Richard Harrington is MP for Watford.
There has been some hysterical and highly misleading material in the press about the Government's new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The scaremongers suggest it is set to create a free-for-all for developers, and paint a lurid picture of uncontrolled urban sprawl.
Those who write this material are seizing upon some of the more eye-catching headline items, without reading the more mundane – but in many respects, far more important – pages that lie behind them.
For example, the NPPF restates Green Belt policy, heritage policy, town centre protection policy, and many other 'protective' policies in a very familiar form, even if the language is a little simpler.
Furthermore, the NPPF will not change the Conservation Areas, areas of special character, protected views, Sites of Special Scientific Interest etc that fill the local development plans of England and Wales. Indeed, it positively re-asserts the primacy of those development plans, and further encourages local community involvement in their preparation.
It also introduces a new designation of Local Green Space, and the concept of areas of tranquility, to give local communities yet more weapons to use to resist inappropriate development.
Neither the NPPF nor the Localism Bill currently going through Parliament will change the fundamental way the planning system works. Planning decisions will continue to be about weighing competing considerations – the need to protect importance open space, the need for new and affordable homes, the accessibility of the site, the design of the proposed buildings, the contribution the development could make to local infrastructure, etc, etc. Sometimes the balance will end up in favour of development; other times it will not.
The difference is that – at a time of severe economic stress, and when Britain badly needs to improve its competitiveness in a rapidly-changing world – local authorities are being encouraged to attach greater weight to job creation and other economic considerations. They are being encouraged too to adopt a mindset that recognises the many advantages to be had from sustainable development – social and environmental, as well as economic. Despite the economic crisis that grips us, we mustn't lose sight of important objectives such as combating climate change, increasing biodiversity and reducing poverty, almost all of which have a property development aspect.
The NPPF is a breath of fresh air. It keeps the best of planning policy as it has evolved over the post-War years, whilst dispensing with much of the Town-Hall-knows-best and glass-half-empty culture that has gripped the system in recent years.
In Watford, I look forward to it making it a little easier for businesses to find premises in the town, and to grow when they are here, and for local housebuilders to develop the sort of houses people want, on sustainable sites; whilst maintaining the strong protection of the Green Belt and other open spaces we all treasure.
I encourage those who share my wish for a better future to communicate to their MPs that they support the NPPF and have no truck with doom-mongers in the Press who choose to read selectively and then report misleadingly.