Some warn this could limit democratic accountability and effective implementation of local plans, but others say elected members will have a greater say at the earlier plan-making stage.
Decisions on major or contentious applications by planning committees made up of elected members have been a staple feature of the planning process since the modern system was established in 1948. According to practitioners, the vast majority of applications received by local authorities are determined by planning officers. But, though the exact rules are established by individual councils, typically where an application is over a certain size, departs from the local plan or is "called-in" by a ward councillor, it is then determined by elected members in a committee, using officers' advice.
However, proposed changes to the plan-making and development management processes in the government's new Planning for the Future white paper, published earlier this month for consultation, are likely to see the role of such committees in determining development proposals substantially reduced, commentators believe. The paper wants local authorities to divide their districts up into three zones in new-style development plans - growth, renewal and protected areas. Alongside this, it envisages a major streamlining of the application process.
In growth areas where "substantial" development is planned, an outline permission "for the principle of development" would be granted if the site in question is included in a local plan that is then adopted. In renewal areas, where smaller-scale development is appropriate, the paper suggests that "permission could be automatically given if the scheme meets design and other prior approval requirements." Applications in protected areas, where development is restricted such as green belt, would continue to be considered as they are now, according to the document. But they would only come forward in growth and renewal areas where the proposal is "different to the plan".
In addition, the white paper says that decisions on detailed planning applications should be delegated to planning officers "where the principle of development has been established," rather than being considered by elected members on planning committees. Officers would be guided by the local plan and new local design codes, based on the government's prospective national model design code, the document states.
Advocates of the new system argue that by reducing the work of the planning committee, councillors would be freed up to consider more strategic issues at the plan-making stage. Christopher Katkowski QC, the planning barrister who sat on the government-appointed "planning taskforce" that helped draw up the white paper proposals, said: "The role of planning committees and members would change in that local democracy would be moved forward in the process by giving councillors a bigger role earlier on in drawing up their local plans."
But according to Hugh Ellis, director of policy at campaign group the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), the proposals take away an important opportunity for elected councillors to review schemes at the outline planning stage. "Schemes are complex and at local plan stage, when proposals are lines on a map, the implications are difficult to envisage," he said. "By curtailing the role of the planning committee in considering outline and possibly even detailed applications for major schemes, democratic accountability will be severely reduced."
Planning committees "are in effect losing their voice at the later stages when a development scheme is being considered in outline and in detail", agreed Tammy Stokes, interim regeneration director at Sandwell Council and a member of local authority body the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT).
Ellis suggested that both Labour- and Conservative-run councils will not be happy with the reduced role of their planning committees. Linda Robinson, a councillor and former leader of Conservative-run Wychavon District Council in Worcestershire and Planning Advisory Service mentor said planning committee members "have a lot of local knowledge which they bring to bear in considering applications". She pointed out that "much will be left up to the officers to interpret the rules in the local plan and design codes".
Sachin Shah, a Labour planning committee member and former leader of Harrow Council in north west London, said: "During the life of a local plan, the needs of an area may change." He added: "The reforms would deny the planning committee a role in monitoring implementation and tweaking the proposals in the local plan as schemes come forward."
Mike Kiely, chair of the board of the Planning Officers Society, pointed out that that elected members already have a key say in plan-making, though typically not planning committees, while for most authorities, local plan preparation is overseen by an executive board or cabinet before consideration by the full council.
"Implementation of the local plan is overseen by the planning committee, which considers major planning applications as they come forward in outline and in detail," he said. "They would no longer do that in many areas under the reforms." Kiely added that "around 90 per cent of applications" received by a local authority are determined by officers under delegated powers.
The role of planning committees under the new arrangements is not clear in the white paper, said Richard Blyth, head of policy at the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). If the changes are implemented, he said an "important first role for councillors will be to break their district into zones". "However, the white paper does not layout a clear process for agreeing different uses in the various zones," he added.
Martin Hutchings, improvements project manager at the Local Government Association's Planning Advisory Service (PAS) said the white paper measures would grant council officers more authority. He advised that "planning committee members and officers would need to work more closely to build up trust between them". Ward members could still use their call-in power to request that schemes are considered by a planning committee rather than by an officer, he added.
Hannah David, director of the Planning Futures think tank, said councils will still need effective planning committees under the changes. "There will be planning applications to consider in protected and renewal areas as well as in growth areas where the schemes do not fully comply with the local plan or the design codes," she said. And she suspected it could be difficult for the new design codes to be sufficiently detailed for officers to assess every aspect of an application against them. "Many schemes will have to go to planning committee as they are now," she added.
"Planning committees will need to change so that they work more closely with local communities," said Martin Curtis, associate director of political communications consultancy Curtin & Co. "Committees will need to go out and listen to communities as local plans are prepared."