DTLR | Planning Green Paper: Planning: Delivering a Fundamental Change

 

Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions
Planning Green Paper Planning: Delivering a Fundamental Change


Chapter six: Fundamental change at national, regional and local level

6.1Chapter 4of this consultation document deals with reforming the plan-based system. Chapter 5 considers the changes needed to speed up development control and make it more customer responsive.This chapter sets out what Government will do to improve our own performance within the planning system and goes on to look specifically at how local government might be better equipped to deliver. Delivering the national role

6.2 The Government has several roles within the planning system:

  • we set national planning policy and issue guidance and advice on planning policy and procedures;
  • we operate the appeals system through the Planning Inspectorate which reports to the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions; and
  • the Secretary of State calls in a small number of planning applications each year for his own decision and recovers a similar number which have been appealed.

We need to improve our performance across all these areas and, in particular, provide a faster service.

National planning guidance

6.3 As we have said in chapter 4, we propose to review the whole body of national planning guidance and particularly the PPG series so that it concentrates on the key planning policies that should be determined at the national level.

6.4 We will also make clear statements of policy on the development of major infrastructure. A separate consultation document is being issued on new Parliamentary procedures for planning of major infrastructure.

Major infrastructure projects

Investment in major infrastructure, like airports and reservoirs, is essential to continued economic growth.The process for making planning decisions about these projects takes too long, is expensive and is highly adversarial.We want to find a better way, increasing the speed with which decisions are made whilst safeguarding quality of decision making, public consultation and involvement.

In July 2001, we announced our proposals for a new approach:

  • there will be clear statements of Government policy setting out our priorities for investment;
  • a stronger regional framework for identifying investment needs and strategies;
  • robust arrangements for prior public consultation;
  • new Parliamentary procedures for approving projects in principle before detailed aspects are considered at a public inquiry;
  • improved public inquiry procedures;
  • improved arrangements for compulsory purchase and compensation.

We are issuing a consultation document setting out our proposals for introducing the new Parliamentary procedures that will be associated with this.

Some of these new arrangements will require primary legislation, which we will introduce when Parliamentary time permits.

Crown Development

6.5 In general, developments undertaken by or on behalf of the Crown are not subject to control by local planning authorities.This is in accordance with the normal common law principle of Crown immunity.We remain committed to the principle of removing Crown immunity from planning control, subject to certain safeguards relating to the national interest, such as security and defence.We will introduce legislation when an opportunity arises.

6.6 Our proposals for major infrastructure projects (see box) will provide for Crown development proposals to be subject to those procedures, where appropriate. Highways Act procedures will continue to apply for trunk road development.

Resolving disputes

6.7 Up to 16,000 planning applications refused by local planning authorities or not determined by them within the statutory 8 week deadline will be appealed to the Secretary of State this year. Most appeals are considered using written representations. More than 20% are subject to hearings, an informal process which is increasingly popular and a good alternative to the more legalistic inquiry process. Only 6% of appeals go to public inquiry.

Mediation

No one doubts the need for an appeals system and there is confidence in the Planning Inspectorate as an organisation which secures fair and impartial planning decisions. But there is equally a feeling that many planning disputes should never enter the appeals system and could be resolved if an alternative means of resolving them was available.

Mediation is a simple, constructive and user-friendly form of dispute resolution. It helps the parties reach their own agreement rather than seeking to make an independent decision based on the evidence presented.We have published the results of research which shows that it may have wider application in:

  • resolving objections between neighbours where an objection has been made to small scale household development;
  • enforcement where there appears to be scope for a negotiated solution; and
  • narrowing down the areas of disagreement in large planning cases, especially those going to public inquiry.

We will undertake further work on mediation and consider how a mediation service might be funded and appropriately staffed.

6.8 Concern has been expressed at the length of time that it can take for appeals to be resolved. We are determined that the appeals process should not cause unnecessary delay. Each year, the Planning Inspectorate is set targets by Ministers for its work in handling planning appeals and for its other responsibilities.We have progressively tightened the Inspectorate’s targets and given it more resources to increase the number of inspectors: in consequence, its performance has dramatically improved.We are working with the Inspectorate to consider ways in which its targets might be improved still further without compromising quality.

figure 6: performance of Planning Inspectorate against target of 80% of planning appeals by inquiries to be decided in (weeks): England

Time taken measured from the date at which all relevant information is received from the appellant to the date when the decision is issued, including the time taken by the inquiry.

