Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from Cutting Edge Planning and Design

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to your inquiry into whether the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) forms an adequate, clear and comprehensive framework of national planning policy.


I am a planning consultant who for 20 years has been involved with the process of planning reform. I have advised governments in England, Jersey and Bahrain on planning reform, and have worked on all sides of the fence as well as in Scotland and Wales, and helping community groups through Planning Aid for London. In 2003 I wrote a paper at the request of the then ODPM proposing “core strategies” which became the basis, (though not in the form I had hoped) for the 2004 Planning and Compensation Act reforms. I am an expert on the UK planning system and its National Planning Policy and frequently advise clients of finding their way through it. I also run a widely read planning blog which has become the main resource for information and debate on the emerging NPPF.

The NPPF has a complexity in terms of its implications that belied its brevity. For that reason I apologise for going a little over your word limit. However I think it is vital for the emerging NPPF to undergo full parliamentary scrutiny and to understand these implications.

Summary of Response

The document lacks a positive vision of planning, of place, of England.

It is not balanced, it represents landowner interests above all others, even above economic development and employment.

It effectively redefines sustainable development to equal property development – it will not promote sustainability, rather its converse.

It will only be usable by experts, many of its phrases have meanings in planning precedent dating back to previous ages of planning. It undoes much of the progress of the last 25 years. Its parts interact in complex ways which even the government may not have yet worked through, but which are already causing delay and confusion.

I do not go into a point by point examination of the document, however it is not possible to understand the fitness for purpose of NPPF, and the impact it will have, without highlighting a small number of key policy changes which will have widespread impact.

It will lead to a free for all because almost all plans will be rendered out of date overnight. This will lead to appeal-led planning, with a risk of sprawl rather than properly designed and planned development.

As a nation we badly need more development, in the right place and well designed, but the NPPF will hinder this and the irony is it is already leading to a crude ant-development backlash.

There are ways of salvaging the situation. I suggest new clauses to the final stages of the Localism Bill, which combined with significantly rewritten parts of the NPPF would lead to a proper definition of sustainability, a workable presumption in favour of sustainable development, a proper transition period, plan-led rather than appeal-led planning and a simpler quicker system. I would be willing to expand on these suggestions in further work and in oral evidence.


I would recommend that the committee look into the specific policy changes of the NPPF in sessions running up to the end of 2011. This is important as it is the aim of the Secretary of State that the work of your committee the form in which parliamentary scrutiny of the document is undertaken. I would hope that the Committee approach adopted by the Committee is that adopted by Planning Inspectorates to Draft development plans, is it the best possible plan in the circumstances, is it justified by the evidence, will it be effective in meeting its goals? As the most important development in planning since 1947 it is important we as a nation get it right.

What is Planning For?

Is planning the enemy? Many ministers from the Prime Minister down rarely miss an opportunity to knock planners. We are castigated, without evidence or justification as the “enemies of enterprise”, when in fact most spend half their working lives promoting local enterprise. Or even castigated by the Prime Minister as blocking measures to prevent looting, when in fact they have been implementing Home Office Advice to ensure our town centres are not grey, dark and graffiti ridden. As RTPI president Richard Summers has said “Planners in the public sector have broad shoulders and accept that they are often a convenient sitting target for ministers”.

Yet Britain is out on a limb internationally. Given global problems, such as for the first time more than 50% of the world’s population living in cities from 2008, the need to house, provide infrastructure and transport for those people. Internationally town planning has never been considered so important. Emerging nations such as China, India and Brazil see good town planning as a mainspring of growth, not a hurdle. Gulf States which had a disastrous “let it rip” approach to development before the 2008 crash, are, like Abu-Dhabi transforming their approach to town planning to avoid seeing wasted billions on investment in empty properties, the financing and building of which helped cause the great financial crisis. For example the carbon-neutral new city of Masdar, designed by the UKs Fosters, outdoes the ambition of anything being done in the UK, as does many of the Eco-city Chinese New Towns and Urban extensions being developed by UK firms such as Arups, Atkins and Mott Mc Donald. Without good sustainable design, including good town planning, urbanisation and economic growth will consume our non-renewable resources and trigger off effects such as global warming. The world turns to the UK for town planning to help avoid this, but why is it so castigated and difficult here?

