Sustainable Development in the Localism Bill - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 22-49)

Chair: Thank you very much indeed for coming before us to our second session this afternoon. I am afraid we are really short of time. I think you sat in to hear the previous witnesses, but I welcome the four officials to the session this afternoon. I think it has to be said that we had hoped to have a Minister, but we do understand that there are other commitments that are being made. We want to try and get straight in and understand where the sustainable development priority is within all of this legislation, and I am going to turn, first of all, to Peter Aldous.

Q22 Peter Aldous: Thank you, Madam Chairman. The presumption of sustainable development in terms of favourable sustainable development is very much key in the coalition Government's planning reforms. With that in mind, why is there no definition of sustainable development in the Bill?

Steve Quartermain: The view has been taken that Ministers think that they can—

Chair: Sorry, the view from where?

Steve Quartermain: I'm sorry; the Minister's view is the presumption of favourable sustainable development can be put into policy, and that putting it into legislation might be too restrictive. There are many ways of defining an assumption in favour of sustainable development. They think that by putting it into policy it enables us to talk to people—like the witnesses you have just seen—about what the definition is and how they perceive it, and we believe that putting it into the policy statement is the best way of describing it.

Q23 Peter Aldous: That is in the National Planning Framework?

Steve Quartermain: The National Planning Framework.

Q24 Peter Aldous: Remind me again, when is that due?

Steve Quartermain: We have committed in our business plan to produce a draft by July for consultation.

Q25 Chair: When will it be operational?

Steve Quartermain: I think it is April 2012.

  Chair: In 2012, April. Thank you.

Q26 Peter Aldous: Is there a worry that, in the interregnum between the Bill being enacted and that coming in, people could be rather grappling in the dark a little bit, or not?

Steve Quartermain: I don't think so, and they shouldn't be, because let us not forget that we are proposing a revision to the planning system, we are not scrapping the planning system—the existing planning system is still there. There is still a requirement for local planning authorities to have their local plans in place, LDFs. There is still existing PPS advice. There is still advice within them that is valid and relevant today. This is about revising the planning system. We are not starting with a blank sheet of paper.

Q27 Peter Aldous: How do you plan to work up the definition of sustainable development that local authorities and then others will use? Will you be using the existing definition or will you be working up a new one?

Steve Quartermain: The Minister has accepted that the principles of the definition that are in the 2005 document will be underpinning the basic principles of our definition. I would just make the point, which is again answering a question that you asked of previous witnesses, about our engagement here. We have called for evidence. The closing date is 28 February. We have asked people to tell us what they want in the NPPF and people—like the previous witnesses—are well-placed to make a contribution to that debate. It is quite an open collaborative process. We want to hear what people have to say.

Q28 Martin Caton: As you have said, the Government already has a definition of sustainable development in the 2005 strategy. It is to some extent the repetition of a question, but I honestly cannot see why that, in planning terms, cannot be put on the face of the Bill.

Robert Ledsome: Quite a complex set of issues are encapsulated in the 2005 definition, and I think it is open to question—and the previous Administration took this view when this self-same debate was taking place in relation to what became the 2004 Planning Act—how far in the legislative framework you can encompass the complexity and the dynamism of the idea of sustainable development. That is why under the 2004 Act there was a high-level statement, and there was reference then to planning policy as a way of fleshing that out. That is very much a similar sort of concept to the policy-based approach that the current Administration is taking forward.

  I think it will be quite a challenge for ourselves as policymakers—and indeed lawyers—to find a way of encapsulating the quite complex ideas that are encapsulated in the 2005 principles within the legislation that does not then lead you to either unintended consequences or a constant need to refine it as thinking develops and new ideas emerged about how you can address sustainable development.

Q29 Martin Caton: You heard our previous witnesses who are not strangers to planning policy and planning legislation, and they saw no problem in using the strategy as a basis for something on the face of the Bill. However, I would like to ask something about cross-departmental co-operation on this issue. Are you talking to DEFRA, for instance, about—

Robert Ledsome: Yes, indeed. There is a lot of cross-Government debate going on at the moment, not least in terms of finalising the Government's response to the Committee's recent report on embedding sustainable development. The Secretary of State for DEFRA is leading that process. My Department, as with other Departments, is fully engaged with DEFRA in terms of looking at the specifics as well as the more general issues that are of interest to the Committee.

Q30 Martin Caton: Are you near to reaching a consensus on what sustainable development should mean in planning terms?

