Sustainable Development in the Localism Bill - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-21)

Q1 Chair: Thank you very much, all three of you, for coming along to our session this afternoon. We apologise for being a little bit late starting, so we might have to speed up a little bit as we go because we do have another set of witnesses in this session.

To get the session going, we are very conscious that there are big changes being made in terms of the Localism Bill and, as a Select Committee, we wanted to try to understand what the Bill means for sustainable development, try to explore the extent to which it should or should not be on the face of the Bill and how all of that links up in terms of strategic thinking. So this is just a one-off discussion, and we are very grateful to you for coming in. I wondered if you could perhaps start off by exploring with us how the Government's proposal to introduce "a presumption in favour of sustainable development" could change the current planning system. How do you see it working, or what do you see the pitfalls as?

Dr Ellis: I think the presumption is problematic in two ways, and what we try to do in analysing the presumption of sustainable development is firstly to see if we can understand what the Government's intention is, and that is obviously to write that into the national planning framework rather than into the face of the Bill. It would be the overriding objective of planning to have a presumption in favour of sustainable development.

I suppose the issues that flow from it—just very broadly and quickly—would be that there are two elements: first of all, there is a presumption in favour, and then there is sustainable development. The question: how will sustainable development be defined? It is obviously critical if it becomes a guiding thread principle of planning, and that is a debate that is being actively discussed in terms of amendments, and there are—it seems to us anyway—clear definitions of sustainable development that we could work with.

  Then there is a tension between the presumption in favour of sustainable development and the presumption in favour of the plan. That is a second dimension to the problem. I think there is a consensus that we need a strong plan-led system. In fact I would say it is a critical element of delivering sustainable development spatially that you have strong regional, sub-regional and local planning and it is plan-led. That element means, I guess, that you can have some certainty about outcomes, and the process can be democratic. Those two dimensions are absolutely critical.

  The reason why it is so important to get a definition on the face of the Bill is that there is a strong cross-Government corporate sign-up to the UK's sustainable development strategy. That contains five key principles that are vital to delivering sustainable development, so that does give us the basis of our approach.

Q2 Chair: Does that still apply at the moment, in your view?

Dr Ellis: We asked that question of DEFRA officials yesterday and, as of yesterday, the UK sustainable strategy as far as they were concerned was still a cross-Government corporate strategy.

Chair: Thank you. I don't know if your colleagues wish to add anything to that.

Fiona Howie: I would just add that, as Hugh said, we believe that the plan-led system is critical, especially as the reforms are aiming to empower people. We believe that if there is greater involvement at the neighbourhood and local level to develop plans, but then a presumption in favour that is not in line with the plan-led approach, that will cause yet more tension within the planning system rather than solving some of these issues. We are not against a presumption in favour of sustainable development that is in line with the plan, as long as we can get the right definition of sustainable development.

Naomi Luhde-Thompson: The words "a presumption in favour" are quite difficult to deal with if you have not defined sustainable development very clearly, because that might mean a presumption in favour of any type of development. So we would want to see that definition very clearly on the face of the Localism Bill to say that the purpose of planning is to deliver sustainable development, which is then defined. You are looking at wording as an objective to further achieve sustainable development.

Q3 Chair: Just briefly, do you think that the way that the Committee went yesterday gives you any hope that that might now be coming forward?

Dr Ellis: I think the Minister has made it clear that they are willing to think about this, but the structural issues are still there, and one of the structural issues is that there seems to be a rejection of accepting sustainable development as the purpose of planning on the face of the Bill. Historically, we have had purposes of planning on the face of the Bill, so it is not as if it is a novel idea or in any way impossible from a legislative point of view.

Then there was a focus on it being in the National Planning Policy Framework. Of course, since none of us have seen the National Planning Policy Framework, it is very difficult for us to judge what the content would be. I would be very concerned about the general discourse that is circulating, which is that the NPPF will have what is known as a high-growth definition of sustainable development, as if sustainable development were capable of complete redefinition in any circumstance, and it plainly is not.

