Localism at Risk: one year on, is the NPPF delivering planning for people?

Our identification with place is a fundamental part of our humanity.  We all care deeply about the places that we live and work in.  But we also want different things from them.  On the one hand we want them to develop them, to build new homes, to build new businesses, and on the other we want to preserve them, to keep them the way that we know and love them.

These impulses can be contradictory.  Needs and aspirations for place will vary at different times, in different ways, and for different people, creating a kaleidoscope of interests and ambitions across society.

It’s easy to think of the planning system simply in terms of a bureaucratic process, part of the ineluctable, sometimes impenetrable, processes of government.

But at heart it is about helping us manage our conflicting desires in order to create the sorts of places we need and want.  By choosing to place planning within the democratic arena we signal our commitment to a fair approach to place, to creating communities that meet the needs of all.

Planning is not simply about balancing the demands of conservation and development, it is about defining the places we live in and the type of society we see ourselves as.  That means a planning process that flows from, and returns to, what people value about the places that they live and work in and their aspiration for its future.

The government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), introduced to free-up the planning system and promote sustainable development, reflected a strong commitment to this kind of people-led planning.  The NPPF is based on Local Plans that  the government has described as “produced by communities” and the “keystone of the planning system”.

Research conducted for a new LGiU and National Trust report, however, has found that the NPPF has failed to put communities at the heart of the planning system. Our research has found a situation where the NPPF is, in fact, at risk of undermining localism.

60 per cent of respondents disagree or strongly disagree that the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has had a positive impact on their ability to deliver a Local Plan that reflects local needs and priorities.

Similarly, two-thirds of respondents disagree or strongly disagree that Neighbourhood Planning will have a positive impact on their authority’s ability to deliver development that reflects local concerns and priorities.

Respondents expressed concern that the Planning Inspectorate, through the examination process, is prioritising development over the views of local people.  The research found that housing land availability was the most common reason for Local Plans being rejected. In contrast, the research found that communities are most concerned about protection of the natural environment.

LGiU research highlights three key explanations for this centralisation:

1. NPPF timeframes. 53 per cent of LPAs will miss the March deadline for the production of Local Plans that set out the development policies for their area. Not providing councils with more time to adopt Local Plans will put communities at greater risk of speculative development. The government has argued that “seven out of ten local councils have now published Local Plans compared to two out of ten previously, and there is good progress across the remainder”. New research conducted by the LGiU, however, casts doubt on this analysis. The LGiU estimates that over a quarter (26 per cent) of local authorities will take more than a year to adopt their Local Plan

2. Land-banking. The LGiU research found that many of the 400,000 sites nationally that have planning permission are likely to be excluded from a council’s deliverable five-year housing supply on the basis that they are currently considered economically unviable for development. Many are brownfield sites that are less profitable to develop than greenfield sites. In the longer term, economic growth will make brownfield development more viable for developers who have outstanding planning permission. As a case study in this report shows, many of the sites for 10,300 new homes approved for development in Salford are excluded from the council’s five year supply forcing the council to consider planning applications for greenfield sites.

3. Resources in planning departments. 60 per cent of respondents disagree or strongly disagree that future levels of human and financial resource and capacity in planning departments will be adequate to meet future workload

The LGiU research has found two practical issues that could be mitigated to help both give people more say over planning decisions and achieve sustainable economic growth:

1. Greater recognition of the issues around land-banking.  The LGiU research found that many of the 400,000 sites nationally that have planning permission are likely to be excluded from a council’s deliverable five-year housing supply on the basis that they are currently considered economically unviable for development. Councils are being forced to propose development of more profitable, and therefore more viable, greenfield sites. The government and Planning Inspectorate should consider taking a longer view on regeneration priorities alongside the economic viability of sites allocated for development

2. Additional time to adopt Local Plans.  Local authorities are under resource pressures that mean it is increasingly difficult for them to produce Local Plans in the very short timetable that the government has set.  In the current economic climate, there is little possibility of extra financial resources, but additional time to adopt Local Plans would help ease the pressure on planning departments

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    1. David Farnsworth says:

      This research is indeed very interesting and very useful and confirms my own experience in giving independent pro bono advice to several community groups in how to implement the new powers available to them through Neighbourhood Planning under the Localism Act.

      The findings that “nearly two thirds of authorities said that Neighbourhood Plans were not important in shaping their Local Plan” and “councils were not convinced that Neighbourhood Planning would deliver real benefits to communities” seems to me to confirm not a failing in the way Neighbourhood Planning is set up, but a failing in the attitude that underlies the reaction of many (not all) councils towards Neighbourhood Planning.

      The attitude of many – often not openly admitted – is that Neighbourhood Planning is an unacceptable challenge to the hitherto exclusive power of Local Planning Authorities and their elected councillors to arbitrate on planning issues. As the report suggests: “the unwillingness of local government to positively share power with new partners”.

      From a community point of view Neighbourhood Planning powers are entirely progressive. Who better to decide on the details of development within a neighbourhood than the residents and workers of that neighbourhood with the democratic legitimacy of a referendum?

      Meanwhile the best mechanism for deciding district-wide or city-wide strategy is indeed the Local Planning Authority. Neighbourhood Planning does not challenge that.

      What we need for progressive democacy as well as for better planning is a new settlement between the two interests, with councils having the generosity of mind to accept that all neighbourhoods – not just the “resource-rich” – can and should be helped to produce a basic building block of Local Plans. Local Plans would thereby be far more realistic, feasible and democratically legitimate.

    2. Eva McDonald says:

      Thank you for this informative bit od research, which we (being 100 residents in Walkford Christchurch Dorset) will be using in our NEXT round of objection letters to Christchurch council.

      We find ourselves at the mercy of speculative developers who have bought a third of an acre of back garden and are hell bent on riding over the councils Local Plan H9 which states this is an area of specific interest with a hundred year old trees and associated wildlife, including protected bat species. that should be protected against infill development.

      However as your research states and the planning officer told me, Land Banking of brown fill sites in the borough of Christchurch is forcing the council to approve housing developments on allotments back gardens and other well loved community ammenities.

      Would be grateful for any comments on who we might contact for advice, as we plan to fight the next round
      of planning proposals? Caleb Developers web site boasts on how they always win 2nd time around despite vericious opposition of local residents. Yet the Local Plan has a specific policy especially written to protect this land……………….if the council cannot keep to its own policies who can we turn to for help?

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