Robert Ledsome: I know that Ministers are very keen to get the response to the Committee and also to get a more general statement on sustainable development out very rapidly.

Q31 Chair: How have things changed since yesterday on that? I am talking about the deliberations of the Standing Committee on the Localism Bill.

Robert Ledsome: I am not thinking necessarily that the deliberations in the Standing Committee will have a direct influence to bear on the work that has been done, particularly around—

Q32 Chair: In that case, why wasn't it in the Bill in the first place?

Robert Ledsome: I think, as Mr Quartermain has explained, that Ministers took the view that a detailed definition was not appropriate for the Bill. What I am talking about at the moment is a statement of Government policy that is being worked on and being led by the Secretary of State for DEFRA, which the Government would wish to publish in due course. That would actually help to provide a broader policy framework for what may eventually go into the National Planning Policy Framework.

Q33 Mr Spencer: Could you convince us that the neighbourhood planning process will fairly represent the needs of everybody in communities and get across to all sectors of society?

Steve Quartermain: I hope we can. It is not as though you are planning for a different community. The community is living within a district that has a local plan. It is the same community. It is an opportunity for these people within a neighbourhood to have more say about their particular area and to shape where they live.

I noted a question earlier about parish plans and the like. I have previously been involved with the preparation of parish plans and, as a local planning authority, we committed ourselves to the adoption of a supplementary planning guide where they had followed procedures, and it was in accordance with the overall aims of our plan. We know that local communities have an appetite to get involved with shaping where they live and I think this is a really powerful opportunity for them to do so, and do more, because they will be able to be involved in allocation of sites and take it further than just parish plans at the moment. This is a really good opportunity.

Q34 Mr Spencer: You would have to acknowledge, though, that if you are wanting to gain a planning permission or stop a planning permission and you have key skills or key knowledge, that gives you a bit of an advantage within the current system. I wonder how you are going to give those communities—normal people—those skills and that knowledge base to be able to influence the planning system that they will have.

Steve Quartermain: We have made provision for local authorities to support the neighbourhood plan. There is a duty for local planning authorities to provide support for neighbourhood planning.

Q35 Zac Goldsmith: This is on the same issue. There does not seem to be a clear definition of what constitutes a neighbourhood, and I don't think anyone knows what powers are going to be accompanying these neighbourhood plans. I think a lot of people are putting a lot of hope in these plans for all kinds of local reasons, and it does not seem to me that the neighbourhood plans are going to solve or answer any of the concerns that people have, whether it is an inappropriate development locally, whether it is the rapidly changing nature of the high streets, whatever it happens to be. My question to you is: are we going to have a definition of neighbourhood? Is it going to be clear to us what constitutes a neighbourhood, how one qualifies in order to be able to create a neighbourhood plan, and what the value of those neighbourhood plans will be in real terms?

Steve Quartermain: In view of your time, I could just say yes.

  Zac Goldsmith: We are going to have all that?

Steve Quartermain: You will have guidance on it. There is guidance being prepared. I believe that the Minister has made it very clear that they see that this is about a neighbourhood plan that is in the context of a broader plan. This is about consistency with a plan. This is not an opportunity for people to block development. The Government is very keen to be clear that their planning process is pro-growth; it is about developing a culture that sees growth as a good thing. Neighbourhood plans can play a very important part in that and we will be issuing guidance about how people can get engaged. That guidance will be targeted towards those people who will be engaged with the process. In terms of the definition, there may be different definitions of what a neighbourhood is, but there is a safeguard in the local authority having a say in that.

Q36 Zac Goldsmith: Could you give one example of a really tangible, radical area where a neighbourhood plan will make a difference? Give an area where local people will be able to flex their muscles and see an outcome.

Steve Quartermain: I don't think there is a neighbourhood in the country where that opportunity will not be there.

Q37 Zac Goldsmith: What kind of thing, though? At the moment, it seems to me that people might be able to argue about how many car parking spaces are arranged in the local supermarket lot, but it doesn't seem to go much deeper than that. I am trying to understand in real terms what communities and neighbourhoods will be able to do to influence the shape, nature and form of the places they live as a result of these neighbourhood plans, and I cannot yet imagine what that is, because nothing seems to have been put forward.