Q4 Caroline Lucas: We have already touched on the definition of sustainable development several times and, at the risk of making the whole of the rest of the meeting define sustainable development, could you say how you think sustainable development should be defined in the local planning context?

Dr Ellis: The starting point, I think, is the five principles that flow out of the UK strategy. Let me just take one or two of them and how they might play out spatially. Working within environmental limits is already a very key part of how local spatial planning operates, and Planning Policy Statement 1 makes that issue very key. It would also play out in relation to the varying and vital role of planning in, for example, climate change mitigation and adaptation. The important issue is that you cannot have twin objectives in planning. The overall objective and vision has to be sustainable development and, basically, planning's role is how to deal with that spatially: how it plays out in space and how we can make the most of that definition.

  Although the operational principles might flow into planning—they might be, for example, town centre first policy; they might be in relation to climate change; they might be in relation to sustainable housing and transport—all of those things flow out of that core idea. What worries me is that if you change the core idea of planning away from the definition even now, which I think is relatively robust in PPS1, you undermine the purpose and delivery of the system.

Fiona Howie: I was just going to mention that the Minister for Decentralisation was good enough to give a speech to CPRE last Thursday, in which he picked up on the importance of sustainable development, which we very much welcome. When elaborating slightly, he mentioned that growth should be compliant with environmental standards, which we felt was a very narrow interpretation of what we would mean by sustainable development and the environmental element of that. To reiterate Hugh's points, it is a broad area and we have five principles that I think would set up the right framework for that on the face of the Bill, but it does need to go beyond simply environmental standards that are defined at the moment.

Naomi Luhde-Thompson: Yes. Essentially, we are taking the five principles from the UK sustainable development strategy and saying they should be on the face of the Bill as part of the overall purpose of planning.

Q5 Caroline Lucas: Do you think the Government is adequately involving stakeholders in developing its guidance on sustainable development?

Dr Ellis: This is a difficult issue. In our view, it is not sensible to develop a new piece of legislation, like the Localism Bill, without a much more extensive brokering of agreement. That could have happened through a Green or White Paper, both of which were absent from the process. Latterly, with the NPPF, what we have is a consultation, which is very welcome, but there is no document associated with the consultation. It is an invitation to suggest principles. There is active consultation going on from the department now, but I would say that the NPPF is probably the most important policy document for planning for the best part of 40 years, and that means that it really does need to have cross-sector support. The most important and effective way of doing that is to lock all the planning sectors into a room and broker an agreement that can generate consensus. That is not the approach at the moment, but we would very much welcome—because there is time to get this right—a wider and more open discussion, particularly with communities because they are not yet involved in the process.

Naomi Luhde-Thompson: Just to add to what Hugh is saying, we have obviously been talking to Friends of the Earth. We have a large number of local groups, and they are now very interested in planning sustainable development. They are very concerned that there has not been any way for them to get involved in the ideas in the Localism Bill—for instance, the process of neighbourhood planning, how it will work, how it will play out in their community, how sustainable development could be achieved through these plans. These are all questions that at the moment it is very hard to engage with, because you are looking at a very technical, difficult piece of legislation that amends four different types of Acts, and it is just very complicated. You have to talk about it for quite a long time in order to get people to some measure of understanding about what is happening in neighbourhood planning and what it means. Regarding the National Planning Policy Framework, it is a real shame that there is not more engagement now for people and communities to start talking about these issues. We are going out and talking to communities where we can, but of course there should be much more done on that, and we would really like to see that.

Q6 Zac Goldsmith: I wondered whether anyone knows the timing on the NPPF.

Fiona Howie: I believe that they are going to publish a draft for consultation in July but CLG might be able to answer that further..

Q7 Chair: Do you see some kind of gap between one piece of legislation and the publication of that, and a limbo period in between?

Fiona Howie: Absolutely. I think the National Planning Policy Framework, as Hugh said, will be essential to taking the new planning system forward. The fact that the legislation is in the Commons at the moment, in Committee, and we don't have a draft NPPF is making those discussions more difficult.

