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Examination of Witnesses

Growth and Infrastructure Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 8:57 am on 20th November 2012.

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Trudi Elliott, Dr Hugh Ellis,Malcolm Sharp and Vincent Haines gave evidence.

Q 218

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Welcome. For the record, will the new witnesses please introduce themselves to the Committee?

Malcolm Sharp: I am Malcolm Sharp, president of the Planning Officers Society.

Vincent Haines: I am Vincent Haines, cabinet member of the Planning Officers Society.

Trudi Elliott: I am Trudi Elliott, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute.

Dr Ellis: I am Hugh Ellis, chief planner at the Town and Country Panning Association.

Q 219

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I want to start with clause 1 and the idea that planning departments might be designated as failing. What are your views on clause 1? Do you think it will encourage local authorities to raise their game, or will it further demoralise the service? If you could all give me a short answer, that would be helpful.

Malcolm Sharp: We start fundamentally from the point of view that the system as a whole is not broken. Most planning officers and my colleagues are working their socks off to bring development forward. The Planning Officers Society has no part in condoning poor performance. There are, around the country, a few areas where poor performance can be demonstrated, but I do not believe that that is in very many authorities.  If any of you saw “Planning” newspaper last week—not that I am an advocate for “Planning” newspaper—it did its own analysis and came up with about six authorities out of 300 plus goodness knows how many, so I think that this is rather a strong measure to catch a few, and the danger is that it will be self-defeating, because it will help in the spiral of decline. What those few planning authorities need is support. Certainly, agencies such as the Planning Advisory Service and we ourselves try to support authorities to get their house in order.

Trudi Elliott: We are concerned about the use of solely metrics. One needs to look at past experience of dealing with poorly performing local authorities. We need to be clear that what is happening here is the removal of planning decisions from elected members to planning professionals in PINS—the Planning Inspectorate. The Government have a lot of experience of intervening when they need to in relation to poor performance, but that often requires an examination of the qualitative “so what?” question. That is to say, what is the quality of the decision?

I can give you an example of why the measure is more complicated than simple metrics. The metric triggers where you might look, but then it causes a challenge if you simply rely on that. If you look at Stratford-on-Avon, which is one of the lowest scoring councils in relation to the 26-week rule, up until 2008 it was hitting its targets, but it was getting a lot of complaints from all parties. The members and the chief executive were concerned, so they introduced a system whereby they were trying to get it right first time. Now, although they do not hit their timing targets, they approve 90% of applications first time. They have got a significant reduction in complaints and they use conditions less, because they encourage all parties to talk to each other and effectively undertake a sort of arbitration role.

This is slightly more complicated than timing and how many times you are overturned on appeal, although the metrics do trigger where you might look. Our concern is that we might spend a lot of resource doing this, when there might be quicker and more elegant ways of getting performance up. We need to get the performance of the poorer up to that of the best.

Dr Ellis: In relation to speed, appeal rights already exist. We are puzzled and slightly concerned about the measure because applicants already have strong non-determination appeal rights in the system. Nobody wants to see local authorities perform poorly, but the reasons they do are complex. There is an important principle that we are worried about: this is the first time, as far as we can see, that a new form of planning is emerging where the decision is no longer in the hands of local, accountable councillors. That is a significant change. It may be used only in extremis, but we think that that development is too significant to deal with a problem that is quite limited. I entirely agree with Trudi that there are other ways in which you could deal with poor performance. Ultimately, the losers are the local electorate.

Q 220

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Later on, I might come back to explore the whole localist or anti-localist provision of the clause. If the clause was about improving performance, what might we expect to see in it? How would you advise the Government to improve performance, if it were not the measures in clause 1?

Dr Ellis: From our point of view, it is about focusing resources through organisations such as ATLAS and the Planning Advisory Service. It is about skills, culture and performance. It is also, certainly from TCPA’s point of view, about working with councillors and training for councillors. One of the most significant issues that would really change the culture is a proper and growing understanding of what planning is about—both its opportunities, which we think are extraordinary, and its limitations—and communicating that to local councillors.

Q 221

Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis

Dr Ellis, are you therefore suggesting that it is not possible to create objective criteria to judge whether a local planning authority is performing poorly?

Dr Ellis: No, no. I think it is possible to create those criteria. I am suggesting that the outcome of that, in terms of a punitive action, is focused in the wrong place. I am sure we could develop an idea about—

Q 222

Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis

What would be some of those objective criteria, if you had a blank piece of paper?

Dr Ellis: If we had a blank piece of paper, TCPA’s top priority would be quality of outcome. The issue of speed—whether it is 13 weeks—is easier to judge. The issue of poor performance in relation to that might be one way of measuring achievement, but for us the planning system has to be about high-quality outcomes. If you have a performance regime that drives down on speed, one of the perverse outcomes is that you get speedy but not very good outcomes for planning. Certainly, the English planning system cannot afford to have poor outcomes. Our criteria would have to be sophisticated enough to judge that outcome of quality. That is hard to do, of course.

