The NPPF: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Following my blog last week on the impending publication of the NPPF we have had to wait a little while, but on a glorious sunny day on Tuesday 27th March the airwaves were alive with the sound of planning reform and intensive media debate and speculation. So we now have a finished 50 page document which simplifies and streamlines the existing 1000 pages of detailed planning guidance with the explicit aim of allowing a pro-growth agenda albeit with the public at the heart of the system. This document is now operational and, as such, produces one of the biggest changes to the planning system since its inception in 1947.
1. The NPPF is a significant improvement over the original draft and clearly has tried to address some of the key concerns of the consultation. The challenge of reducing so much planning policy to a short piece is ambitious but it is a digestible document which should be readily intelligible to the public. This is important.
2. The NPPF formalises the primary role that the local plan has in decision making. This adheres to current legislation that 'development should be in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations dictate otherwise'. This is good as a plan becomes the focus for decision making and creates certainty for all parties in the process, allowing stakeholders to invest in an area with a degree of confidence.
3. There is a brownfield first policy together with a commitment for planning to revitalise town centres (Portas review).
4. There is new protection for playing fields and sports pitches preventing their sell off for housing.
5. There is strong protection towards designated spaces and zoned green belt with acknowledgement of the importance of NATURA 2000 sites
6. There is acknowledgement of the need for rural diversification with provision for new office buildings in rural areas
7. There is recognition of the role of ecosystem services in the natural environment for the first time in a planning document, although it would have been great to make this a material consideration.
8. The government want to speed up the planning system. Nothing in this new framework will stop the opposition to development. If the government tries to short cut this they will end up in court as there are legal safeguards to protect the requirement for adequate consultation. The Aarhus convention is key here. This has important implication for trying to get local plans produced within a 12 month period which is unreasonable.
9. There is confusion between the local plan and the neighbourhood plan. The rhetoric stresses the importance of localism in the planning system yet within their flagship neighbourhood plans concept there is the requirement that plans must follow local and national plans with no ability for communities to challenge housing targets within the local plan; only to increase numbers and control their design and location. There is a real risk here that people will invest effort in the neighbourhood plan when in reality they need to invest time in ensuring that the local plan meets their needs.
10. The NPPF does not actually state anywhere in the text a definition of sustainable development which is the cornerstone of the planning system and will be used where there is no up to date plan. There is a rather strange statement that paragraphs 18-218 constitutes the government's definition of sustainability which is a bit open ended to put it mildly. The fuzzy nature of the Minister's attempts to define it today raise important questions as to how this will be operationalised in the planning process
11. The strong protection given to green belts and the designated countryside means that pressure for development will fall on those areas that do not have designations. Set within a hierarchy of priority and proportionality, it is clear that undesignated land of low agricultural value will be a key area for development. This seems to be against the spirit of the European Landscape Convention where all landscapes are valued. One further effect here is that with the brownfield first policy we are likely to have greater density of new development in existing urban areas where there is a risk that existing and potential green and amenity space will be lost. One cost of a concession to the countryside campaigners might mean that urban people actually pay the price with loss of access to potential amenity sites in towns. Can we have managed development into the countryside which does not equal sprawl?
12. There is improved protection for biodiversity but ancient woodlands and coast seem particularly vulnerable in the way the text is written as does lower grades of agricultural land given the continuation of policy that protects the highest grade agricultural land. This firmly puts development pressure towards land with higher biodiversity value.
13. There is still policy disintegration where the built and natural environment do not connect effectively to join up planning policy and decisions. The Local Enterprise Partnerships and Local Nature Partnerships need to build collective plans as opposed to single dimension plans which then conflict later on in the process. Defra and CLG need to build a common plank to their policy rather than running then on separate tracks.
14. There is still a passion within government and business to label planners as the enemy of enterprise. This is an insult to the work and action of many local authority planners who work tirelessly to help make good development happen despite the political processes resulting in a series of never ending changes. There is no evidence to support such claims.
15. There is a duty to co-operate between local authorities but this is no adequate replacement for the regional layer of planning which has been effectively wiped out (the only country in Europe to do this). There is a lack of anyone looking at the bigger strategic picture which actually is crucial for our vital planning functions for transport, economy and environment which connect at larger than local scales. Regional planning could have been kept even if regional spatial strategies were abolished.
16. Within a plan for framework there should be provisions for monitoring and evaluating whether the stated aims are being met. There is no section on this. This is poor planning practice. We urgently need indicators to monitor the impact of the NPPF. I also question whether given the policy focus and role of the NPPF it legally requires a Strategic Environmental Assessment.
17. The NPPF imposes a huge resource burden on Local Planning authorities; securing local plans within a 12 month period (over 50% of local authorities in England do not have an up to date plan), supporting Neighbourhood Plans and implementing the framework from today. Yet over the last few years many planners have been cut. There is a real risk that the planning system will grind to a halt simply because we do not have enough local authority planners. There is a need for an urgent increase in planner capacity to deal with this.
18 One final question that remains fixed in my head as I digest the contents of the document. Given all the commitments to protection and the importance of localism; where the devil are all the homes that we need going to go?
As a planner my role now is to work with government and other agencies to make this happen after all despite the apparent broken planning system between 2004-2010 there was some really good planning going on. That is testimony to those who train the planners of the future and the skills of the planners' themselves who will make the best of any system.