Q8 Peter Aldous: Is this gap an creating opportunity for something extremely undesirable to happen? For instance, I am thinking of a town centre first policy. If someone puts in a planning application, say, for an out-of-town food store in this interregnum period, is it going to be more difficult to oppose that application?

Fiona Howie: My understanding is that the existing planning policy remains while the replacement is developed, but I think it is making things—like the discussions around a presumption in favour of sustainable development and whether or not it should go into the Bill—very difficult. Also, I know there have been amendments about the amount of weight that should be placed on the National Planning Policy Framework. Again, we could have a far more sensible discussion about that if we knew what that document might look like.

Dr Ellis: The NPPF becomes even more important in the absence of regional planning. Whatever you thought of regional planning, particularly in retail and town centre first, it was critical because it was the only mechanism of defending the decision of one authority or a group of authorities against the decision of one authority to allow, for example, a large out-of-town regionally-sized retail development. At the moment, with the mechanism going forward, the NPPF will be the only document with which that sort of development can be judged. That means that the content of it, on town centre first, is absolutely correct.

I would also add that it also has to be—which is, I know, heresy—to a degree prescriptive. It cannot just be a completely light-touch, rhetorical document. It has to be prescriptive, because if you want town centre first to work, and all sorts of other sustainable development principles, you have to have a detailed impact test to go with it.

Q9 Caroline Nokes: Do you get a sense that in the intervening period, while current planning policies are still in place, there is a rush in some areas to get applications on the system before the framework comes forward?

Dr Ellis: There is certainly an uncertainty, which is largely to do with the process of the revocation of regional planning, which was revoked. That was then found to be unlawful, so regional planning now exists again, but in that period particularly there has been a tremendous amount of housing units falling out of the planning process or planning provisions, so there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty.

Again, if we were starting from somewhere else we would start with a more—again, maybe heresy—gradualist process, with a strong transition plan, so that the Government's objectives can be understood and implemented, but not in the sense of leaving a vacuum that can be filled. The consequence of that is development that we will live with for 50 to 100 years.

Q10 Caroline Lucas: I just wondered if there are things we can learn from other countries in terms of the way they work on sustainable development, and I wondered, in particular, whether you could give examples of where an assessment for sustainability is made before the development is permitted.

Dr Ellis: There are certainly overall lessons, particularly on climate and sustainable development, of two orders, I think. Firstly, it is assessment tools, where often there is independent commissioning of things like EIA in north-west Europe. The overriding lesson of places like the Netherlands and other Nordic countries is that they have a strong consensus about the overall spatial direction of their nation. In the Netherlands, it is built on a consensus for 100-year plans, based obviously on flooding, and they have understood the need to have that.

  If you look at the implementation of perhaps some of our most sustainable places—Freiburg might be one example—they are based on 35-year consensus politically and a strong planning process. If you characterise the opposite, in the UK, we have a tendency on a 10-year cycle to decide planning is bad, deregulate it and minimalise it, then decide we have cross-border strategic sub-regional issues we cannot deal with without it, so we reinstitute it, which is legislatively complicated, and get it back. This regional planning was only on the books for five to six years, which is worth bearing in mind. We only had regional strategies for that length of time before we decided to scrap them. I think if only we could broker this overarching agreement about the objective of planning and its implementation, then the UK, economically and environmentally, would be much better off.

  Chair: That is fairly clear.

Q11 Zac Goldsmith: I have two questions. The first relates to the neighbourhood development plans, and based on what we know of the proposals and even the lack of definition or otherwise of what constitutes a neighbourhood, I am interested in hearing from you how important you think they are and how much power they will give communities and local people to define the characteristics and nature of the developments that affect them.

Naomi Luhde-Thompson: I think, in terms of participation, what is quite concerning is that there is no clearly defined process in the Bill—it is all up to the Secretary of State to decide in guidance how that process will work. When the plan is examined, there is no right to be heard. It is default written representations, and that is pretty exclusive, and it doesn't give the same opportunities to look at the plan, to discuss the issues and to debate them. It really doesn't. It is quite an exclusive process if you are just having written representations, so I think there are big concerns there.

