(Title Image: Senedd Cymru)
Public Accounts Committee
Effectiveness of Local Planning Authorities (pdf)
Published: 24th June 2020
“Our report makes a number of recommendations aimed at addressing some important issues and will help strengthen resilience in services; improving decision making; support better involvement by planners and developers with citizens and communities, and ensure planning plays its full part in safeguarding our future generations.”
– Committee Chair, Nick Ramsay MS (Con, Monmouth)
This inquiry was prompted by a Wales Audit Office report from June 2019, which criticised some aspects of the planning system in Wales – namely a seemingly lack of public involvement in the planning process (pdf).
There are currently 25 planning authorities in Wales – the 22 councils and the 3 National Park authorities.
1. The planning system is under serious stress due to budget cuts
According to the Wales Audit Office (now re-named Audit Wales), the budget for all aspects of the planning system has halved since 2008-09 in real terms, with net spending falling from £45million to £22.8million. Around 24,000 planning applications are submitted in Wales each year, but an increasing number of applications are missing decision deadlines.
Every single stakeholder – including the Welsh Government and local authorities – believed there was a lack of skills, resources and capacity in planning to deliver key objectives on sustainable development under the Future Generations Act 2015.
One example given was a fall in income from Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy, with planning authorities lacking skills to make proper assessments.
Many new planning graduates opt to work in the private sector for developers and consultancies than in local government; planning itself wasn’t deemed to be an essential service (reflected in the budget cuts).
Despite this, there was little appetite amongst planning authorities to merge, as regional planning authorities or to produce joint local development plans. The Committee concluded, however, that the status quo is no longer an option.
2. Much more work is needed to involve the public in the planning process
The Auditor General suggests the impact of planning on communities was being underestimated, with planning requiring proper judgement, a clear vision and imagination to succeed.
While planning authorities have made efforts to engage with the public, 60% of senior planning officers thought the public didn’t understand the planning process. Also, currently-used guidance on public engagement by planning authorities dates back to the 1960s.
While pre-planning consultations for major developments are now a legal requirement in Wales, it wasn’t – in itself – improving engagement, with most of the work done before a consultation even takes place, meaning the public often can’t impact the development itself.
The Future Generations Commissioner thought “Place Plans” – developed by communities to inform what kinds of developments they want to see in their area – could help bridge the divide between planning authorities and communities. It was argued, however, that Place Plans still need to align with Local Development Plans, have to be led by communities themselves and are not legally binding.
3. Well-being needs to be a greater consideration in planning decisions
As mentioned, planning has a major role to play in meeting the ambitions of the Future Generations Act. A move away from framing decisions as “is it bad enough to refuse” to “is it good enough to approve” was described as “critical”.
In a survey on the public’s attitudes, two-thirds thought planning authorities weren’t making the right decisions to improve their communities, and less than 10% thought the quality of their local environment had improved over the last three years.
As you might expect, planning officers had a more positive view, demonstrating a disconnect.
There was backing from a majority of committee members for a simplification of the planning system and the creation of a Welsh Planning Inspectorate (currently run on an EnglandandWales basis).