Made to be measured

Changes may not be happening as quickly as some might wish, but Wales' planning minister says he is making steady progress on reform, reports Adam Branson.

Griffiths: "Planning authorities have to invest the necessary time and effort to set their local development plans in place". David Barnes photo
Griffiths: "Planning authorities have to invest the necessary time and effort to set their local development plans in place". David Barnes photo

When, following a successful referendum in March on devolution, the Welsh government won the power to make its own planning laws, we were told that there would be no rush to legislate. Now, however, the political cogs are starting to turn - and it looks increasingly likely that regional planning is back on the agenda in Wales.

First came the announcement from planning minister John Griffiths' office that an independent advisory group had been established to look at how the planning system should be delivered in the future. The group had a broad remit and its advice would be fed into a planning white paper, while a planning bill would be put before the Senedd within the current parliament, Griffiths said at the time.

Then business minister Edwina Hart revealed that she had set up a separate review to look at which government functions - including planning - could be administered at a city-regional level to better support economic growth (Planning, 4 November, p14). So far as Griffiths is concerned, his and Hart's advisory panels complement each other nicely.

"A city-regional approach to economic development is one idea that has quite a lot of traction," he says. "We think it's well worth investing some time and thought into. My own group will be looking at planning structures and at what level decisions are best taken, whether it's by a local authority or more regionally. So I think that the work those experts are doing very much complements the work that Edwina Hart's group is doing."

Since news broke of Griffiths' and Hart's reviews, some have questioned what they might mean for Wales' local development plans (LDPs). Introduced in 2004, the LDP system requires planning authorities to draw up plans for their areas. But while it lets authorities work together on issues that require cross-border cooperation, it does not compel them to do so. What's more, there is no mechanism under the system for plans drawn up by a group of local authorities to be adopted as statutory documents. Inevitably, little cross-boundary work has ensued.

While some, particularly in the Cardiff area, unambiguously welcomed the prospect of the reviews and the possibility that they could lead to a stronger city-regional approach to planning, others - notably in the private sector - worried that they would lead to local authorities downing tools. Many authorities are already well behind schedule on preparing LDPs, the argument goes, and the prospect of a new system could cause them to move even more slowly.

However, Griffiths rules out any major realignment of the planning system. "We remain very much committed to the local development plan and local planning authorities as the basic level at which decisions are made in Wales," he says. "But that's not to say that you can't look at the balance between a local and more regional approach and, if appropriate, tweak it somewhat."

Griffiths says that there is absolutely no reason why councils should not get on with their LDPs and that authorities with plans that have already been signed off or which are at an advanced stage of development have nothing to fear from the reviews. But does he have concerns that they might prompt delays anyway?

"I can certainly say that we are concerned that some local authorities in Wales aren't making the progress that they should be to get their local development plans in place," he says. "So my message to planning authorities is that they have to invest the necessary time and effort to get those plans in place. They have a responsibility to grasp difficult issues and take difficult decisions. It doesn't help anybody if there is unnecessary delay or a lack of will to fulfil that responsibility."

Strong words, certainly, but what happens if councils fail to grasp the nettle? "There are powers and there is a process that the Welsh government can use to ensure that LDPs are put in place," he says. "But our approach always has been, and so far as I'm concerned always will be, to work with local planning authorities. Ultimately, of course, those local authorities are responsible to their local electorates. That's the local democratic process. Nonetheless, I do urge them to get those local plans in place."

Of course, the idea of city-regions is hardly new: they are a feature of local government in England in cities such as London and Manchester, and have been established more formally from a planning perspective in Scotland, where four city-regions were put on a statutory footing in 2006. Why is it only now that the idea is gaining currency in Wales?

"There is a huge amount of thought and effort being put into economic renewal now because of the difficulties we have with the economy and indeed jobs," Griffiths replies. "So all of the Welsh government is thinking about the challenge of helping people into work and helping the economy."

For better or for worse, it is certainly true that the nations that make up the UK have been looking again at the planning system and wondering how it might play a stronger role in promoting economic growth. But, even at the height of the boom, the Welsh economy was hardly motoring. If city- regions are the answer to economic torpor, then why were they not tried before?

Griffiths acknowledges the point, but says: "I think that there has been a renewed level of energy from all areas of government in the UK following the recession. Inevitably, rising jobless figures lead to a renewal of energy and drive to look at factors that might help grow the economy and jobs."

So much for the past. However, while welcoming the review of the planning system and the promise of legislation, some commentators have questioned the timetable. After all, they argue, if the review of the planning system is so important for the economy, why wait until, in all likelihood, just before the next Welsh Assembly elections in 2016 to take decisive action?

Griffiths' reply raises the prospect of earlier change. "It's not a matter of waiting for legislation. We've got a lot of ongoing work to do with streamlining the planning system, making things more efficient and working with the local planning authorities, and planning policy is constantly under review, necessarily so, so it's always evolving," he says. "The fact that legislation is planned for a few years hence doesn't mean that nothing will happen in the intervening period."

As an example, Griffiths mentions a Welsh government-commissioned report by consultancy Roger Tym & Partners, which recommended that Planning Policy Wales - the Welsh equivalent of the National Planning Policy Framework - should be amended to include greater emphasis on economic development. He says that this change can be expected soon. "We've had the report and accept all its recommendations. We will be rewriting the appropriate chapter of Planning Policy Wales and developing a new technical advice note on economic policy and renewal. So, that important work will go on and is going on in addition to the planning legislation, which is further ahead," he says.

Moreover, he says that, while some of his advisory group's recommendations will require legislation to enact, others will not. "The independent review group will provide some of the research base that will feed into the legislation, but that's not to say that their findings will necessarily wait for legislation. Legislation is one part of the picture, but it is by no means the whole picture," he says.

So, while the Welsh government's reviews take place, Griffiths' message to both the public and private sectors is simple: this is no excuse for stasis. The private sector can rest assured that measures to speed up the planning system and emphasise the need to promote economic development are forthcoming, he says. And planning authorities should get on with their jobs and get LDPs in place.

CV highlights

1999: Elected member of the National Assembly of Wales for Newport East

2001: Appointed deputy minister for economic development

2003: Made deputy minister for older people

2007: Becomes deputy minister for education, culture and the Welsh language

2009: Made counsel general and leader of the legislative programme

2011: Appointed minister for the environment and sustainable development

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