  There are also concerns around the equalities impacts of neighbourhood plans, such as: how are you involving people; who has been involved; are you going out to people where they are? The neighbourhood plans are set up so you only have to have three people living in an area; so, three people? I mean, it is pretty difficult to see how they are going to get everybody involved and how that is all going to work.

  I think, in terms of what neighbourhood plans can or cannot cover, there are obviously going to be prescriptions. However, without the White Paper, we don't really know what the Government is thinking about, in terms of what they think they should cover. We would really like to see them as plans for neighbourhoods to develop sustainably, but communities are going to have to be supported to do that because it does take a lot of time and effort to do that. If you are working full time, when are you supposed to go to a planning meeting to discuss some pretty big issues? There are lots of issues about that and the amount of information that is required. Where does your evidence base come from? There are lots of big issues there.

I think the problem is with trying to discuss these issues when you just have a piece of legislation in front of you, rather than being able to discuss them through a White Paper and talk to communities who might be interested in doing this kind of thing, and also talk to communities who have never thought about doing this sort of thing, but say, "Well, if you were going to do this, how would you do it?" That is actually what we are trying to do at the moment, but of course it would have been better to have a White Paper to do it with, rather than doing it through the legislative process.

Q12 Sheryll Murray: Don't you think, though, that some of the fundamental work has already been done through the local parish plans and local town plans, and the neighbourhood plans could just be an expansion of those?

Dr Ellis: There is something very important there, because our quick assessment is that the neighbourhood plans and neighbourhood development orders are not, in a sense, wrong in any way, but they do about 10% of the job that we need to do to make planning open. I say that because, if you have written the parish plan, of which there are many, and many communities have invested in it, that cannot be a neighbourhood development plan without going through the full and extraordinary lengthy complex process of adoption. I think the Bill should contain, at the heart of it, a duty to have regard to those expressions of community views, so that the mass of other informal documents that communities produce, which are at the moment not yet registered or have no legal weight, can have that value. That is very important, because otherwise what we have done is created a kind of Rolls-Royce neighbourhood plan, but created access to it on a very limited basis. There is an easy solution so long as we are able to think more broadly about what community participation might mean.

Q13 Zac Goldsmith: Practically speaking, we do not have sight of NPPF, and whether or not that is a good thing or a bad thing is almost academic at this stage because we have a Bill going through. The question is: what specifically, practically speaking, should we be looking to do to improve this aspect of the Bill, specifically in relation to the neighbourhood plans?

Dr Ellis: This is difficult. I think I would want to broaden the debate out in the way that I described, so I would leave neighbourhood plans and Neighbourhood Development Orders as an option. Then I would say very clearly that we have created this broad duty to have regard to other statements of community view, and I would create guidance to make sure that all the effort that communities place around the parish planning process are absolutely essential to LDF preparation.

My one comment would be that neighbourhood planning has attracted a lot of attention, but because your neighbourhood plan must be in conformity with your LDF, essentially the process that has been set up means that the LDF is where the power is. You cannot argue about housing in a local neighbourhood development plan; its location, numbers or waste. In that sense, it is the LDF that we need to open up. Again, just finally, that is mostly about the culture of planning. That is where the task really is; making sure that planners communicate and making sure communities are empowered.

Fiona Howie: We have around 60,000 members, many of whom are very involved in the planning system, and we are trying to get the message to them that Local Development Frameworks or Local Plans—as they might be renamed—will remain critically important to influence because they will set that strategic direction. I think there are big questions, and lots of our members are asking them, about what can be decided at the neighbourhood level, and I think they can include policies around design, character and distinctiveness, which are all very positive. I think there may be some communities who will be very disappointed that they are not getting the level of power that has been talked about in the past in relation to neighbourhood planning.

