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'PLANNING BILL THREATENS DANGEROUS CENTRALISATION OF POWERS'

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This is an unacceptable and unworkable centralisation of strategic planning. The government wants to take powers fr...
This is an unacceptable and unworkable centralisation of strategic planning. The government wants to take powers from elected county councils and unitary authorities for itself and for remote, unelected regional bodies.

This was CPRE's{1} immediate reaction to the publication of the government's Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill{2}, announced by the minister, Barbara Roche, yesterday (see LGCnet).

Henry Oliver, CPRE's head of planning, said:

'Decisions on issues like housing numbers over most of rural England will no longer be so open or accountable, depriving communities of a say over the future of their countryside and local areas. The contrast with the government's proposals to bring power closer to communities in the Local Government Bill is startling.

'Structure planning{3} at the county level has secured a degree of public consensus over contentious issues like planning for housing over many years. It has brought benefits for the beauty and tranquillity of the English countryside from Devon to Norfolk and from Sussex to County Durham, as well as for the communities who value it.

'Without that process of testing and debate, huge areas of countryside could now be at risk from centralised, unaccountable planning by diktat.'

CPRE believes that the new planning system proposed in the Bill needs to retain the benefits of structure planning. County councils and unitary authorities should have a statutory role in leading and taking decisions on strengthened sub-regional chapters of the new Regional Spatial Strategies{4}.

Such a role should:

guarantee decision-making by accountable authorities{5};

allow planning on a scale which is strategic, but also allows attention to the necessary level of detail{6};

enable opportunities for public engagement in debate and decision-making which are at least as good as those which currently exist{7} and preferably better;

deliver planning over an area with which communities can identify{8}; and

retain the skills, resources and expertise provided by counties and unitary authorities{9}.

Henry Oliver concluded:

'There is much to welcome in this Bill{10}, but the proposals for strategic planning are anti-democratic and unworkable. They will create a dangerously wide gap between regional bodies and local planning. We will be working hard to secure changes to the Bill{11} during its passage through parliament.'

Planning to Deliver, a copy of CPRE's briefing on the government's planning reforms is available here.

NOTES

1. CPRE exists to promote the beauty, tranquillity and diversity of rural England by encouraging the sustainable use of land and other natural resources in town and country. We promote positive solutions for the long term future of the countryside and to ensure change values its natural and built environment. Our patron is Her Majesty The Queen. We have 59,000 supporters, a branch in every county, eight regional groups, over 200 local groups and a national office in central London. CPRE is a powerful combination of effective local action and strong national campaigning. Our president is Max Hastings.

2. The Planning and Compensation Bill is available from The Stationery Office. It is the latest stage in the government's planning review, announced in July 2001 by the then secretary of state, Stephen Byers. This was followed by the Planning Green Paper Planning: delivering a fundamental change in December 2002 and taken forward in the deputy prime minister's statement to parliament in July 2002.

3. Structure Plans (prepared by county councils) and Part I of Unitary Development Plans (prepared by some unitary authorities) are the strategic framework for development and change in their areas over the next 10-15 years. They cover such issues as housing numbers, employment and services.

4. The government has made a partial, but insufficient, commitment in this direction: 'We intend to make provision for the counties to act as agents of the regional planning bodies in providing technical expertise and/or leading on sub-regional parts of the strategy' (Sustainable Communities - Delivering through Planning, ODPM, July 2002).

5. Structure Plans and UDPs are prepared by elected county councils and unitary authorities. Currently, the only democratically accountable regional planning body in England is in London. In its Regional Governance White Paper: Your Region, Your Choice (May 2002), the government made clear its intention to grant greater powers to all regions, regardless of whether or not they opt for directly elected regional assemblies.

6. Structure Plans cover areas large enough to allow them to take a strategic view, but also small enough to permit issues to be examined in sufficient detail.

7. Communities and individuals currently have at least two, and sometimes up to five, opportunities to comment on draft Structure Plans and Unitary Development Plans.

8. Counties are historical entities which, in most of England, form an important part of people's local identity. Regions do not form the same function, partly because of their sheer size. For example, the South West region stretches from Land's End to Gloucestershire. At its northern extremity it is closer to Scotland than Land's End.

9. County councils currently provide a pool of expertise and resources on a range of issues, including ecology, archaeology, landscape, the historic environment etc, to district authorities over most of rural England. If the statutory purpose county councils receive in the new legislation is not strong enough, the resources and staff built up by over time will be lost, and it is unlikely that district and unitary authorities will be able or willing to pay to replace them.

10. CPRE welcomes proposals to give regional planning statutory status in the form of Regional Spatial Strategies; the retention of Local Development Framework proposals maps and the public's right to be heard at hearings; the reduction in the duration of planning permissions from five years to three; and the abolition of abuses of planning such as twin-tracking and repeat applications.

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