The National Planning Policy Framework - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

8  Where should development take place?

136. The draft NPPF incorporates a number of significant changes to policies that affect where development will be located. These are changes to policy on brownfield, on identifying land supply, and on town centres. These three policies were characterised by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in their letter to us as giving the appearance of encouraging less sustainable types of development.[266] In this chapter we consider each of these policy areas in turn.

Development on brownfield land

137. The Plan for Growth announced that the target for 60% of housing to be on brownfield land, in place since 1998, was to be removed. Furthermore, as with other Planning Policy Statements, PPS3 on Housing will be cancelled with the introduction of the NPPF; PPS3 set out a policy of 'brownfield sites first', stating that "the priority for development should be previously developed land, in particular vacant and derelict sites and buildings."[267] The core planning principles in the draft NPPF state that "where practical and consistent with other objectives, allocations of land for development should prefer land of lesser value",[268] and later the document states that "plans should allocate land with the least environmental or amenity value where practical".[269] The National Trust warned that the 60% target had not been replaced with "a clear enough statement of the importance of using previously-developed sites first."[270]

138. John Slaughter, Director of External Affairs at the Home Builders Federation supported the more flexible approach of the draft NPPF. He told us that the brownfield target had not been successful, because while a higher percentage of housing was located on brownfield sites, the overall volume of housing did not increase to the required levels because the policy simply reduced the amount of greenfield development that was approved.[271] Others lauded the 'brownfield first' policy for achieving precisely that.[272] Sir Simon Jenkins, Chair of the National Trust, argued that the policy had supported urban renewal and environmental sustainability, and its removal would encourage development "to go where the money is, which is into the countryside".[273] Dr Hugh Ellis of the Town and Country Planning Association told us that the policy had been very important for ex-industrial areas in northern England, and "without it the future for them is potentially bleak".[274] The British Property Federation told the EAC that the Federation "fully support the reinstatement of some form of brownfield first concept [...] it is entirely morally right that you should seek to use land that has been previously used, where it can meet your needs, before you start to look at a greenfield site."[275]

139. The NPPF Impact Assessment explains the changes of policy by saying that "the stock of (viable) brownfield land varies by local council, and in some areas is becoming a strain on development".[276] Based on the fact that there is a need for 200,000 to 250,000 houses a year, Mr Slaughter considered that there was not enough brownfield land available to meet even three years' worth of new homes, and the planning system would also need to bring greenfield sites forward for development.[277] According to the National Land Use Database, in England in 2009 there was sufficient previously-developed land available, and considered suitable for housing, to accommodate nearly 1.5 million dwellings.[278] Even in the regions with lowest availability, it would take seven years of housebuilding on previously-developed land at pre-recession rates to use up the current supply. This assumes a constant rather than increasing rate of housebuilding, and that the land comes forward for development with no unforeseen problems. However, figures also show that the supply of previously-developed land is being replenished at almost exactly the rate it is being used in England as a whole, with some regional variation, so it should not be considered a finite resource.[279]

140. The British Property Federation recommended that, rather than reinstating a target for brownfield use, local authorities should be required to set out in their Local Plans policies for maximising the use of brownfield land in their areas—a solution that would be both localist and sensitive to variations in the availability of previously-developed land.[280] BPF made the point, however, that public funding for remediation of contaminated land had often been crucial to efforts to maximise use of brownfield sites.[281] The Minister, Greg Clark, told us that there should be some means of assessing the viability of development on land where the cost of bringing it back into use would be very high, and that it was "desirable that regeneration does, where it can, find sums of money" to achieve this.[282]

141. Representing the Local Government Association, Cllr Gary Porter described the brownfield policy as "a complete and utter failure" because gardens had often been considered brownfield land.[283] The Minister acknowledged this problem as an unintended consequence of a definition of brownfield land "that was not environmentally sensitive enough"—although gardens were removed from the definition of previously developed land in June 2010.[284] The NPPF instead uses the wording "land of least environmental value". Ian Fletcher of the British Property Federation told us, however, that this formulation ignored the valuable social and economic dimensions of the brownfield first policy, and a more "subtle" definition was needed.[285] Other potential difficulties we were told about included local authorities wishing to allocate brownfield to uses other than housing, such as public open spaces and amenity,[286] the significant wildlife habitats that sometimes become established on derelict land,[287] or the fact that some previously-developed sites may be some distance away from existing settlements, transport links or community infrastructure.[288] In evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) argued that such circumstances could be addressed by local planning authorities in their local context, and through "slight revisions to policy" rather than by removing the preference for brownfield sites.[289]