Dr Ellis: One of the issues we have to focus on is the balance between strategic and local. We need to have honesty—and this is absolutely the role for the Government—about the fact that there are some things that can be decided effectively locally, and some things that genuinely cannot. You cannot tackle housing and climate change purely on a local basis or purely on a local government basis. So this tension—which is inherent in planning and has always been there—between what the neighbourhoods want and how that is fed up needs an honest final settlement. That final settlement, I think, the Localism Bill does not achieve, partly for the reasons I have described and partly because you have to accept that there is an element—and we are allowed to say this, although it may be unpopular—that where there are, for example, wider housing needs, we have to face them. We have to find a way of meeting them in a strategic way, and it is exactly the same for energy. That is part of the sustainable development objective, because some communities have more environmental capacity than others, for example, or more housing or social needs than others, and that does have to be dealt with strategically

Q14 Zac Goldsmith: I think you are right. There is an impression that has been created that this is a wholesale transfer of power back to the communities. I think a lot of people are very excited about the prospect of being able to have a much more innovative involvement in the development of the high street, for example. I think a lot of other people think we might be able to resist the Tesco invasion as a result of this, but I think a lot of other people think they will be able to block inappropriate or unpopular developments in their area, all of which I think would be very positive. You have already answered the first part of my question, which is: will this Bill deliver that? I think the answer that all three of you have given is that it will not.

The second question is: are there any amendments that you are aware of or that you would recommend, or that your organisations would back, which you think might improve what is basically a very good piece of legislation but which has some gaps, which I hope we will collectively be able to join up? This is a very long-winded question.

Fiona Howie: The points Hugh made are very relevant, and I think the issue around housing, for example, is very difficult. I think if it were left to the neighbourhoods to decide, it is quite likely that in many places identified need would not be addressed. It might not be a change in the legislation that is needed, but language about the importance of engaging with local plans, and everyone not just totally getting distracted by neighbourhood plans but still feeding in at the local level, and ensuring that there are processes to enable that to happen, so that people are engaged in those discussions as well as in neighbourhood planning, rather than concentrating on neighbourhood planning to the exclusion of getting involved in those critical discussions. I think that balance needs to be communicated and promoted as the new system is taken forward.

Q15 Dr Whitehead: In your written evidence, you have all in different ways made the distinction between NDOs in parished areas and NDOs in non-parished areas, and suggested that the extent to which parished areas or parishes have a statutory function may vary. There is a different level, therefore, of accountability between an NDO in one area and the other. How does that relate to what you have said already about the extent to which you can reflect sustainability criteria in Neighbourhood Development Plans and the extent to which you have to refer to Local Development Frameworks? Do you think that maybe the distinction between parished and non-parished areas might be better defined in terms of the differences that might result?

Dr Ellis: I think it is absolutely clear that there is a two-tier system, as you suggest, and the one based around parish councils has difficulties but is basically coherent. It seems to us that the one for non-parished areas, which is 60% of the population and based around neighbourhood forums, could never pass into law. It simply cannot stand that three people, or a multiple thereof, who have not been elected, who would not have to disclose a financial interest in the plan they were writing, could possibly form a legitimate unit to make significant neighbourhood planning. The question is how you resolve the problem. In fact, although again this may seem extraordinary, perhaps the heart of the Localism Bill should have been to introduce lowest form local governance into those non-parished areas. After all, most of these areas were parished, historically. In fact, if you want to do neighbourhood planning effectively, accountably and openly, then you need the community council—let us call it that for the sake of argument—operating in urban areas, particularly in urban areas where there are contested ideas about communities of interest or conflicting communities of interest: perhaps 30, 40, or 50 different groups who want to deliver that message, but that has to change.

  Finally, because of the way the legislation is framed, none of the duties on climate change or sustainable development applies to neighbourhood planning, and I think that is another thing that does have to change. After all, what we are saying in the duties is, "Please think about climate change; please think about sustainable development," which are not onerous duties on neighbourhoods.

Q16 Sheryll Murray: I have heard you mention several times about the three people in the neighbourhood forums, but that is only one criterion, is it not? They do also have to meet a series of tests and pass those before they can be recognised. Do you think those tests should be set out? It is quite strange that they are prescriptive, though.

