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Y Pwyllgor Cyfrifon Cyhoeddus

Public Accounts Committee

10/02/2020

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Delyth Jewell AM
Gareth Bennett AM
Jenny Rathbone AM
Mohammad Asghar AM
Nick Ramsay AM Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Rhianon Passmore AM
Vikki Howells AM

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Adrian Crompton Archwilydd Cyffredinol Cymru, Swyddfa Archwilio Cymru
Auditor General for Wales, Wales Audit Office
Andrew Farrow Prif Swyddog, Cynllunio, Amgylchedd ac Economi, Cyngor Sir y Fflint
Chief Officer, Planning, Environment and Economy, Flintshire County Council
Craig Mitchell Pennaeth Cefnogi Gwastraff, Cymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru
Head of Waste Support, Welsh Local Government Association
Dr Roisin Willmott Cyfarwyddwr Cymru a Gogledd Iwerddon, y Sefydliad Cynllunio Trefol Brenhinol
Director of Wales and Northern Ireland, Royal Town Planning Institute
Llinos Quelch Pennaeth Cynllunio, Cyngor Sir Gâr
Head of Planning, Carmarthenshire County Council
Mark Hand Pennaeth Llunio Lle, Tai, Priffyrdd a Llifogydd, Cyngor Sir Fynwy
Head of Placemaking, Housing, Highways and Flooding, Monmouthshire County Council
Matthew Mortlock Swyddfa Archwilio Cymru
Wales Audit Office
Nick Selwyn Swyddfa Archwilio Cymru
Wales Audit Office
Nicola Pearce Cyfarwyddwr Corfforaethol dros yr Amgylchedd ac Adfywio, Cyngor Castell-nedd Port Talbot
Corporate Director of Environment and Regeneration, Neath Port Talbot Council

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Claire Griffiths Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Fay Bowen Clerc
Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 13:00.

The meeting began at 13:00.

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Welcome, Members, to this afternoon's meeting of the Public Accounts Committee, and can I welcome our witness as well? As usual, headsets are available for translation and for sound should you need it. Please ensure phones are on silent. In an emergency, just follow directions from the ushers. We've received no apologies today, I think I'm right in saying, despite the inclement weather. Do Members have any declarations of interest they'd like to make at the start of the meeting? No. Okay. 

2. Effeithiolrwydd Awdurdodau Cynllunio Lleol yng Nghymru: Sesiwn dystiolaeth gyda'r Sefydliad Cynllunio Trefol Brenhinol
2. Effectiveness of Local Planning Authorities in Wales: Evidence session with Royal Town Planning Institute

Straight into item 2, then, and the effectiveness of local planning authorities in Wales. This is our first evidence session, and this evidence session is with the Royal Town Planning Institute. Can I welcome our witness? Thanks for being with us. Would you like to give your name and position for the Record of Proceedings? 

Certainly. My name is Roisin Willmott, and I'm the director for the Royal Town Planning Institute here in Wales. 

We've got a number of questions for you. I'll start with the first one. The Auditor General for Wales's report highlights that there's been significant reduction in funding in local planning authority services. Where has the reduction in budget been felt most in the services provided by local planning authorities? 

I think it's been felt overall. I don't have the detailed breakdown of individual local authorities and how their budgets are allocated. Obviously, they go through cycles of plan-making preparation, so they need to invest in their plan teams. Some authorities then reduce the number of officials within their plan-making teams. Development management tends to be more constant, but I think all across the sector the resources have been depleted, and it's ever more struggling.  

Are we looking at different changes and savings reductions from local authority to local authority, or is it pretty much that you see a similar pattern across the whole of Wales?

A similar pattern across the whole of Wales, yes, and it's reflected across the UK as well, but certainly across Wales it is more or less similar. 

Okay. I want to bring in some other Members, and Jenny Rathbone. 

Good afternoon and thank you very much for your paper. The auditor general's report includes examples from England on how local planning authorities have sought to reduce costs and build resilience by creating joint development plans and joint planning policies. Why do you think these approaches have not been widely pursued in Wales? 

Well, they have in one case: Gwynedd and Ynys Môn have done a joint local development plan. I think in that situation, why it did come forward was the timing worked well for them. They were both at a stage where they were wanting to take forward their local development plans. So, it's kind of like the winds were in the direction, if you like, for them. Perhaps with other authorities, there hasn't been that timing where it's worked well. Also, the savings, how much there are savings for it. They certainly save on the inquiries, but still you need to do the same evidence base. You need the same democratic input, the same engagement with communities, et cetera.  So, how much savings there are overall is perhaps questionable. 

But you can see how in small local authorities, you could save on the senior management of the planning department. I understand completely that the groundwork is still going to need to be done in relation to any given planning application.

Yes, you can make savings but it has to be at the right timings, if you like, for each of the authorities, and you need an authority that is appropriate to work with. It's no good if you're geographically separate, et cetera. 

Yes, exactly, potentially. 

Because we have 24 planning authorities, if we take Gwynedd and Ynys Môn as one, and a population of just over 3 million. That's an awful lot of planning authorities.

It's not too many. It depends which way you cut it, really. I wouldn't say it's too many given the detail of it. You also have to think of, that's the plan-making process, but then the development management team, which is the process of implementing that plan, so you need that ownership with a local planning authority as well. So, in terms of merging local planning authorities, that wouldn't necessarily work at that stage, because you do really need to get at the localised level, and you just find that you end up setting up area teams and area committees. So, what the savings are is minimal, really.

13:05

Okay. Well, I'm interested to hear that. It wasn't quite the answer I expected. The Planning (Wales) Act 2015 gives Welsh Ministers powers to mandate collaboration. There are obvious concerns about very small local authorities trying to do everything when they could be collaborating. Do you think that that's a power that the Government should be using?

It could do, and certainly—just, I suppose, expanding on my response before—that would be the actual merging of authorities that I was referring to before. Collaboration, certainly on specialist areas, that is something that certainly could be explored, and it works well in north Wales with their waste and minerals unit. There is very good collaboration in terms of that, which is quite a specialist area. And I know other authorities work—. Carmarthenshire, for example, leads on minerals for south-west Wales. Others do sharing on biodiversity, potentially historic buildings, where there's a specialist involvement in it as well. So, there are the opportunities for collaboration in that sense.

Okay. If you have a large planning application in a given area, it's likely to have quite a lot of impact on the adjacent areas. So, in those circumstances, you'd expect some form of collaboration. Do you think that happens when you have these large, significant developments?

Well, there would certainly be a formal consultation process if there are implications between them.

Okay, but you don't see it, necessarily, as a way of improving resilience and increasing capacity.

No, I don't think so.

Okay. Are there any areas where Ministers should most definitely not mandate collaboration?

I think you need to be careful, because you do need that local, democratic accountability, and finding what is right—and this is the point of the local development plan—on a spatial level, if you like, geographically defined. What are the needs for that area, the long-term needs? And that's what the local development plan sets out. So, you do need that local input into that area. So, making areas too big at the local level dilutes that input, that knowledge and that accountability as well.

Okay. But within any local authority, you'll have different types of communities. Some will be towns and cities, and others will be rural. So, you will get that even within a local planning authority, within the 24, so I'm just trying to probe whether you aren't overplaying this—the locality aspect of this.

No, because you do need different spatial levels to work at, as you've indicated as well. So, you'd need—. Say, for example, Cardiff, they need to work locally at the neighbourhood level, but then there's the strategic development plans that can come in and work at a higher spatial level, if you like, so that you can take those bigger spatial decisions, particularly about transport movement and provision on perhaps the large employment sites and things. Not every local authority needs a class 1 employment site, for example. So, collaboration at that level, at a high level, can work as well. But they need to come together. You need to have the different levels as well.

Thank you. In that regard, obviously we have the multi-layered system that we do have. Do you feel—? I'll ask my questions in reverse order then. Do you feel that a strategic development plan, in regard to how it works with the current LPD, is optimum? Or is it absolutely necessary in your mind? Or would it make planning authorities more resilient if there were to be strategic joint committees?

Well, we haven't got a strategic development plan yet in Wales, and we see that, particularly for south-east Wales, where perhaps it is most needed—

Yes, there's legislation for it, and hopefully it will come forward, because that's where it's really needed, particularly in south-east Wales, because you have complex movements across boundaries, particularly. That's the real benefit of working at that regional collaborative area.

13:10

So, you would think then, from your earlier comments, that the strategic development plan in spatial, larger planning would work more with the joint strategic committees around particularly transport and the economy.

Absolutely, yes.

And that would be more optimum than what we have at the moment.

Okay, thank you. So, with regard to the amount of Welsh Government statements, circulars and guidance, and also in terms of 'Planning Policy Wales', there's obviously a lot there and there's been a lot of change and a lot of, you could say, churn in the system. How do you feel that, for instance, making it more resilient with regard to that churn would help with the day job in terms of—? Do you feel, then, that there are too many new developments being thrown at local authorities in this regard, or are they helping make the system more resilient? How would you encapsulate that?

In terms of the policy and guidance that comes from Welsh Government? 

I suppose we're going through a shift, certainly post the introduction of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. So, there has needed to be adjustment on that, and with climate action, et cetera. So, we've needed clarification on policy. So, the rewrite, if you like, of 'Planning Policy Wales: Edition 10' just over a year ago, that helped in moving that forward. So, I'd like to think that any policy that does come out helps that there's been an issue with it before. As an example, the coastal planning technical advice note 14 is very out of date and very old, so there is work to reform that.

So, you'd say that there's a need for, perhaps, more input, then, in terms of direction rather than less.

