Question: The planning white paper was published on May 21, what does CPRE make of it?
Neil Sinden:We think that it contains a ragbag of measures – some welcome, some deeply worrying. On the whole we think that the evidence base for some of the reforms put forward is pretty skimpy, and not terribly authoritative.
However we do welcome the overall tone of the white paper in terms of the support that it gives for the planning system as a key policy mechanism for resolving tensions between conflicting government objectives - environmental, economical, and social. We also welcome the fact that it recognises the improvements in planning processes and procedures over recent years.
Overall the package of measures raises a whole host of issues which need to be addressed if the planning system in the future is to be better equipped to deliver genuinely sustainable development in the long term, and to take proper account of the interests of local communities in the decision making process.
The evidence base that is use to justify some of the reforms, particular in the area of major infrastructure projects, needs to be further questioned and probed before clear decisions as taken on the appropriate way forward.
Question: You mentioned sustainable development that occurs heavily throughout the work of CPRE, can you briefly describe what you mean by ‘sustainable development’ and why it features so heavily in the work of CPRE?
Neil Sinden: When we use the term ‘sustainable development’ what we mean is development that is environmentally sustainable in the long term. That is development which takes account of the capacity of the environment accommodate it.
This includes not just the measurable aspects of environmental qualities, whether that is pollution levels in the air or water, but also the intangible, difficult to measure, environmental qualities such as tranquillity, the distinctiveness of place, considerations of beauty, and quality of the landscape and the built environment.
Question: Can you explain your views on the relationship between planning and the environment?
Neil Sinden:We believe the planning system is a critical tool for securing sustainable development, and for taking proper account of environmental impacts and integrates environmental, economic and social considerations.
Over the past 60 years or so, it has played a valuable role in protecting the environment and maintaining and improving environmental quality in town and country. As such we believe in recent years governments have failed fully to appreciate the environmental role of the planning process.
Question: Why is planning so important in securing environmental objectives?
Neil Sinden:Because it is a decision-making and policy-making process that allows consideration of a wide range of factors, including economic considerations to do with competitiveness, productivity, the availability of jobs and so on, and social considerations in terms of the mixed nature of communities and the kind of development required to meet the social needs, whether for leisure or recreation or neighbourhood cohesion.
And of course it allows for full consideration of wider environmental concerns to do with the quality of the places and environment that we inhabit.
Question: How closely linked are planning and democracy?
Neil Sinden:We think planning is quintessentially a democratic process. It provides, through statutory underpinning, opportunities for the public, individual, local communities and public interest groups, as well as for economic interests and public agencies, to engage in debate and discussions about what is the right and appropriate nature, scale, and form of development to meet society’s needs.
It provides a democratic space within which those debates can take place. At the heart of our concerns about the planning white paper is that it proposes to make fundamental reforms to the nature of that democratic space which we feel would undermine its ability to engage all interests adequately in the decision-making process.
We are particularly concerned about the proposed role for the independent planning commission, particularly the proposal that it should be a decision-making body taking responsibility for decisions on major infrastructure projects out of the hands of ministers into a new government quango whose independence would have to be questioned quite closely.
This could seriously undermine the democratic accountability of some of the most contentious planning decisions.
Question: Do you think there is a trade-off between environmental protection and economic development?
Neil Sinden:I think there need not be so much of a trade off between these objectives. What the planning system offers is a mechanism whereby one can actually minimise these trade-offs, where one can actually integrate economic needs with environmental protection, and come up with win-win solutions.
For example in connection with land that has already been developed what the planning system can do, and has done very successfully over recent years, is to facilitate the reuse and recycling of previously developed land for new economic, social or indeed environmental purposes.
CPRE has been very keen to point out the great success of government policies in terms of increasing the recycling of brownfield sites or previously used land for housing development. In 1997, 56 per cent of new housing was on brown field land and at last count 75 per cent of new housing was on brown field land.
That is a huge success of the planning system, supported by enlightened government policies, to promote a more efficient and effective use of previously developed land. That is the kind of win-win situation that we think the planning system can deliver - one does not always have to trade off environmental objectives with economic and other considerations.
Question: How does the CPRE balance local issues and national priorities?
Neil Sinden:This is another thing the planning system is well equipped to do. It involves having a framework of national planning policy statements setting in broad terms national strategic objectives for different issues - whether it is to do with protection of the countryside, or the promotion of economic development or housing provision.
That might include targets for recycling, or reuse of brownfield land, improving and increasing the density of new housing development, and so on.
Within that framework, local planning authorities, usually district level or unitary authorities, are ideally able to take account of local considerations, environmental effects and impact, quality of the local environment, the importance of maintaining the character and qualities of the individual villages, towns, and cities, and maintaining the countryside and the quality of the landscape around them, in determining the precise pattern and scale in their local areas.
This is where local community engagement is so critical and that is why it is important that in setting national policy, the government does not go too far in dictating or imposing what the level of development should be and that it should give serious consideration to the implications are of particular national objectives for local areas.
We think there are, from the point of view of CPRE with our focus on landscape quality and character, important national objectives to be established for protecting the countryside from inappropriate or unnecessary development.
For example in relation to national parks and nationally protected areas of outstanding natural beauty, policies are needed which recognise the clear national interest in safeguarding our most attractive areas of countryside and landscape.
At the same time there large areas of the countryside which are locally or regionally important, which don’t necessarily warrant national level protection but which never the less are vital assets for local communities. The planning system can therefore enable the identification and balancing of national, regional and local objectives.
Question: Do you feel that the government consultation process is extensive enough with local communities?
Neil Sinden:I do not think it is at the moment. There is an emerging gap, and if some of the proposals in the white paper are carried though a potentially growing gap, or democratic deficit in terms of consultation on planning policies and decisions.
There is a real tension here at the regional level which is becoming so serious that it may bring existing regional planning processes into disrepute.
This is because regional spatial strategies or plans are being developed in ways which do not give adequate weight to environmental information and impacts.
I have a sense that the whole regional planning process is becoming more top down and dictatorial than anyone was expecting or hoping for a few years ago.
Some of the proposals in the white paper, in particular those concerning major infrastructure projects and the creation of the independent planning commission and the development of explicit national policy statements on particular kinds of infrastructure, could result in an unacceptable centralisation of the planning process to the detriment of the interests of environmental protection and local communities.
Question: Do you think the government could be doing more to ease the tension between urban and rural areas?
Neil Sinden:I do not recognise that there is a great tension, in terms of the environment and the interest in planning and land use, of local communities between urban and rural areas.
Again I think this comes back to the potential of planning to reconcile any tensions there may be between urban and rural interests eg. where development is occurring on green field sites the case for that developments in those locations will need to be clearly demonstrated through the planning process.
This reinforces the point about planning providing the democratic space for debate about development, and land use change.
Provided communities feel all the relevant evidence has been bought to bear on the question and people have been given a fair opportunity to have a say in the way their local area develops, we believe the planning system can deliver decisions that enjoy a degree of public legitimacy and consent over future development and change, whether that’s in a urban or rural context.
If you take away the ability of those communities to engage in those decisions and debates, or if you seriously reduce their ability to influence those decisions, you do run the serious risk of shoring up further conflict and frustration, and possibly even direct action against development further down the line.