Naomi Luhde-Thompson: I think there is one test that they do not have to meet, which is the equalities impact test. They are not covered by the Equalities Act 2010 and there is no reference to an equalities impact assessment. I think it would be key to have that in there and to at least have that test as part of it.

Dr Ellis: Again, the issue for us is that people have suggested, for example, that ward councillors might serve on these forums and that there are ways of incrementally making them more accountable. However, the great criticism of regional planning was that, although there were lots of elected representatives, there was no direct accountability. It seems to me that this is a very wicked policy problem in this sense: can you or can you not make them democratically accountable? It is an "all or nothing" debate, isn't it? Sure, you can make them a little less unaccountable, but it seems to me that, given that planning is quite contested in urban areas, you must have them democratically accountable from the beginning, so they have some legitimacy in the process.

Fiona Howie: I think there might also be issues around competing organisations. It will be difficult for a local authority if approached by two separate groups—perhaps a civic society and another neighbourhood organisation that has organically developed—to try to compare and contrast, or broker a deal between the two. I do think there needs to be careful consideration given to criteria to help local authorities make what could be quite a difficult and potentially controversial decision. Again, if the aim is to empower communities, it does need to be transparent so that they can ensure they have made the best decision possible rather than people being turned away and feeling they are not able to take up the opportunities of neighbourhood planning.

Q17 Caroline Nokes: Having parish councils across all of the 65% of unparished areas is quite an interesting prospect, isn't it? I wanted to move on to regional strategies and their abolition, and the requirement on local authorities to construct voluntary agreements and arrangements where they negotiate with neighbouring local authorities for items that are of more regional significance. Do you think that voluntary co-operation will be adequate?

Dr Ellis: No.

  Caroline Nokes: I was expecting that.

Dr Ellis: The reason is not because voluntarism is in any way wrong, but I suppose we might claim history is on our side in the last 80 years of planning. We have had regional planning since the 1920s, would you believe? It has been turned on and off at various moments, but I think the difficulty is that it will work in the best of places where there is genuine desire to co-operate cross-boundaries and cross-border, and where development clashes are well understood and where there is a consensus, but in many places in England, that is not the political reality. There are places trying to defend themselves and their environmental quality from development pressures.

  To give you an example on biodiversity and climate change in relation to particular issues of housing and energy, that is an element where you have to plan at catchment level where river basin level is the right spatial scale. But there is no way of making authorities join up with each other, especially if it is not a neighbouring one—if an authority three stages up in Cumbria decides to chop all its trees down and create a flood problem for the authority in Cockermouth, there is absolutely nothing that can be done in the proposed regime in the Localism Bill. We can afford to say this: we will have to reinvent some form of effective sub-regional planning. I hope it is not on the old regional basis and I hope it is in a more accountable way, but even though the accountability was flawed, the research, the evidence and the data on sustainable development that regional plans did was hugely valuable.

Fiona Howie: I should mention that I know perhaps part of the solution is viewed to be the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships. I think we have concerns that they are business-led and they have an economic growth remit. So in maintaining that overview and influencing the views of local authorities in creating their local development documents or going below that, we believe they should have a far more balanced approach that integrates economic, social and environmental considerations rather than skewing their views towards economic growth at potentially any cost.

Q18 Caroline Nokes: I am glad you moved on to that, because I wanted to pick up on an issue on Local Enterprise Partnerships. We have heard repeatedly that they are to be business-led. In my own experience, from discussions with my locally soon-to-be-established LEP, I know they would like to see democratically elected councillors ousted from the planning process so that business can run it and obviously make "the right decisions". How do you think they should be involved in the strategic process?