Well it's more, I suppose, modernisation, bringing it up to date with whether there are technological changes or a change in thinking—the evidence with climate action, et cetera. So, there's always a need for policy to be adapted and updated, and where, perhaps, policy isn't clear, there need to be clarifications, but I think we should always be guarded that there isn't change for change's sake.

One thing that we would really like to see, which I think would help everyone, is the consolidation of planning law for Wales, certainly since we've had the separation from English law as well. But even without that, there are parts of Welsh law that are littered across various different Acts, whether they be England-and-Wales Acts or Wales-specific ones. So, to bring that into a consolidation, I think, would help everyone.

So, with regard to the complexity, you would agree with that particular point.

Yes, and there are certain times where—. I couldn't give you a specific example, but lawyers have said that where a particular new piece of legislation has come forward, but perhaps that sends off another piece, so they don't sit together very well. 

Yes. And there can be challenge about, actually, which piece of law applies in Wales or doesn't apply.

Thank you. With regard to that current multi-layered, multi-faceted day job, which is the day job, do you feel that the amount of work to be done is actually stopping the day job to a certain extent; that there's so much out there that it's getting increasingly difficult to manage?

In terms of policy, it is. There are so many more demands on the planning system now. Some would say that that is right because there are so many needs. You really need to take into account communities—

Is that not part of the job? I'm trying to make the point—.

Yes, it is, but there are new ways. So, the well-being of future generations Act now, it's not just consultation, it's actually involvement with the communities, and that does take a lot more. So, I suppose the day job has developed further. All of the climate actions—. I mean, sustainable development: planners have been doing that for a long, long time—sustainable development, balancing the different elements together, but now there's much more focus on those different elements, and climate action, it isn't just about flooding; there's much more emphasis on—it's a much more detailed aspect.

Just on that point, you've mentioned the well-being of future generations and you've just mentioned the climate emergency. I mean, these must be huge areas for planners to factor in, because, as you say, it's more than just flooding. It's how people will travel to work from new developments and what their carbon footprint will be. What sort of pressures have those put on the planning system?

There's a lot and I think it's people's attention and focus now. When I say 'people', it's politicians like yourselves and local politicians, but also the public as well are making demands, so where your housing is relative to where there is access to either active travel or public transport, and good public transport services as well, which are effective, but also, the move away from the private car, and I think that's a big shift that society is trying to deal with at the moment, and planners are trying to help that process, but it's a big societal shift as well.

13:15

You've partially outlined the benefits of a strategic development plan, unless there's anything more you want to add to that, but is there anything more that you think Welsh Government should be looking at doing to make the planning system more efficient?

I think, as I mentioned, consolidation would work well. I think we just need more; we need more resources applied within local planning authorities, so not just the local authority settlement, but actually into planning authorities.

Is that because from the evidence that you've already taken that you feel that they have reduced and shrunk and diminished in size? Or am I putting words into your mouth?

Yes. Local planning authorities are always under pressure to make budget cuts for other services within local councils, but actually, proportionately, and the impact that they can have by working well doesn't balance.

Okay, and just if I may, Chair, with regard to the point that you made earlier, around amalgamation or merger of councils, and also, to a certain extent, the joint strategic committees, do you feel that that, overall, will enable and make planning authorities more resilient, or will it detract from that localism that you've talked about, or is it a matter of resources? There are a couple of things in there.

Yes. I think it's more about the resources as well. If you just take the development management system, there will be savings in terms of potentially senior management staff, and those kind of issues and sharing of—

Is that not quite a—[Inaudible.]—view, though, because in terms of everything that needs to underpin that—?

Absolutely. But then, you'd still need the same number of case officers per application, so actually merging authorities doesn't make any savings in that sense, and you need your—

But will it make planning authorities more resilient, is my point.

Thank you. I've got some questions around the process of dealing with and deciding on planning applications. So, firstly, the auditor general's report concludes that with the reduction in funding and the complexity of the planning system, the result has been that local planning authorities take longer to decide on planning applications, so I'm interested in your thoughts, really, on whether the process for applying, managing, and assessing planning applications is too complicated.

It is very, very involved, and there's an awful lot of information that has to come along with the planning application, so I suppose before you look at the local planning authority, you need to ask, 'Has the right information come in?' And part of that would be, 'Has it been publicised correctly about what information needs to come forward?' So, are all the appropriate studies in place, to support that planning application? How much engagement and involvement has taken place with the community as well beforehand, so then that creates a better understanding within the community about what is being proposed. And as referred to before, community can mean lots of different things: it can mean your local population, it can mean a much bigger area, or it could mean the business community, so looking at all those types of issues. And there is a need—. This comes down to the resources and the specialist resources and about whether local planning authorities have got the specialist in-house staff to assess all those technical reports that come forward and to understand them and interpret them, to sit alongside everything else that they interpret as well.

Okay, thank you. And in terms of the efficiency of planning processes, there are still concerns that delays can hold back desirable investment with the start-to-end time for major applications, including infrastructure projects, often running into years rather than months. What do you think can be done to improve the efficiency of decision-making for those major types of planning applications?

13:20

Some authorities do a process of making sure that before the clock starts, if you like, on those timetables, they do have all the information, so, before they validate a planning application, they have what are called 'clean applications', if you like, they have everything in, and then that can make it a much more efficient process.

One of the other issues, I think, with regard to the whole process and perhaps time taken, is that it's not just the local planning authority resources that need to be looked at, it's the other statutory consultees. So, that might be within the local authority but outside the planning authority, so your highways input, Natural Resources Wales, as well. Have they got the resources and the prioritisation for those applications? Because those are very important responses that need to come in to the planning authority to make a decision. As I understand it, sometimes they can be slow, or perhaps what you receive isn't as helpful as perhaps is needed by the planning authority to make a decision as well.

Thank you. Moving on to planning committees themselves, then, the auditor general's report highlights some concerns with their capability and their effectiveness. Do you think planning committees are working effectively?

I couldn't comment on the detail of it. We commissioned a study—

No. I just have a hands-on knowledge of it now; I'm not evading it, honest. We did a study, which Welsh Government gave us funding for, in the run-up to the planning Act being undertaken, where we commissioned people to look at the effectiveness of planning committees in Wales. There were a lot of recommendations that came forward, most of which have now been implemented.

One area that isn't implemented is the compulsory training, specialist training, if you like, for planning committee members. So, I think that would help. You do hear quite often about, perhaps, a misunderstanding of role. Individuals on planning committees are under a lot of pressure for their local constituents or for other members' constituents on the committee as well. So, there is that very personal side that they come up against, and that is the democratic process within there, but is that in the long-term good of the area as well? So, they need to understand that side of it.

So, with those parochial, local, political concerns, do you think more powers should be delegated to officers to get around that?

I think there's a reasonable level of delegation already. Perhaps in some areas, the overturn for that—not the overturn of decisions, necessarily, but the call-in for just one objection to it—they need to perhaps be tightened up and revised on that sense. Because planning committees need to be positive engagement, as well, for the members to be on it for them to act positively. So, making it more effective for them to serve on committees would help them, I think, as well.

Okay. And talking about overturn in the other sense of the word, then, why do you think the proportion of officer recommendations overturned by planning committee are so high? And have you got any ideas about how that could be addressed?

I think that varies markedly across different local planning authorities. So, some don't have many. Some authorities take their members out on site visits—not the site visits as part of the process, but as, perhaps, a kind of briefing review process to say, 'You gave permission for this overturning', or it could be a positive example as well. So, there's learning from perhaps why developments didn't work, or have worked, from decisions at planning committee. That's a very positive area as well, and it gives a bit of reality to the planning committee.

Okay, and moving on to appeals, then, just over a third of planning appeals are dismissed and the local authority's decision is thereby overturned. So, given the reduction in resources in the last decade, lost appeals can reduce capacity even further. So, why do you think there is such a high proportion of appeals being overturned?

I don't know the detail for that, but there will be some correlation with the overturn issue as well, not complete, but there will be some correlation there that could be looked at, and that's always a helpful review for the planning committee to undertake personally. There will be others. As I mentioned the other statutory consultees, there is also the need to review PINS and review their decisions, for there always to be a monitoring of that as well. Are they using the most up-to-date policy and thinking in that sense? I'm not saying they're not, but that always needs to be kept under review as well.

13:25

Could there be an element of developers, particularly big developers, being able to game the system?

I wouldn't like to say that, but they obviously can employ professionals who understand the system in detail, and will use that.

Just before you go on, Jenny Rathbone, did you have a supplementary?

I just wanted to probe this a bit further, because you said earlier there is a need for consolidation of planning law in Wales. So, how much do you think it's planning inspectors coming from England who simply aren't aware of the Planning (Wales) Act 2015? Because certainly I've known frustration where inspectors simply have ignored the local development plan and particular policy decisions that were taken by local authorities.

As I understand it, the Planning Inspectorate that operates in Wales, which is managed on a Wales basis although it's part of an England and Wales set-up, does have Welsh-specific inspectors. So, those inspectors, whether they're based in Wales or in England, largely only work on Welsh cases. So, they should be fully understanding of the policy context within Wales, certainly. Perhaps that is something to review. I'm not aware of those cases, but that is—

Okay. Well, for example, on trying to prevent certain districts being completely overrun by houses of multiple occupation, trying to limit the number of HMOs in areas that are already overprovided for in that regard, or where the transport links simply aren't there to justify a large housing development.

I think, with those, you do have to look at the local development plan and is the local development plan up to date in those contexts as well. 'Planning Policy Wales' has, as you know, just over a year ago, been updated, but there were a lot of plans in place already for those. So, was the policy strong enough when those applications were made and the appeal decisions undertaken?