Greg Clark in speech’s and articles has stated that planning should be “seen as a crucial service operating in the public interest. In the bluntest terms, as a force for good.” and that “the purpose of planning is to help make the way we live our lives better tomorrow than it is today.

And not just tomorrow - but a million tomorrows, so that nothing our generation does compromises the ability - indeed the right - of future generations to improve their own lives.” But this uplifting wording, very different in the minister’s presentation of the draft NPPF from what it actually says, is nowhere to be found in the shallow, negative, dull and repetitive content of the NPPF itself which above all needs a positive statement of what role planning can and should play in modern society.

Does the NPPF give sufficient guidance to local planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and others, including investors and developers, while at the same time giving local communities sufficient power over planning decisions?

The document is punchy. Reducing from 1,097 pages to 55. But punchiness does not mean that the document is clear or fit for purpose. Wales (Planning Policy Wales) shows that it is possible to reduce national policy considerably (in their case to around 200 pages) without losing its essence or clarity - following four iterations it has been widely praised and easy to use (as a planning practitioner). There are aspects of English national policy where the editing pen has gone too far - deleting crucial national policies. I shall turn to these in later evidence.

There will be those who will rightly argue that England needs something like the Wales Spatial Plan or the Scottish National Planning Framework. These are Spatial policies stating how infrastructure will “join up” and the role of different areas in the nation. They are right. How can you judge, for example, HS2 without a national vision of transport and the connectivity of regional cities? How could a site for an additional hub airport, and the linking infrastructure for it, be chosen if the decision was made to develop one? But that is an argument for another day, as such a document would take over a year to develop and the government priority is to put in place simplified subject based national policy. I would hope that your committee urge the government to look again at this issue once the NPPF is complete; if only to ensure that billions of investment is well spent and the National Policy Statements on major infrastructure are linked up.

Above all the document needs to be accessible to non-professionals. The document though is riddled with phrases that can only have meaning to planning consultants and lawyers because of the considerable “baggage” they hold in terms of past precedent. To give just one of many possible examples “obviously poor design” (para 121) which many lawyers have argued in public inquiries in the 1980s and 90s (it is a resurrection from circular 22/80) means that arguably and slightly poor design is acceptable. Also many parts of the document interlock in complex ways, you need to draw up flowcharts to understand its operation. Some aspects of policy are only comprehensible at all, notably policy on flooding, if you have the old policy being replaced alongside you. As this is supposed to be a comprehensive standalone document this shows it is not fit for purpose. A lever arch file of inspectors reports and recovered appeals (by the SoS) will be needed as precedents about what some underbaked parts actually mean.

Before 2004 you often saw local plans and UDPs that ran to 500 pages or more. In climates where there was a strong presumption in favour of development there was a feeling you needed a policy for everything. In putting forward the concept of core strategies in 2003 the idea was to make local strategies shorter by removing the need to repeat national policy. But if too much national policy is stripped away, for example on adverts in the countryside, agricultural workers dwellings etc, then you could see, indeed you are seeing, local pressure to “fll in the gaps” that have been created and see plan balloon and take longer to complete.

A better crafted document of 100150 pages could have set the right balance between brevity and clarity.

The fitness for purpose of the NPPF also depends on the tone it strikes. Inspectors will want clarity. Developers will want certainty on where and whether they will get consent. Environmentalists will want hooks to enable various impacts to be controlled or prevented. Planning professionals will want stability. Local politicians will either want the untrammelled ability to say no to unpopular development or an unequivocal order from a third party to plan for it - so they can blame that party. This means that planning will always be conflictual. But it does not mean that these stakeholders do not have shared objectives and that in many cases these cannot be partially reconciled. Above all good planning can help reconcile these objectives by ensuring that needed development goes in the right place and is well designed. It can also have a vision of the positive role of planning in ensuring this.

