Community Involvement in the Planning Process

The Society's January meeting is the traditional time when officers of the Lichfield District Council Planning Department attend to share with us some thoughts about the current planning scene. For this meeting Ian Thompson, the District Council's Planning Officer, was joined by his Planning Policy Officer, Paul Ansell to explore the latest changes proposed in the planning system and especially the Government's proposals for enhanced community involvement. Explaining Government legislation is never an easy task and Paul carefully and methodically set about taking the audience through the complexities of the soon to be enacted planning legislation.

He set the scene by reminding us that the familiar Structure Plan, prepared by the County Council and setting out Staffordshire's overall policies on housing, employment, transport and the environment would be abolished under the new system, as would Local Plans such as that for Lichfield. The Structure Plan is to be replaced by a new Regional Spatial Strategy, prepared by 'regional planning bodies' in each region of the country. Here in Lichfield ours would be prepared through the aegis of the Regional Assembly, currently based in Birmingham. Below the new Regional Spatial Strategy would come new Local Development Frameworks, as successors to the existing Local Plans. The Local Development Framework will include the Plan itself, together with supplementary planning documents which could cover a wide range of issues such as design guides, conservation area documents, supplementary strategies like those on bio-diversity and development briefs. On top of that (I suspect that the reader's head is already spinning) comes the Local Development Scheme which sets out the programme for the preparation of the Local Development Framework and the various other supplementary planning documents. The Government intends to enact new legislation by July 2004 and the Local Development Scheme, setting out each local authority's timetable for the preparation of their Local Development Framework, has to be with the Government for approval within six months of the commencement date.

Finally, one of the documents contained within the Local Development Framework will be a Statement of Community Involvement. It sets out the standards that the planning authority intends to achieve in relation to involving the community in the preparation or review of the Plan. What the Government is trying to ensure is real consultation, not when the Plan has been prepared and submitted to its inevitable public inquiry, but while the Plan is being prepared so that when it is submitted to a public inquiry for approval, it can be backed up by a series of statements about how the public and other organisations have been involved in its preparation and how their comments have been taken on board.

All these changes to our planning system are designed to streamline the planning process in the light, particularly, of criticisms from industry that the planning system is slow and cumbersome. Some commentators believe that these changes will not accelerate decision-making but will afford greater opportunity for third parties who object to proposals to intervene, possibly through reviews of planning decisions and plans in the courts. Nevertheless it is now inevitable that this system will be introduced and those of us with an interest in the future planning of our towns, cities and countryside will need to understand it.

Ian Thompson's presence was a bonus for members at the meeting and he kindly agreed to a brief question and answer session at the end of Paul's presentation. Although a number of the questions were not strictly within Ian's remit, we enjoyed a healthy debate about car parking arrangements within the city, the need (or otherwise) for a conservation area advisory group, the state of the city's pavements, and the future arrangements for the opening of public toilets!

Although these issues are very important at a local level, the groundswell of concern, shared by both speakers and audience, over the new planning arrangements and in particular the potential abdication of responsibility to unelected regional assemblies based in Birmingham, must leave us all with food for thought about the potential threat to our democratic systems.

Roger Hockney
January 2004