Dr Ellis: At the moment, we have promoted amendments on duty to co-operate that reference LEPs, only because LEP boundaries are the only spatial boundary now left in England beyond the local, so there may be opportunities there. I absolutely agree that since the LEPs themselves are not corporate bodies of any kind and have no legal status, it is very difficult to amend anything to actually place an obligation on them, because they are very ephemeral organisations and, for all the reasons that we have heard, I think the idea of them at the moment in their current form carrying strategic planning powers is difficult. However, what we have tried to do—and it is very much a reserve position—is say that where you are a member of a LEP and where you are also a local planning authority, there are special obligations placed on you around co-operation and sustainable development. The problem with the LEP boundaries is that in the north of England they can be quite sensible in terms of economic functional areas, but in the south of England they are more challenging.

Fiona Howie: I think there are some examples; I believe there is one in the north-west that has recruited to its board not only business interests and local authorities but also other people from academia or from academic institutions, so I think there are some examples of good practice where they are trying to take a more integrated approach, but I certainly do not get the feeling that that is mirrored across all of them. Certainly, we cannot give them a statutory role at the beginning, and I think there is a huge amount of debate about whether that would be a positive option anyway, but they are likely to be looking across boundaries and so may well influence strategic planning via their non-statutory route, but we would not want them to do that unless they do take this more integrated approach to planning.

Q19 Caroline Nokes: I would like to pick up on the comment about recruiting quite broadly representatives not just from business but from academia as well. Does that necessarily give them an improved perspective on sustainable development?

Fiona Howie: I think they are trying to recognise that it is not just economic growth; things like skills are very important, and that is why they were trying to link to the educational institutions. I think the fact that they are business-led is not a good thing, and I appreciate opening up the board does not make them in any way more accountable or transparent, but I think at least they are looking beyond just saying, "We need economic growth, therefore all we need is business partners to be involved in the boards of these as well as some local authorities."

Q20 Peter Aldous: Can I go back to what Dr Ellis said? There is obviously a concern that the duty to co-operate does not provide a sufficiently rigid framework and that perhaps the regional tier of Government was too much of a straitjacket. It just alludes to what he might have thought was an alternative way forward, and I would be interested in learning a little bit more about that.

Dr Ellis: We have taken various boundaries, as I said, over the last 60 or 70 years. I think the problems with the regions, in terms of boundaries, were that they were probably at too high a spatial scale. You can image that in an ideal world we can evolve the test for regional planning in England, which is partly based on accountability and transparency but also based on environmental, economic and social functionality, which might be boring but it basically means that planning becomes more effective; it recognises the importance of city regions; it recognises the coherence, perhaps, of rural areas and market towns and sees a variety of different kinds of regions emerging, rather than the nine standard regions.

  In that sense, what you have I think is the best of all possible worlds: more ownership, I would hope, from a local authority level of the region. At the same time, you would acknowledge that there must be a regional approach for England's future. On top of that you also need a national spatial plan, but perhaps I should not say anything more about that. That develops a kind of a mosaic with more buy-in from communities. It will never completely resolve the tension but, ultimately, that must be agreed centrally. That framework has to have an acceptance at the national level for delivering.

Q21 Chair: I am just very conscious about time. We do have another set of witnesses to come before us. Finally, could you tell us whether or not there has been expertise that is embedded currently, providing that support for regional planning in respect to sustainable development, that is lost as a result of this Localism Bill?

Dr Ellis: I would say that I am desperately worried about the loss of expertise, particularly in terms of human resource, from strategic planning to the regional level. The information and data sets are now located at the British Library, but they are not active and they are not being updated except in relation to some aspects of energy. I am also concerned about the loss of a Sustainable Development Commission and the loss of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which published a report today called Demographic Change in the Environment. Those sorts of documents—and this document in particular—make the case for the need for a regional and strategic spatial approach.

  My problem is that without all those background organisations—and you could say the same about the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit—we have lost an entire tier of intelligence-gathering. This is not an ideological case about centralism; it is just about intellectual capital that informs the evidence-based plan. It is going to set back delivery on climate change, in my own personal judgment, by five to 10 years if we lose those organisations.

  Chair: Okay. Dr Ellis, Naomi, Fiona, we must leave it there, I'm afraid, because we do have time restrictions on us. Thank you very much for coming at such short notice.

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