Headlines: February 5th, 2003

Key elements of government plans to reform the planning system are likely to fail according to a survey carried out by the Local Government Association. It has found that the overwhelming majority of local councils believe important parts of the Planning Bill could founder because of problems including the lack of a statutory role for counties, and the crisis in the recruitment of planning officers.More than three quarters of the authorities taking part in the study said counties should have a statutory strategic planning role. The results also reveal that in spite of the government’s emphasis on the importance of greater community involvement, 71 per cent of councils think this will be more difficult under the new system. Only five per cent believe it will be easy for the proposed Regional Planning Bodies to secure meaningful community involvement in regional planning.

The LGA survey also highlights the problems caused by the shortage of resources facing councils. More than 80 per cent of respondents said severe shortages of staff with expertise in planning and urban design – and the need for large-scale financial help for investment in infrastructure such as new computer systems – could severely hamper efforts to involve their communities.

Councillor Jane Chevis, who chairs the LGA’s Planning Executive said, “As one respondent to this survey wrote, planning helps to protect those without a voice, and we believe that it is vital to balance the need for reform of the planning system with the need to ensure proper democratic control of decision making.”

She said it was clear the important role of county councils could not be mreplaced by the introduction of a new two-tier system with its huge distance between the regional and local levels.

“The research also highlights the fears many councils have about their ability to carry through new reforms due to the chronic staff and financial resource issues they are facing. Work is currently underway with government and colleagues in the Employers’ Organisation to help tackle these long-term recruitment issues but fundamentally more resources are needed to help all councils invest in the new infrastructure they need to deliver key improvements to local people,” said Councillor Chevis.

The LGA survey also reveals opposition to plans to introduce Business Planning Zones where no planning permission will be required. Under the proposals, government ministers will be able to impose BPZs against the wishes of local councils and residents.