My final question is on enforcement. The auditor general's report picked up a range of issues there. For example, the time taken to carry out enforcement investigations has remained static, the range of performance across Wales is widely variable, and positive action following investigation is poor. Why are local planning authorities not prioritising enforcement work, given its potentially high citizen and community impact and benefit?

The enforcement function within an authority is you have to have an enforcement team, but authorities will, on a case-by-case basis, decide whether it's expedient to take that forward, and when they measure up the amount of resources they have available, that is something that they would need to think about in that sense.

Okay. Enforcement powers are mostly discretionary, so do you think there should be a compulsory requirement on all local planning authorities to provide a minimum standard of enforcement service?

I think you'll probably find that they do already provide a minimum service, it's just how much action that they can take, in that sense. There were some loopholes before that have been tightened up now, but maybe that could be considered again. But enforcement cases can become very complex and time-consuming.

Diolch. Good afternoon. As we've been probably making clear from this to any member of the public who is watching, the planning system is very complicated, and the danger there is that there could be a disconnect with members of the public. So, my first question would be: how effective do you think local planning authorities are in engaging with the public and with the community? And as you've said, again, 'the community' can mean lots of different things. How effective do you think they are in engaging with communities, in its many senses, in terms of shaping planning issues and also deciding whether the planning issues actually go ahead, or how they're worked out?

13:30

It is very complex, and the whole process of engaging with communities is. There are lots of different people, and even if you're talking about one community, a street of residents, they will all have different views as well. So, it is very complex, and that's where the local authority has to take what is in the long term public interest. What direction do we need for this neighbourhood, town, city, whole local authority area? That's what the local development plan does.

I think one of the biggest problems we have in planning across the UK is: how do you engage with the silent majority, if you like, the people who don't engage? You do find that there is a certain group of people who will become involved and be most vocal, so most heard. So, how do we engage more? There is work under way to try and—. How do you tap those people? So, social media, for example, and how do you use that effectively and efficiently. In some ways, it could be a bottomless pit of money as well. But there are effective ways of doing that.

So, with more resource within a local authority, they would have more opportunity to do that, and there is a need to get people more interested in the local development plan. People tend to get most interested when they know what's happening in the field next to them, or the house next to them, or nearby. And that's understandable because you can visualise it, you can understand the impact. But when you talk about the whole local authority plan, sometimes that's difficult to visualise and understand how that's changing.

Thank you. In terms of engaging and directly engaging with the public, you say in your report, if I can find the right part of it, that:

'Too often community participation is not resourced as a key part of the planning process',

and the benefits of greater resourcing, as you were just saying,

'would include greater social cohesion, greater trust in government, and a closer link between communities and land use.'

They're really fundamental concepts and benefits that would be far-reaching, again, in lots of different ways. Now, you mentioned just then that thought has been given to maybe looking at engaging with the public in different ways, possibly with social media. At the moment, the Welsh Government guidance tends to focus on traditional approaches to engagement—posters on lampposts and letter drops and adverts in the local papers—but that may not be exactly where communities, in their many senses, will go to get news. You'd almost need to be looking in a local newspaper at the local adverts in order to be able to find them. So, again, it's the difference, as you say, between the silent majority who are not actively engaged themselves and knowing where to look.

So, is there anything else, aside from what you said, that you think that the Welsh Government could do to improve community involvement? And aside from social media—looking as well at possibly older generations, people who are less likely to use social media—what more do you think the Welsh Government could be doing there to widen participation?

One thing that you've touched on is the newspaper advertising; actually, that is a requirement for local planning authorities. But actually, in today's society, how many people read those newspapers? That would free up resources that local planning authorities could apply more effectively, and to engage with others.

I would suggest that, whilst the older community don't necessarily engage with social media, actually the evidence is that they are big users of it. They are the people who get more involved in consultations at the moment.

So, I think it's using things like the youth parliament, getting into schools, so that people understand what the planning process is all about and what it's trying to achieve. Because I think there's a misunderstanding about planning and what it does. People see it just as the planning application going in, and quite a negative process, whereas actually we want to make it a more positive process, or an understanding of it being more positive if people get engaged with it and are helped in that process. So, we need to do that.

We've just launched some free online training, which I shared with the clerk following the last session we had, for local authorities to try and use their media much more—all sorts of media, whether it be tv or print—in terms of telling the good news stories about what planning has done. And so, I think we need to be more on the front foot in terms of shouting about what planning has positively done. 

13:35

I agree with you. Also, we've heard that in a previous evidence session, actually—or it may have been in a round-table that we had—about the need to, again, talk not just about negative experiences and people reacting to something that they're worried about, but finding ways of having the public to feel more that they are shaping plans as well as reacting to them. That's really key. I don't have a question on that, I'm just agreeing with what you said. Thank you. 

Thank you. 

Thanks. The 'Planning Policy Wales' document started talking about this idea of place plans that could be used as a key element determining land use, conservation and development at local level. But the auditor general has found that, so far, there hasn't been much progress in developing these. Are place plans a useful tool, do you think, to improve engagement and involvement at a community level? And if they are useful, in your view, why has there been limited progress on developing them? 

Yes, they could be a very useful way. They do take a lot of local authority resource, though, to support the community in developing a place plan. There's also the timing issue with them as well, because they have to be in line with the local development plan. So, they can't be saying different things for that area than the local development plan does. So, perhaps what could happen is that they come along together, so that the place plan development is part of the local development plan development as well. There would need to be an assessment of whether that is possible under the current rules, so maybe an amendment might be needed, I'm not sure on that. But I think we do need to understand that it does take support from the local planning authority that's required so, again, that's more resource, but it would be a good engagement process. 

Right, thanks. That's clarified some of that, thanks very much. You were on about aligning it with the LDP, is there also a case for making place plans a material consideration and requiring them to form part of the wider local plan framework, as is the case with neighbourhood plans in England? You may have partly tackled that. 

The neighbourhood plans in England go through a far different process and come down to referendums with communities, and are less in line with the local plans. So, actually, you could end up with contradictions there as well. But the place plans, as they currently stand in Wales, once they're adopted, they form what's called supplementary planning guidance, so that is supplementary guidance to the local development plan. So, it would form part of the material considerations for a plan, if they go further. I think the issue is, as you referred to at the start, not many have come forward. 

Yes, thanks. As part of the Planning (Wales) Act 2015, the Welsh Government made it compulsory for developers to consult with local communities before applying for major developments. Is this new requirement improving the quality and the relevance of new developments? 

I think—ask most people within the planning system, whether they be developers or local planning authorities or other people who work with communities—that the process doesn't quite work. The idea behind it, the principle behind it, is very laudable and something we should support in terms of getting developers to do upfront work, if you like, before they've finished their design and development.

Unfortunately, the requirement is that they consult on what they're going to apply for planning permission for, but in many ways that's too late in the design process for the community to influence the design of the project. So, in a way, it's come too early. What we'd like to see is developers doing that as part of their design process, just naturally, without the need for regulation. And this was to try and push them forward in that direction. So, in a way, local authorities don’t know that this is happening, necessarily. So, unless they're heavily engaged with the project through their own pre-consultation engagement with the developer, they wouldn't necessarily know it's happening. So, that causes confusion with the public as well, because they might approach the local planning authority for information and the authority doesn't know that this engagement is happening.

13:40

What do you think would be the best way of dealing with that problem?

I think it's about perhaps having it as more genuine about engagement and involvement with the local community. So, less about consultation on the actual planning application that's going to be submitted, and taking it much further back in the process, and for the developer to explain what it has done in terms of engagement with the relevant communities.

So, there would be some requirement for the developers to explain that engagement before they could proceed with the planning application.

Yes, and how they've responded to comments they've had. That's the biggest frustration you get from the public in that they engage with a developer, and then nothing changes. There are some things that couldn't change on a particular development, depending on the site, et cetera, but if that's explained to the community, then there's more understanding, but quite often there's no understanding.

Just before you go on, Gareth, do you think there's a sense there of the public feeling that we're going through the motions? We often get this as Assembly Members—we get constituents saying, 'We know we've got this right to feed into a process, but is it really going to make any difference?' There seems to be a cynicism out there that would be good to get rid of. 

Yes, absolutely. I'd agree with that.

What you two have just said is sort of leading on to the next question. I don't know if there's any more light that can be shed on it, but the question is: are local planning authorities able to influence and change the developer's behaviour if they aren't effectively consulting with local communities?

No, not in terms of the behaviour—no. They can ask for information, they can perhaps put conditions on planning applications et cetera, but they couldn't change the behaviour.

It can't change their behaviour, so what is the purpose of the Planning (Wales) Act 2015 then? They're supposed to be consulting before they actually submit anything. If they're then just saying, 'Well, we did that, but we'll ignore it all', then the planning Act obviously needs to be changed.

I'm talking about behaviour rather than the specific action. So, it would be much better if developers—. Some developers do do it; they do that natural engagement in terms of the design process and do much more upfront development. And you do hear cases then, when they go for planning permission, they get little or no objection from communities.

Indeed, but are planning authorities really insisting that developers do that? Because, obviously then, it saves all the anger that you get at planning committees.

They require the formal PAC process—the pre-application consultation. They have to have done that to be able to apply for the planning permission. But the upfront design, that's a culture and behaviour that isn't required by legislation, unless you change that PAC process to put it forward—that's more difficult. 

Okay, thank you. The planning Act introduces the statutory purpose for the planning system and, importantly, requires local authorities to exercise their functions in accordance with the principles of sustainable development, as outlined in the well-being of future generations Act. What evidence is there that local planning authorities have effectively integrated the requirements of the Act into their planning policies and day-to-day work?

