Lord Falconer – 2001 Speech to CBI Conference


Below is the text of the speech made by Lord Falconer to the CBI Conference in Birmingham on 6th November 2001.

Decisions on the use of land vitally affect business.

If the system is one which commands the confidence of the people who apply to develop, and the community whose land is affected then that system is capable of bold and sensible decisions for the future.

We do not have such a system in this country. And it costs us dear – in economic prosperity, in the quality of our development, and in cost to business.

Business is not confident that sensible long-term planning on its part will be reflected by clear, predictable, and timely decisions by the planning system.

They are not confident that the planning system is capable of making sensible timely decisions for improving the infra-structure of this country.

And they are right. Our planning system lacks the widespread support that would allow it to take good decisions both to develop, and not to develop.

What are the problems?

First, it is much too complicated, and uncertain.

Currently we have a plan-led system. Where the proposed development accords with the plan, normally development should be allowed. That’s the principle of the system. Unless there are material considerations to prevent the grant of planning permission.

Sounds simple. But it’s a quagmire.

Despite the fact that the requirement for plans was introduced in 1992, over 40 local authorities haven’t yet produced any plan. The process for producing local plans involves complicated, lawyer-driven enquiries. These enquiries often take years.

Community, and business alike feel excluded by the process. Only the professional developer, and the pressure group will have the stamina to last the course. Even they resent the cumbersome nature of the process.

Moreover, once produced the plan is very difficult to change.

Because production takes so long, plans at the moment of the production are very frequently already inconsistent with regional plans, or county structure plans or national planning guidance. National planning guidance now runs to more than 800 pages. All of these matters will be material considerations.

The business, whose investment involves land use decisions, has no easy way of telling if its proposal is going to be allowed. It may be in line with the local plan but not with national guidance. The business will ask what changes should be made to give the application a better chance of success. Sometimes there will be a clear answer. But all too often the local plan is so outdated that neither the local authority nor the planning advisers will know what the answer is.

Linked with this first point of complication and uncertainty, is the length of time decisions take, and the uncertainty about how long it will take to get a decision.

There is a widespread recognition that complicated applications with widespread economic and social consequences will take longer to decide than simpler more limited proposals.

Nobody is arguing for a rigid time-scale for all applications.

The demand is that first, the system decides applications within a reasonable time, having regard to the nature of the application. And second, that what that reasonable time is, should be predictable. Delays in planning decisions will frequently have an effect on the viability of a proposal. Uncertainty about both result and time deters a sensible business from basing plans around an issue whose result cannot be predicted.

The system is not remotely user-friendly. The local planning authorities have to deal with a great burden of decision making, not just the business applications – around 150,000 in a year. But the domestic ones as well – over 300,000 in a year.

In many places, this makes the local planning department unable to devote the time and the understanding which many more complicated applications require.

Whilst there are shining examples of good practice – the city we are in was able to process bold plans for its city centre with great speed and understanding recently – there are all too many places where applicants despair of making their plans understood, and watch, bewildered, as their applications get lost in the incomprehensible meeting cycle of the local planning committee.

The frustrations which applicants feel are shared by those who wish to object.

Neither side knows what the timescale is, what the important milestones are, and how and when the decision will be made.

The system does not connect with other aims the government or the regional or local community have. What, people ask, is the point of an economic strategy for the region which is not capable of implementation because there is no way of knowing when, and how the planning system will react to applications made to it which are consistent with that strategy.

The system by which planning obligations to be paid by developers are resolved lacks clarity, and certainty. Frequently, all issues save planning obligation, will have been resolved. Then there will be long delays whilst a lengthy negotiation proceeds to resolve these issues. Sometimes the LA will ask for so much the development is lost. On other occasions they will ask for too little and the community will lose. Certainty and agreements which promote sustainable development without reducing the flow of developments should be the goal.

Finally, the system is poor at making decisions about major infrastructure projects.

We have the busiest airport in Europe at Heathrow. It makes a huge contribution to the country’s GDP. The BAA made a planning application to expand its terminal capacity there eight years ago, and there is still no decision. Whether it is granted or not it shouldn’t have taken so long.

The consequences of failing to remedy the defects in the system will be felt at every level. For small and medium size businesses, the current system discourages sensible planning applications to facilitate expansion and change.

For bigger businesses, in particular those with a choice of country in which to operate, the vagaries of the system make other countries where planning is predictable and timely, more attractive to do business.

