Changes to the Land Use Planning System

Each year an annual presentation on a topical planning issue is made by one of the District Council Planning Officers and this year members of the Society entertained Ian Thompson, Corporate Director of Development Services and his Local Plans Officer, Linda Renshaw, who came to talk principally about the Government's proposed changes to the land use planning system, although Ian provided us with the added bonus of a question and answer on wider planning issues affecting Lichfield at the end of Linda's presentation.

Linda outlined the current planning arrangements, which have largely been in place since 1991, where District Councils had to prepare a district-wide Local Plan, detailing the broad proposals set out in the County Council's Structure Plan in respect of housing, employment, environmental protection etc.

The planning system has been criticised in a number of quarters because of the slowness of decisions, its complexity and its relative unfriendliness for those not conversant with it. As a result of pressures particularly from the CBI, the Government has decided to introduce a system which it maintains would be simpler, would speed up planning decisions and promote greater community involvement.

The Bill currently going through Parliament for enactment in the Spring, will abolish County Structure Plans, whose role will be taken over by spatial strategies prepared at regional level and also replace district- wide Local Plans by district-based local development documents. These will contain a set of core policies which will apply for the long term, backed by action area plans for those parts of districts where change is envisaged in the short term. The local development documents will need to contain a statement of community involvement in their preparation and also be appraised for their sustainability. It is envisaged that work on these new Plans will start as early as 2004 following the passing of the legislation this year.

What does this mean for the hard-pressed planners wrestling with the preparation of Structure Plans and district-wide Local Plans? Well, Linda explained that reviews of existing plans underway may stall until the new legislation is in place. No one wants to carry out abortive work, only to find that they have to retrace their steps and produce plans on a different legal basis.

And the plans would have to be prepared in the context of regional strategies. These are currently adopted or under preparation but there was concern over the wide gap between broad regional strategy and the more detailed working out of allocations at district level. This may lead to the need to subdivide regions into sub-regions as far as allocating general figures for housing and employment developments. Moreover, there are continuing concerns over the undemocratic nature of existing regional assemblies. All are currently nominated by Ministers and not directly elected. How will local communities be able to influence planning at regional level without this democratic link? It should not be assumed that all regional referenda will lead to the creation of directly elected regional assemblies, for example.

Linda brought us up to speed with her team's work on housing capacity within Lichfield and also warned us that work was also being done on employment allocations. However, a final decision on the review of the district-wide Local Plan has still to be taken in the light of the new, emerging planning proposals of the Government.

Ian's subsequent question and answer session touched on a wide range of issues, but probably one of the most notable areas was that of the future growth of the City. Ian pointed out that the actual population size of the City itself was fairly static, but household sizes were falling, meaning that housing demand was increasing. This is a complex issue, caused in part by an ageing population, by the aim to support older people in the community and not in residential care, and the trend towards more single- parent households. We also talked about planning permissions and the financial contributions made to local authorities by developers through the planning system; and the democratic deficit threatening us if we lose County Councils and have to rely on unelected regional assemblies for some of our planning decisions.

Once again the annual presentation by District Council officers lived up to expectations. Despite the often made accusation that local government is too secretive, both Ian and Linda were very open in sharing their views, hopes and expectations with us.

Roger Hockney
January, 2003