I think, in some ways, it's quite difficult for local planning authorities to show a change in shift in that, because as planners professionally and as local planning authorities, we have been working on sustainable development for a long time—for many years. So, to show a shift change would be quite difficult—'Oh, we've woken up to sustainable development'—because they have been doing it already. But there is a change in terms of they're adapting to the five ways of working. I think that would be the main area of change, perhaps going from consultation, which is just telling someone that something's happening and 'You can tell us—', to involvement, looking more at those.

And I'm currently working with some officers from local planning authorities representing all Wales's local planning authorities with the future generations commissioner's office on something they call planning journeys about what changes could be made. So, we are working together to look at what other changes should take place for the process and what small changes they can make, perhaps what bigger changes need to be made as well. And, I think, as well, local development plans, the newer ones that are coming forward are taking more account of that as well, and looking at those five ways of working in terms of their development.

13:45

I mean, you say that planning authorities were already working in line with sustainable development, but yet we still have a lot of plans that obviously—housing dumped in areas where there is insufficient public transport, where they don't insist on a school and a health centre and shops to be integrated into that development. So, it may be working in some places, but it certainly hasn't been happening in others.

I'd agree with you, but with the legislation comes the opportunity and the ability to have stronger policy as well. So, that legislation has helped with that. There's only so much you can do without that strong policy drive, which needed to come from legislation and political leadership in that sense as well. I'd agree with that. 

Okay, thank you. Section 106 agreements at the moment remain the primary means to ensure that developments actually pay for the infrastructure that makes them possible. However, less than 10 per cent of developments attract a section 106 agreement and there are countless examples of where the developer then waters them down afterwards by saying they can't afford to do it now. How could section 106 agreements be an effective means of ensuring that there is adequate public infrastructure provision on new developments?

I think one way is resourcing—I'm going back to this local planning authority resourcing in terms of having the opportunity and the ability within the local planning authority to make sure that things are paid, you have strong agreements in those senses, and enforcing that as well. So, the Vale of Glamorgan, for example, has an officer who is dedicated to section 106 and delivering those section 106s. They don't deliver it themselves, but they make sure that they monitor it, and they have stopped developments where things weren't going according to the plan in that sense. So, it can be done, but it does take resourcing. Of course, the Vale of Glamorgan does have, perhaps, higher value rates than others, so it can demand this from the developers.

Okay. So, are you saying that the Vale of Glamorgan is the exception to the rule and others simply aren't enforcing it? 

Yes, because they don't have the resources, perhaps, and they haven't been able to put those resources forward. I think an understanding within an authority as well that what planning can deliver—. And it isn't just a tick-box exercise; it provides a much bigger strategic opportunity for the authority to deliver these good developments that then don't have negative impacts on other public service delivery, like the schools that you mentioned, about having the healthcare facilities as well. And we would argue for having a chief planning officer that reports directly to the chief executive so that those spatial issues, spatial understanding, is brought to the forefront and prioritised within a council.

Just before you go on, Jenny, there are a couple of supplementaries on that point. 

Thank you. It just seems extraordinary to me that section 106 exists and yet it can be disregarded if it, suddenly, further down the line, is no longer compatible with the developer's plans. I mean, are you aware—? As far as you're aware, is there a comparable international example of something like section 106 where the power is more with the local authority to ensure that something like this does go ahead?

No, I'm not aware of that. Certainly, in continental Europe, actually, all the infrastructure is funded by the public purse upfront, so the developers pay less into it in that sense. I'm not aware of any other comparisons on that.

13:50

But it would be—. Sorry, just very quickly, do you think—? That's leading. Should the legislation—could it be strengthened in any way in order to make it clear that local authorities do have the power to enforce that, or to call a halt to a development if the developer changes their plans subsequently?

Sometimes, the section 106 is no longer required, because something might have changed within the application. I can't think of an example for that, but there might be genuine reasons, and then, you don't need to spend that. The development just might not come forward. People often say that there's so much section 106 committed, but then not much of it spent. Some of that will be because the development hasn't come forward anyway, so there's no need for it. The powers are there for a local authority to take that forward, but they just need the resourcing to do that.

I interrupted you, Jenny, in full flow, so Jenny, then I'll bring Rhianon Passmore in.

The most common example is that they renege on their obligation to provide affordable housing—that's just the most common thing. And you say in your paper that planning authorities have adapted to survive by adopting private sector working practices, and aggressive pro-development stances, so should we be surprised that they then renege on these affordable housing obligations?

Yes. They often come down to complex negotiations and changes, so you need the skills and the power within the local authority; not the legislative power—that's there—but the confidence to take that forward.

So, basically, the developer is bullying the local authority, pleading poverty, right, to say, 'Therefore, we will disregard the whole sections of the community who need affordable housing.'

I wouldn't use the word 'bullying', but there can be changes in the negotiation on—.

Okay. So, how, then, do we ensure that planning authorities have the necessary skills to robustly negotiate these contributions and these draft section 106 agreements and ensure that they actually are delivered? Because it is really undermining any sort of planning process if they sign on the dotted line, 'Oh, yes, we'll definitely do that,' and then, once they start putting up their development, they say, 'Oh, no, we can't afford this now.'

Well, it is a legal requirement. The section 106, when it gets signed, is a legal requirement, so the authority needs to take that forward. There are different stances. One is having a senior chief planning officer who has that power, who isn't junior, who can take that forward. The corporate, the chief executive, everything that supports that process as well—taking on big developers, potentially, and being willing to do that, and putting resource in. Having the resources in terms of the officers and the political support locally as well, but certainly the officers with the time, the skills and the knowledge to be able to drive that forward: those are all really, really important aspects to deliver that. There's not one single thing, but it's the approach by the authority overall, in terms of how it sees the development coming forward.

You seem to be saying that chief planning officers and chief executives are simply looking the other way.

No, they're not looking the other way. I think—

But they should be intervening if some junior planning officer is being, I would say, bullied, but you use another phrase, to allow them to renege on their section 106 agreements—which could indeed be a corrupt relationship. Then, obviously, you need more senior people to come in and say, 'This is a legal requirement.'

There are only two authorities in Wales that have a chief planning officer who reports directly into the chief executive, so that's only two out of 25. The others are the senior director, if you like, who has a plethora of other responsibilities and perhaps not a geographical spatial focus about those decisions, so that's one thing—that there isn't that senior power with the understanding.

13:55

Okay. Well, we note your recommendation, and I hope we'll take that seriously. Are there other major skills gaps that need to be filled, or other things that we can do to try and make these section 106 agreements stick?

No, that's the size of it. I'm not sure about the legal input into it within local authorities—I couldn't comment on that—but, obviously, there is a requirement for legal input into the actual agreement to make sure that it works, in that sense.

Okay. There is an alternative approach—the community infrastructure levy, which allows planning authorities to charge new developments, using that money to fund the infrastructure required. But the auditor general notes that only three local planning authorities have introduced this community infrastructure levy scheme. Could you explain why that is? I hadn't heard of it, to be honest.

The community infrastructure was first introduced on an England-and-Wales basis. It was developed to try and address the issues within, certainly, the south-east of England, where huge sums of money were being raised by landowners that went from agricultural land to housing land—and you can imagine in the south-east of England the huge money just made by paper transaction. So, the community infrastructure levy was to address that issue: so, to put that money into the infrastructure rather than just with a major focus on the landowner profit, in that sense. So, it was written with high land value in mind. So, perhaps it doesn't work in Wales because we don't have those huge rises. We do have rises in land value, but not perhaps to the extent that you do in the south-east of England. So, it applies across Wales. It has now—in the last couple of years, it has now been devolved to Welsh Government. So, they do have the opportunity to change it, review it.

We certainly have landowners holding on to land, thinking, 'Oh, I may be able to make a killing out of this in the future'.

Yes, absolutely.

So, the three local planning authorities that have introduced this community infrastructure levy, are they in areas of high development?

Yes. Yes, they would be more—. Some have them, but it might be a zero charging schedule as well, so they don't actually—. It tends to be more akin to a roof tax. So, if you have 100 houses in this area, you will be charged x per house.

Like a roof tax, yes. So, yes, x per house, and you have it on the day you start your development. So, you have all the money upfront. So, that, of course, then really impacts on the viability of developments, because a developer needs cash flow in order to take things forward. So, it can be quite difficult, in that sense. And it's quite different, as well, to the section 106. Section 106 is meant to be about what is specifically needed for that development to make it acceptable in planning terms, whereas the community infrastructure levy is, 'You are having 100 houses; you might be providing all the public infrastructure, but you will be giving us that x amount of money'. And it can be spent off-site and it can be merged with other authorities to develop other things.

So, is there more that needs to be done to encourage local authorities to use this additional tool in the armoury?

No. I think it needs to be reviewed in a Wales-only context, because of the viability issues. So, it needs to be looked at in terms of how do CIL and section 106 work together—what's the most appropriate tool for Wales, in that sense.

Great. A couple of supplementaries, and then I'm going to bring Oscar in. First of all, Rhianon Passmore.

Thank you. That was interesting. In regard to your theme, which is about more resources and, in particular, more human resources on the ground, what would enable planning authorities, in your view—briefly, as it's a supplementary—to better interweave the future generations Act and the five ways of working? Because, obviously, it's integral to future. I think it's the same answer.

Yes. It's looking at those five ways of working. As I said, this work that I'm doing with the Planning Officers Society Wales and the future generations commissioner's office might bring out some factors on those.