Called in and recovered appeal cases

6.9 The vast majority of planning applications are decided by local authorities. Similarly, the vast majority of appeals are determined by planning inspectors appointed by the Secretary of State. About 300 cases a year are exceptionally ‘called in’ applications or ‘recovered’ appeals for the Secretary of State’s decision.These are cases where policy issues of more than local importance are involved.

6.10 Local authorities are also required to notify certain types of planning application to the Secretary of State so that he can decide whether to call them in.This includes those where the local planning authority proposes to grant permission that departs from the current development plan (departures) and applications for large housing developments on greenfield sites.

6.11 Once the Secretary of State has been notified, permission or consent cannot be granted by a local authority until he has decided whether or not to call in the application. In certain cases, the can issue a holding direction to give more time to make the decision. Although the Government tries to use such directions sparingly, a large number of them are issued causing inevitable delays. More than 300 holding directions were issued last year.Waiting to find out whether an application is to be called in can cause considerable uncertainty and anxiety for both developers and communities.

6.12 Currently there is a range of targets for deciding whether or not to call in an application.The most important one is that 80% of cases should be dealt with within the statutory deadline, usually three weeks. Where a holding direction has to be used, 80% of these cases should be dealt with within four weeks of issuing the direction.

6.13 Generally, these targets are achieved. For example, in relation to departures, 80% of decisions about whether to call in an application were reached in three weeks. Where holding directions were issued, 91% were processed in the four week timescale. But there are areas where the target has not been met. For example, only 65% of retail cases were decided within the three week timescale.We shall focus on such cases in order to improve our overall performance.

6.14 There can be further delays once Ministers have decided to call in an application or recover an appeal. Before the Secretary of State makes the decision, there is usually a public inquiry. Business rightly complains about the time it takes for call-ins and recovered appeals to be processed and the uncertainty about when decisions will be announced.

6.15 The Government has targets for dealing with call-ins and recovered appeals. Current targets are to decide 80% of call-ins within 13 weeks after receipt of the inspector’s report and all of them within 20 weeks. For recovered appeals, the targets are 80% in 8 weeks and all in 13 weeks.These targets are not being met.

figure 7: Government performance against target: Called-in applications 2000/01

figure 8: Government performance against target: Recovered appeals 2000/01

6.16 Some call-in decisions will always take a significant length of time to decide.These include many of the biggest and most controversial developments proposed anywhere in the country.

6.17 We have set ourselves the target of cutting in half the average time taken from the close of the inquiry to issue of the decision to the applicant. Following a comprehensive review by independent consultants of Government Office, Planning Inspectorate and DTLR procedures, we are going to establish new management arrangements to deal with these cases.This will deliver dramatic improvements in the way in which we handle call-ins and recovered appeals. The Government will also consider, and would welcome views about whether we should set ourselves statutory targets for delivering decisions on call-ins and recovered appeals, subject to exception arrangements for the most difficult cases.

6.18 At the moment, we state the reasons for calling in a planning application for the Secretary of State’s decision and place on the DTLR planning web site both copies of letters calling in applications and notifying applicants of Ministers’ final decision.We have not given reasons for not calling in a planning application. In the interests of greater transparency, we will now, as from today, give reasons for not calling in individual cases and to put copies of these letters on the Department’s web site.

Third Party Rights of Appeal

6.19 Some people believe that there should be a right for third parties to appeal to the Secretary of State against a decision by a local authority to grant planning permission. ‘Third parties’ in this context means people who have views about a planning application, whether or not they are directly affected by it. It is argued that this would give people who feel disadvantaged by a planning approval a comparable form of redress to those whose planning application is rejected but who have a right of appeal.

6.20 The contrary viewpoint is that such a right would not be consistent with our democratically accountable system of planning. Elected councillors represent their communities - they must take account of the views of local people on planning matters before decisions are made and justify their decisions subsequently to their electorate.

6.21 Proponents of a third party right of appeal themselves recognise that it could not be unlimited because there must be some mechanism to prevent frivolous appeals.The situations in which advocates of third party rights suggest that they might be exercisable are as follows:

  • departures from the plan.The difficulty with this proposal is that a considerable number of development proposals could contain minor departures from the detail of a plan or, under our new proposals, from the Local Development Framework. In practice, proponents of third party rights have in mind only significant departures. But defining what is and is not ‘significant’ is not straightforward and is ultimately a matter of judgement exercised by local authorities.We believe that the end result of such an approach would be a stream of court cases debating which approvals can be appealed.This would make planning more uncertain, legalistic and confrontational.This is precisely what we are seeking to avoid and we therefore do not believe that the planning system can operate efficiently in such a climate;
  • major projects.This links with a separate proposal that third party rights should be exercisable to challenge projects that require an Environmental Impact Assessment.These are normally larger projects.The problem with either proposal is that it would further delay investment in major developments that will already have received particularly thorough and careful scrutiny by a local planning authority following consultation with local people.We are separately proposing in a companion consultation document new Parliamentary procedures for planning for major infrastructure projects of national significance; (see above);
  • where officers’ recommendations to reject an application are overturned by the elected councillors. Again this proposal goes straight to the heart of the democratic process. Elected members must be allowed to reject their officers’ advice: it is the councillors, not the officers, who are answerable to their electorate.We are proposing that local authorities should now give reasons for approving a planning application as well as for refusing it (see para 5.60);
  • where a local authority grants planning permission to itself.There are around 5,000 cases a year in which local authorities have an interest in land to which they grant planning permission. Sometimes these are town centre sites, often they involve regeneration. Local authorities are very often in the position of taking decisions on issues in which they have dual interests (for example, social services policies may bear directly on residential care provided directly by the authority) and they operate under strict rules to deal with possible conflicts and avoid any impropriety.

6.22 None of these approaches adds up, in our view, to a case for a third party right of appeal. It could add to the costs and uncertainties of planning.We cannot accept that prospect.

6.23 We believe that the right way forward is to make the planning system more accessible and transparent and to strengthen the opportunities for community involvement throughout the process.We have set out our proposals in this consultation document to achieve this objective. In addition, we have explained the safeguard provided by the Secretary of State’s powers to call in planning applications for his own decision which is underpinned by statutory requirements to notify him of:

  • departures from plans;
  • large proposed greenfield housing developments; and
  • large retail developments.

Delivery at the regional level

6.24 Our proposals for strengthening delivery at the regional level are set out at paragraphs 4.39-51.We have proposed that the bodies charged with preparing the new Regional Spatial Strategies should be:

  • representative of key regional interests - including the Regional Development Agency and representatives of the public, business and voluntary sectors; and
  • capable of taking a strategic regional view, addressing, where necessary, difficult regional choices.

We have invited views on what changes might be made to present institutional arrangements to achieve this.

6.25 We have also highlighted the increasing importance of working in partnership to resolve planning issues at the sub-regional level, where necessary.

6.26 It will be particularly important in establishing new administrative arrangements capable of delivering these new roles that key partners and, in particular local authorities, ensure that regional planning activities are adequately funded, building on current arrangements for preparation of Regional Planning Guidance.

Delivering local government’s role

6.27 In Chapters 4 and 5 we set out our proposals for improving local authorities’ planning performance.

6.28 We recognise that to deliver a fundamental improvement in performance, local authority planning needs to be properly resourced.We will review the fee regime to ensure that it better covers the costs of the service.We will also require local authorities to better account publicly for both the resources they use and their planning performance.

6.29 We share with local authorities a concern about the loss of skilled planners.The planning profession has become less attractive as a career and able planners are increasingly in short supply.We need to improve skills and build the profession. Equally, councillors need to be better trained to undertake the difficult decision-making role that they exercise on Planning Committees.

Local Planning Advisory Service

6.30 There is a big agenda for change set out in this consultation document.We are making fundamental changes to the planning system and we are expecting real improvements in performance from local government. In order to help local authorities deliver, we believe that there is a need for a central advisory service to work with the Best Value Inspectorate. It would help local authorities put in place the sort of changes that will make a real and immediate difference to all users of the planning system, whether individuals, business or community groups.

6.31 Working in partnership with the Local Government Association and business organisations, we propose to establish a Local Planning Advisory Service to help implement changes on the ground.

Better resourcing

6.32 We need to ensure that local government’s planning function is properly resourced. Like other local services, planning is supported by national taxpayers through revenue support grant, by business ratepayers and by council taxpayers. In addition, applicants for planning permission pay a fee on a national scale prescribed by Government.This arrangement is designed to strike a balance between the regulation of development in the wider public interest and the wish of the planning applicants to pursue their development proposal.

6.33 The Government has commissioned research on the impact of resourcing on local authority planning performance and how significant this is compared to other factors, such as management, local authority culture, resources available to other stakeholders and training. As part of the 2002 Spending Review, we will be reviewing the amount of money provided to local authorities to help support local services by way of revenue support grant and will address the resourcing needs of the local planning service in that context.

6.34 We propose to carry out a fundamental review of the fee regime.This will consider:

  • whether the current ceilings on fees for the biggest applications should be raised;
  • whether, and the extent to which, fees tariffs should be determined locally, subject to the safeguard of nationally prescribed ceilings; and
  • the scope of activities covered by fees.