Q 223

Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis

Ms Elliott, you talked about qualitative criteria. What would be qualitative criteria?

Trudi Elliott: Previous attempts, quite a lot of which have been successful in driving up performance in poorly performing local authorities, have tended to use a mixture of the sort of criteria we have talked about—things you can measure—and a combination of either measuring some form of outcome, which might be how many of the planning decisions actually get implemented, or some sort of inspection regime, so you get under the skin. That is what every other poor performance Government intervention has had some element of. The trouble with that is it is resource intensive. CLG, in particular, has had a lot of successful experience of dealing with poor performance. Previous regimes have turned round very poorly performing authorities on a whole range of things. There is a lot of experience in the Department, and also in the Department for Education.

Vincent Haines: There is documented evidence in terms of the previous performance regimes that were linked to rewards, where authorities who were pursuing the rewards and the incentives that were offered perversely delayed the process by seeking withdrawal of applications, or determined applications without any benefit to the applicant at all. They were not entering into negotiations. Therefore, they were chasing the targets and the rewards that came with them.

Malcolm Sharp: I have a 1,000-house scheme in my authority at the moment, which has been around for a long time and certainly way beyond the 13 weeks. The  original hold-up was highway problems and a Highways Agency directive. Then, having got over that, the recession hit, and now the developers do not want us to determine it, because they want to put in a new scheme and not to start from scratch. It is not easy just to look at the metrics without going behind things.

Q 224

Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis

Mr Sharp, you thought that only very few local authorities were underperforming, but on the basis of us not being able to agree about what an underperforming local authority is, how could you come to that judgment?

Malcolm Sharp: I was judging on the basis of what is being put forward at the moment—if you take it on the face of it in terms of timeliness and appeal success. I was judging it on those that seem to be the ones at the moment, but I agree as well that behaviour and culture are hugely important. As I go around the country, one of the things that I say to my colleagues is that if we work hard enough, we can almost make any system work, if we have the right attitude and the right culture to deliver what needs to be delivered for that particular area.

Q 225

Photo of Simon Danczuk Simon Danczuk Labour, Rochdale

Starting with you, Dr Ellis, on section 106 agreements, what do you think defines economically unviable developments, and are the Government getting that right in the draft Bill? I will ask for a view from everyone.

Dr Ellis: The evidence behind changes in the renegotiation of 106 is not well represented in the impact assessment or other Bill documents, and it has led us to be very concerned about the outcome. In relation to the first part of your question, actually it is quite straightforward. If you apply a residual valuation process to individual schemes that are stuck in the system, largely because landowners bought land at high prices, perhaps at the wrong time, you will be able to find all sorts of ways of reducing cost. The Bill would focus that cost reduction on the removal or downgrading of the amount of affordable housing to be taken out of 106. We are genuinely curious about why only affordable housing is included, but the outcome for us is significant. There is no doubt that viability is important, but viability can be dealt with through multiple mechanisms. In particular, the Government’s work on unsticking individual sites, which they are doing at the moment, shows how that can be achieved. But the outcome of the measures as drawn reduces the quantum of land with permission for affordable housing—that is simply an outcome—and if the measure were taken to its logical conclusion, which is on sites where affordable housing might be reduced to as low as 5%, that has a very significant impact.

The really important issue for us is that planning has made one or two mistakes. Those mistakes, particularly in the ’60s, were founded on building communities with a monolithic social profile. We all recognise that we must never repeat that mistake. If you are not careful, the consequence of these measures is that you will build communities that are polarised from the beginning. Since housing development has a lifetime of 100 to 150 years, that is not something that is easy to put right, so however we proceed on the issue of viability we have to deal with the need and the overwhelming concern that planning should have to build inclusive and socially mixed communities. My suggestion is that the Government could achieve this very effectively by deploying the  £300 million they have announced, which is very welcome, to unstick development sites up-front in the development process while leaving the requirements for affordable housing intact.

Trudi Elliott: I agree with what Hugh said, although we absolutely applaud Government and local authority attempts to unblock stalled developments and get shovels in the ground, because the economy needs it and we have a chronic need for additional housing. We start from that point of view. In our discussions with some of our members in both Government and Opposition sides of the House, sometimes the issue is not the quantum of affordable housing but phasing and when you have to pay for the affordable housing requirement. That is not just for affordable housing; we are finding that it is also the case in terms of, say, highways authority requirements. What developers often need is a different time profile in terms of the payment, which is the ability to build and dispose of some of the properties before they have to meet their section 106 obligations. That is an area we need to look at.

Our concern with the provision itself is that it may have the undesired consequence of stalling some sites while people wait for the legislative arrangements to come through. Anything that stalls things is bad, from our point of view at the moment. Again, laudable objective, wrong exam question. The exam question for me is: how could we fund affordable housing on these sites? Section 106 has always been an imperfect mechanism for funding the affordable housing that we need.

