Can local planning authorities deliver a sustainable future for Wales?
An ambitious future?
Following a referendum on the National Assembly for Wales’s legislative powers held in March 2011, the people of Wales voted in favour of granting the National Assembly for Wales further powers for making laws in Wales in devolved areas. This important decision has culminated in some significant legislation as the country embarks on a different and distinct ‘Welsh’ future. And central to this new direction has been two ground breaking pieces of legislation: the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Planning (Wales) Act 2015.
It may not be obvious, but these two pieces of legislation are intrinsically connected. The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act aims to improve the social, economic and cultural well-being of Wales by placing a duty on public bodies to think in a more sustainable and long-term way. The Act puts in place seven well-being goals that public bodies must work to achieve and take into consideration across all their decision-making.
The Planning (Wales) Act aligns well with this longer-term sustainable vision for the country. Local planning authorities make major a contribution to supporting the development of new homes, conserving natural assets, creating employment opportunities, enforcing high design standards and improving the infrastructure that can make things work well. The decisions taken by local planning authorities therefore directly impact on all of us, our quality of life and our well-being.
Its early days, but…
It is with this important focus in mind that the Auditor General has recently completed his review on the progress of local planning authorities in delivering their new responsibilities and how well their work is integrated with and supports the Well-being of Future Generations Act.
We found that planning is intricate and multi layered with a range of competing influences and demands. Often planners are at the centre of this ‘storm’ having to manage expectations when setting priorities and deciding upon applications. Importantly, stakeholders value planning but are concerned that authorities lack ambition and are not good at engaging with and involving them.
The important work of planning is not helped by insufficient capacity and reducing resources. Budgets have been slashed in the last 10 years falling by 50%. However, despite seeing budgets cut, the cost of delivering development and building control activity is not reflected in the fee’s authorities charge and authorities continue to subsidise services. In addition, opportunities to improve resilience by collaborating or integrating services have mostly not been pursued.
Despite the two Acts focussing on creating a stronger, vibrant and sustainable future for Wales, we found that decision making, and prioritisation, varies widely and is too inconsistent to maximise the benefits of the legislation. The focus and quality of Planning Committees decision making varies widely. Overall, the level of officer recommendations overturned by Committee Members remains high and performance in determining planning applications is poor. We concluded that more work is required to integrate and deliver the ambitions of the Planning (Wales) and Well-being of Future Generations Acts.
Our report both reinforces the importance of planning for us all, but also highlights that there is still some way to go. That’s not surprising given the challenge of balancing a long-term focus on future generations with the immediate impact of austerity on public funding. And this is at the heart of the difficulties facing local planning authorities. They are pulled in different directions, by different voices and views. They must set out a 15 to 20-year vision for an area whilst ensuring individual applications are dealt with efficiently and effectively.
Notwithstanding these difficulties, citizens and stakeholders positively endorse and support decisions on future land use resting with local planning authorities. Yes, they want planners to up their game and become more innovative and creative. Yes, they want services that are consistent, responsive, efficient and effective. But importantly they also recognise the central importance of planning authorities making a more positive impact on the communities they live and work in.
Can planning authorities rise to this challenge? Undoubtedly, yes.
Will they rise to this challenge? That’s hard to predict, but for all our futures we hope so.
Nick Selwyn is a Local Government Manager at the Wales Audit Office, with responsibilities for our programme of all-Wales local government studies. Prior to joining the WAO 15 years ago he worked for several local authorities in housing and social care and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Housing.