For repeat users of the system – housebuilders, retailer, commercial developers – the system incurs unecessary costs on process rather than on core business.

For all business, delays in the development of the national infrastructure decrease international competitiveness and reduce the ease of trading domestically.

Make no mistake, we are aware both of the nature of the problem, and the consequences of the problem not being solved.

As everybody understands, the solution does not lie in anything remotely like a free for all in the planning system.

The system must address, and deal effectively with the legitimate complaints of complication, uncertainty, delay, and lack of user-friendliness. It must have the confidence of the community that it is coming to the right results. And it must be able, confidently, to make decisions about the vital major infrastructure problems on which the trading future of this country depends.

We are not going to mend the present system and make it work without wholesale change.

We must keep the best and provide continuity but improve.

But the time is right. There is a widespread desire for change in the system. People recognise the system does not work. They also see that tinkering will not deliver results.

My vision of a good planning system is one that is predictable. It allows both business and the community to be fairly certain that if there is a development in accordance with national and local policies, it will get consent.

It has to be accessible. The community must have understood, and been involved in the process of drawing up the local plan. Planning has to understand how business works. Planning is a public service and it has to deliver in a customer focused way.

It has to be robust. A planning system that rolls over every time it faces pressure from an aggressive developer or a community group with a powerful lobby is no use to anyone.


We need to address the problem of complication, out-of-datedness, and contradiction in the existing network of plans, policy guidances, and frameworks. We need a structure that is mutually reinforcing and not, as at present, potentially contradictory.

We need a local planning framework that can be put in place quickly and kept up to date.

But we also need to simplify and clarify the contents of national and regional planning guidance. They must focus only on those things that are, truly, of national and regional significance.

Planning applications

At each of the three levels at which planning applications can be heard a more focused, user-friendly approach is required. All three levels take a long time. All are uncertain, both in timing and result. All of them need an overhaul.

At local authority level, a greater focus on the users of the system is required. An understanding of the importance of time-limits. A realisation of the need for certainty. A reduction in the number of decisions which have to be taken. An ability to prioritise. Clarity of procedure, so that the timing of decisions is understood, and they only take such time as is necessary and reasonable for the particular applications.

Of all the levels this is probably the most important. Making the system work at LA level is absolutely vital to delivering the system we all want. The steps we envisage taking must promote, and, over time, be accompanied by a change culture in planning depts. A culture where the importance of good planning is recognised. But also a culture where the importance of good, timely and predictable decisions is recognised as vital to the well-being of the community.

The Planning Inspectorate has already introduced a number of significant reforms to improve the appeal and enquiry process. But we need to do more. The process needs to be faster, and more accessible.

At central government level, the system is obscure, slow and inconsistent. The call-in, and recovered appeals process represents a significant uncertainty both as to result, and as to how long the process will take. The process, within central govt, needs to become more transparent, more managerially efficient and quicker.

Major infrastructure

Up to now, we have seen projects of vital importance to our national economy planned on an ad hoc basis and bogged down in the system.

Governments have not been as clear as they should have been about the priorities for infrastructure investment.

We don’t, for example, have a clear statement at the moment about the need to plan for increasing airport capacity in England over the next few decades.

Stephen Byers announced that we would tackle the planning issues on three fronts. He said that we would be introducing clear statements of national policy on infrastructure – and the first is likely to be one on airports.

Secondly, he said that we could speed up inquiry procedures.

And thirdly he said that we would be consulting on new Parliamentary procedures for agreeing major infrastructure projects. That consultation document will be out shortly as part of our package of planning reforms.

Planning obligations

We shall be consulting on planning obligations. We know that these can hold up development significantly in some cases. We need to consider streamlined procedures while ensuring that the community shares in the benefits of development.

There is not much disagreement on the platform, including from Fiona, on the problems. That consensus is important because it will facilitate the changes that are required. Over the next few weeks you are going to see:

– a Green Paper on reforming the planning system

– a consultation document on new Parliamentary procedures for major infrastructure projects

– a consultation document about compulsory purchase and compensation

– new proposals for agreeing planning obligations

– consultation on use classes.

This amounts to a pretty comprehensive look at planning. It will set out the detailed “how” of delivering a fundamentally reformed planning system. It will be informed by the principles I have discussed today.

It will deal with the problems that we have jointly identified.

There is much detail to discuss. There is much debate to be had. But on the need for wholesale reform, there appears no doubt.

We must restore peoples’ confidence in the planning system, so it can robustly defend that which we cherish, and effectively promote the changes we need.