Planning is a balancing act, which requires consideration of the preservation, use and development of land for this and future generations, within the context of agreed social, environmental and economic needs. Inevitably, there is often disagreement among competing interests on the best use of the same land, and the planning system must resolve such conflicts. Hard decisions have to be made and the National Planning Policy Framework has to provide the framework to get the balance right.
The Government wants the planning system to be less complicated, more receptive to all forms of sustainable development, and able to reach effective decisions more quickly. These aims can be generally supported and, while the draft NPPF has generated a heated debate, there was little evidence of any desire to either retain the existing system or to start again on the NPPF.
There is certainly disagreement between those insistent that the document is a crucial catalyst in encouraging much-needed development, and those who fear the document will undermine the planning system to the detriment of the environment and local communities. At the forefront of the debate is the 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' policy, which the Government views as a golden thread running through the planning system and, as noted in the report, the Prime Minister has said that: "I believe that sustainable development has environmental and social dimensions as well as an economic dimension, and we fully recognise the need for a balance between the three. Indeed, the purpose of the planning system as a whole, and of our proposals for it, is to achieve such a balance."
The Government has set great store by the brevity and simplicity of the NPPF, but in its current form the draft NPPF does not necessarily achieve clarity by virtue of its brevity. There are many examples of inconsistent drafting which need addressing. The significant gaps in planning policy and guidance could lead to a huge expansion in the size of Local Plans as local authorities attempt to plug the gap.
There is a danger that, far from speeding up the planning process, in the short term the NPPF will slow it down by introducing ambiguity where previously there was detailed guidance'planning by appeal' could be the outcome.
The NPPF's focus on economic growth also informs Local Plans and neighbourhood plans. Its emphasises a 'default yes' to development, that applications should be approved unless the adverse effects 'significantly and demonstrably' outweigh the benefits, and it weakens policies such as brownfield development first and Town Centre First. This carries the risk of the planning system being used to implement poorly planned, unsustainable development. The 'default yes' to development and the phrase 'significantly and demonstrably' should be removed from the text. The report welcomes the Minister's indication that he is minded to introduce changes to reflect the concerns about brownfield and Town Centre First issues.
Also of concern is the test of 'viability', which could allow unsustainable development to go ahead if measures to make it sustainable were, at the same time, deemed to make it unviable for the developer. The NPPF should instead make it clear that calculations of viability presuppose requirements to provide measures necessary to the development, such as infrastructure, not simply returns deemed acceptable by the developer. The report welcomes the Minister's acknowledgment of this as an issue.
The phrase 'sustainable development', which is key to the policy in the NPPF is a poorly defined phrasefor example, the document continually conflates 'sustainable development' with 'sustainable economic growth'. Again, the report has taken account of the Minister's indication that it be would appropriate for development not merely to protect, but to enhance the environment. As the report quoted, the Minister said that "a cogent case has been made [
] for expanding and strengthening the definition in the NPPF." The report made suggestions to improve the definition, which gives a clear indication of what constitutes sustainable development, while encouraging local authorities to apply this definition to their own local circumstances.
The role of Local Plans remains, in statute, the basis of the planning system, and we agree with the Government that it is unacceptable that so many parts of England are not covered by an adopted Plan under the 2004 legislation. We therefore support the impetus for more local authorities to develop and adopt Local Plans. The NPPF should unambiguously reflect the statutory supremacy of Local Plans, in accordance with the 2004 Act. Where there is a Local Plan in place, the Local Plan should be the starting point for planning decisions. Local Plans should be transparent, based on robust evidence, and capable of providing the necessary development in a specific area, reflective of local circumstances. The presumption in favour of sustainable development, as currently drafted, risks presenting itself as a decision-making mechanism on a par with, or even superior to, the Local Plan. The presumption policy should be redefined as 'a presumption in favour of sustainable development consistent with the Local Plan'. This anchors sustainable development to local circumstances and provides a spur to local authorities to prepare their Local Plans.
A transition period to the new NPPF, with a clear and realistic timetable, is essential to give local authorities time to put Local Plans in place, and to reassure local authorities, communities and developers on the status of Local Plans that are close to adoption, or have recently been adopted. An ability for Local Plans to be regularly updated in a light touch manner will increase certainty and reduce the likelihood of challenge.
The published, final NPPF will be a significant document, with far-reaching consequences. It therefore needs to be balanced and comprehensive. Now is the opportunity to take on board the suggested changes we are recommending, based on the evidence we have received, to produce a well crafted, effective document, used to inform planning decisions across England, while addressing specific geographical differences, ensuring that the Local Plan forms the 'golden thread' woven into the heart of the process. There is the need for a clear narrative demonstrating the place of the NPPF in wider planning reforms and its relationship to other relevant central and local Government policy documents. The NPPF must leave no room for doubt that the purpose of the planning system is to address social, environmental and economic demands on land supply on an equal basis.