Lord Falconer – 2002 Speech to the Local Government Association


Below is the text of the speech made by Lord Falconer to the Local Government Association on 22nd January 2002.

Thank you for that kind introduction.

I welcome today’s opportunity to explain how the Planning Green Paper represents a genuine opportunity for local government.

We are keen to engage in dialogue with you on the Planning Green Paper.

I believe that the proposals in the Planning Green Paper will empower you to deliver a more effective and efficient planning system.

These two themes – empowerment and delivery – are crucial to achieving a planning system that is faster and fairer and more effective.

They are crucial to creating a planning system with community interests at its heart, but with barriers to economic development removed.

In order to achieve this kind of fundamental change, we need to empower local authorities to bring clarity, certainty, and a sense of strategic direction to planning.

The first way to do this is to simplify the planning system.

At the moment, and you will all know this better than I, there are too many plans. The hierarchy of plans is complex, often overlapping and often contradictory.

Structure plans, local plans and unitary development plans are too often incomplete or unresponsive to local needs and aspirations.

That is why structure plans, local plans and unitary development plans will be replaced by the single, new local development framework.

I know that a number of you in the Counties have expressed concerns about our proposals to abolish Structure Plans.

Let me make clear that there is no hidden agenda to abolish counties.

My concern is simply and solely with the inherent inefficiencies and barriers created by an over-bureaucratic system. There are simply too many tiers of planning and one has to go.

Increasingly Structure Plans fail to add value. Strategic issues are best settled at the regional level.

More detailed planning, on the other hand, is best undertaken at a local level where the local community can most effectively be involved.

We therefore propose that in County areas there should be the same, more straightforward, two tier system of regional and district planning as already exists for the 40% of the population that lives in unitary areas.

The Green Paper envisages that county planners will still retain minerals and waste responsibilities.

And there may be a role for them in continuing to support regional and, where appropriate, sub-regional planning as well as local development planning.

I have specifically asked in the Green Paper about what the county role should be and I invite your comments on this.

In addition to tackling the number of layers, we also need to simplify the relationship between the three levels of the system – national, regional and local.

The local development framework will be updated regularly to ensure it fits in with regional and national policy, which turn needs to be clearer, more focussed, and more accessible.

We are starting on the process of recasting guidance and will introduce a series of planning policy statements that will gradually replace the current PPGs.

Our intention is to be much more rigorous about separating out policy – things planning must deliver – from guidance about how to do it.

So, simplification and accessibility is the first principle.

The second way in which we can empower local authorities is to involve fully the people who use and are affected by planning decisions.

This includes both the business and local residential communities.

At the moment, the planning system disenfranchises rather than engages. Excludes rather than embraces.

The very people most affected by planning decisions often don’t understand how and why decisions are taken. Planning is seen as at best obscure and at worst a fundamental threat to quality of life.

What we are enduring is the bitter fruit of an adversarial system.

I want to create a new system whereby there can be real participation by the community – participation not consultation – especially in detailed planning for action areas.

There are already many example of planners taking community involvement seriously and engaging people in planning the future of their communities.

But there is tremendous scope for local authorities to use more modern and interesting ways to contact residents about planning issues, such as through the internet, or local radio, local TV – all means of reaching people and engaging them. Redcar and Cleveland, for example, has already used virtual reality to demonstrate choices for local development.

Under our new approach, local communities will be involved in the preparation of action plans for their neighbourhoods. They will help shape the vision, the objectives and the strategy.

With regard to development control, we will encourage pre-application discussions between developers and communities.

And we have proposed that, in the case of major developments, the effectiveness of community involvement could be a material consideration to be taken into account in determining a planning application.

Our vision is that local authorities will be empowered to provide a simpler system in which more people are able, and want, to get involved.

Simplicity and community involvement by necessity go together.

But this will mean little unless we focus on outcomes and the planning system delivers real improvements on the ground.

The first main issue of delivery is to create more sustainable communities.

We want our towns and cities to be attractive places in which people actively choose to live and work. We want to turn around the poverty which blights so many urban and rural areas. We want to safeguard our countryside and environment from inappropriate development and make the most efficient and appropriate use of land.

Planning must be a bridge to economic development not a barrier. The Green Paper puts these principles into practice.

For example, some types of business the need for planning consent will be completely removed. Our new business planning zones will allow high tech companies to bring forward high quality development, within defined parameters.

We have also published a consultation document on compulsory purchase which we hope will help remove a further barrier to regeneration.

The second aspect to delivery of outcomes is to ensure that planning connects with other local government functions.

In particular, local authorities must seize the opportunity of aligning their Community Strategies, regeneration or conservation strategies with their planning framework.

I very much hope that you will see planning as a valuable and powerful tool to making the aspirations set out in Community Strategies turn into action on the ground.

And the third aspect of delivery is to create a better quality of service to applicants.

The current target that 80 per cent of applications should be processed in eight weeks means that more complex – usually business – applications sometimes find themselves at the bottom of the pile as councils strain to meet the 80 per cent target.

It cannot be right, for example, that plans for the multi-million pound transformation of a city centre should take their place in a queue behind applications for domestic conservatories and dormer windows.

Our new targets – for example, sixty per cent of all major commercial applications in 13 weeks – seem longer. In fact, we believe they will speed up the system and will reinforce a sense of strategic direction in development control.

And lastly, delivery cannot pause for a break. We need to continue the momentum of change in order to deliver the improvements which are urgently needed.

Some of you may by now have seen an open letter that I sent to Cllr Keith House.

In that I have made the point that it is not acceptable for local authorities to down tools as far as updating current plans is concerned and to wait for the new regime to be introduced.

We have – obviously – to maintain a working planning system and seek to improve its delivery while we seek the legislative opportunity to change the system.

But I think we can take a constructive approach that takes full advantage of an interim position.

For example, there is no current provision that prevents an area based approach to the updating and review of plans.

There is already scope for supplementary planning guidance to be produced for action areas or areas of conservation.

There is already scope for counties to plan jointly with other authorities if they feel that cross-boundary working on sub-regional issues would be useful.

The Planning Green Paper outlines how we can move ahead to a fairer, faster and more transparent planning system, but local government can seize the opportunity to embrace change now.

The consultation period on this green paper ends in March so it’s vital you have your say before then.

In the meantime, I look forward to local government playing a key role in a reinvigorated planning system.

Good planning can make a major difference to the success of our economy, our communities and our environment. This country needs a faster, fairer and more foreseeable planning system and with your help we intend to deliver.