Steve Quartermain: When I was a Director of Planning and Environmental Services in a North Yorkshire authority, a village came to me and said they wanted to develop 30 houses. They wanted eight of them to be affordable; they wanted new access to their playing field and they wanted a new village hall. The local plan at the time was contrary to that. It said, "No, no, you are not a village where that development can take place; in our hierarchy of settlements, you would not be expected to get 30 dwellings." In a neighbourhood planning world they would be able to do that. They would be able to get their plan together; they would be able to draw up their proposal; they would be able to get the community to vote for that; and if more than 50% of people wanted it, they would be able to do it. That is for me a really powerful example of how a community can achieve development that suits their requirements.

Zac Goldsmith: Even if it conflicts with the local plan.

Q38 Sheryll Murray: Can I take you back to where you were talking about training of local neighbourhood people to participate and draw up the plans? How much sustainable development training will that include? Planning training has always existed for quite a while now for parish councils, but will you be incorporating any training with regard to sustainable development on that, or do you envisage that local authorities will be introducing that sort of training?

Robert Ledsome: I think aspects of sustainable development and environmental issues are already being accommodated within the professional training that is being provided by the professional institutions. There are other services that have been funded to provide guidance and help for planning authorities.

Q39 Sheryll Murray: Is that compulsory at the moment?

Robert Ledsome: It is not compulsory in the sense that local authorities have to provide the training. It is a service that has been available.

Steve Quartermain: There is a requirement for Royal Town Planning Institute members to have 50 hours of CPD every two years. Sustainable development is part of that training, but I want to stress that this is not just a process for planners; it is for people who plan. So there will be a whole range of people who are—

Q40 Sheryll Murray: I was referring to people who participated in the neighbourhood planning authorities, setting up their neighbourhood plans. Will you be providing them or will you be introducing a requirement for local authorities to provide them with adequate training, taking into account sustainable development?

Michael Bingham: I think it is fundamental to the support that local authorities can be expected to give that they would be addressing sustainable development as part and parcel of that, because that is central to the planning system and what planning is trying to achieve.

Q41 Chair: On that process: while previous witnesses were sitting there, they did refer to the abolition of certain pieces of expertise, and I would include the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit and the environmental data there. With all of that gone, how are these local practitioners at local authority level going to be able to link up with the local people to have regard to information or to be able to make informed decisions on sustainable development?

Steve Quartermain: The Government has done a couple of things in that respect: first of all, it has made some funds available to local Government for the support of neighbourhood planning, but it has also—

Q42 Chair: Are those ring-fenced?

Steve Quartermain: No.

  Chair: No, not ring-fenced, okay.

Steve Quartermain: There is a fund that they have just offered to organisations who want to bid to be part of a scheme to support the delivery of neighbourhood planning. That is plainly different from training, but it is about delivering capacity and trying to ensure that people understand how neighbourhood planning will work, and the Government is hoping to issue a number of grants to a number of organisations who can work with the community to help them achieve neighbourhood planning.

Q43 Mr Spencer: What I cannot understand is—it comes down to this definition of neighbourhood and local, I suppose—what happens where you get communities that are close together and an application, for example, for a wind turbine that one village favours because it will benefit them but the neighbouring village sees the wind turbine and doesn't want it, or if one village wants to expand its school but the neighbouring village thinks that that will put its school under pressure. How do you balance those?

Chair: And what mechanism is there to balance that?

Steve Quartermain: You have to remember that the neighbourhood planning—this was mentioned earlier—has to be in conformity with the plan. There is always an element of numbers. The housing numbers in particular were never a floor target, and there was always some flexing in numbers. I come back to my earlier point that neighbourhood plans have to be seen in the context of a local plan, so it will be the local planning authority who is likely to make decisions on that, and there will be policies within the local plan. I think Hugh Ellis referred to it; there will still be a plan that will determine things such as wind farms.

Q44 Caroline Nokes: I want to take you back to your comments about hierarchy of settlements. When local planning authorities are deciding the hierarchy, they do tend to look at issues of sustainability in terms of access to local services, schools, pubs, shops, and so on, and if your village falls very far down that hierarchy then obviously the presumption is not for development. If villages were to come forward with proposals for quite a significant level of housing in terms of some smaller villages of, say, 30 or so, how would the sustainability of that be assessed against the local desire?

Steve Quartermain: That partly brings us full circle to where we began, which is why it is not on the face of the Bill, because I think the Government recognises that sustainable development may differ in terms of your circumstances. What is sustainable for a smaller settlement is different from a larger place in a different part of the country, and there needs to be this flex. You will find that most local development plans already have a view about what is sustainable. What we are hoping to achieve through neighbourhood planning is some flex in the system that will allow people to be more self-determining about what is sustainable for their community.

