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May: Labour's planning changes will mean more delays not less

Speech to Town & Country Planning Association Conference

It is a pleasure to be with you today at this conference looking at the implications of the Government's Planning Green Paper with of course particular reference to the structure of plans proposed and within that to the life or death of structure plans.

In his foreword to the Planning Green Paper the Secretary of State, Stephen Byers said

"..Some fifty years after it was first put in place the planning system is showing its age. What was once an innovative emphasis on consultation has now become a set of inflexible, legalistic and bureaucratic procedures. A system that was intended to promote development now blocks it. Business complains that the speed of decision is undermining productivity and competitiveness. People feel that they are not sufficiently involved in decisions that affect their lives…….We need a better, simpler, faster, more accessible system that serves both business and the community."

Similarly in the written answer announcing the Green Paper the Secretary of State said "The present planning system is too complicated, too slow and engages insufficiently with local communities. We need to make it more efficient and more accessible so that it better serves everybody with an interest in the growth and development of their community."

For once ladies and gentlemen, I can say that I agree with much of what Stephen Byers said.

I believe that we have a basic problem in that too many people do not have confidence in the planning system. There are a number of reasons for that. Of course there's the problem of those who feel that the system has prevented them from doing what they wanted to do, be it extend their house or build a major development.

But for many individuals and communities there is a feeling that somehow the system doesn't take account of their views or, often, of local needs. And we all know the complaints from business of the delay in decision taking, the inconsistency of approach and the uncertainty of the system. And that's even before talking about the T5 inquiry.

So the Government was right in that some change was needed. We need to have a planning system in which people have confidence.

But beyond that I have real reservations about what the Government is proposing.

And in particular I take issue with them in their view that the Green Paper delivers, simplification of the system, involvement of local communities and meets businesses needs.

But perhaps an even more fundamental question is whether the system needs the degree of change that the Government is proposing.

Obviously I have spent some time since the Green Paper was published talking to and hearing from people involved in the planning system - planners, consultants, developers and local groups. The general verdict on the Green Paper is that it is like the curate's egg, good in parts.

But perhaps the more overwhelming comment seems to be "does the system really need such fundamental change. After all we're not so sure it's the system that's wrong just the way it is implemented…."

Perhaps the Government would have done better to pay more attention to the comments made by the CBI last year in their document "Planning for productivity. A ten-point action plan".

That document was of course supported by the British Property Federation, the House Builders Federation and the British Chambers of Commerce.

In their Ten point plan the CBI identified three key areas in which the system "is perceived to fail its users". They were:-

· the system is too slow, too often on decisions that matter

· the process involves too many uncertainties

· there is too much scope for poor decisions

They reflected on the inconsistency of performance between local authorities, but their solutions did not depend on a fundamental revamp of the system. Rather they proposed a focus on "consolidating and developing what works well in the system and rationalising where it does not work well".

The problem not only for the Government, but also for everyone who uses or is involved on the planning system, is that the general consensus emerging is that the Green Paper does not meet the needs of business, or of local communities.

And that is certainly our position on the Green Paper.

The needs of business are not met in the Green Paper.

The key issue is that, far from simplifying the system, the new structure of plans that is proposed is more complex, more bureaucratic and I suggest will lead to more delay than the current system.

Because we are going to see national guidance, structure, local and unitary development plans being replaced by:-

· National policy

· Regional Spatial Strategy

· Sub-regional planning strategies

· County mineral and waste plans

· Local Development Frameworks

· Area Action Plans

· Some Business Development Plans.

As SPISE, Sane Planning in the South East put it "Will replacing National and regional guidance and a one or two tier Development Plan with National Policy, National Advice, Regional Plans, Sub-regional Strategies, Local development frameworks and Area Action Plans make the system more manageable or more comprehensible? Are these any more likely to be consistent with one another and reviewed more rapidly?"

I think the answer is a clear no. The new structure will lead to a multiplicity of plans which will not only be more complex for business and individuals to navigate their way around, but will also put yet more pressure on scarce resources at local authority level.

Far from streamlining the system, the Government is making it more bureaucratic and more complex.

Central to the new hierarchy of plans of course is the abolition of the county structure plans and with it the role of the county councils in the planning hierarchy.

As an MP and a former councillor I know the difficulty of persuading people that when they object to a planning application they must object on planning grounds. I think the same test should be applied to the Government's proposals on the hierarchy of plans. Is the abolition of county structure plans being proposed on good planning grounds?

I suspect the answer to that is no. Because I believe that the proposal to abolish the role of county councils owes less to the desire to streamline the planning system and more to the Government's commitment to press ahead with regional government. And on that basis alone it should be given short shrift.

As I am sure you are all aware, in 1999 under the Government's modernising planning agenda, the then DETR commissioned a study on "Examination of the operation and effectiveness of the structure planning process".

The report concluded that "the statutory structure plan should be retained as the crucial link between enhanced regional planning guidance and local plans". It also concluded that the structure plans should be redefined to reflect their strategic role and should be concerned with all matters that required integrated treatment at a sub-regional level.

The Government's decision to abolish the county structure plans therefore flies in the face of their own research.

But it also ignores the key role played by county councils in delivering transport, education, waste management and social services.

Now those reading the Local Government Chronicle might have taken some comfort from the headline in the 11 April issue that "Falconer seeks to reassure counties".

But a careful reading of that interview would have given no such reassurance. He said there was a role for counties. Was that because of their involvement in the issues I raised above like transport and waste management? Was it because of the importance of the involvement of elected representatives in the planning process? Was it because without the involvement of the county councils the planning process would ignore local needs and would not achieve the integration so beloved of government?