142. The Minister recognised that the omission of the terms 'brownfield' and 'previously-developed land' from the policy as expressed in the draft NPPF had caused some readers to infer that it was no longer a Government priority to see derelict land brought back into use.[290] He commented that it should be possible to clarify the policy intent while referring to the word 'brownfield', which benefited from "a certain familiarity".[291] The Impact Assessment notes that there is a risk that, by removing the priority for brownfield development, "Government may be seen to be encouraging development on greenfield land". This risk, it states, will be mitigated "by continuation of existing landscape and environment protections, such as Green Belt, Sites of Specific Scientific Interest, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and by implementing the new designation to protect green spaces of particular local importance to communities."[292] However, the Impact Assessment also takes trouble to outline many potential benefits of greenfield development, such as increasing housing supply, greater competition, job creation and more access to New Homes Bonus and Community Infrastructure Levy funds, and anticipates that development will no longer be "skewed" towards previously developed sites.[293]

143. We welcome the Government's openness to reinstating the familiar and well-understood term 'brownfield' in the NPPF, whilst recognising that more sophistication is needed in its definition to avoid unintended consequences. There is a danger, nevertheless, that the removal of the brownfield target and the 'brownfield first' policy—in conjunction with the introduction of the presumption in favour of sustainable development and changes to requirements for allocating land for housing—will result over time in less importance being attached to the use of previously-developed land first where possible. This principle should be strongly stated in the NPPF, and reiterated by requiring local authorities to set their own targets for the use of brownfield land. This would allow for adaptation to particular circumstances and would in addition be a useful mechanism for local accountability.

The supply of sites for housing

144. The draft NPPF states that, in order to boost the supply of housing, local planning authorities should identify and maintain a rolling supply of specific deliverable sites sufficient to provide five years' worth of housing against their housing requirements; this supply should include an additional allowance of at least 20% "to ensure choice and competition in the market for land".[294] In this rolling five-year (effectively six-year) supply, local planning authorities will not be permitted to make allowance for windfall sites, "unless they can provide compelling evidence of genuine local circumstances that prevent specific sites being identified."[295] Windfall sites are those which are not allocated in a plan but subsequently become available for development.

145. Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive of CPRE, told us that the requirement to allocate more land "will put irresistible pressure on local authorities to release greenfield land unnecessarily [...] and simply enable developers to cherry-pick greenfield sites," that is, sites which are generally easier to develop and more profitable.[296] Richard Summers, President of RTPI, described the requirement as "a strange formulation" and said it would

    put the squeeze on authorities whose urban edge is up tight against the green belt, an area of outstanding natural beauty or an area of countryside that is valued for environmental, forestry, or agricultural purposes. It also puts a squeeze on the question of updating a plan, because it will take some time to go through the land search, the public consultation and all the rest of it to bring the Local Plan up to date.[297]

John Slaughter of the Home Builders Federation rejected the suggestion that developers would be able to cherry-pick greenfield sites, because it would still be up to the local authority to identify the land to be allocated, and to focus on brownfield land within that.[298]

146. Changes to the requirement for housing land supply, as well as changes to brownfield policy, were a particular concern to environmental groups who feared that the draft NPPF did not provide sufficient protections from development for greenfield land which may consequently be in more demand. The draft Framework deals at length with Green Belt land,[299] and requires that local planning authorities give "great weight" to "protecting landscape and scenic beauty in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty."[300] It also introduces a new category of designation, 'Local Green Spaces', although it notes that this "will not be appropriate for most green areas or local space."[301] However, conservation organisations argued that there is little explicit protection in the NPPF for open land which does not enjoy a special designation, nor is there recognition of the intrinsic value of the countryside.[302] The North Wessex Downs AONB, for example, argued that the document reverts to a view of nature and landscapes as "compartmentalised oases of conservation", and "removes the universal protection currently afforded to the wider countryside."[303] Civic Voice was concerned for the future of what it called "everyday places".[304]

147. The Minister explained that the rationale for "the sixth year" policy was to provide a "buffer" when sites either fail to come forward for development or do not yield the anticipated number of homes.[305] Adrian Penfold, author of the Penfold Review, considered that this measure would make the five-year land supply "more viable and more achievable."[306] Cllr Porter agreed that an over-allocation would protect against plans failing to deliver as expected, but asked "why have a nationally set target? Why not have a local target determined on history? The same with windfall sites. Windfall sites [...] should be included against the over-allocation."[307] Tony Burton of Civic Voice argued that it would be odd to have a policy favouring housing development on brownfield land, but not to embrace a significant source of such sites for housing development in the form of windfall sites.[308]