I urge the Government to look with the Treasury at whether there are financial instruments and other ways we can free up resources so we could say to developers, “Okay, what’s the gap? If it were not a phasing issue, it’s a real money issue, that is a real viability rather than a phasing issue. How much do you need from us? How much can you put in, yourself, to get this scheme going now?” That would be the way I would focus my attention. We need to pay as much attention to sites that are stalled for other issues, not just affordable housing in particular. How can we free up the sites where highways issues are the challenge? There are a lot of those, and they are some of the big ones.

Malcolm Sharp: I will not repeat that, because there is a lot of it that I absolutely agree with; I want to concentrate on another point. CLG, working with PAS, has set off looking at blockages on a whole range of sites. We have not heard the result of yet, but given my own mini-survey—looking and talking to colleagues around the country—I would be surprised if there were one of those sites where the 106 on affordable housing is the real sticking point. The blockages are often, as has been described. That is not to say that viability is not difficult. Of course it is. It is important, and we need to find ways to overcome it where viability is shown to be an issue. Fundamentally, the blockages are much broader than just looking at the affordable housing issue.

Photo of Simon Danczuk Simon Danczuk Labour, Rochdale

You guys are the experts. You would have thought that somebody was in favour of the proposal in the Bill.

Q 226

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

Malcolm, you started by saying that the system is not broken, but then one of you went on to point to Stratford-on-Avon as a poor-performing  district council. The system is broken, in that Stratford-on-Avon has been allowed to continue in this poor fashion for some time. I have had direct experience of it, and it is not a good council to work for. The quality of the planning is pretty poor. It is slow. There is no great change in behaviour and culture. If all the recommendations that you made over the years had worked, we would have a different Stratford-on-Avon.

Clause 1 is to ensure that councils that are failing can be picked up. Do you not agree that that is something that we should be aiming to do?

Malcolm Sharp: The answer to your last question is, of course, yes. I said that the system was not fundamentally broken. I went on to say that there were, of course, some poor-performing authorities. In my view, there were other things that needed to be done to assist those poor-performing authorities rather than necessarily just taking away their powers. Getting under the skin of that, there may be all sorts of reasons why those very few authorities—I genuinely believe that there are few authorities—are not actually performing. You would still be asking them to do some of the work on that planning application, but not getting the fees. We all know the resource problem that local authorities are facing at the moment, which is why I went on to say that if you are not careful, you might end up in a spiral of decline.

Q 227

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

But the simple fact is that that work has not been undertaken or if it has, it has totally failed in the case of Stratford-on-Avon. It simply is not working.

Malcolm Sharp: I do not know the particular circumstances of Stratford-on-Avon; it is not an authority I know very well. But yes, I fully acknowledge and I will not support any one-off examples of poor performing. My point is that it is not fundamentally broken across the board. Most planning authorities are working extremely well.

Q 228

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

All of you, I believe, have been involved in quite detailed discussion with Government on planning issues in the lead-up to the establishment of the NPPF, earlier this year. Can you tell the Committee what consultation and discussion you had with the Government about the provisions in clause 1, before it was announced that they were going to be introduced?

Dr Ellis: I will start with a quick answer. We had no detailed discussion with Government on the framing of clause 1.

Trudi Elliott: Nor did we, but it is fair to say that we have had lengthy discussions with Government around issues of performance and culture change, and our joint role in terms of collectively upping our game.

Vincent Haines: The Planning Officers Society, among other member bodies, attended a meeting with civil servants in CLG to discuss the matrix. We expressed our concerns around the matrix and the simplification of the process.

Q 229

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

Can you tell the Committee when you had that discussion?

Vincent Haines: In September.

Vincent Haines: Yes.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

Literally, a month before the Bill was announced.

Vincent Haines: Yes.

Q 230

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

Would you have expected, as professionals in the field, to be consulted about the mechanisms proposed to improve performance before they were introduced as part of legislation, normally?

Trudi Elliott: I think it depends, in that it has been made quite clear that there will be a consultation in relation to how this provision is implemented, which is why we have said it is difficult for us, as professionals, to assess what its impact will be. Our view is that the success of the provision will be if it is never actually used. One thing that we are looking at is how much resource and capacity is an issue, because we are all aware of the degree of cuts that local authorities have suffered. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountingevidence is that perhaps some services, such as planning and the built environment, have suffered a disproportionate cut.

We, along with POS and “Planning” magazine, are undertaking a survey at the moment to assess how much resource is or is not an issue. We do not know yet. We think that will help inform the discussion.

Dr Ellis: I should like to say, on our behalf, that from TCPA’s perspective we have a lot of issues that we think planning should address. There is a positive agenda, I think, for legislation, but for us those issues were focused around delivery of large housing schemes rather than around public consent and legitimacy. They are focused around purpose. I suppose that in trying to be helpful, that is where we think the planning system should go next—addressing those three big themes.

