It is not surprising that Newman and Thornley (1996, pp. 27-76) labelled the planning system in the UK the British family. The first comprehensive law regarding physical planning was passed in 1947. It has subsequently been adjusted, but the main principles have remained unchanged. Three functions were distinguished: development control, development plans, and central government supervision. The first two functions are mainly a local responsibility. In contrast to many other countries, the development plan is not legally binding. Other material considerations can override the plan (or parts of it) in some situations. Earlier, these plans had to be approved by the central government, but this has since been changed. The central government is now responsible only for legislation regarding physical planning, and for issuing general policy guidelines. However, citizens, companies etc. have the right to lodge an appeal directed towards the central government. This is an important aspect of the system, as the central government may have a different view on the development plan in question from that held by the local authority. In formulating development plans or preparing development decisions, planners always consider the implications of any appeal to the central government. In general, as metropolitan administrative bodies have become weaker or have been eliminated altogether, the planning system in the UK has become more flexible. Local authorities and especially the central government now have a strong position (ISOCARP, 1992, pp. 240-255). With this relative shift in power towards the central government, the fiscal basis for infrastructure development at the local and regional level has also been decreased.
The influence of central government runs through the Planning Policy Guidance Notes. Basically, there are two kinds of guidance: one topic based and one area based. Examples of the first kind are topics such as housing, national parks, green belts, and archaeology. The second kind is regional and strategic guidance on specific areas, which sets out the guiding principles to which the local physical plans must conform.
Development plans are prepared at two levels: structure plans are prepared by counties, and local plans by district authorities. In metropolitan areas, these two tiers are combined into a unitary development plan. Since 1991 (with the Planning and Compensation Act) these plans have taken on more status and importance. An important turn of events is the increase in the practice of negotiation between local authorities and developers over planning permission
(planning gain or planning obligations). These negotiations are conducted in secret; third parties have no right to challenge the outcome.
Although the local government would seem to be in a strong position, the planning system rather shows a centralized character. Both through the Planning Policy Guidance Notes and the decisions passed on appeals, the central government can exercise a great deal of influence. It has influence over matters of substance, and thus has a degree of power that goes beyond its administrative procedures. Another aspect is the amount of discretion shown when appeals are made. Decisions on appeals have to take many factors into account. These include central government guidelines, development plan policy, and local issues such as traffic generation, access, or effects on neighbours. The balance between the factors can easily shift, and so can priorities in central government planning policies. Another interesting point (Newman and Thornley, 1996, p. 44) is that, compared with other countries, the UK has a noticeable lack of physical plans, at both the national and the regional level. This situation enhances flexibility at the higher levels of government. All these often contradictory forces can be particularly clearly seen at work in the case of station area redevelopment. In this regard it is also important to take note of parliamentary involvement in the passage of railway bills, further adding to the complexity.
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