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COUNTIES' FURY AT PLANNING THREAT

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The County Councils Network has published its alternative to the controversial planning green paper, which effectiv...
The County Councils Network has published its alternative to the controversial planning green paper, which effectively cuts out the county role by splitting planning in rural areas between regions and districts.

For the counties, this was a huge blow. Some county leaders believed they had been sold down the river by a Local Government Association submission recommending districts rather than counties remain in the planning loop, and some threatened to leave the association (LGC, 30 November 2001).

But the crux of the counties' objection is not, they insist, self-preservation. It is that the proposals are profoundly flawed.

John Deegan, chair of the County Surveyors Society strategic planning committee, says although the green paper is intended to make planning simpler, it adds at least two extra tiers to the process.

Independent housing consultant Roger Humber told a recent CCN conference: 'There are more stages in the proposed system, even with the removal of the counties' role, than in the current system. So it is not true to say that it has been streamlined.'

He accused planning minister Lord Falconer of resembling 'some kind of happy-clappy, revivalist preacher' with his utopian projections for the green paper reforms.

He urged councils to get the proposals thrown out, warning: 'Nothing could be more damaging than to have these proposals hanging around as a wounded, lame duck.'

The Council for the Protection of Rural England argues: 'Stronger regional planning is needed but cannot replace the role currently played by the counties. They are small and close enough to be meaningful to local people and communities, but large enough to address the bigger picture.'

Even business is a potential ally. Barney Stringer, head of infrastructure at the Confederation of British Industry, says the CBI's goal has always been to improve the planning process, not tinker with its structure.

He admits the CBI had 'concerns' about the reforms: 'You have got the community strategy with a statement of core principles, the local action plan and village action plans, the statement of community involvement, the site-specific master plans. That could potentially end up being quite complicated.'

The network's alternative proposes removing aspects of the old system which do not work, and making 'radical' changes to what remains, so it is smoother, business-friendly, and more engaged with the broad sweep of local government activity.

The proposal suggests a structure which involves regions, top-tier and district councils. Strategic direction would be at a national level. Below this would be a regional spatial strategy, an integrated development framework and an area action plan.

The regional spatial strategy would not reproduce the existing structural planning function - it could potentially range over more than one boundary.

CCN director John Sellgren says: 'That's where we're being radical. That's much further than Falconer has even dreamed of.'

Mr Deegan is director of planning, transport and economic strategy at Warwickshire CC, which works with Solihull MBC and Coventry City Council. He says working together in the West Midlands region gives them more clout in pushing common interests: 'There are some common characteristics in the area - we all have a bit of a problem with the north/south divide, a common involvement with the motor car industry, and problems with declining industry.'

He stresses the network's proposals are flexible and not every council will want to work across boundaries.

Districts will not be left out - they will prepare area action plans for hot spots, sites of rapid economic change, redevelopment or housing expansion.

The plans will all be reviewed annually, making them more responsive and dynamic than the existing system.

The network argues this will be inclusive, accountable, simple, joined up and fast.

Mr Sellgren adds: 'If there is a criticism of the current system, it is very land-use oriented. The reason we use the word integrated is that this framework would not just refer to land use. It would refer to other bits of public sector delivery like transport, housing, health, social care, education and training. It's more holistic.

'[The plans] make just a throw-away comment in that they link it to community planning. We are not just making a throw-away comment, we're making it a reality.'

A DTLR spokesman says: 'The idea is there that the county structure plans should be scrapped. We do want to hear how councils can fit into this new framework.'

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