Planning for a Sustainable Future: SGR Response

Response to the Government White Paper submitted on 26 July 2007

To: Planning Reform Team, Department for Communities & Local Government

From: Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR)



1. SGR is an independent UK-based organisation with about 850 individual members in the natural and social sciences, engineering, architecture, and associated professions. A number of them are involved, directly or indirectly, in town and country planning. SGR promotes ethical science, design, and technology, based on the principles of openness, accountability, peace, social justice, and environmental sustainability.


Some general observations

2. The main thrust of the white paper is to speed up the determination of planning applications, especially those for economic development, in response to new challenges from globalisation and climate change, demographic and technological changes. While we are in favour of resolving planning issues as rapidly as possible, we note that some of the new challenges - for example, advances in the science of climate change, growing knowledge of the conditions for sustainability - may require more detailed consideration to be given to some, especially innovative, planning applications. This raises the issue of resources.

3. If local planning authorities are to deal with applications more quickly and with a higher quality of outcome, and to prepare positive plans for shaping places, they need more, better paid, and better trained planners and other professionals. We note that in a recent survey of planning solicitors carried out by Planning magazine, more than four-fifths expressed the view that inadequate resources were a major constraint on the improvement of the planning régime. This issue is addressed only marginally in the white paper. We would be unable to support many of its proposals unless there is a Government assurance that the funding issue will be addressed. Taking the necessary time to consider in depth all relevant planning issues before reaching a decision, must be preferable to reaching a bad decision, the consequences of which are suffered by the citizenry for many decades.

4. The LPAs and the regional planning bodies also need greater resources to carry out the place shaping functions of spatial planning emphasised in the white paper. We welcome this emphasis, as well as the aim of integrating the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. But we are concerned that the white paper appears to give priority to economic objectives. At a time when worldwide economic growth is pressing on limited natural resources, and growing luxury for some co-exists with poverty for many, we consider it unwise to assume, as the white paper seems to do, that any growth proposed by a potential developer is necessarily to be welcomed.

5. This is not of course a matter primarily for spatial planning. But those preparing plans and determining development applications should be aware of the issues. We await with interest the draft of the proposed new Planning Policy Statement Planning for Economic Development. When this is available it will be possible to judge whether the culture change advocated in the white paper will contribute to a more satisfactory overall outcome.

6. A positive approach to planning for economic growth requires a strategic framework at national, regional and local levels. In our view, the white paper is a missed opportunity to introduce a national spatial planning framework. Such a framework or strategy has been strongly advocated by the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Town & Country Planning Association, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, and other concerned organisations. National spatial strategies have been adopted in Scotland and Wales. We see them as an essential tool both for articulating major investments in infrastructure and for addressing the continuing problem of regional imbalances. The proposed Government statements of policy on each type of major infrastructure are a poor substitute for a national plan, though a great deal of the work needed to prepare a comprehensive national framework would have to be done in order to produce the sectoral statements. With their narrow focus and different time scales these statements are likely to create new problems that only a national framework can resolve. Such a framework would articulate the relationships between major infrastructure of all kinds, and the broad distribution of population and economic activity. It would provide a comprehensive context for setting regional and local targets. The sum of the existing Regional Spatial Strategies is in effect a national plan, but one prepared and implemented without a national perspective.

7. We are disappointed that the white paper does not address the regional implications of its proposals. No changes in the planning system should ignore the need to reduce the wide discrepancies in economic performance and living standards between the English regions. Four years ago the government stated in its consultation document A Modern Regional Policy: "Policies which are best determined for the whole of the UK but impact across all nations and regions should be designed with these impacts in mind". This should apply to any arrangements for dealing with nationally significant infrastructure. It is also relevant to the proposed changes in the management of planning applications. For instance, if it becomes easier to secure planning permissions for economic development in the South East, then this is likely to result in fewer proposals in other regions. These considerations reinforce the need for an approved national framework.

8. The white paper has little to say about the current housing crisis, but in their Foreword the four sponsoring Secretaries of State say that "we need to build more houses so that people can afford decent homes". This implies that the housing shortage will be overcome entirely by market forces. Research suggests that a large number of houses would have to be built in a large number of places to bring about a significant reduction in house prices.

This is not surprising since about nine-tenths of the homes on the market are existing, not newly built. There is no evidence that private builders are either able or willing to build enough houses to significantly affect the price level. Even if they were so able, any conceivable fall in house prices would still leave them beyond the means of many low-paid workers, especially in the more prosperous regions and areas. The assumption in the White Paper ignores the phenomenon of 'buy to let' which is operating to force house prices up, beyond the reach of local families, enriching a few landlords and squeezing the first time-buyer market. It is also having a degrading effect on residential areas in university towns, as what were family houses come under unlicensed, multiple-occupation, affecting in turn, the intake into schools. The government could deter this process by the extension of the requirement for L.A. to license all property under multiple occupation, rather than the present exemption of those of less than 3 storeys.