No - it was because in his words "they have lots and lots of structural planners". So the counties will pay for the work but won't be making the decisions.

We believe that the county councils should continue to be involved and to be part of the decision making process and of course the counties can provide that sub-regional level of plan.

We do not support the Government's proposals on regional government and we will fight to keep the county councils. But it is not only the county councils that will be affected, because it has become clear that the regional assemblies would require not only the abolition of county councils but also the re-configuration of district councils in many areas - at a potential cost of £2bn. I think there are better things the Government could be spending taxpayers' money on than setting up a new tier of politicians and bureaucrats.

But it is not just in making the system more complex that the needs of business are not being met. The Green Paper proposes a new stealth tax on business - a development tax - through the proposals to change the current rules on planning gain - Section 106.

I think most people would agree that Section 106 and the whole planning gain process is not working as well as it should. Many people feel it lacks accountability and that too often local communities are left with planning gain that has little to do with the impact of a development and lots to do with what the council wants to do locally but can't afford.

Many would say that greater clarity and consistency would be a benefit. But the Government's proposed tariff system would leave developers paying a tariff and on top of that possibly having to negotiate planning gain with the local authority.

How long would it be before the Treasury saw monies raised through the tariff as an excuse to cut authorities' revenue support grant. Then would we see authorities being deemed to be raising funds through the tariff and having grant cut regardless of whether they were in receipt of funds through the tariff or not.

Greater clarity is needed, but also surely we need to get back to a system where the gain is clearly linked to the impact of a development.

I said the Green Paper doesn't meet the needs of business or local communities. Despite all the statements about local involvement in the Green Paper I believe that the proposals will lead to a reduction in the voice of local communities.

To an extent we see that in the move on structure plans - removing the role of elected representatives and moving decisions to unelected regional planning bodies.

But we see it most clearly in the proposals on major infrastructure projects.

Here the proposals have been driven by experience on Terminal 5. That was not a good experience, but it might be useful to reflect that the delay was not entirely due to the length o f the planning inquiry. The minister took a time in coming to a decision as well!

We are currently looking at how major infrastructure projects should be dealt with in the planning system, but I am sure of one thing and that is that a proposal that could lead to decisions being whipped through a committee on limited debate of the issues - even as little as an hour and a half - would cut out the voice of local communities and is the wrong way to go.

There is a similar issue at a lower level in the proposal to delegate 90% of an authority's planning decisions to officers. Practise of course varies. But the Government is I believe wrong to think that the one size fits all approach will work.

Practise often varies because the nature of the applications and particularly the balance between individual applications and larger scale developments varies from authority to authority. I spoke recently to an authority which delegates more than 90% of its applications to officers, but which allows any Member to put any application on the development control committee agenda. But I also spoke recently to a council leader who said they were delegating less than 80% but that figure was about right given the sort of applications they received and their impact on the local area.

This requirement seems to have been born out of an assumption that delegation will automatically speed up the process. There is as far as I am aware no correlation between the two. But it misses the point that the quality of the decision making is also important. Failure to address this issue could lead to yet further alienation for local people and less confidence in the system.

Flexibility at local level on this issue must be right, so councils can reflect their particular needs and respond to the voice of their local communities.

The question of officer delegation brings me to one issue that should underpin the Green Paper but which is referred to only briefly. This is the whole issue of the resources allocated to planning departments and the role and remit of planning officers.

All the Green Paper proposals in the world are no good if the staff and resources are not there to implement them.

The Green Paper sets out two approaches. The first is that in recognition of their expectation of "real improvements in performance from local government" they are going to set up the Local Planning Advisory Service, working with the Best Value Inspectorate. It seems to me that this is just another example of their obsession with centralisation. It will add to an already over-inflated inspection regime.

It means more money going into central provision rather than local provision. The Green Paper touches its cap to the issue of resourcing, referring to the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.

But many planning departments are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit sufficient planners - and not just in terms of numbers but also in terms of experience and expertise.

I worry when I hear that at least one university is closing its planning school. Local authorities could well find themselves caught between a lack of basic supply and the more lucrative private sector. If the supply of planners reduces then local authorities will find it even more difficult competing with the private sector.

But this is about more than just numbers. I get the feeling that too much of a planning officer's job these days can be described as a mechanistic process of assessing applications - which rules does it meet or break - rather than a process of assessing the suitability of an application - too little attention is given, perforce because of numbers, to issues of design quality.

I guess the key question is are our planners really planning or are they just processing according to rules set down by others?

If we are to increase confidence in the system then surely there needs to be a re-invigoration of the planning profession as well.

As a geography graduate who failed to go into planning I may not be best placed to address that question. As a politician dealing with planning issues I believe it is crucial - and you are well placed to consider that question.

The Green Paper gives the opportunity to address this issue as well as the details of the planning system. Of one thing I am sure. The issue should not be ignored, although it is not simply a matter for Government but for the profession as well.

Ladies and Gentlemen: I agree with the Government that there is a need to address the problems in our planning system that have led to a lack of confidence in the system for both many individuals and business.

The Green Paper's approach of removing the county structure plans yet increasing the hierarchy of plans, thus increasing the complexity of the system and possibly leading to more delay, removing some decision taking from local level and reducing the voice of local communities, and reducing the role of elected councillors does not address that need.

The aim may have been laudable, but the Green Paper fails to deliver.

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