Q 231

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

But as far as your experience of clause 1 is concerned—I do not want to get it wrong; it is right the Committee should hear this—you were not part of any prior consultation about how it would work and what the provisions would do to improve performance, essentially before it was announced.

Dr Ellis: Not in relation to clause 1, no.

Q 232

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

There has been a lot of generalisation—broad brush things—saying, “If you do something quickly it means your quality goes down” and talking about examples of section 106 not being a blocker. I suggest you speak to NHS trusts, which are trying to develop property, and refusing to do any affordable housing as a consequence of that section. Frankly, given the number of stalled sites, is not the consequence of a lot of your logic that there would be no development, no regeneration and no community benefit at all?

Trudi Elliott: I think you have probably replayed what we said slightly disingenuously, if I might say so. We are all clear that we need to collectively work to unblock stalled sites—absolutely clear about that. We are saying that it is more complicated than section 106. A lot of them are big sites and hospitals will be among them. It is a range of other issues, particularly around highways, that are blocking the sites. We all collectively  have to work on this. In relation to the section 106 provision, there is probably a simpler way of doing it, because the provision in the Bill requires legislative change, which inevitably introduces delay.

Q 233

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

You suggest I am being disingenuous. I am just replaying literally the words that you said, with broad generalisations as opposed to evidence. I am giving you one example: NHS trusts in Suffolk Coastal—absolutely no affordable housing, else the development will not go ahead, and you will not get your new health centre. That is the kind of thing that is happening. We are also being told that if you do something quickly, there are concerns about quality. What you are trying to suggest is really broad, as opposed to hard evidence of where a planning application that has gone through quickly is of poor quality. We have not heard that; we are just hearing some scare stories.

Trudi Elliott: What we are going to do in our evidence is give you case studies to illustrate where we are making a point, and I hope that will be helpful. Obviously it is difficult in an environment like this to come up with detailed examples, because it would take up the whole sitting. Our evidence will have examples to assist.

Q 234

Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Labour, North Tyneside

Clause 4 will introduce a limit on the information that local planning authorities can require to be submitted with a planning application. Can the panel say what effect that will have on the quality of planning control?

Malcolm Sharp: It is important that planning authorities have the right information up front. To use a specific, personal example—so that I am not accused of too many generalisations—we have a very big application, probably the biggest in the country, on our books at the moment; there are 2.5 million words in it. I want the planning application, but I do not want 2.5 million words.

I think we have reached a point where developers, particularly on large schemes, are trying to proof themselves against any possible challenge, and they are being advised to do so. We are in a position where we are getting too much information. We need the right information, but some agencies just ask for blanket information rather than being specific about the application.

The spirit is right, in the sense that we are getting into a bit of a bind in terms of the amount of information that lands on a planning assistant’s desk. It needs to be a little bit more focused and succinct in order for us to be able to deal with the applications efficiently.

Trudi Elliott: We are broadly supportive of these provisions. What is required is the right information in a timely fashion. We urge the Minister to work with other Departments, because you will find that a lot of the requirements that are placed on applicants, or that cause applicants voluntarily to submit voluminous evidence, originate from provisions coming from other Departments and some of our European requirements. CLG needs to lead the way on this in relation to other Departments.

We have also seen that in some areas, some of the business-friendly planning charters that local authorities have worked on, particularly where they are doing it within their local enterprise partnerships, have proved very profitable. What can look like a challenging demand—the website says you need 40 things—but by working  with the business community, if you have detailed discussions with applicants in advance of submitting an application, they can be much clearer about what is required. Walsall has done enormously good work on that, and we will give you some examples in our evidence. The business-friendly planning charters that LEPs are working on often address that very issue, because it is an issue that businesses and developers say is a challenge for them.

We think that there is an issue in terms of worry about judicial review. Often, developers are gold-plating applications, requiring everything bar the kitchen sink for fear that if you do not ask for something, somebody will try to base a judicial review on it. Regardless of how realistic that fear is, the fear factor is there. Again, I urge the Minister to work with the Ministry of Justice to see whether they can speed things up on judicial review, because if we got early determination of some of the less well-founded judicial reviews, a lot of the fear would go out of the system and some of that asking for more than is essential for fear of judicial review, and protection against it, would go.

Q 235

Photo of John Glen John Glen Conservative, Salisbury

Mr Sharp, if a family is living in one of these very few poor-performing planning authorities and has been on the housing list for a very long time, how reassured will that family be to be told that their authority is one of very few?

Malcolm Sharp: As I said, I am not prepared to defend poor performance. Maybe not enough has been done, but my point is that I am not sure that this is the right way to get that working. That is the simple point I am making.

Q 236

Photo of John Glen John Glen Conservative, Salisbury

But you would concede that in places where there has been sustained poor performance, it has an absolute impact on the outcome for that family in that community.

Malcolm Sharp: I would concede that planning is one of the factors. I do not know. We are talking about a hypothetical authority.

Q 237

Photo of John Glen John Glen Conservative, Salisbury

We are talking about, say, Stratford, where there has been significant stalling for a significant amount of time and, as a consequence, many hard-working families on low incomes are not able to improve their lives.