Thank you, Chair. Going back to the section 106 issue, which is pretty contentious, you said that only the Vale of Glamorgan had a dedicated section 106 officer. I just found it slightly surprising that Cardiff has had so many developments in recent years, many of which have been quite controversial, and they don't seemingly have an officer dedicated to section 106.

14:00

Sorry, just to clarify, they might do. I am aware of the Vale of Glamorgan; I know Newport does as well, but the Vale of Glamorgan take it very seriously. So, I was just citing an example that I'm—. Apologies if I—

Okay, and you also mentioned the two where they have the chief planning officer reporting directly to the CE, but you didn't mention which ones they were.

Flintshire and Ceredigion. I believe Neath Port Talbot now, through a promotion, have it, but it might be a wider remit as well.

I just—I'm probably going too far now, but I was just thinking that it seems, from what you were saying, that the enforcement was the problem. The law is there, so section 106 can be enforced, but maybe it's not in the culture of certain councils to actually go hell for leather for enforcement of it.

It's the time to be able to do the full job that's available to them.

Thank you very much, Chair, and I didn't put any supplementary, because I don't have much time now, but the fact is—I'll ask you very quickly, Dr Roisin—

All right. Wonderful. Thank you. The thing is that we know the budget cuts for planning services, half within the last 10 years, and your applications are nearly 24,000 a year, that sort of thing. So, capacity—. And you mentioned planning committee training in your—. So, there's a constraint on budgets to give the full services. Have you got enough skillset or properly skilled, qualified people? Because planning is a very important issue. Because, the thing is, it not only carries public and critical interest, but it's also environmental these days. So, basically, where do you put your finger to make sure the public get the best services out of your department?

Yes, this is something we say, and it goes back to our chief planning officer argument about that you need to have an understanding across the council to understand what your spatial decisions are—so, what your education department does, what your social services department does, what your parks department does. It all has an impact on those, and having someone that understands that and can prioritise those issues is really important, so that the council as a whole acts strategically in that sense. If you like, it's a spatial interpretation of the council's corporate priorities.

Another issue linked to that, but at the other end, really, is getting entrants—people to come into the planning profession, and particularly into local planning authorities. We're really finding a shift in terms of people newly going into the profession are favouring the private sector; they really don't want to go into the public sector. We're thinking that planning apprenticeships could be a way of helping people come into the local authorities, et cetera. So, it's something we're trying to encourage. We have it running in England, and it's running very well, but we'd like to introduce it in Wales.

Okay. Thank you. Planning helps provide regeneration and place shaping, and proactive planning can help create places where people want to live and work. Do you think local planning authorities are using their land-use planning powers to effectively promote new development and improvement?

They are doing that, and I think more could be done if the authority as a whole worked strategically in that sense. There could be more wins, if you like, more campaigns, if the whole authority came together. Plymouth council has a very good example of how they use the planning powers on housing to strategically address the whole of the authority and how housing is brought forward, and that worked really effectively.

Is there any system in your planning department that best practice should be shared among others?

We try to through conferencing and publications. The Planning Officers Society Wales is very good, as well, at sharing experiences amongst their members as well.

Do you know that good design can enhance well-being and do you think that local planning authorities have the skills, experience and capabilities to design and deliver good quality developments in their areas?

There are lots of very good skills within local authorities as well. They need to be given the time, though, to focus on those issues and, of course, they can do with more skills as well—

You mentioned earlier—I personally think there's a brain drain. People like to go to the private sector, rather than—

Absolutely.

So, how can you attract people to come on board to make sure they give the best service for the future generation?

14:05

It does come down to—. Partly because of resourcing—so, if you think that you need a—. If you want to do that kind of thinking work and deliver good work, you need time to be able to do that. If you're being inundated by huge workloads that you're just trying to rush through, it's not very rewarding for you. Some people thrive on it, but the majority would want more time. So, it points to that resourcing as a large issue, I would say. 

Okay. And then finally, given the limitation of the national performance reporting framework, which judges inputs, outputs and timelines, how should local authorities demonstrate the impact of their work on improving well-being outcomes?

That's very interesting, because we've just commissioned some work on this, and Welsh Government are supporting it. It's also covering Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and England, where we're looking at outcomes—so, not your timelines, that performance management, but what is planning delivering outside that: so, what are the health benefits, what are the environmental benefits, and how can we measure that and build it into the reporting system. So, ask me again in a few months and I'll be able to report on that.

I think I'll stop warning you about time limits in future. You are much more concise when I just let you say what you want.

Okay. Can I thank our witness, Dr Roisin Willmott, for being with us today? That was quite a marathon for you, being on your own there, but it did mean that you could elaborate as much as you wanted to on those issues. Thanks for answering our questions. We'll send you a transcript of today for you to check for accuracy before we publish it or take any more action. Thank you for being with us.

Thank you. Thank you very much. 

Okay. Our next session isn't due to start until 14:10, so a five-minute break or so? Yes. 

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 14:07 ac 14:16.

The meeting adjourned between 14:07 and 14:16.

14:15
3. Effeithiolrwydd Awdurdodau Cynllunio Lleol yng Nghymru: Sesiwn dystiolaeth gyda Chymdeithas Llywodraeth Leol Cymru
3. Effectiveness of Local Planning Authorities in Wales: Evidence Session with Welsh Local Government Association

Can I welcome Members back to this afternoon's meeting of the Public Accounts Committee? Can I also welcome our witnesses? We are pursuing our inquiry into the effectiveness of local planning authorities in Wales, and it's good to have now an evidence session with the Welsh Local Government Association. Would you like to give your name and position for the Record of Proceedings? Shall we start over on my left? 

Hello. My name's Andrew Farrow. I'm the chief planning officer for Flintshire County Council. I also look after the economy and the environment there as well. 

Prynhawn da. I'm head of planning, Llinos Quelch, for Carmarthenshire County Council. 

Good afternoon. My name's Craig Mitchell from WLGA. I'm head of waste. 

Hi. My name is Nicola Pearce. I'm director of environment and regeneration. I've only been in post a month. Prior to that, I was head of planning and public protection for Neath Port Talbot Council. 

Good afternoon. I'm Mark Hand. I'm the head of placemaking, housing, highways and flooding for Monmouthshire County Council. 

Good. Welcome. I've known most of you from different inquiries and places, but not normally all together in one place. It's good for the committee to have you. Thanks for being with us. If I can kick off with the first question. The auditor general's report highlights that there's been significant reduction in funding in local planning authority services. Where has the reduction in budget been felt most in the services provided by local planning authorities in Wales? Who wants to take that? Craig.

Perhaps if I start. I think, clearly, all services across local authorities have had to respond to the changing circumstances and find new ways of working, and I think we'll touch on some of those today. I think in terms of that resilience, authorities are already seeking to try and share expertise across authorities. So, we have the example in the north looking at ecology and biodiversity; we have minerals and waste services being shared across authorities.

Again, as part of the local development plan process, authorities are looking to try and commission joint evidence and research to try and collaborate as much as possible across LDPs because, clearly, people live their lives across political boundaries and we have to reflect that in terms of the LDP development. And, obviously, with the strategic development plans coming forward, or being something to be thought about, there's that element of regional working that authorities will need to address. 

I think the key thing around resilience is also some work that the WLGA commissioned a little while ago, with Welsh Government funding, from the planning advisory service. That was looking forensically at the cost of delivering services across Wales for different authorities because, clearly, with the size of authorities, it does vary. And what that did was try to identify all those costs corporately for an organisation, and to look at what authorities were receiving in planning fees, for example. Clearly, we would argue that planning fees shouldn't pay for the whole of the planning service, because planning provides a public good, but there is a significant mismatch between what planning fees deliver to most authorities and what the cost of that service is.

So, we're now currently working with Welsh Government, there's a working group looking at that. There have been consultants commissioned to try and look at the fee structure; how that could work, how it could be made to be more equitable, and to understand the different impacts of a different fee structure and how that works. One of the issues for longer-term resilience and sustainability is that fee structure and the income that authorities derive from it.

14:20

Anyone else want to add to that? Andrew Farrow, then Nicola Pearce.

Perhaps just an example of how we've had to approach that 43 per cent loss from Flintshire's perspective: I think the basic principle is we've tried to protect the front line. So, the actual number of planning officers dealing with applications and enforcement officers we've tried to keep the same. Where the savings have come from, and they can be quite significant savings, is in management costs. So, a reduction in the number of team leaders and amalgamation of roles at that sort of level, but always trying to protect the front line, really. That's been our principle, to do that.

I share that opinion. The problem that we have got in my particular authority, and possibly a number of others, is that our service has been hit significantly worse than perhaps education and social services. We've been going through a period of austerity probably since about 2008, and our service area has reduced by about 50 per cent; yet the legislative burdens associated with delivering the planning service have increased, and that has resulted in increased pressures on officers. Funding has reduced over time, and we are being pressurised to deliver a budget-neutral position in planning authorities, and that's becoming more and more difficult.

And as was referred to earlier on by Craig, it was never intended that planning fees would cover all the development management services, because you are operating in the interests of the public and, obviously, the policy side of planning isn't covered by any fee income. So, I would say that planning generally, as a local authority service, has suffered in terms of the ability to deliver services in line with the budget that is given to that particular service.  

Okay, I want to bring some other Members in now. Jenny Rathbone.

Eliminating middle management seems like the easy bit. What about examples that the auditor general talks about from England, where local planning authorities have sought to reduce costs and build resilience by creating joint development plans and joint planning policies? In one case, in Plymouth in south-west Devon, also working with Dartmoor National Park Authority, they made savings of over £1.5 million and had three new trainee planning officers. Could someone amongst you tell us why it is none of you have gone down that route as yet? Although, I believe Gwynedd and Ynys Môn have indeed done that.