Q45 Dr Whitehead: Taking it up the other end, isn't there just a fundamental problem that, on the one hand, we are going to have a presumption of sustainability in the National Planning Policy Framework, but if all the intelligence, planning and organisation at any level between the very local and the national level has gone, how does anybody know at local level—or indeed at national level—whether any of the various activities going on at local level do cumulatively lead towards benefits as far as climate change, sustainability and biodiversity, for example, are concerned, or lead away from it? In principle, it looks as though you have a presumption of sustainability that could be completely meaningless because no one can monitor or understand what that presumption may mean.

Steve Quartermain: I think my starting point there is the assumption that the evidence was collected at a higher level. A lot of this evidence was already being collected by local authorities and fed into a higher level, so I think it is quite wrong to assume that all this evidence has disappeared. The evidence is there and the duty to co-operate, which the Government is promoting, will ensure that this evidence is shared. It is part of the duty to co-operate: sharing of evidence and providing evidence to other people. This evidence is not just held at a—

  Dr Whitehead: They may do that.

Steve Quartermain: There is a duty for them to do that.

Q46 Dr Whitehead: Yes, there is a duty to co-operate in general terms. People may co-operate in general terms but, as far as I can see, there is no duty to provide that information upwards and collaboratively in a way that could produce the outcome that you are suggesting.

Michael Bingham: I think there are two things here. We know from the past, before we had the current round of regional planning, that authorities have collaborated naturally on that sort of thing because it is in their interest to do so and to share information about common issues and interests. The other thing is that the Minister for Decentralisation emphasised yesterday that he did recognise there was an opportunity to strengthen the duty to collaborate. He said he will go away and look at that. That may be part of your answer.

Q47 Sheryll Murray: Without a strategic planning tier, how will you monitor the cumulative impacts of local decisions on climate change, biodiversity and wellbeing across the nation?

Chair: Mr Quartermain? Mr Bingham?

Michael Bingham: Sorry, I will lead on that one. There is a hierarchy of assessment, so while you may not have the formal regional planning tier, of course plans produced at the local authority level are still going to be subject to sustainability appraisal that incorporates the requirements for strategic environmental assessment. That cannot be done in isolation. Local authorities have to think about the wider impacts and consequences of the plans and strategies that they are producing and, as we have just been talking about, they will still be producing information. There are still annual monitoring reports where these impacts and how plans are being implemented over time will be reported. Again, we expect that it will be natural for local authorities to want to share information and for that information to come together where it is reasonable to do so. Again, the duty to co-operate will strengthen that expectation. I think it is through those mechanisms that this will happen.

Q48 Chair: Can I just cut through that? I was at a presentation that was given by the Climate Change Committee to Parliament yesterday on the implications of the fourth carbon budget. One of the points that was made there was that Crossrail, in terms of how it is currently being planned, is planned for a 20-year future programme. But how will local authorities know at the strategic level the kind of timeline and the needs of the carbon agenda that they need to address in planning terms as well, so that we are not planning infrastructure, for example at that local level, which is going to be out-of-date or affected by climate change, in respect to the point that Ms Murray was making?

Robert Ledsome: There are other elements of the process that were introduced under the last Administration that are still retained. In terms of the sorts of issues and examples you have just mentioned, the National Policy Statements are the answer. They are still part of the process and they will set out the long term infrastructure requirements that the country needs in relation to climate change or any other issues. Clearly, as part of the process of developing the NPSs, particularly on those relating to energy infrastructure, for example, then the Government will be thinking about the issues that the Climate Change Committee has raised in relation to the long-term requirements for energy supply, grid decarbonisation and so on.

Q49 Chair: I am afraid we have been defeated by the bell. I would like to raise one last issue before we all leave: the issue of the European Union fines. That was something we wanted to cover. I don't think we are going to be able to have the time for you to give us a verbal response to that, but I think we would be most grateful for a note on what the implications are for local authorities. Should it be in the Bill in respect of the recovery of funds? I am sorry about this noise. What happens about infringement fines? Are they going to be aggregated generally? It would be really helpful to have a note from you about apportionment of payment of fines.

Robert Ledsome: We will provide a note.

  Chair: I am really sorry about this. We are all going to go, but thank you very much indeed for your time and for coming along this afternoon. Thank you.

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