HL Deb 14 January 1997 vol 577 cc28-30WA
The Earl of Northesk

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans he has to improve the town and country planning system.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers)

We are publishing today two consultation papers setting out proposals for changes to existing procedures to make the planning system more efficient and effective. Copies have been placed in the Library. First, we propose to restructure the procedures under which local authorities prepare and adopt district-wide local and unitary development plans including:

  • the adoption of more statutory time limits;
  • revised consultation and deposit arrangements;
  • the replacement of the right for objections to be heard at an inquiry with a right for objections to be considered (initially by written representation);
  • replacing the inquiry, in whole or in part, with an Examination in Public process;
  • reducing the scope for the authority to ignore the Inspector's recommendations; and
  • simplified adoption procedures.

Secondly, with regard to appeals against the refusal of planning permission and call-in by the Secretary of State, we propose:

  • that the Secretary of State should decide the method by which appeals are determined, instead of the parties;
  • to streamline the written representations procedure;
  • to introduce a negotiation/mediation process to resolve disputes;
  • a new procedure for cases to be called in for a particular aspect of a development to be considered, without having to examine the entire proposal; and
  • the costs regime to be refined to deter tactical delays.

It is taking too long for local authorities to get district-wide local plans and unitary development plans in place. Last March consultation papers were issued on minor improvements to the procedures. These changes are now being implemented. However, my right honourable friend also indicated that he was prepared to consider further changes if these were wanted by users of the system. Discussions were held with a broad range of organisations (representative of developers, conservation groups, local authorities and professional bodies). The consensus was in support of the plan led system, which is delivering greater certainty for developers and local people. However, most felt that further changes are required to improve efficiency. A report, which summarises the ideas put forward, is also being published today, alongside the consultation paper.

The need for reform of the procedures is underlined by the most recent figures for progress in the adoption of plans. When the preparation of these plans was made mandatory in 1991 it was agreed with the local authorities to adopt a target to achieve "substantially complete" coverage by the end of 1996. The monitoring return of the position in September indicates that only 43 per cent. of plans will have achieved the target, though it is anticipated that the bulk of the rest will be completed in the next two years. Figures for the overall position and a list of all local authorities, showing the stage reached in their plan preparation, are being made available today. Copies have been placed in the Library. In some cases there are legitimate reasons why plan preparation has been delayed. However, it is for the individual authorities to explain their position.

Some of the changes proposed in the consultation paper would require primary legislation. In the meantime, we urge local authorities whose plans are not yet in place to give this matter a higher priority. My right honourable friend is also considering whether further measures might be taken to encourage the more rapid adoption of plans. These include the revocation of out-of-date plans and clarification, in the forthcoming revise of PPG1, that there are only very limited circumstances in which it is appropriate to refuse planning permission on grounds of prematurity in relation to the emerging plan.

We are also concerned about the time it is taking to deal with appeals against the refusal of planning permission. While a number of improvements have been made to the planning appeals procedures, with 80 per cent. of cases now being dealt with by written representations and a further 12 per cent. by informal hearing, there are a number of other options for change which deserve fullest consideration. The consultation paper sets out proposals which seek to increase the effectiveness of the system while maintaining the balance between the rights of the individual and the wider interests of the community. Meanwhile more planning inspector resources will be made available for handling appeals. At present the Planning Inspectorate aim to provide an inspector for local plans inquiries within 26 weeks in 100 per cent. of cases. However, some local authorities withdraw at a late stage. In future the Planning Inspectorate target will be 80 per cent. to allow for this slippage. This will release experienced staff to handle appeals without inhibiting progress on local plans.