Greg Clark is Financial Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Tunbridge Wells. Follow Greg on Twitter.
Homes: we all need them, there aren’t enough
of them and building more of them would provide a welcome boost to the economy.
Unfortunately, the last Labour government
left us with the lowest peacetime level of house-building since the 1920s. They
also left us a completely dysfunctional planning policy.
In attempting to break the planning deadlock,
Labour only made things worse – by imposing targets and regional spatial
strategies. This top-down approach certainly had an impact: adding both to the
bitterness of local planning battles and to the bureaucracy of an already
over-complicated planning system.
Our approach was to drop the targets, scrap
the strategies and simplify the system. The result was the National Planning
Policy Framework, which replaced 1,300 pages of central guidance with a
framework document of just 52 pages.
Tomorrow, March 27th, marks the first
anniversary of the publication and entry into force of the NPPF, which I
prepared and published as planning minister.
Writing the NPPF was a far from simple
process. Good planning is all about reconciling economic, social and
environmental objectives that can easily come into conflict. It took a year of
intensive listening and consultation to develop the final framework.
Though the controversy that surrounded the
whole process considerably enlivened my time as planning minister, I believe
the effort was more than repaid, with the final NPPF gaining an exceptionally
broad measure of support from people and groups with all kinds of interests –
business, environmental, cultural, housing, heritage, local government, rural
and urban. By contributing to the
consultation, they helped shape the outcome.
But one year after publication, what
practical impact has the NPPF had? Well, in England – where it applies – the
number of new homes granted planning permission has risen by a quarter.
Admittedly, this is from a low base – and some might argue that this is just
the result of natural recovery from the crash in property development that
followed the Credit Crunch.
However, in Scotland and Wales – where
planning policy is a devolved matter and the NPPF does not apply – recently
published figures show that permissions for new homes actually fell (by 10 per
cent and 3 per cent respectively).
We will have to see what happens in future
years, but the signs are that the Framework is helping to provide the homes and
also the business premises that we need.
It is, however, also worth noting what hasn’t happened.
For instance, local planning authorities have
not been left scratching their heads unsure as what to do. It turns out that
they are more than capable of acting to meet local needs on the basis of local
knowledge. Over 70 per cent of councils have a draft plan now, compared to just
33 per cent before we took office. Nor has the abolition of housing targets
resulted in a halt to planning approvals – quite the opposite in fact.
On the other side of the equation, prophecies
of an environmental apocalypse have not come to pass. The green belt is still
very much in place, containing sprawl and ensuring that England remains green
and pleasant. Indeed, as more and more local authorities are adopting Local
Plans, which the NPPF puts at the heart of the planning system, communities have
the opportunity to pro-actively shape their own development to their own
advantage, something which was denied to them by the old regional spatial strategies.
And, finally, despite warnings that the NPPF
would be struck down by the courts, it is, twelve months on, alive and well and
respected as a clear, practical and sensible framework of policy. Users of the
Framework – including communities, councils, and businesses – are positive
about the NPPF and welcome its clarity and concision.
The NPPF has succeeded in combining
development with conservation, national standards with local empowerment. Those
who would wish for much more forbidding policy – or a much more lax one – are
of course entitled to their opinions. But, in my view, the mainstream majority
should be allowed to get on with job of planning a better, more prosperous and
more attractive future for our nation.