Just before Christmas, Planning Minister Greg Clark MP, published the Government’s response to the DCLG’s Select Committee report on the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which, together with evidence he gave the Committee in October and a sustained campaign of misinformation and exaggeration by the likes of the National Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and their allies at the Daily Telegraph, has prompted further media speculation of another Government “u-turn” – when it finally responds to further public consultation, now delayed but expected in April.
It might be wise to examine the context in which the Government is bringing forward this document and to nail a few pervasive myths.
It is certainly not a back of the envelope policy document. Bob Neill MP and John Howell MP spent many months in opposition engaging with, listening to and debating with planning professionals, charities, local authorities, developers and other key stakeholders, prior to the launch of their “Open Source Planning” Green Paper in February 2010. The idea that the Government’s advisory group on the NPPF was captured by and dominated by housebuilders is a myth. It had a variety of members – planners, people from local government and even a representative of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds!
The document was and is substantially about not just simplifying and slimming down national planning policy guidelines but also a much needed and demonstrable commitment by the Government to localism: the principal role of the local planning authority and local development frameworks will be central to the NPPF. Quite rightly, local government was fed up with the rigidities of John Prescott’s Regional Spatial Strategies and density targets and proscriptive policies on issues like social housing targets, which led to, amongst other things, a lamentable rise in substandard build quality and 117,000 homes constructed in the flood plain in Labour’s first two terms in government.
The purpose of the NPPF is not to usurp local decision making but to facilitate devolved civic leadership, local priorities, democracy and participation. The presumption in favour of sustainable development was always a key component of the policy and a pro-development emphasis has always existed in the planning system, at least in the post-war era. In any event, what the National Trust and others omit to mention is that the presumption does not apply where the adverse impacts of development would "significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits", so that if objectors can show that a development would cause significant harm, the presumption would not apply. If the harm is insignificant, cannot be demonstrated or does not outweigh the benefits, surely the right to build should apply?
There were always safeguards in place to protect the Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, areas of flood risk and other designated areas. Greg Clark specifically made clear to the select committee that economic development would not “trump” social and environmental considerations under the draft guidelines, recapitulating the commitment to the environment and our heritage. Ministers have rightly recognised the need to elucidate the meaning of sustainable development, to allow more time for local planning authorities to prepare and develop their own local planning policies and to amend the wording of the draft document to encourage use of brownfield land and to protect and enhance town centres.
Regrettably, individuals, organisations and media protesting these changes often appear to be debating in a bubble: impervious to the fact that we need economic growth to prevent us slipping back into recession, to provide jobs and training opportunities in not just the construction industry but local economies too and the fact that last year, we built fewer homes than in any year since 1924. The CPRE sees nothing wrong in writing to MPs and bemoaning the fact that “…the NPPF is fatally skewed in favour of economic development….!”
Blame for the rigidities of the planning system, which costs the UK economy billions of pounds each year and stifles vital business investment, lies not just with the former Labour Government. Many local councillors (including too many running Conservative-controlled authorities) suffer from a form of municipal “Stockholm Syndrome”: unable to move on from the proscriptive nature of regional planning policy and often in thrall to planning officers whose default position is how to say “no” as slowly as possible, not least because they are not incentivised to do anything else.
Who will argue that the planning system is not slow, bureaucratic and unresponsive? In 2010, more than 60% of local authorities had failed to publish a local land use policy which identified current and future housing provision and, by last year, 70% of local planning authorities had failed to publish a core strategy or local development framework. Why was this allowed to happen?
The NPPF is most assuredly not a developer’s charter, expressly written to allow the despoliation of our glorious rural heritage. But who are we to decry the need for new homes? Even Conservative voters most hostile to these changes have sons and daughters, nephews and nieces and other family and friends who will struggle ever to own their own home. The facts are grim: house prices are still 25% higher than five years ago and 117% higher than 10 years ago and new house building is running at less than half the rate of new household formation. In my own region (Eastern), the ratio of average earnings to average house price is 1:10.8 – in a period of restricted mortgage finance availability.
I believe that it is both economically inept and morally wrong for any government – and especially a Conservative-led Government – to countenance a policy of restricting access to capital driven by the priorities of those who already own it! Are you listening, Sir Simon Jenkins and other bien pensant commentators? The CPRE’s call for “radical revision” of the NPPF is code for watering it down so that its impact is at best marginal and at worst the current stasis in the planning system can be allowed to remain – nullifying efforts to drive regeneration, economic growth and an adequate supply of housing.
The most visionary and innovative local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships can work with the private sector to make use of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), the Growing Places Fund, enterprise zones, Tax Increment Financing, Regional Growth Fund, the Affordable Homes Programme, Local Asset Backed Vehicles and the New Homes Bonus, to plan and execute economic growth, greater investment and regeneration in their areas – suited to their needs and priorities.
This government has developed a powerful array of policies to drive economic growth and local regeneration and the NPPF is not only a courageous policy development and clearly in the long term national interest but it will be a catalyst and lynchpin for a range of other important regeneration initiatives. Without it, they may very well not succeed.
The Government will continue to engage with interested parties and surely will need to make some changes where necessary, but the substance of the NPPF should remain: it will mean a clearer and more concise planning framework and that must be good news for local communities, businesses and our national economy. Ministers should stick to their guns and remember that not all policies that are right are always popular.