We are separately consulting on whether there should be a system of supplementary fees to cover the extra costs of monitoring minerals extraction and landfilling.

6.35 Any increase in fees must be matched by better service. But we know that current fees have already fallen well behind costs. A recent study (see endnote 4) compared the national planning fee income with costs and found that fees need to be 14% higher to achieve full cost recovery. We will therefore introduce a 14% increase in fee levels from April 2002.This will ensure that fee income, in aggregate across the country, better matches the costs of development control.

Better accounting

6.36 If fees are to be increased to reflect the cost to local authorities of providing the planning service, there must be greater transparency about how much authorities are spending on planning as a whole, and development control functions in particular.

6.37 We intend to require all authorities to account separately for their planning service including income (from grant, council tax and fees) and for their expenditure.We shall expect this information to be aligned with planning performance data so that local electors can judge whether their local planning service is getting its fair share of resources and whether they are getting value for money.

Improving local authority practice

Delegation to officers

To speed up decision-making, authorities should delegate decisions to officers as far as practicable.To encourage this process we have set for 2002/03 a new target of delegation of 90% of decisions to officers, which will be monitored through Best Value.

Committee cycles

It is clearly right that some decisions should be decided by elected members. But this can be a cause of unnecessary delay where committees meet infrequently. Authorities should review their committee cycles to ensure they are consistent with delivering decisions to meet Best Value targets and undertakings about delivery dates. If they are not, the frequency of committees should be increased to ensure that these can be met.

Better skills

6.38 Planning requires specialist skills and expertise. Shortage of properly qualified planners affects authorities’ ability to deliver.We need to make planning a more attractive profession and ensure that the skills which planners have the skills to support a customer-focused service.

6.39 We want our reform agenda to change the image and culture of planning by underlining the positive role that it has to play in delivering economic and social change and shaping the future of our communities.We want a more confident and dynamic profession.The planners’ professional body, the RTPI, has already launched an Education Commission to undertake a fundamental review of the education, training and certification of planners.We will work with that review and with the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Improvement and Development Agency (IdeA) to develop an action plan to deliver major improvements in the recruitment, retention and training of planners in local authorities.

6.40 Elected members also need to become more expert. In partnership with the RTPI, LGA and IdeA we issued in May 1999 a syllabus for councillor training on planning. In our view, councillors should undergo training before they sit on planning committees and take decisions affecting development in their areas. Like officers, members need to keep their skills up-todate too.We will review the current training regime to ensure that it is able to deliver this.

Making use of the private sector

6.41 We believe there is considerable scope for local authorities to make use of private sector planners in the provision of planning services.The private sector may, in particular, provide a useful supplementary resource where local authorities are facing application backlogs or peaks of work that would otherwise affect their ability to meet performance targets, or where there is a need to free up in-house resources to focus on larger, more complex applications. Cannock Chase is one authority that has adopted this approach, contracting out minor applications to a private sector planner.We would encourage other local authorities to consider whether there may be benefits to be gained from making use of the private sector in handling planning casework.We will work with the LGA, RICS and the RTPI to develop best practice advice for local authorities considering this.

6.42 Where a local authority’s planning services are failing or consistently underperforming, we will consider transferring responsibility for administration of planning applications to private sector contractors (see para 6.45 below).

Best Value

6.43 Best Value imposes a duty of continuous improvement in service delivery on local authorities. It requires regular fundamental review of existing delivery practices and detailed implementation of changes arising from reviews, leading to better customer focus in the service provided.The Local Government White Paper sets out our proposals for assessing local authorities’ performance and capacity to improve.

6.44 The Best Value regime is underpinned by a package of indicators, targets and standards.The new delivery targets for planning that will go into place in April 2002 are set out at para 5.23.

6.45 The Local Government White Paper confirms the Government’s intention to intervene decisively where there is persistent failure across the range of local services, and will include more radical options where there are serious corporate weaknesses. In the case of poorly performing planning services action may include:

  • tough targets for performance improvement;
  • negotiated or imposed peer or external support;
  • transfer of the processing of planning applications to an arms length body, another local authority or to a private sector contractor.

6.47 We are firm in our intention to use these powers if necessary.We have already required action by 15 of the worst performing local planning authorities.They were asked to process 65% of their planning applications in 8 weeks in 2001/02, and we are pleased that most have made strong improvements in performance.We have announced that a further 78 local authorities may be set new performance standards in 2002/03 because of their record of poor performance.

figure 9: Authorities subject to 2001/02 best value performance standard:

Endnote

4 ‘Planning Fees’, DTLR 2001, ISBN 185112 515 9


Foreword | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Response | Appendix