PLANNING has often been seen as the least attractive aspect of local government, only capturing public attention when a beauty spot is at risk of being turned into a quarry pit, a chemicals factory, or a new road.

Things have been changing this year as a result of the 1991 Planning and Compensation Act, one of the most significant changes in planning law since the system was established in 1948. Public involvement in the planning process is at an all-time high, and a more rational and accessible basis for decision- making now established.

The key to this is that Britain has joined most of the developed world in having a plan-led system, with local authorities deciding in advance what they want to see in their area, and then matching up planning applications against that overall development plan.

Andrew Wright, director of environmental services for North Warwickshire council and planning adviser to the Association of District Councils, explains why a Conservative government had implemented a system that puts more priority on the role of planning. 'Most main decisions were being made by appeal. This was not comfortable for government, who were getting it in the neck from their own supporters who had campaigned against planning applications and were supported by the local authority, but which were allowed on appeal by the Secretary of State for the Environment. One of the leaders of that revolt was Michael Heseltine. The Government decided the best solution was to dump responsibility back on the local authority.'

County councils were already required to produce structure plans, and district councils were able to produce local plans. As a result of the 1991 Act it became mandatory for district councils to produce local plans, now termed development plans. In the metropolitan counties and London boroughs, where there is only one tier of council, these two functions are brought together as unified development plans. A quarter of district councils have now produced development plans, and all will do so by 1996.

The principle is that planning applications must be determined in accordance with the development plan, which indicates the areas to be preserved as green space, the areas for commercial development, and those earmarked for industrial use. If an application were to be decided by a local authority in conflict with its own development plan it would clearly have much less chance of winning on appeal. In the words of David Rose, public affairs director of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), 'the policy will not emerge on appeal, but will be tested on appeal'.

It is intended that the process of planning appeals should now become more certain, and therefore less attractive as a means of recourse. Conversely, the previously esoteric process of producing a local plan is now seen as having a defined and powerful purpose. Estate agents, developers, landowners, conservationists and the general public all recognise that they must influence the development plan. The number of representations has increased dramatically, and the local plan inquiry - referred to by planners as 'the battle of the local plan' - is now a longer and more complex event. Where they previously took 10 to 14 days, they now normally last four to 10 weeks.

Councils report that as a result of this lengthy preliminary procedure there are fewer occasions when the Secretary of State makes apparently perverse decisions when considering appeals. There is still some uncertainty, though, as local authorities may determine planning applications in conflict with the development plan, where material considerations make this appropriate. It is unclear what this really means. In North Warwickshire it was interpreted as enabling the council to approve the conversion of a power station site into a Channel tunnel terminal. The county's structure plan did not anticipate the power station being decommissioned, and the district's local plan was prevented from supporting the development as it would put it in conflict with the structure plan, which is not permitted. As part of the council's negotiations with the developer to produce an acceptable proposal it was agreed for the area to be landscaped, through the financing of an independent environmental trust, and for a new rail line.

Planning agreements, usually called 'planning gain', whereby the developer pays for new local provision in return for planning approvals, should now become more closely related to the applications themselves. In the past, councils sometimes required developers to pay for new community centres or social housing, in return for approving a new industrial site, for example. They are now less likely to achieve this unless it is specified in the development plan, and is seen to be related to the character of the development proposal itself - such as the financing of a new connecting road for an industrial estate.

The big challenge for the planning profession over the next few years will be adapting to whatever changes are introduced by the Local Government Commission. At present there is what is termed the 'cascade' of plans, with the structure plan having precedence over the local plan. Unified councils, with unified development plans, may lead to more local authorities refusing to accept their fair share of new housing and mineral extraction. This could lead to conflict between neighbouring councils and with central government.

The RTPI argues that there is a need for increased planning on a regional and national basis. David Rose explains: 'The NEDO (National Economic Development Office) report, published in October, called for a new approach to road planning, and effectively says you need a plan and a strategy for road building. The big problem is that government needs a plan on energy, transport and so on.'

The Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) is happy with the legislation, but dissatisfied with the way it is being implemented. Tony Burton, the CPRE's senior planner, says: 'There are many new aspects of the Act which provide a tool to protect the environment, but they are not being delivered on the ground because of government failure to support, and the slow way in which councils are implementing them. We have examined 50 plans, and a large number have no policies on energy efficiency, minerals and water efficiency, protection of the countryside or affordable housing. They are guilty of sins of omission, and the Government is guilty of failing to require it. It fails where it matters, when considering planning applications on greenfield sites.'

According to CPRE statistics greenfield land is currently being consumed faster than it was in the 1960s. (Government statistics conflict with this, and suggest half the level of countryside development shown by the CPRE.) Development at this rate is unsustainable, the CPRE says, and more emphasis should be placed on redeveloping derelict sites, and questioning the need for further building. Tony Burton says: 'Demand management should be the watchword of the 1990s. There is too much discussion on where we build that house or that road, and too little on whether we should build it at all. Local authorities are not willing to get to grips with these issues.'

One question some local authorities might like to pose in turn, however, is: if they do get to grips with demand management, are they really likely to be supported at the local plan inquiry and by the Secretary of State? As David Rose of the RTPI put it: 'It is all very well for the well-housed members of the CPRE to say that, but there is a very significant shortage of available housing. Sustainable development is a key issue, but more green belt land is lost to industry than housing.'

These are typical of the conflicts emerging at local plan inquiries, involving not only the paid professionals but also the interested members of public. A system that has been confusing and alienating for so long is at last becoming interesting and understandable to the people it affects.

(Photograph omitted)