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LDF L:&DG: Broad Ambitions; Engagement; Sustainability Frameworks

Date: 17/1/2005

The pilot authorities met again on 17 January 2005.  This is the first of two bulletins based on what came out of that meeting.  It focuses on issues around -

  •  the broad ambitions for the new system
  • engagement and a consensus model of planning
  • unified sustainability appraisal frameworks

The second bulletin covers a discussion on the examination into soundness, and individual experiences of the pilot authorities in relation to LDF preparation.

HEALTH WARNING - The material here sets out the broad conclusions which came out of discussion with the pilot authorities, and represents an early view of what seems to be sensible practice.  It is not presented as good practice at this time, because the test of that will only come when it has been applied in reality and can be seen to have worked.

  • relating the new system to its ambitions
  • community engagement - consensus rather than conflict
  • unified sustainability appraisal frameworks

Relating the new system to its ambitions

Renewal of the planning system - In the run up to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, there was considerable debate about what kind of planning system was needed for the future.  Many people were keen that planning should undergo major renewal to regain confidence and a sense of mission, and be given the tools needed to deliver its promises.  The discussion went well beyond possible procedural changes to consider what should be the objectives or ambitions which would underpin the new system.

However, by the time the Bill had made its laboured way through Parliament, most practitioners had lost track of the wider objectives, and were struggling to understand the changes of process in what has turned out to be a radically different system from the old one.  This focus on processes has been reinforced by the need to prepare the local development scheme and get it cleared before the deadline.

It is important to understand the new processes, but it is a mistake to come at them purely in procedural terms.  A clear grasp of the rationale which underlies the new system will speed understanding and help in mastering the way the various changes fit together.  Unfortunately, most material from the Government and others has concentrated on the detail of process changes, with insufficient attention to the objectives behind them, which are in danger of being forgotten.

How the ambitions shaped the new system - The pilot authorities went back to basics.  First they reminded themselves of the ambitions which lay behind the changes to the system, and then considered how those ambitions have come through in the various aspects of the new system.  The results are set out in table below.  It is acknowledged that there was not unanimity at the time of the debate about what should be the objectives of the new system.  Those set out here are the ones which appear to have been influential in shaping the new development plan framework.

Ambition Expression
Sustainability at the heart of planning (and compliance with SEA Directive) Statutory purpose of planning 
Strategic sustainability appraisal (incorporating SEA) 
Procedure incorporates SEA Directive stages 
Independent assessment
Spatial planning Regional spatial strategy 
Spatial LDFs 
Have regard to community strategy 
Core strategy
Integration with other strategies Requirement to have regard to the community strategy 
Spatial plans 
Strategic sustainability appraisal 
Chain of conformity 
Linking community engagement
Direction not detail Core strategy 
PPSs and PPGs stand in own right, no need to be quoted 
Generic development control policies 
Government guidance
Tackling the distinctive issues PPSs stand in own right 
Core strategy 
Links to community strategy 
Examination of soundness 
Government guidance 
Action Area Plans and SPD
Consensus rather than confrontation Statement of community involvement 
Front loading 
Examination into soundness 
Examination rather than inquiry

Wider community engagement and ownership
Statement of community involvement 
Having regard to community strategy 
Front loading 
Bottom-up approach 
Government guidance
Strengthened regional planning Statutory regional strategy, part of development plan 
Spatial strategy 
Ownership by regional planning body 
Abolition of structure plans 
Statutory requirement for general conformity
Simplified development plan Abolition of structure plans 
Introduction of LDFs 
Generic development control policies 
Exclusion of detail
Greater flexibility and responsiveness Single tier of plan at local level 
LDF ring-binder format 
Exclusion of detail 
Supplementary planning documents 
Community engagement part of soundness
Speedier plan-making Single tier of plan at local level 
LDF ring-binder format 
Project management and LDS 
Examination rather than inquiry 
No modifications stage 
Binding Inspector's report
Robust evidence base Examination into soundness 
Annual monitoring report 
Sustainability appraisal 
Community engagement
Improved efficiency Local development scheme 
Project management 
Front loading

Communicating the new system - Because it is so different from the familiar old system, the new development plan regime is proving difficult to explain, whether to Councillors, other local authority departments or partner organisations.  That is partly due to the language of the new system, but also because it is difficult to show how that various process changes fit together.  Rather than focus on the process changes from the outset, it is suggested that explanation should concentrate on the reasons for the changes (the ambitions) as being important and exciting in their own right. In particular it is useful to concentrate on those  ambitions which are most likely to chime with the audience.  The process changes can then be related to the objectives which shaped them.

Community engagement - consensus rather than conflict

Building consensus - A key feature of the new system is that it should involve greater and better community engagement in shaping plans.  This point is regularly made by Ministers and others.  However, there is another, related objective of the new system, which is to move away from the traditional model of planning epitomised by its description as "the resolution of competing demands for the use of land".  In place of that conflict model, the ambition is to see planning as working with communities and stakeholders to seek and build a consensus as to the needs and priorities of the area.

The consensus model of planning recognises that there can never be an unanimity among the wide range of interests.  There will always be organisations and people who feel threatened by plan proposals or feel they are being denied opportunities.  However, the approach aims to emulate the way much other public policy is developed, particular in community strategy preparation.  It looks for consensus where it can be found, and works generally with the majority view where it cannot.  Unfortunately, Ministerial statements do not communicate this approach very well, suggesting that good engagement will largely remove opposition.  It won't.  What it can do is to ensure that all sectors of the community are heard about their needs, concerns and priorities, and gear the strategy of the plan towards addressing them.