I think, as Dr Willmott indicated earlier on, local authorities are at different stages in terms of the preparation and adoption of their LDPs. So, for example, if you've got one LDP that is two years ahead of others in a region then they're not necessarily going to hold back while the other authorities catch up so you can do a joint LPD, because they're under pressure to have an adopted plan that is fit for purpose to ensure that development management decisions have regard to the most up-to-date policy position.

What authorities are doing, however, is we are collecting evidence for the LDPs together. So, for example, in the region that my authority is based in, we are collecting evidence on viability, which was mentioned earlier on, so we have a regional evidence base to tackle the issues of viability. We're also engaging consultants to undertake a regional housing market needs assessment for the whole region.

So, we're working together to gather the evidence to inform our LDP production at that local level, as well as possibly informing the strategic development plan preparation going forward. So, we are working collaboratively, even though it's perhaps not perceived that we are delivering joint LDPs.  

I was just going to add to what Nicola has said. We're in the same region and we are working quite a lot together on evidence bases, as Nicola said, with a view as well to where we can go in the future with those joint evidence bases. The timetable's not allowing us at this point in time, but with potential SDPs coming round the corner as well, that's when the sensible time would be to look at any joint LDPs, once we've got a framework for SDPs in place as well.

14:25

Again, Roisin mentioned it earlier, but there are examples of us working collaboratively with respect to a particular service, and where there is a business case, we'll work together. But for collaboration you need two things: one is capacity, and one is the commitment of the partners. And that's what worked well with the minerals and waste service. There was a recognition that there was a skills shortage in that area and the six authorities that we originally provided the service for were concerned about the resilience of that service. So, once that had been put in place, it worked effectively, because they can pass the work, in terms of the specialist minerals and waste work, to a team of people who are skilled in it. Now, the problem is that there's that element of local decision making. What my team do is that they provide a recommendation to the six authorities. The six authorities still take the decision at that level, but all the background work is being undertaken by a specialist regional team.

Well, that sounds like quite a good way of approaching it, but it's surprising, given the resource reduction that you've already talked about, that there hasn't been a bit more of this sort of collaboration in other areas, because I'm sure the waste and minerals unit is excellent, but there must be other ways in which you can collaborate.

I think it largely relates around the purpose of the collaboration. So, if it's on resilience, it works. If the focus is on the local level of detail needed or interface, it doesn't always work. The example that you gave from England with the financial saving is predicated on having teams that are big enough to make some kind of staff cuts or cost saving in that way.

Well, actually, they increased their staff: three extra trainee planning officers.

And still made a saving?

Then I'm not entirely sure how that's possible, other than through the joint commissioning of reports, which we're already doing.

Okay. Well, I can't tell you, I'm afraid. I can only just read the auditor general's report. But anyway, at the moment, it's not something—. You're hoping that in the future, with the development of SDPs, you will then at the same time align your LDPs with, maybe, your adjacent local authority. Is that correct? Okay, thank you. 

The planning Act gives Welsh Ministers powers to mandate collaboration, indeed, merge local planning authorities, and/or require the production of joint local development plans. Is that something you think might be around the corner? 

Perhaps if I pick that up first. Obviously, the last planning Minister did write to authorities to encourage the development of joint LDPs. I think, for the reasons Llinos has identified, at that time, it was difficult in terms of timing. Each local authority was currently reviewing their LDP, and had three and a half years to do so, which is quite a challenging timescale—something we might come back to when we talk about community engagement and involvement at a later point—because at the end of that period, those plans dropped dead, is the expression. So, in essence, in terms of planning decision making, they no longer had the relevance that they used to have. So, it's very important that those plans are renewed and put back in place. 

The other issue is, obviously, we've got the national development framework in development, and we've got the moves to create corporate joint committees with strategic development plans. So, I think there's a degree of not quite negotiation, but certainly dialogue, about at which level different elements of the planning system reside and how that all works together. 

So, in the current state of change within the system, I think authorities have tended to focus on, 'We have to get the LDP rewritten in three and a half years, and that's our focus with our limited resources.' Therefore, one of the things that, perhaps, Andrew might go back on is the issue that, to do that collaboration that he's been talking about in north Wales, it took a lot of capacity and a lot of involvement. Because you have individuals who come from different terms and conditions, different working practices. So, it's not a straightforward process to be able to do that. It does take quite a lot of capacity to support that. So, the danger is, with the limited capacity we have, it's a case of keeping the plates spinning that we currently have, and not being able to, perhaps, do some of those additional things. 

Okay, but you're not working with a blank sheet of paper. You've got the Cardiff capital region; you've got the Swansea bay capital region; you've got the north Wales ambition board. These are all ways in which you can collaborate and ensure that you aren't allowing the developers to walk all over you.

14:30

In terms of mandated collaboration or forced joint working, my view would be that, for a partnership to work, everyone around the table has to be willing to be there. So, I would not personally recommend that mandated approach. I think if joint working's going to work, people need to come together—all of them, collectively, of their own free will—rather than being told that's what they have to do.

And I think that that is currently taking place, and perhaps we're not broadcasting that as much as we should be. Because we referred earlier to the shared mineral service up in north Wales. We've got a similar service in south Wales, which is delivered for south Wales by Carmarthenshire council, where various authorities enter into service level agreements. So, we purchase specialist advice from Carmarthenshire. My authority has a service level agreement. It hasn't actually saved us any money, because the money that we were previously spending to have an in-house officer we're now giving to Carmarthenshire, albeit it gives us better resilience, because there is now a team of officers in Carmarthenshire who can support our needs, whereas, previously, we were relying on one particular officer. So, that is currently going on. So, we are operating those services where we can.

I'm also mindful that we informally collaborate. We meet as the Planning Officers Society Wales regularly. We meet as regional POSW groups regularly, both at head of service level—sorry, not both—at head of service level, at planning policy level, and at development management level, where we share good practice and ideas, and we move collaborative programmes forward. We are delivering shared policy on boundaries. For example, in our area, we've been working with Swansea council on a shared supplementary planning guidance document. We work together on large developments of national significance with our neighbours. So, there is that collaboration that is going on already. Perhaps we're not very good at broadcasting the fact that we're doing that. It's all done under the radar, so to speak.

Well, it's the time it takes as well, because the austerity straitjacket's been in place since 2010, and we're now 10 years later. How long will it take for that collaboration?

I think Llinos Quelch wanted to come in, and Andrew Farrow, did you—? So, Llinos first.

Yes. I was just going to add quickly, just in terms of joint working, I think to have a mandate of joint working can potentially be dangerous. We do need to understand why the joint working is needed—so, there are certain areas it would work better than other areas—and which geographic areas with which geographic areas. And I think that's why the arrangement in north Wales and the one in south Wales in terms of the minerals—that has come about because of a shortage of skills. As Nicola said, as well, it's improved resilience because we've got teams now to look at these issues rather than individual officers in individual authorities. We're likely to have to go down that route a bit more, perhaps, with specialist skills. That's one area where we do suffer—all local authorities say ecology, landscape, and, even now, some of the areas in public protection. So, we may see a move towards that sort of area in the future just because the skills aren't there and the skills are diminishing.

And Andrew Farrow, just before you come back in, Jenny.

I think you're correct there with your reference to the governance structures starting to be created at a regional level, be that in north Wales, south-east Wales, et cetera, because we've got the economic ambition board in north Wales; it's already got something like a transport committee sitting under it. It would be logical, if SDPs are going to come in, that it's a committee that sits underneath the EAB. I think one reason why SDPs haven't come forward is the priority of Welsh Government is to get local development plan coverage across all of Wales. And I've got to hold my hand up that I'm one of the authorities who haven't yet adopted their LDP. So, I think that's where their commitment has been, before they then move on to SDPs at that stage.

Just before you go on, you mentioned there that one of the authorities hasn't adopted the LDP—this often comes up with this committee and other committees in the Assembly. What sort of problems lead towards the LDP being delayed in so many different areas?

Well, I think, in our defence—

I'm not attacking you for it; I'm just interested to know why. I know this is a pigeon.

When the LDP legislation was brought in, we were quite a long way down the track of what we thought was getting our unitary development plan adopted, and we continued with that and saw that through to its final point. So, we've got an adopted UDP now. Not all authorities have got an adopted UDP; they then changed track and went down the LDP route. So, our UDP is relatively young in terms of when it was adopted, and then you get on to the Forth bridge of starting your LDP.

What happens in terms of delays as you go along is that—. There are a number of things that can be thrown into the mix, and what partly delayed ours was PPW10 coming out around 12 months ago, and we had to go back and look at what was going to be our preferred strategy and the implications that PPW10 was going to have on that at that stage. So, changes in legislation and advice can delay matters, I must admit.

14:35

My constituents would be struggling to understand the difference between the UDP and the LDP.

I understand that it's the unitary—but why is it such a different process, beyond changing the label?

Well, there were different stages within the process of moving towards adopting a UDP than there are towards an LDP, and you couldn't just flick across and go on to the different, local development plan route. I accept that that may not be well explained to the public—all they want is the development plan in place.

Thank you. You touched upon the resilience issue in quite some length earlier. Do you feel that any drive to make planning authorities self-funding through development control fees is going to add to that or detract from that, bearing in mind the separation of the policy?