Malcolm Sharp: If planning is a part of that, in that particular instance, then clearly, yes, you are correct. I am not denying that planning is a factor, but I suspect that there may be funding and all sorts of other issues about bringing housing forward, other than merely the planning issue. When you unlock a lot of this stuff, a lot of it tends to be much broader based, which is the point we were making earlier. That is not to condone poor performance, which I am not prepared to do.

Q 238

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I want to pick up on a couple of points that Mr Raynsford was developing. First, I want to ask about consultation. In your opinion, would it be better for the Government to have consulted and got the views of planning professionals, local communities and others before coming up with clause 1? Would that not be a more normal process for policy development?

Dr Ellis: Full consultation is always a good idea, particularly on planning reform, partly because there are always unintended consequences. It is interesting, I think, that some of the most successful reform processes—the Government may wish to point to the NPPF—have been ones where there has been that dialogue, and that dialogue is useful. It is not threatening at all. We are all here to be as supportive as we can, to make sure that the English planning system works as effectively as it can.

It is also an issue of assembling the evidence, and that is a problem. We need to ensure that the framework is reformed on the basis of high principle but also great efficiency. Efficiency stems from having a clear evidence base. The difficulty with proceeding with clause 1 is that we genuinely cannot see the evidence base developing in the way that we would like, to be able to understand it.

We have talked about generalisations, so let me be specific and look at the impact assessment that was produced for the Bill. The Bill and the dialogue around it suggest that there are large scale costs around the planning service, but that is recorded on one page of the impact assessment. Nowhere in the impact assessment does it list or monetarise the benefits of the planning system. The benefits of the planning system that, in theory, we do not seem to want to talk about are enormous, both in terms of outcome, and monetarising environmental services, if that is the line you wish to go down, and in terms of process and governance.

The planning system, rightly or wrongly, is vested in the local governance of this nation. Many of the frustrations that people feel nationally are the result of people exercising democratic control locally, which we do not necessarily always sympathise with. All that means that there is a great and genuine willingness to get this right among every organisation the TCPA has spoken to, but that means taking a pause to make sure that we get it right in the best interests of both the economy and wider society.

Trudi Elliott: It could be that the Government wanted particularly to encourage elected members in local authorities to look at this issue and put the right resources and performance management frameworks in, because you usually find that where there’s a political will in local authorities to sort things out, there’s a way. That may be why it is in the Bill; the Government want the sector to put its house in order, rather than to have to use these fairly draconian powers. They may be hoping that the mere threat might address it in some places, but I think you would have to ask the Minister. We are hoping that the consultation on how you go about it addresses the issue of the so-what question, the quality question—“So what is the outcome in these places?” rather than just about what you can more easily measure. We also think that we could all do more around showcasing to authorities that are not performing well how some authorities have changed things in order to improve performance. There are lots of examples of how people have shifted things around.

Malcolm Sharp: I shall try not to repeat what has been said. I suppose one of the things that we are concerned about is that there is always a focus on the regulatory aspects. I am not denying how important they are, but as I said earlier, we have a system in place, and I want to emphasise the positive things, to enable local authorities to have a period of calm where we can get on and make sure that where local plans are not in  place they jolly well ought to be, and for us to deal as efficiently as possible with getting planning applications through on the basis of the policies in those local plans. I could give you loads and loads of examples where planning is actually delivering; it is getting in before the regulatory bit, and planners are making the conditions right so that developers can come in with their planning applications and deliver growth. The disappointment for me is that we are focused so much on the regulatory part, rather than on getting the positive things working as quickly as we can.

Q 239

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

If work is already taking place on unblocking sites that have stalled, and if we know how to tackle poor performance in planning departments—whether it is being applied or not, because there seems to be some discussion about whether those methods are actually being applied—what is the purpose of clause 1, other than to threaten local authorities into a situation where they feel they must approve every single application, otherwise it might be overturned on appeal and they will pick up a negative metric?

Malcolm Sharp: I hope that is not the case. We are already approving 89% or 90% of all applications, and trust me, you would not want the other 10%; they probably do not have the right information, or they are simply poor applications, which, with all the will in the world, one has not been able to make appropriate.

Q 240

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

But my question is whether clause 1 is now delivering a risk that totally inappropriate developments will be approved simply because local authorities are worried that their decisions will be overturned on appeal.

Malcolm Sharp: In fairness, you have to take this in proportion. As I understand it, clause 1 and the sorts of metrics that might be used will focus on very, very few authorities, so I don’t think it will affect the vast majority. If there is a danger, it is a danger in a very small area.

