaders' Boards are "an unnecessary tier of bureaucracy". Without Leaders' Boards providing the skills and budget to collate the information, it is hard to see how local authorities will 'continue' to be brought together. More fundamentally, the Minister's answer presumes that local authorities are equipped with the relevant resources to collate such data. However, Christina Howick, from Roger Tym and Partners, told us of the practical problems local authorities face when attempting to collate the relevant data to inform their planning decisions:

Inspectors and common sense require reasoned evidence for things like housing targets. It is not straightforward. Economic and employment targets are even harder. A lot of officers have said to me over the past months that they simply do not have the skills and resources to do what they are now expected to do.[164]

141. A report from our predecessors in the last Parliament, Planning Matters, published in July 2008, drew attention to this skills shortage in planning and made recommendations for change:

Wider economic well-being and delivery of the Government's environmental priorities could well be hindered simply because the system cannot cope. Two linked and chronic problems need to be urgently addressed to prevent this—a drastic shortage of planning officers, estimated to affect 46 per cent of local authority posts by 2012, and a significant and growing skills gap among those planners who remain within the system.[165]

The Report was published before the recent economic decline and before the significant recent cuts in grant to local authorities, so its conclusions are even more pertinent. There is almost universal concern in our evidence that local authorities will not have the capacity—in terms of money or skills—to collect relevant evidence.

142. Even if that were not the case, there remain the questions of, first, whether it is an efficient use of public resources to leave it to individual local authorities to undertake work which all our witnesses who commented on the matter considered had been carried out very effectively under regional structures; and second, who will take the strategic view of the type and comparability of the data collected. The Association of Regional Observatories made the following point:

There is a role here for CLG to provide information and guidance on definitions of datasets to be collated by local authorities for planning purposes; to ensure that datasets remain comparable with previous years' data; to provide appropriate mechanisms to enable this information to be shared across local authorities (allowing comparisons between areas to be made); and to facilitate cross-region comparisons as appropriate.[166]

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggested that "a central website could be developed collating all relevant data, research and guidance" and proposed that an innovative use of online technology would enable local authorities to share resources and work together effectively".[167]

143. It is crucial that evidence is assembled on a consistent basis across local authorities, to ensure that planning decisions are soundly based. Local Development Frameworks must be underpinned by evidence and it is for local authorities to demonstrate that they have produced sound plans. There must then be clear opportunities for individuals and groups to challenge decisions that apparently pay insufficient attention to the evidence. This will be extremely difficult when there is no consistency of data collection. The Government is optimistic in its view that local authorities will collate such data. We are not so optimistic, particularly given the shortage of planning skills—which our predecessors highlighted—and the shortage of financial resources in local authorities. We recommend that the Government bring forward proposals which will ensure that robust and consistent evidence to support local development plans is produced and regularly updated in the most effective and efficient manner. It is not acceptable for Ministers to abdicate their responsibilities in this regard by leaving all the responsibility with under-resourced and under-skilled local planning authorities.

153   Q 266. See also paras 43 and 100, above. Back

154   ARSS 15, Association of Regional Observatories, para 3.1 Back

155   ARSS 35, Association of Regional Observatories, para 4.2 Back

156   ARSS 122, RSPB, para 12 Back

157   ARSS 17, West Midlands Regional Sustainability Forum, p3 Back

158   ARSS 135, Chartered Institute of Housing, para 3.5 Back

159   Letter from the Chief Planning Officer, Department for Communities and Local Government, to local planning authorities in England, 6 July 2010, accessed at www.communities.gov.uk.  Back

160   Q 235 Back

161   Q 331 Back

162   Q 332 Back

163   Q 334 Back

164   Q 11 Back

165   Eleventh Report of the Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2007-08 (HC 517), Planning Matters-labour shortages and skills gaps, para 6. Back

166   ARSS 35, Association of Regional Observatories, para 4.5 Back

167   ARSS 32, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, p 2 Back

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Prepared 17 March 2011