I think, if I could kick off on this one, it could only be helpful to head in that direction. At the moment, the proportion of the service that's funded by fees is very low, and the way in which the fees work is disproportionately slanted towards major applications. So, those authorities that have a lot of large applications recover their fees generally better—

Planning applications themselves. Whereas smaller applications are not always—they're proportionately less work, compared to the fee structure, so you can have a lot of work and less income, particularly in a more rural authority, than some bigger city authorities. So, I think the move in that direction is really helpful.

I would caveat that we need to be mindful that it shouldn't just be a blank cheque to fund a dream service. It is public money, taxpayers' money. We need to be mindful of how it's used, and it should be used appropriately, so we shouldn't just, year on year, expand and think that someone's going to pick up the tab. And I don't think that is our culture. We're so used to the opposite being true that I don't think that would be the case. But I certainly think the way it's currently funded doesn't fully meet our requirements, or anyone's requirements, and that certainly needs to be addressed.

And is that a shared view? Not everybody, but—. Yes, okay, thank you for that. In regard to the amount of circulars, statements, guidance—we talked about 'Planning Policy Wales' earlier. In regard to that amount of material coming at you and change and the churn that that causes, does that interfere with you getting on with the day job in any sense, or is that just the job of work that you are doing at the moment?

I think it reflects an increasingly complex arena that we work in as planners, and it's forever changing as well, and you balance that complexity against the increased public expectations about their involvement in placemaking, and that becomes a real challenge. I think Roisin mentioned before the work of the Law Commission, bringing all the legislation into one place, and I think that couldn't come quick enough.

So, is there agreement around consolidation in terms of that law? Okay, thank you very much. The planning Act 2015 contained provisions to designate a strategic planning area—the SDPs that we've touched on earlier. In your view—and I'm presuming there may be some differences, but there may not be—what do you think the benefits of an SDP will be, bearing in mind the complete array of misalignment in terms of LDPs versus UDPs in the current situation at the moment?

I think we've got all the regions represented here. So, from the south-east Wales region, my view is that the benefit will be around—it's 10 authorities in close physical proximity, so there's an awful lot of cross-border work in the way people live and behave that doesn't respect the invisible lines between councils. And so much of the scale of that work needs to be done at a strategic level, but equally there's a place for the locally sensitive stuff and the important decision making—the kind of letters that you receive in your postbag, so, probably very locally specific on the whole. So, it's important to have those different tiers, I think. But, for Cardiff capital region, I think the scale of the economy, the importance to Wales and the close relationship, albeit very different cultures and environments in the 10 authorities—I think bringing that together at the strategic level is absolutely vital.

14:40

I think I touched on it earlier. Myself and Nicola are in the south-west area, and we are having discussions in terms of—[correction: joint working]. I think a point one of you raised earlier is why work collaboratively, and on what. And it's getting the 'on what' right. It's only when you know 'on what' that you know which partners you need to work with, so you can actually put in an SDP what should be in an SDP, and keep what should be in an LDP in an LDP. So, getting that right—[correction: is important]. The discussions we've had so far are, if we can get that right, then, that's an SDP that will work for the area. If we try and put everything in it, throw the kitchen sink at it, it won't work.

I agree with everything that's been said so far. We just need to make sure that these are properly resourced, because they're large pieces of work and, at the moment, we've got local planning authorities that have been reduced in terms of the income that we are securing, and we are being asked to deliver the LDPs and also provide potentially a financial contribution towards the delivery of the SDPs— so, whether that's actual people being seconded into the SDPs, or a financial sum of money being set aside for the appointment of new staff. So, in order for those two planning policy tiers to work properly, they need to be properly resourced. Otherwise, you're taking from one policy area to give to another, and I think, as a consequence of that, you may well be exposing the two policy areas potentially to either slow down in terms of their delivery or fail.

I was going to say, that's been a theme from today's sessions in terms of all those points.

I think what's critical is getting the scope of the SDP right. I think we would all agree there are some matters that are better—that aren't planned at the local level: so, they may be Gypsy and Traveller settlements, they may be minerals and waste, they may be large-scale industrial sites. But that therefore does come with a tension, because they don't feel engaged with their local development plan policy, so there's a real challenge to get them engaged in what's effectively a regional plan, isn't there? So, that's why the governance needs really careful thinking about, I would say.

And the point that you made earlier in regard to that importance of the local knowledge and the local ability to input into that strategic development plan, I think that's been echoed. Do you all agree on that, or is that—? You would. Okay, thank you.

Is there anything else that you feel that Welsh Government should be doing to make the planning system more efficient? We've mentioned codification and the complexity, but are there any further points that you think, if you had that magic wand, you'd be able to say, 'Right, we'll do that.'

I think perhaps they should reflect on some of the implications of some of the changes that they've introduced, and are introducing, and I would say sustainable urban drainage systems is one, where the impact—. Nobody here, I don't think, would argue about the principles of sustainable urban drainage systems, but the way it's been introduced I think is a real challenge to us as a profession to actually put that in place.

And, in terms of implications, it's not just the implications for the local authorities, but, our statutory consultees, that they're able to engage effectively in the processes. There's a lot of additional work gone their way as well. Some of that work they may choose not to do and are passing the local authorities' way, so there's an understanding of the additional implication for the authorities, but also the statutory consultees.

And—sorry, just to add—the issue about community engagement and consultation is a theme running through the report. It was mentioned earlier about some of the outdated statutory consultation processes that do actually cost quite a lot of money for authorities to deliver. So, I think, with the well-being Act, as authorities across the board, we're learning about what the implications are of the ways of working and how to integrate that. So, some joint work with Welsh Government in terms of what does collaboration and involvement really look like in terms of developing a sound local development plan, and freeing up some resources to allow us to try and engage with people in different ways, I think, is quite critical. 

14:45

In terms of consultation, it's slightly disappointing when we have feedback to say that we don't consult enough, because we consult within an inch of our lives—sometimes it feels like, anyway—especially in the LDP process where we've practically leafleted every single house in the county borough. And we did press notices, we put notices out on our websites and still we're accused of not consulting enough. And I know it's engaging rather than consulting, but we are a service that does engage with the public, contrary to popular belief. We do need to change how we engage. We do assess the effectiveness of social media channels, and they are far more effective in reaching the population and our customers and constituents, more so than a public notice in the newspaper, despite the fact that a public notice is very expensive and has quite a significant financial burden on local authorities. We have asked several times for the Welsh Government to remove their requirement. We are still required to do them, and it seems to be a very old way of engaging with the public. But as I indicated, we are consulting quite significantly, and it is slightly disheartening when we are accused otherwise. 

Okay. Thank you. And if I just may, if it's possible to do this briefly, you talked about what you'd like to see, and I'm presuming you would agree with consolidation in terms of the complexity of different parts of the planning process. What are the barriers in regard to being optimum in terms of the planning process as it sits at the moment? You've mentioned alignment of LDPs. 

I think alongside alignment, linked into what Nic's just talked about with community involvement in the planning process, the critical stage is at the LDP stage rather than at the planning application at the end of the process. So, we need to do a lot more to try and get people interested—maybe interested is a stretch—involved in planning at that stage, where it is slightly more nebulous and then heading down into the detail of how it directly affects their home or their lives. But I think one of the really key changes in that regard is how we align the three-and-a-half year LDP timetable requirement with some really decent community involvement.

The two are jarring for us in Monmouthshire at the moment. We're actually having to go back and amend our timetable very slightly, but I don't see those two aligning. Three and a half years might sound a very long time to you for an LDP; it is a real challenge. Our previous plan took us seven years. I'm not saying we should take anywhere near that long, but some additional time at the start of that process to get that involvement correct, I think, would be time well spent. And then, hopefully, if the plan has some buy-in or at least some understanding of how it's got to where it's got to, the rest should be a bit more straightforward. 

I think the other challenge I'm not quite sure how we'd ever square off is the way in which we consult on planning applications at the end. It can give a bit of a misperception about it being more democratic than it is, by which I mean it isn't simply counting objections versus counting support and that's the decision; it's more of an evidence-gathering and opinion-gathering exercise to help us make really informed decisions. I think the people we hear from aren't happy and you'll probably hear from quite regularly are those who have objected, not that it was approved or vice versa. And it's trying to perhaps communicate better what their role is, that it isn't literally a counting of votes and this is the decision, but how their input has helped shape the outcome, even if it isn't the final answer they were hoping for. 

And there's been mention earlier and today, I think, in terms of the pressure that planning departments are under within local authorities. Is that something that you would all share, or do you have a different view in terms of financing and human resources?

In my particular case, we have for a number of years had a moratorium on recruitment within certain service areas for financial reasons. So, if you've had somebody leaving the service, then quite often that particular post is frozen. So, you're not allowed, unless in special circumstances, to recruit to that post. We have on paper, maybe, quite large structures, but in practice we have very few staff actually in the office. And then, if you have a member of staff who is sick, then your actual productivity starts dropping and the performance of the service suffers, and that further impacts upon the staff who are in work. We have had a situation where we've had a number of staff on long-term sickness, and that has had a major impact upon the service. Morale has plummeted and stress levels have increased. And that isn't just in relation to planning services; I would say that is in relation to a lot of front-line services within the environment directorates in councils generally.

14:50

So, in that regard, because I'm conscious that time is ticking, do you feel that that in any way impacts or otherwise in regard to the 'nice to do' in terms of strategic development planning or future thinking? Would you agree with that or not?

Well, I think, if you look at the indicators upon which we report through the annual monitoring report, basically, they're all around speed of decision making, and that, therefore, focuses the mind when that annual monitoring report is being made public. That's where the pressure is on the case officers to get the decisions out of the door. It is a real challenge. But if you take 43 per cent out of the service, it's going to have an impact on performance.

A 43 per cent budget cut across Welsh planning is the figure.