Trudi Elliott: I don’t think that is the risk, actually. If you look at those authorities that have a lot of decisions overturned on appeal, this provision, or something similar, might assist them in properly addressing the issues and the recommendations that they receive, and in ensuring that their decisions are in accordance with their own policies and with national policy. I do not think there is a risk of a lot more things being approved that shouldn’t be approved. It may mean that some things that are subsequently approved on appeal get better consideration in the first instance. That surely must be the objective, because it is always better for the right decision to be made in the first instance, not only because it speeds the process up but because the local community feels that its elected representatives have made the decision, and they are always more comfortable about that than if the decision is made on appeal. It is much better if it is made at the first available opportunity on the evidence before it.

Dr Ellis: I support that. I think the real risk is about consent and trust in the planning system. Those are the real principles that we should address. Whether or not the Government mean it—I am sure they do not—this measure, and particularly clause 21, sends a message to communities that they are no longer critically involved in determining decisions that affect them. That is where  the real risk lies in clause 21—the perception about whether the planning system is accountable to local people or not.

Q 241

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove

Perhaps one of the toughest requirements of the NPPF was the need to have a local plan in place. A consequence of that has been a huge rush to complete local plans, which in many cases have been outstanding for years and years. Is not clause 1, in essence, doing the same job in relation to Departments’ performance on planning applications?

Dr Ellis: I will have a go at that. It is a good question, because it is to do with principle. I think clause 1 is different from the approach in the NPPF, which as you rightly say clearly stipulates that we should get on with local plans. There is no excuse for a delay in the preparation of local plans, and encouraging local authorities and the democratic institutions behind those local authorities to get on with planning is laudable.

Clause 1 is a much more significant measure in principle in relation to the basic architecture of the planning system, because it takes the decision in the first instance away from a local authority. There are plenty of examples of the Secretary of State taking away decisions further down the decision-making process, but not in the first instance. I recognise that that is genuinely heavily qualified, and that it will be used in extremis, but it is a very different measure, and as a result it will run the risk that I identified of communities feeling that their role in government is no longer significant in those local authorities that are not designated.

Malcolm Sharp: In a way, the local plan was a harder hill to climb, and we seem to have done that positively rather than negatively, by enabling and encouraging local authorities to bring their local plans forward rather than, as has just been said, taking powers away. I do not think the last Act helped very much, because it made it quite complicated, but you can bring local plans forward and the vast majority of local planning authorities are bringing them forward.

Q 242

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove

It might be worth rehearsing the evidence that your organisations gave when the Localism Act 2011 and the NPPF were going through on your fears about the imposition of local plans and the consequences of not having a local plan. It seems that the evidence you are giving now about clause 1 is very similar to the evidence you were giving then about the requirement for a local plan. I am just asking you whether there is any genuine difference between having an NPPF that says if you have no local plan all hell will break loose and clause 1, which says that if you are an underperforming authority the Secretary of State may step in.

Trudi Elliott: I think the Government are adopting a consistent approach. The Government’s clear objective here is to try to persuade people to do things before they introduce a punitive measure.

Q 243

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove

Could I move on to my second area of questioning?

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove

It relates to the viability and phasing point that Trudi Elliott raised.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Let me go to Paul Blomfield, who wants to follow on from what we have just been discussing. I will then give you the opportunity to introduce that subject.

Q 244

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I want to pursue Roberta’s line of questioning on clause 1. We are getting a picture that clause 1, in your view, is not based on any evidence that would lead us to believe that it will effectively address the issues of concern. I am conscious that Dr Ellis said a little while ago that he was worried about unintended consequences, and I think someone said earlier that concerns had been expressed that the clause would lead to perverse outcomes if we narrowed an assessment of performance against two such limited criteria.

Could you all reflect on what perverse outcomes or unintended consequences you think there might be?

Dr Ellis: I will repeat the point I tried to make before. The measures in clauses 1 and 21 move consent from local to national; what they do not do is deal with the detail of delivery. In the past 18 months, as an organisation we have written a lot about how to get things moving on the ground through a set of detailed interventions.

In my mind, the prime cause of unintended consequences—yes, it undeniably has an impact on local authorities, and it draws the decision up into the centre, which provides an opportunity to control time scales through the Planning Inspectorate—is that you cannot rebuild this nation without consent. You have to persuade, and sometimes even educate, communities about the importance of great, fantastic outcomes from planning. But imposing them on communities is not going to stand, and I do not believe it would even support economic development because what the 1980s proved more than anything was that, where people fundamentally fall out with the planning system, they simply protest. It is absolutely vital that people retain faith and trust in the planning process as a way of securing the nation’s long-term progress. That is the heart of the unintended consequences that we are worried about.

Malcolm Sharp: I was looking more at the internal consequences for the local authorities, to balance that broader picture. Certainly, I am concerned about the health of some planning departments where the most senior planner is actually quite junior. We were talking to our colleagues in the Royal Town Planning Institute and at Planning magazine about finding out a little more about that. There is a spiral if fees are taken away, you still have to do lots of work and you do not have a very strong department. The consequences are perverse in the sense that you are going to get into a worse position, rather than a better one. That is the point I was making about unintended consequences.