Progress towards a more inclusive society, therefore entails that local authorities and housing associations build many more houses for rent, as well as for shared ownership, and that Universities build more student accommodation.

9. The present limit on the requirement for a proportion of new-build homes to be affordable is applied only where such developments exceed 14. This is a loop-hole widely used by developers, who frequently build up to that limit. We recommend that this upper limit be reduced to 3 units. Right-to-buy legislation should not be extended to Housing Associations. Responsible and experienced associations require a critical mass in their portfolio and the ability to forward plan their estate without that element of uncertainty.

If Local Authorities were permitted to levy the full Council Tax on the owners of empty properties, this would act as a powerful disincentive to the under utilisation of the habitable stock of accommodation.


Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects

10. We agree that it is desirable to avoid the long delays that have attended the approval of some major proposals. We also agree that the consideration of such proposals should be informed by clearer guidance on their national significance. However, we cannot support the proposal to set up an Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) to determine applications for nationally significant developments. This would be a major move away from the consent regime that has operated since the historic 1947 Act. All planning applications have been determined either by elected local authorities or by a minister responsible to Parliament. This is fundamental to democratic governance. A new commission would not be directly accountable at any level. All planning applications, of whatever size and significance, should be determined either by the relevant local authority or by the responsible minister, subject to parliamentary scrutiny. There may be a case for a separate commission to assist prospective developers in preparing their applications and to provide technical input to planning inquiries. However, if a statutory national planning framework were put in place, with parliamentary approval, these functions would be part of the normal process of implementation. A national spatial strategy would offer more meaningful guidance in considering major applications than national policy statements confined to individual sectors.

11. In our view there is considerable scope for simplifying and speeding up planning inquiries without undermining the established system. Under existing law, the Government can instruct the Planning Inspectorate to use the Planning Inquiry Commission procedure. This has some of the advantages claimed in the white paper for the IPC, in particular the power of the inspector to take the lead in questioning applicants and objectors. This would remove some of the alleged disadvantages of the confrontational procedures at normal public inquiries. It would ensure that both local and national concerns are fully considered without undermining democratic accountability. We commend this approach to the Government for further consideration as a realistic alternative to the proposed IPC.


Economic Development and Planning Application Fees

12. We agree with the objective of minimising regulatory costs. Delays in approving a planning application, or a refusal, may result in some costs to the would-be developer, and to society through limiting competition - though such costs do not appear to have been quantified with any precision. Some such costs are an inevitable result of the effort to reconcile private and public interests, a fundamental objective of town and country planning. They should not be regarded as automatically revealing weaknesses in the planning regime.


Answers to specific questions

Q1 Yes, there is a case for reform. No, we do not consider the proposals appropriate. The national policy statements on infrastructure should be replaced by a national spatial development framework, which would cover all the proposed items of infrastructure, as well as the broad distribution of population and employment, and other spatially significant matters at the national level. The proposed infrastructure commission should be replaced by a national planning commission to advise Government and local planning authorities but not to determine planning applications.

(In the light of our answer to Q1, it is unnecessary to answer all the following questions.)

Q3 These matters should form part of the national spatial framework (NSF).

Q4 The NSF should be a major consideration in determining planning applications but not the primary consideration. Regional and local plans should have equal weight.

Q6 The NSF should be approved by Parliament as statutory guidance.

Q8 The NSF should be reviewed every five years, unless an earlier review were justified and triggered by significant changes in national projections of population and employment.

Q11-19 We agree with the proposals, subject to the alternative national arrangements we have proposed above.

Q20-32 We do not agree with these proposals; applications for nationally significant infrastructure projects should continue to be determined by the local planning authority or the relevant minister, with the advice and assistance of a national planning commission. However, we accept that major planning inquiries could be simpler, shorter and more user-friendly. We also approve of the proposed rationalisation of consent regimes.

With regard to the proposed change in the test for inner urban developments (P25) we urge that any new test for retail development must adequately safeguard the future of established town centres and must take full account of travel implications. Any new test for retail development must adequately safeguard the future of established town centres and must take full account of travel implications.

Q33 While the proposal to extend permitted development right for micro-generation are welcomed, what is really needed is an agreement that generators can feed surplus power into the grid at a favourable rate, as has long been the situation in Germany. At present there is no financial incentive and Government grants for micro-generation installations have been shown to be totally inadequate to cope with public demand

Q34-37 Yes, we approve of the proposed simplifications of plan preparation procedures.

Q38 No comment on proposed extension of permitted development rights.

Q39 We agree that the possibility of not requiring planning permission for minor developments where affected neighbours agree should be further explored, provided that the term 'neighbours' is generously defined, and that any residents', tenants' or other local associations are consulted.

Q40 Yes, LPAs should have the discretion to vary existing planning permissions at the request of the applicant.

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