Update – Draft National Planning Policy Framework

This blog is based upon an LGiU members briefing by Andrew Ross. For more information on membership, please follow this link or email chris.naylor@lgiu.org.uk.

The Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) unveiled the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) at the end of July 2011.

The draft framework will replace existing planning policy guidance (PPGs) and planning policy statements (PPS).

Reaction to the draft has provoked strong support and criticism, and has forced the government to both clarify some of the statements in the draft, and to underline its willingness to change aspects of the draft if necessary in response to the consultation. For these reasons, LGIU is publishing this updated briefing on the draft NPPF, which summarises some of the main debates on the draft NPPF and outlines the government’s response so far.

Summary of the main debates on the draft NPPF

Presumption in favour of sustainable development

“Development that is sustainable should go ahead, without delay – a presumption in favour of sustainable development that is the basis for every plan, and every decision.” Draft NPPF Ministerial Foreword

The presumption in favour of sustainable development lies at the heart of much of the controversy surrounding the draft NPPF. The Ministerial Foreword, cited above, goes on to say that ‘this framework sets out clearly what could make a proposed plan or development unsustainable’.

And therein lies the rub. Organisations such as the National Trust are anxious that the framework needs a much clearer definition of what sustainable development is, rather than what it isn’t.

From the National Trust’s point of view, the existing draft is a “charter for development of any kind”.

At its crudest, this debate has been portrayed as middle class NIMBYs versus the development industry and housing campaigners. The former emphasises the environmental aspects of sustainability (The Telegraph’s Hands Off Our Landcampaign), the latter the economic and social (summed up by Property Week’sCampaign for Sustainable Development).

However, the reality is more complex. There is broad agreement that planning is an important part of the process of achieving growth, and that this will mean more development. But at issue is the type of development, given the generally accepted definition of sustainable development as needing to balance or integrate economic, environmental and social concerns.

Writing for the LGIU’s blog Steven Bland, an LGIU Associate, argues that:

“Growth… is important at the moment. But just as important is the quality of growth: we should be sending a signal of support to local authorities that they should aim for green growth, not business as usual growth. Widening a road or putting in a tramway may generate the same gross amount of GDP, but clearly they have different results on achieving climate emissions reductions, or reducing pollution.”

Toby Blume, Chief Executive of Urban Forum, argues that with the presumption comes an assumption: that development “will be sustainable unless it is proven otherwise.’ This, he says, “is frankly bonkers”.

“It removes the burden from enterprise, but places it squarely on those who will be adversely affected to defend themselves. This cannot be right, particularly given that we know poor people are disproportionately affected by impact of climate change (and so a disproportionate burden in defending these negative impacts will fall on them).”

Other commentators add:

“The conception of sustainable development set out in the draft NPPF ‘effectively ignores, or at best minimises, the problems and complexities involved in attempting to align what may well be competing goals and aspirations.” (The draft NPPF and sustainable development, Town and Country Planning, Jones P, Comfort D and Hillier D).

Many, including the government, argue that the purpose of the planning process is to resolve these competing tensions. Elected members have a central role in this, but their ability to fulfil this effectively may be compromised by a lack of a clearer definition as to what sustainable development is within the context of the draft NPPF.

The Director-General of the National Trust, Dame Fiona Reynolds points out that the draft NPPF “is already a material consideration in the decision-making process. It is critical therefore that the wording is clear on what sustainable development is.”

Implications of the draft NPPF for local plans and core strategies

“Local planning authorities should grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date.” Draft National Planning Policy Framework, p4

The interaction between core strategies, local plans and the NPPF when finalised is a matter for ongoing debate. Without a core strategy or up-to-date local plan in place, the NPPF would in effect become the default plan for a local area.

However, planning lawyer Beverley Firth suggests that in practice this aspect of the draft NPPF could be contested:

‘The development plan will remain the adopted local plan, even if it is out of date. However, the NPPF would “knock out” a non-conforming plan and substitute its own terms, which take no account of any other material considerations. The NPPF must itself be a lawful policy, but one has to question whether this is the case.’

Part of the problem is that only 30 per cent of local planning authorities have an adopted core strategy. Conversely, this means that 70 per cent do not have a recently adopted local plan.

Even so, LPAs with an adopted core strategy will still need to obtain a certificate from the government that confirms the strategy conforms with the draft NPPF.

John Howell MP has said that the process for obtaining a certificate will not be “onerous” (Johnston and Carpenter, 2011). However, it may require adjustments to existing strategies to bring them into line with the draft NPPF.

The LG Group warns the government that councils must have “a realistic chance of getting up-to-date plans in place before the presumption for sustainable development comes into force”, and that “the process and timescales for having plans approved or certified as conforming with the draft NPPF must be simple and streamlined.”

The current planning system: does it promote or restrict growth?

“Investment in business should not be over-burdened by the combined requirements of planning policy expectations.” Draft National Planning Policy Framework, p18

Some of the debate has focused on how much the existing planning system is at fault for what it is being blamed for: chiefly, a barrier to new development. The Chancellor, George Osborne, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, stated recently that planning delays cost the economy “£3 billion a year”:

“In a global economy, where skills and capital are more mobile than ever, our planning system is a deterrent to international investment, and a barrier to the expansion of home-grown enterprise.”

