Thursday, August 25, 2011

In defence of the National Planning Policy Framework

Middle England is in revolt and the issue that is attracting their fury is planning.  Or more precisely, the Government’s proposed new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and its presumption in favour of sustainable development. 

The Editor of Country Life, Clive Aslet, claims that “the object (of the NPPF) is to let development rip through those parts of Britain that aren’t formally protected as National Parks or part of the Green Belt. This is most of what us still regard as our green and pleasant land – ‘all fields, high hedges, and deep-rutted lanes’, as George Eliot put it.”

Shaun Spiers from CPRE adds, that “the presumption in favour of development is clearly about development, not sustainability. The message for local authorities is ‘build, build, build.’”

Government Ministers appear to be at war with the countryside’s leading advocates.  The complaints from groups such as the National Trust and CPRE, hitherto seen as part of the true blue brigade, are dismissed by Ministers as “a carefully choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers based within the national headquarters of pressure groups."

The Countryside Alliance’s Dylan Sharpe, says “It's time to call an armistice and for all parties to get back round the table.”

It’s funny, they weren’t calling for that when the Government ripped up the regional strategies and introduced localism.  Some 220,000 homes that were planned under the previous Government, have now been scrapped as a consequence of the abolition of the regional plans.

The reality is that no local authority that puts in place a local plan has anything to fear by the NPPF and the presumption in favour of sustainable development.  What the Government are trying to do is prevent a repeat of the 2004 Planning Act.  Between 2004 and 2010, despite requirements to do so, just 13% of councils put in place a local plan.  If you believe in localism and a plan led system, it requires a local authority to have a plan.  You can’t allow them to drag their heels in the hope that difficult decisions will go away.

Aslet is wrong when he says that “a carefully evolved system of checks and balances has been junked in favour of a presumption that big development will get its way.”  The NPPF is an attempt to ensure that a system of checks and balances remains in place under localism, and that councils face up to their new responsibilities. 

In opposition, the Conservatives always said they wanted more development and to build more homes.  They argued that the problem with the top-down regional strategies was that it built the wrong homes in the wrong places, where they were not wanted.  Their solution was localism.

There are legitimate debates to be had about whether we concrete over greenfields or whether we cram more people into our built up areas; whether we create sustainable new settlements or whether we disperse development over wider areas.  Under localism, it will be for local communities and their community leaders to grapple with these issues and policy dilemmas. 

This could result in a loss of greenfields in certain areas, but that is only because those communities have decided that is a more desirable outcome than cramming people into high rise, small boxes in our town centres.  

The rural countryside lobby is quite happy to take the bits of localism that empowers people to say no, but they don’t want councils to face up to the responsibility that goes along with having these new localist powers.  The NPPF does just that.

Ministers, stick to your guns.

1 comment:

  1. Wyn, I think you're totally mistaken, and that this could be a disaster for urban communities not just rural.

    Here's just one illustration.

    How long will it take for each local authority to draw up a plan if they authentically want to listen to local voices? And not just in the lovely civil we-talk-to-our-neighbours parts of the country, but in disaffected conflict-ridden urban communities?

    Meanwhile, in the NPPF, whilst you try to work through these tricky problems of getting communities around the table, a legion of developers get a nice big window through which to chuck every ill-thought application they want. Because if you don't have a plan then NPPF says you have to "grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate".

    The only recourse in NPPF for Local Authorities to refuse in this kind of situation will be if the application infringes NPPF's policies. As NPPF says:

    "Up-to-date Local Plans, i.e. Local Plans which are consistent with this Framework, should be in place as soon as practical. In the absence of an up-to-date and consistent plan, planning applications should be determined in accord with this Framework, including its presumption in favour of sustainable development".

    Judging applications against NPPF alone will be a farce because it's so scant, and so many of the phrases are normative and conflicting (which anyone with 10 minutes of planning experience knows is an open gate for developers to argue the toss to do what they like). So we'll then have to rely on planning lawyers and a whole new pile of case law to resolve refusals, appeals and counter appeals. And we'll just have to live to regret the multitude of 5-year permissions granted to developers which no one got a chance to influence.

    So, Wyn, you're faith in the Coalition government intent is admirable, but this I think is bodged policy which mistakes clarity for brevity, and speed for haste. The Ministers really need to stop, listen and think.

    After all, next time your car breaks down I'll happily lend you a two page summary of the Haynes manual, and see how you go fixing it. Likewise I'll gladly lend you a quarter of a sheet of loo paper next time you need a No 2. I'm sure you'll find both up to the task, possibly quite literally, in hand.