What do we want from engagement? - It is suggested that what is needed is not more community engagement as such, but better engagement which is clear about what it is trying to achieve.  Rather than begin by immediately considering how to go about engagement, the starting point should be to ask what we need to know.  This will be about the needs, issues, concerns and priorities of the community at large, and the particular issues for different sectors of the community, including hard to reach groups.  It is also about the needs, views and priorities of key stakeholders, who will be important in both the framing and the delivery of the plan.

There then needs to be a thoughtful process of design and planning for engagement to ensure that the information required is obtained.  This may require putting aside some of the familiar approaches to consultation used in preparing old-style development plans, in favour of methods which will be better at getting to the information needed.

Specifically this approach to consultation is likely to focus on finding out what the needs and issues are, rather than presenting solutions and seeking reaction to them.  Such an approach enables people to work through the process themselves of considering how identified needs can be met.  In practice this approach has more often led to more consensus than where people are presented with a ready-made solution.  For example, when consulted on a village infill policy the immediate response may be objection.  But when initial discussion is focused around the need for housing to enable young local families to live in their village, people are more likely to see an infill policy as an appropriate solution.

This approach is likely to require that explanation and raising understanding about an issue is tackled before valuable feedback can be achieved.  Equally, focusing on the high level objectives of key stakeholders such as the LSP may be the route to effective consultation.  Carefully designed questionnaire surveys of the Citizen's Panel and use of focus groups may well be as important as direct engagement with local communities.  The process of engagement should be central to the identification of the distinctive issues of the area, which will then need solutions geared to the particular circumstances.

Reflecting the approach in the statement of community involvement - The preparation of the SCI should parallel the thought processes about what information is required and how best to obtain it.  There is a timing issue here.  Where the SCI is being prepared in advance of community engagement on strategy, it will be important to address the "what do we need to know?" and "how shall we find out?" questions during its preparation.  Otherwise there is a risk that the SCI will commit the authority to processes of engagement which will not be effective at uncovering communities' wider needs, issues and concerns.  It could even be counterproductive because it will be good at finding out the feelings of those with vested interests, but weak at eliciting the wider community views.  Primarily the task is to provide the opportunities for engagement and enabling stakeholders to understand their responsibility to take part in shaping the local area.

Importance as evidence- The information gathered will be critical evidence in developing and evaluating the key options, and throughout the remainder of the process of developing the plan.  At submission stage, it will be important to set it clearly against representations received in deciding how to respond:  Where objections to an aspect of the plan are clearly outweighed by the force of the concerns and views of the wider community, that will be a sound reason in itself not to accept them.

The information gleaned from community engagement will be key evidence at the examination of the plan.  One of the nine tests of soundness set out in PPS 12 is how well the plan responds to what has been learnt from community engagement.  Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that the examination will ask whether the plan is a sound one, not whether it should change to meet the wishes of objectors.  Where the planning authority can show that (along with other evidence) the plan is clearly driven by what communities have had to say about their needs and concerns, and is supported by its key stakeholders, that will carry considerable weight against representations which seek to take the plan in other directions.

The political process - It is recognised that where there is significant opposition by local residents to an aspect of a plan, elected members will find themselves under considerable pressure, and will naturally tend to be sympathetic to those who fear they will be harmed.  It will be important to establish with them at the outset the critical importance of what will be learnt from wider community engagement, and that the time may well come when they have to balance the needs of the many against the interests of the (relatively) few.  Consideration should also be given to how representations will be reported, so that the key wider messages are not  forgotten or played down.  An authority will do itself no favours if, in trying to satisfy the concerns of objectors, it changes its plan in ways which then go against its own evidence (which will of course be available to all the other players at the examination).

Unified sustainability appraisal frameworks

Some authorities are currently looking at the possibility of having a single sustainability appraisal framework to cover their whole programme of LDF preparation.  Some are looking to go even further, to develop a corporate system intended to be used for the sustainability appraisal of all council strategies covered by the SEA Directive.  Recent discussions with the ODPM have given encouragement to such an approach, which offers significant benefits in -

  • economies from having a single framework which can then be used for all LDDs (or all Council strategies) rather than setting up a series of separate appraisals
  • consistency of approach and data - particularly relevant to the corporate level where there could otherwise be a real danger of different sustainability appraisals being in conflict with each other and drawing into question the credibility of the SA process

Within the context of LDF preparation, the approach would be to scope all the planned and likely LDF documents, and identify baseline data which should cover the appraisal of the whole suite of LDDs.  The appraisal framework would then be developed, and individual LDDs appraised against it.  Scoping for LDDs which will be prepared some time in the future may present some difficulties in predicting the issues which could generate impacts.  However, it should be remembered that where the authority plans to work through the hierarchy from its core strategy to more detailed LDDs, strategy will have already been set at the higher level, so there will be fewer and fewer real policy choices to cover, and consequently less to appraise.  It can also be anticipated that when the time comes to prepare later LDDs, there may be a need to carry out some additional scoping and possibly identify further indicators for use at that stage of the appraisal.

The key point to have in mind is that the LDF system requires separate sustainability reporting for each individual LDD.  Thus, while there can be a single sustainability appraisal system, it will still be necessary to record scoping, the appraisal framework, and the assessment at each stage of LDD preparation, and to relate each to the specific circumstances of the particular LDF.  The point is that the unified framework will provide the source for all the information rather than having to set up a separate process for each LDD.


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