Vincent Haines: I point to those authorities that are perhaps performing just above whatever target is set. They will be very much focused on making sure that they do not fall into the danger area and lose their powers. Rather than sit down and negotiate with developers that have not entered the pre-application process and have not entered a planning performance agreement, they might sit down with them and make a decision that they consider to be sound when they could have taken a little more time and agreed an extension of time with the applicant to spend a few more weeks and get a satisfactory outcome. That does no good for anyone: it does not help the economy and it causes more delay.  

Trudi Elliott: I have members in both the public sector and the private sector, so for us success is if those provisions never have to be used and if any required behavioural change is triggered by this debate, rather than by the use of the provisions. I have not used the phrase “unintended consequences,” but you will not be surprised that my fear is of an increase in the use of judicial review.

Q 245

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Can I be clear about your definition of a poorly performing planning authority? We have had hints about that, but what would be your definition?

Malcolm Sharp: Clearly, appropriate speed has to be one, although it may be that taking a bit longer in the way just described is the right thing to do for the development and for the developer, rather than rush a refusal or set the wrong conditions. I certainly welcome the idea of planning performance agreements in which you can sensibly sit down with a developer. The one I talked about earlier is a huge development, so it is absolutely impossible and the developer would not want us to deal with that in 13 weeks, but, equally, he or she needs to know when they are going to get appropriate permission and factor in what resources are needed to get there. Speed, yes.

As for appeal decisions, that is the more tricky one. In some authorities, you might only get one, two or three majors—it is said that it would be measured only on majors—and you could get some perverse percentages if you were not careful in dealing with that. The customer experience is very important. I am really pleased to say that one of my customers recently told the Secretary of State to his face, “You’ll have no complaints from this planning authority.” I took a lot of heart from that.

Q 246

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

By customer, you mean developer.

Malcolm Sharp: Yes, in that instance, but the customer for planning is of course broader. That is the nub of where we are at, because we are always balancing the views of a particular developer against the views of the local community. That is what planning is all about. It is, obviously, very tricky to measure whether you have that balance right. Customer experience is part of that.

Finally, what was delivered? If an area needs housing, a hospital or whatever, has the planning authority—through all its processes, not only planning decisions—efficiently managed to deal with and deliver it?

Trudi Elliott: I would rather focus on what a good planning authority looks like, if I may. A good planning authority has clear political and managerial leadership; it knows what it is trying to do for its community—there is a vision—and that is translated into its up-to-date local plan; it has adequate resources; it has politicians who are prepared to make hard decisions; it has qualified planners working in the planning department at the right level; it actively engages its community and helps the community address the challenges of the hard decisions it has to make; and it thinks about the long-term, not the short-term.

Q 247

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

How concerned are you that the number of major planning applications—that is, nine units plus—being approved in the 13-week period has nosedived to 57% in the past year?

Trudi Elliott: We are concerned, and that is one of the reasons why, with “Planning” magazine and the Planning Officers Society, we have undertaken a survey of resources. We want to know how much of that is due to—from the evidence we have seen through CIPFA—the fact that planning departments have taken a bigger hit than other departments in local authorities and how much of that is other issues. It is a recent development. We also need to get under the surface of that. Why is it happening? How much of it is the performance of the local authority and how much is other factors? It is clearly an area of concern, unless I discovered that things were taking slightly longer and then getting built quicker, because then I would feel better about it. It is enough of a trigger for us to be concerned.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

What in your professional view is the current public perception of planning? What could the consequence of that public perception be if clause 1 was implemented and if the large-scale development of residential projects was taken into the national policy framework?

Dr Ellis: There is a very mixed view of planning. I say again, our greatest concern is not legislation but that relationship. This nation used to build 400,000 units of housing a year through a planning system. The reason was that there was greater political consensus about the need for that kind of growth, and the relationship between planning was of course different. The concern is that rebuilding trust is hard work. It requires planners to have community development skills and it requires them to work with communities hard on regeneration. It requires them to have the planning department that Trudi has just set out.

Trust is hard to recreate, but easy to damage. The reason why I am worried about clause 21, along with clause 1, is that the effect of clause 21 is to draw up into the major infrastructure regime a very broad—as defined in the impact assessment document—range of town and country planning matters. Speaking as someone who has done a bit of minerals planning, there is no problem, for example, with the minerals planning regime in England. It is an effective regime. It does not need to be drawn out of town and country planning, but it is a controversial regime in some areas. Given its controversy, it works remarkably well. Whether that is the intention or not, I worry whether a message is being sent that drawing to the centre critical decisions is somehow a way of dealing with the long-standing problem on the ground. For me, it would be about a different, perhaps positive, attempt to rebuild that relationship with communities.

Q 248

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove

I shall pick up the points to which I alluded before. Viability versus phasing—it is quite a seductive argument that maybe we are picking the wrong test, viability, and that it might be phasing. But the work trust has just come into the conversation, and I think many local members of planning committees and so on would have quite a lot of concerns if the way of solving the problem were to be to say to developers that they can build the big, expensive houses first and do the roads, schools and affordable housing second. Companies go bust, they change their plans and things alter. I am not sure that is quite as strong a line of discussion as you put to us.