148. The Minister told us his intention was to "reflect on" the fact that some councils in fact had a good record of accurately predicting their actual supply of windfall sites, which might justify a more localist arrangement; the same could apply to councils which see a consistent level of windfall sites coming forward.[309] In response to concerns that the extra 20% would mean developers could 'cherry pick' the less environmentally-damaged sites within the allocation, Mr Clark said during a debate in the House that "it is exactly the intention that councils should be able to prioritise and to bring forward the lowest environmentally valuable sites first."[310]

149. Asking local authorities to identify six years' rather than five years' worth of sites for housing carries an inevitable risk that the total supply will contain a greater proportion of greenfield sites, which developers will prefer. We recommend that it should be made explicit that local authorities which adopt a local target for the use of brownfield land can prioritise it within their six-year supply, which we urge the Government to confirm and clarify in the NPPF.

150. We recommend that the Government allow windfall sites to be included alongside identified brownfield land where local authorities can demonstrate a track record of such sites coming forward for development, as this will achieve the aim of satisfying the need for land supply while minimising the need to allocate greenfield sites. The Government should have more confidence in the continuing replenishment of brownfield sites as a source of land for new development.

151. Some local authorities may, in good faith, be unable to identify six years' worth of land supply appropriate for housing. We recommend that the Government clarify that unsustainable development will not be allowed to proceed as a result of appeals against local authorities which have not allocated the full six year supply.

Town Centre First

152. Planning Policy Statement 4 (PPS4) includes the policy of 'Town Centre First', bringing in a 'sequential test' for development under which sites were identified for development first in existing centres, then in edge-of-centre locations, and only then in out-of-centre locations.[311] The draft NPPF contains a section which is supportive of town centres as the preferred location for retail and leisure development as opposed to out-of-town development. The Framework also proposes to increase the 'time horizon' for assessing the impact of retail and leisure schemes in edge-of- or out-of-centre locations from five to ten years.[312]

153. However, several organisations expressed concern that the drafting of the NPPF weakens the Town Centre First policy by guiding local planning authorities to "prefer" rather than require applications in town centre locations, and qualifies this by adding "where practical".[313] Office development has been removed entirely from the scope of the policy, exempting offices from the sequential test. Furthermore, arts, culture and tourism were included in the list of 'main town centre uses' in PPS4, but it is not clear from the text of the draft NPPF whether these have been subsumed under "leisure uses", or whether they have been omitted from the policy.[314]

154. Support for the Town Centre First policy among our witnesses was nearly unanimous, although Professor Paul Cheshire argued that it had resulted in losses of productivity in the supermarket sector and had increased retail's carbon footprint.[315] However, there was widespread recognition of the role that the policy had played in helping town centres to prosper by concentrating development there, and during our previous inquiry into Regeneration, we heard that the policy had made a significant contribution to town centre regeneration.[316]

155. The John Lewis Partnership argued that the policy had "served town centres well for almost two decades" and should remain "the cornerstone of positive future investment for and in town centres". It expressed concern that the language of the NPPF "falls short of giving the necessary weight to the sequential and impact tests" by replacing a requirement with a preference,[317] and that the detail of how impact and sequential assessments should be undertaken would be lost because of the brevity of the NPPF.[318] The John Lewis Partnership suggested that, if a scheme failed a sequential test or was likely to have a significant adverse impact on a town centre, it should not be considered sustainable and should normally be refused permission.[319] The Association of Convenience Stores stated that the removal of "significant amounts of detail" from the policy may give developers greater opportunities to circumvent it, and expose councils to legal challenge should they resist out of town development.[320] Sustainable transport organisations were concerned that the change to policy would increase congestion and car travel.[321]

156. The NPPF Impact Assessment argues that the requirement to demonstrate compliance with the sequential test "places undue burdens on office development" and has contributed to high rent costs for office space compared to other countries.[322] However, this was not the explanation for the change of policy given to us by the Minister in oral evidence:

    In a lot of rural areas, making use of disused agricultural buildings for business hubs, including small offices, has been quite successful in providing a place in which businesses can start up, and in terms of sustainability, if you live in a village and you can actually work there, rather than needing to commute somewhere else, that seems desirable. That was our intention in not requiring every new office development to be in the town centre. What was not intended—it has been suggested that this may be a loophole—was to have massive out-of-town office developments that could detract from the town centre. [...] let me say again what my policy intention was in drafting this: it was not to depart from the 'town centre first' policy, but to strengthen it.[323]

157. The Town Centre First policy has enjoyed widespread support from businesses as well as local authorities, and the certainty it provides to developers has been an important springboard for councils to achieve town centre regeneration. The NPPF should reflect the existing Town Centre First policy by bringing offices back within its ambit, in a form that allows exceptions that make a specific contribution to rural sustainability. We recommend that application of the sequential test for development remains a requirement rather than a preference, and developments that fail the sequential test should be deemed unsustainable. We further recommend that the Government clarify the policy position on town centres with respect to arts, culture and tourism uses, to ensure that they are included in the Town Centre First policy.