In response, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) published a short document called Top Five Planning Myths. Under the heading “planning is a drag on economic growth” the RTPI argued that:

“The certainty provided by the planning system is essential in supporting business investment decisions. Such certainties include, in particular, the knowledge that there will be customers and a workforce, that infrastructure will be provided, and that other developments would not be allowed that would prejudice a business’s investment. Unconstrained growth is not in the interests of business.”

It referred to a 2003 select committee inquiry to planning and competitiveness, which concluded that ‘claims that planning damages the nation’s competitiveness seem to have been made without evidence.’

The government has also said that it wants to improve the planning system so that the default answer to development ‘is yes’.

This sentiment has been widely supported by business and developer groups: the British Property Federation (BPF) agrees that ‘a “nimby” (not in my back yard) attitude exists in many places, blocking much needed development.’

However, the RTPI’s planning myths campaign points out that government statistics show that 80–90 per cent of applications are already approved; in other words, the default answer is already ‘yes’.

Localism and community involvement in planning

“Neighbourhood plans give communities direct power to plan the areas in which they live… This provides a powerful set of tools for local people to ensure that they get the right types of development for their community.” Draft National Planning Policy Framework, p13.

The government insists that its proposals will increase the role of local communities in helping to shape their own places. This is obviously of great significance to elected members, who currently work with communities to achieve this already.

The LGA agrees with the government that the draft NPPF will give communities ‘the power to set development priorities to meet their needs.’

The draft NPPF (p13) puts forward a new layer of plans called neighbourhood plans. These will allow parishes and neighbourhood forums to:

  • develop a shared vision for their neighbourhood
  • set planning policies for the development and use of land
  • give planning permission through Neighbourhood Development Orders and Community Right to Build Orders.

The RTPI’s Chief Executive, Trudi Elliott, is unconvinced. She argues  that these new proposals will only benefit ‘a handful of cases where a community might want to pursue a policy or proposal that does not have the support of their district council… this is astonishing given the drive to reduce bureaucracy in government.’

Managing community expectations about the content of neighbourhood plans could also put local planning authorities into a difficult position politically.

Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Leader of the Local Government Association’s Liberal Democrat group and Leader of Portsmouth City Council, is concerned that the language of community ownership and control is fuelling an expectation that neighbourhood plans will not be able to fulfil because of the need for them to still conform with the draft NPPF (and local plans where relevant), with a consequent backlash locally.

Speaking at a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in September he said:

“My worry is that we are giving the illusion to people that they can control the environment, without actually the reality of it. In my ward, I think if we went and asked people what they wanted in a plan for that local ward, there would be three things that would come out of it. Number one, there shall be no development ever here full stop. Number two, there shall be no subdivision of houses into flats. And number three, if we have to have any development or subdivision, there should be at least three off-street parking spaces provided for each one. That’s clearly impossible, but that’s what local people will articulate a desire for through this process.”

Related to this, some commentators have questioned whether local authorities are sufficiently skilled to take on the new relationship with communities that planning reforms in particular, and localism in general, requires of them. Simon Roberts, Chief Executive of the Centre for Sustainable Energy argues that “more than 30 years of centralisation in England has left local authorities and communities… de-skilled in the art of consensus-based local plan making”.

The government’s response so far

The government’s initial reaction to criticism of the draft NPPF, published in late July, was to take an adversarial approach. In early August, Bob Neil MP, Minister for Local Government, said opposition to the draft was a ‘carefully choreographed smear campaign by left-wingers based within the national headquarters of pressure groups’.

A month later George Osborne and Eric Pickles warned that “no one should underestimate our determination to win this battle”.

However, the criticism kept coming, with the National Trust’s petition calling on the government to rethink planning reforms attracting in excess of 100,000 signatures (see https://www.planningforpeople.org.uk/).

On 15 September, Tony Travers, Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics, concluded that “the coalition has made a dog’s breakfast of planning reform”.

Five days later, on 20 September, Prime Minister David Cameron wrote to the National Trust assuring them that “I believe that sustainable development has environmental and social dimensions as well as an economic dimension, and we fully recognise the need for a balance between the three.”

Since then, the government appears to have shifted to a more conciliatory mode. Speaking at a discussion on the draft NPPF hosted by the BPF on 22 September, Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralisation and Cities, responded to criticism of the presumption in favour of sustainable development by saying that:

“We’ve got a definition in the draft and I have said that we’ll listen to responses to the consultation. We’ve used the definition that previous governments have used but people have suggested that it could be clearer there, so we will respond to that.”

Specifically on concerns about a weakening in policy on town centres and directing as much development as possible onto brownfield land, the minister told the Guardian’s Local Government Network that “it was never my intention to depart from the obviously desirable situation in which derelict land should be brought back into use”.

Andrew Lainton, a planning consultant and member of Campaign Against Sprawl, detects that with the shift of tone “something quite extraordinary has happened – ministers have taken the very brave step of engaging with ideas and criticisms.”

At the very least, the messages from government appear to acknowledge that the draft NPPF is only that – a draft – and that consultation may require them to alter some parts of the framework.

What happens next?

Consultation on the draft NPPF closes on 17 October 2011. To submit a response complete the consultation form online or download a copy.

The House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee announced in July that it is to hold an inquiry into the draft NPPF. The deadline for submissions was 9 September 2011, and hearings will take place in October and November.

Related to this, the Environmental Audit Committee has also launched a short inquiry to look specifically at sustainable development and the draft NPPF. The committee’s work will inform the CLG Committee inquiry. Hearings will take place on 12 October 2011.