I am really interested to understand whether you think there is a problem that is not being addressed or there is not a problem, and how we would actually steer our way through that in order to finish up at the end of the day with more homes built in as short a time as possible.

Trudi Elliott: There is a problem. We have sites that are not being built because of viability. I won’t repeat what Hugh said about how we got to where we are, but we are in a new economic environment. We need to face up to it, and we still need the housing. My point on affordable housing is that it is a problem and we need to address it, but the need for affordable housing has not gone away. The benefits of mixed communities have not gone away, so I would be looking at whether there were ways in which we could support developers with financial contributions, phasing or any other option that get these developments going with the affordable housing. That is the perfect scenario for me, and that is why I think that partly the exam question is wrong. It should not be, “How do we get rid of the affordable housing requirement?” It is, “How do we get these developments going now, with affordable housing?” That would be my perfect solution.

Phasing is not the answer. It is just one opportunity. Discussing matters with the director of planning and regeneration in Birmingham, I certainly know that they have managed to get some sites going with a changed phasing arrangement so that the developers get going and then make their contribution to the council later, once they have the cash flow going. The Bill is helpful in a number of ways. I am depressed really that we have focused entirely on clause 1, when there are other provisions, particularly around special parliamentary procedure or the Penfold stuff, where it could make a difference.

The real challenge that developers are facing at the moment is the demand side. It is the financing. It is the cash flow. We have to look at this in the round. There will not always be a planning solution to some financial challenges. We need to look at the financial solutions and the planning solutions simultaneously. That will really make a difference now, as opposed to in the longer term. Some of the provisions will deliver in the longer term, but not immediately and we have some immediate challenges.

Malcolm Sharp: I want to give you one example to put some more trust back into dealing with phasing. It is the Cambridge southern fringe. The Cambridge area is massively developing and its growth area money was used in order to loan money to build the southern relief road, which opened up the site. That money—there is an agreement with the development as it goes forward—will be passed back and then recycled into unblocking something else, so fiscal things can happen and can help the phasing of such developments and unlock them.

Vincent Haines: Over the years I have been involved in a number of major projects for housing delivery and other projects. One of the things that strikes me is that quite often the delay is while the land assembly occurs. You get fragmented ownership and various developers competing with one another for sites. Also, there are currently many landowners with high expectations of land values, which they were given many years ago, and they still hang on to those. It is those sorts of sites that I find are stalling, because you cannot get the developers  and the landowners to work together—they quite often work diametrically—and we end up with development not coming forward on those sites.

Q 249

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

Dr Ellis has twice drawn our attention to clause 21 and I want to bring the discussion round to that clause. Could the panel tell the Committee what they feel about the likely impact of clause 21? We have already heard Dr Ellis’s fears about the removal of decision making from local democratically elected bodies. In particular, may we have a response on how easy it will be to define schemes of national significance? Secondly, what will be the potential impact on out-of-town as against town centre development decisions?

Q 250

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Before the witnesses answer, may I draw their attention to the fact that we have four minutes left, which divides nicely between four people?

Trudi Elliott: If this provision is going to work, there would need to be a national policy statement that gives some clarity around it. We think there is a potential risk here, because housing is excluded from it and then you do not get mixed-used developments. That might then prejudice mixed-use developments. A lot of the very big ones are mixed-use. Our other fear is the risk of judicial review, but with the right caveats it might be beneficial. We could not assess whether it would speed things up.

Dr Ellis: Our concern is that the 2008 Act was not intended to deal with complex social and economic development embedded in communities. It was designed for hard kit under the four categories that the 2008 system sets out. The list of infrastructure defined on page 68 of the impact assessment is very extensive. We entirely support the idea that you must have a national policy statement for that form of development. We support it for two reasons. First, the entire lesson of terminal 5 was that if you want an inquiry to move quickly, you must establish Government policy at the national level. Without an NPS, the 2008 Act would have to allow debate on all issues of policy at the examination, which would be a challenge for it. It is not how the 2008 Act is meant to work. Also, without an NPS, Parliament has no opportunity to comment on the purpose of the development.

So, our view is that we are concerned. First, is there a real issue with these forms of development under the current system? Secondly, would it take time? Thirdly, without an NPS, it creates a series of problems both in evidence and in accountability to Parliament.

Malcolm Sharp: I echo all of the above, and there is no evidence that it will be quicker to deal with complex schemes. I take your point about kit. That is where planning really got into trouble in terms of the big schemes like Heathrow. Terminal 5 gave planning a bad name. Generally, in my view, the normal development of an industrial estate or a mixed-use community is something we can handle properly under the existing system.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted to the Committee to ask questions. I thank the witnesses on behalf of the Committee for the thoughtful and detailed way in which they have answered some very probing questions.