Thank you. All my questions are on dealing with and deciding on planning applications. A lot of what you've said, contextually, will be relevant to that. So, without repeating any of that—because we are getting short for time now—the first thing that I wanted to raise was the auditor general's report, and the conclusions that the reduction in funding and the complexity of the planning system has resulted in local planning authorities taking longer to decide on planning applications. So, in addition to what you've said already, is there anything that anybody would like to add about the process for applying, managing and assessing planning applications, and whether that needs to be streamlined in any way?

I don't think it's as gloomy a picture as is being presented, because performance, in terms of the speed of decision making, hasn't suffered significantly, because we're measuring performance in terms of the speed of planning application decisions, not just in terms of the eight-week target, but we're also measuring it in terms of the extension of time. So, some applications are delayed, not because a planning officer or a planning department is sitting on a planning application; it may well be because they are waiting for a consultation reply from a statutory consultee, or they're waiting for amended plans from a developer to make an unacceptable application acceptable. And in those circumstances we ask the developer for an extension of time. And if you look at the determination rate in relation to the extension-of-time figures, they're very high. So, despite the fact that planning authorities have been significantly cut in terms of numbers, we're doing an extraordinary job to be fair, in terms of determining applications within reasonable periods of time.

Okay. Thank you. Anybody else want to speak to that? 

So, in terms of the efficiency of the planning processes, there are still concerns, specifically regarding major infrastructure projects that can often take years rather than months to go through planning. So, is there anything that could be changed there, perhaps in relation to what you said, Nicola, about those statutory consultees or anything else?

I think, on many of those really big projects, as local planning authorities, we would have the role of a consultee. The decision maker would normally either be the Welsh Government as a development of national significance, or for a bigger infrastructure project, it might even be Whitehall, Westminster. So, our role on those is generally fairly limited, if they're really huge infrastructure projects.

But if it's a significant development within a local planning authority area, it should have been identified in the local development plan right at the outset, and any infrastructure requirement should have been identified at that stage. So, coming back to Mark's point: if you get your local development plan right, then those delays in terms of infrastructure, in terms of what we can require through the development, should already be established.

And just maybe to add to that, a lot of, as you say, the larger developments either go to Welsh Government or indeed into Whitehall and the fees go as well, but there's still a lot of work. As Mark's mentioned, we're still a consultee, there's still an expectation to write the local impact report, which takes a lot of officer time, a lot of involvement, but then again there isn't the reflection for the work. So, an officer may be taken off other cases for a significant number of weeks to deal with that application and the authority's response, but, again, as Nicola mentioned earlier, the resilience may not be there to cover that officer's work.

14:55

Just briefly, if I may, this might be slightly anecdotal, but there is a process by which the bigger applications, if they go in via the Planning Inspectorate, the Planning Inspectorate sometimes seem to take as long to check if the scheme needs an environmental impact assessment and if the submitted assessment is legally sound for the application to be registered as we have to determine the entire application, had it come to us. So, there seems to be a slight quirk in how timescales are considered appropriate for us versus other organisations. So, that might be one for review.

But, ultimately, I think our target on most of these big applications is 13 weeks, or an EIA application 16 weeks. That isn't actually very long, given the longevity of these projects once they're done. No-one's particularly going to thank us for a rubbish decision in 12 weeks, six days. So, we want make the best decision we can.

Okay, thank you. My next set of questions are around the role of planning committees. So, the auditor general's report highlighted some concerns with the capability and the effectiveness of planning committees. So, I'm interested in your views as to whether planning committees do, in general, work effectively. 

If I start that off. As the WLGA, it's something that we're very mindful of, that planning committee members need to have the right skill set to be able to take these decisions and understand what they're doing and how they're doing it, and one of the things that we do at every election is create a planning guide for new elected members and returning members, so that they have a resource that they can refer to that is up-to-date, reflects the current planning policy context, so that they have that as a guide for them to refer to. And we also produce resources for authorities to undertake training on a local basis with those planning members. Clearly, it's for individual authorities to work with their members to make sure that they receive that training.

Can I just ask on that, then, Craig, even when that is followed, do you feel then that that would give them the skills and the expertise that they need in order to decide on major planning applications? 

I mean, I think the information is there. Clearly, what they also need to understand is how they act and operate as members, and, again, there's guidance in there, but it's for individual authorities to ensure that the culture of the committee is correct, and that as elected members they're following the correct procedures. One of the things, I think—as an aside—some members get frustrated with is if they're on the planning committee, then, clearly, they can't offer an opinion on a development publicly before they take their decision. I think that, intuitively, as human beings, and you're dealing with your constituents, you want to be able to talk to your constituents and reflect on that. And I think things like that are quite difficult because it's for those members to understand how they should be operating in a quasi-judicial circumstance. 

I'd just add, I'd exercise some caution in terms of the statistic that's used in that some authorities were showing no overturns and one was 60 per cent. So, between 25 authorities, just that 60 per cent figure massively skews the average. I'm perhaps really fortunate in that the committees I've worked with have operated really well. Every now and again you have a moment, but the interpretation and application of policy is, at times, subjective, or more often than not is subjective, so it is a legitimate part of the process for elected members to have a different opinion to us. The challenge is: can that decision be substantiated, potentially at appeal? So, I would always read the statistic alongside what was the outcome of the appeal—if it went to appeal. The only flaw in that plan is if the overturns were to approve things that officers recommend a refusal, then there is no, kind of, second check, if you like, to measure outcome.

There will also be occasions where policies are relatively new, either local or national, and you'll be testing them one way or another and you almost wait for a couple of appeal decisions to see how you get on. And then the final thing I'd mention is part of the auditor general's report: public perception was, around planning, to summarise, playing a bit safe, not really pushing for the best possible. So, arguably, by making different decisions to officer recommendations, that is what the members are seeking to do, and try their luck.

15:00

Thanks. There are three things I'll perhaps emphasise: one is the importance of training and making it compulsory, which I don't think anybody would really argue against; the second one is about getting committees to reflect on their decisions, be that going out and looking at applications that may have been overturned at appeal—they refused it and it's been built out—and seeing what the consequences of that were, are they actually as bad as they thought they were going to be, and the other side of the equation as well; and perhaps the third thing is, ultimately, they're taking decisions on the development plan, so if you can get your planning committee involved in the production of the development plan and understanding those policies, and they are therefore their policies—they're not officer policies, they're their policies that they're implementing—I think that probably helps as well in the long term.

Okay. Thank you. Mark, you raised a really interesting and useful point there where you were talking about the number of overturns and the fact that, if we look at the average, it's masking the real picture. So, with regard to that, how should we really be assessing that? Should we be looking in more detail at the one or more authorities where overturns are a lot higher? What should we be doing to focus our attention there?

I would suggest that, yes, that is where focus should be drawn. But as a head of planning, if that were my authority, my attention would be on that already. I'd be looking at: is it an officer training issue? Is it a member training issue? Have we learned about how are policies interpreted via an appeal process? It may well be—taking a point that Andy mentioned—either members weren't engaged in the LDP process, or there's a change of administration or something, and the plan that they're implementing they don't have ownership over. And so, it might be a tension that there's a policy in there they just don't agree with, and they have the ability, rightly or wrongly, to keep putting that to one side. So, I would want, as head of planning, to drill down into what that issue is—is it a relationship issue, a training issue, a misunderstanding of policy, or just a different approach—and work through that. And I think, yourselves as a committee, if you were to do the same thing, that would probably be helpful.

Andy wants to make another point on the back of that.

It's a bit like confession, but we're one of the authorities that have got one of the highest rates in terms of—

No. But we're not at 66 per cent. So, we've done exactly what Mark has just suggested. We've gone back and looked at last year's decisions, where actually everything that was overturned by committee—so they were recommended for permission and committee refused them—every one that went to appeal were successful on appeal. So, we've taken that back to committee to reflect on that. And Mark's dead right, there will be some occasions where it's a matter of subjectivity. The problem is where they've taken a different stance in terms of something that's pretty objective, like highways advice, for example. That's actually the trend that we've seen. We've had things refused against highways advice, and the inspector will say, 'Well, show me what the harm is, show me the evidence of the harm.'

And just briefly, you mentioned as well, Mark, the flipside of that, where a committee might say 'yes' to something that a planning officer had advised to say 'no' to. How often does that occur? That's pretty rare, is it?

Yes, it's pretty rare from my personal experience, but I believe one of the authorities with a fairly high turnover rate is to do with approvals against recommendation, and I think that issue is around single dwellings in the countryside in a particular authority.

I think what authorities have done, and we've done this as well, is have a cooling-off period. So, when there is a decision taken like that, which is clearly against policy, you can ask your legal officer to intervene and bring that application back to the next committee, if you think that the committee have moved irresponsibly against their own planning policy advice. It's always a very uncomfortable meeting when you come back with that, though, I must admit, but that can work.

Okay, that's interesting, thank you. Just over a third of planning appeals are dismissed and the local planning authority's decision overturned. Given the reduction in resources in the last decade, lost appeals can reduce capacity further. So, why are such a high proportion of appeals overturned?

I don't think percentages have actually changed significantly for—well, in my entire career, it's always been a third and two thirds. I suppose if you look at the other side of the coin, two thirds of appeals are successfully defended by planning authorities. And as has been referred to earlier on, some decisions are based on subjective issues, and they may be very balanced decisions to make. So, the different opinions will be taken into account at that appeal stage. So, I think, concentrating on the positives, we are successfully defending two thirds of our decisions, and that hasn't really changed for a long, long time.

15:05

And is there an element of big developers being able to game the system at that point in the process?