158. The draft NPPF states that planning policies should "promote competitive town centre environments" and "recognise town centres as the heart of their communities". It also stipulates that local authorities should "set policies for the consideration of retail and leisure proposals which cannot be accommodated in or adjacent to town centres".[324] The Local Government Association (LGA) noted that:

    there is often a widespread desire for local communities to have more of a say on the sustainability of their shopping parades, district town centres and high streets. The vitality of these places depends on local areas having access to the necessary tools to shape their locality in a way that reflect local needs and priorities.[325]

The LGA argued that reform of planning policy must better allow this to happen. We recommend that the NPPF include a provision to allow communities, in certain exceptional circumstances, to adopt an absolute protection of a town centre from out-of-town retail development. The circumstances would have to include evidence of widespread community support, and the ability to demonstrate that the town centre has outstanding qualities that would be threatened by the proposed development.

266   Environment Audit Committee, Sustainable Development in the National Planning Policy Framework, HC 1480, para 11 Back

267   DCLG, Planning Policy Statement 3: Housing, June 2011  Back

268   Draft NPPF, para 19 Back

269   Draft NPPF, para 165 Back

270   Ev 112 Back

271   Q 131 Back

272   Q 209 Back

273   Q 119 Back

274   Q 68 Back

275   Environment Audit Committee, Sustainable Development in the National Planning Policy Framework, HC 1480, Q 38 Back

276   NPPF Impact Assessment, p 49 Back

277   Qq 120, 122, 123; see also Q 255. Back

278   Green Balance, Building in a small island: why we still need the brownfield first approach, Campaign to Protect Rural England, November 2011 Back

279   Green Balance for CPRE, Building in a small island: why we still need brownfield first, November 2011 Back

280   Ev 104 Back

281   Ev 104, Q 119 Back

282   Q 346 Back

283   Q 151 Back

284   Ref Q Back

285   Q 119 Back

286   Q 119 [Ian Fletcher] Back

287   Q 66 [Paul Cheshire] Back

288   Ev 157 [Adrian Penfold] Back

289   Environment Audit Committee, Sustainable Development in the National Planning Policy Framework, HC 1480, Q 17 Back

290   See also Ev 158 [Adrian Penfold] Back

291   Q 345-46 Back

292   NPPF Impact Assessment, p 55 Back

293   NPPF Impact Assessment, pp 53, 56 Back

294   Draft NPPF, para 109 Back

295   Draft NPPF, para 109 Back

296   Q 262, Ev 143 Back

297   Q 302 Back

298   Q 125-26 Back

299   Draft NPPF, paras 133 ff Back

300   Draft NPPF, para 167 Back

301   Draft NPPF, paras 130-2 Back

302   Ev w271 [London Forum of Ameity and Civic Societies]; Ev 142 [CPRE]; Ev 128 [Civic Voice] Back

303   Ev w267 Back

304   Ev 128 Back

305   Q 347; see also HC Deb, 20 October 2011, col 1083. Back

306   Q 284 Back

307   Q 144 Back

308   Q 209 Back

309   Q 347 Back

310   HC Deb, 20 October 2011, col 1084 Back

311   DCLG, Planning Policy Statement 4: planning for sustainable economic growth, 2009, p 11 Back

312   Draft NPPF, para 80 Back

313   Draft NPPF, para 78 Back

314   Draft NPPF, para 78 ff; Planning Policy Statement 4, para 7 Back

315   Qq 69-70 Back

316   Communities and Local Government Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2010-12, Regeneration, HC 1014, November 2011, paras 40-42; Ev 96; Qq 207, 208 Back

317   Ev 131, Q 203 ff Back

318   Ev 132 Back

319   Q 210 Back

320   Ev w35 Back

321   Ev 144 [Campaign to Protect Rural England]; Ev w37 [Sustrans]; Ev w102 [Living Streets] Back

322   NPPF Impact Assessment, p 35 Back

323   Q 343 Back

324   Draft NPPF, para 76 Back

325   Ev 116 Back

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Prepared 21 December 2011