This is where the NPPF falls down the most; its impoverished and negative view of planning - effectively says get out of the way of developers. The almost universal perception of the NPPF is its imbalanced nature. Even those of us who consider that the planning system had become too anti-development can see it for what it is, a developers charter. This means that the backlash from the shires and suburbs could be so great that it could actually mean that the can, of where new large scale development goes, is kicked down the road as it has been many times before. Too often we have seen ministers before, such as Patrick Jenkin and John Prescott, panic under opposition to changes to crudely loosen the taps of development and react by tightening them too much.

The experience of the 1980s is that planning needs teeth to serve a purpose. The NPPF is a complete dental extraction. Without the threat of a no to a poorly designed and conceived scheme in the wrong place you will not get a good scheme in the right place. Planning Policy enables strong negotiating stances which add value to the final scheme. Planners now find them themselves without the tools necessary to negotiate. A default yes will only get you bad schemes, unless it is balanced with a default no to poor planning.

Though English National Planning Policy there is nothing English about the document at all, about what our distinctive challenges and solutions as a nation are - very uninspiring. Indeed minsters have wrongly made statements that they are responsible for planning in Britain - rather than England, whereas the British Isles has seven separate statutory Planning Regimes; the NPPF covering only the English part.

Finally on the issue of usability the document is wearily repetitive, using one phrase four times and the word “presumption” 25 times.

Is the definition of “sustainable development” contained in the document appropriate?

Development plans are required to must be drawn up with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development by law (section 39 2004 Act). Oddly this function does not apply to development management decisions and all other decisions under the planning acts.

Successive government have stated that defining it should be a matter of policy rather than law. The key issue is whether the definition is meaningful.

Firstly the government has not been consistent in its definitions. The official definition is from the UK (not just English) Sustainable Development Strategy, Securing the Future, which remains in force, and at least merits a footnote in the NPPF. Neither mentioned is the coalition government’s statement “Mainstreaming Sustainable Development.” Again unless DCLG wants to plough a different furrow on Sustainable Development than DEFRA there should be at least a footnote mention. Finally there is the older definition from Brundtland used in the NPPF. What this means is that the government now has three different definitions of sustainable development - very confusing. The issue of the Brundtland definition is that by itself it is uncontentious; it is simply a requirement not to be unsustainable, but to be meaningful in policy terms you need to add flesh to the bones and have a policy framework which is positive about the sustainable actions required.

The NPPF approach to sustainable development is weak and in effect seeks to define it out of existence so that property development = sustainable development.

The definition in para 9 of the NPPF seeks to redefine the Brundtland definition by referring only to “basic” needs. This implies that widening inequality is acceptable if “basic needs” only are met. Wheras in fact the Brundtland Report refer to the key concept of “‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given”. All references to lessening social inequalities and ensuring “Social progress which recognizes the needs of everyone” (from the SDS) have been excised. Indeed by contrast the NPPF gives overwhelming priority to the wealthiest who are able to carry out the most property development.

The NPPF definition goes on in para 10 to define what sustainable development means for planning - the so called 3Ps. If you break down the logic of this troika you find that it comes down to:

economic growth is sustainable;

growth meeting housing and social needs is sustainable; and

except where it damages protected environments or producing too much CO2.

Reading the NPPF as a whole, which you have to do, it is clear that protected land only makes up a very small part of England, and controls on car-orientated development in rural areas are weakened.

So in effect property development=sustainable development, when neither on protected land nor producing too much CO2.

This is an impoverished and narrow view which almost defines sustainable development out of existence. Para 11 refers to the need for three principles being pursued in an integrated way - but if the principles themselves are slanted so will the “integrated” approach.

This is what Johnathan Porritt has called:

“SD-abuse”: the deliberate misuse of the concept of sustainable development by Ministers and civil servants to obscure the real meaning of their words... I could not find one single reference to the notion of environmental limits. Not one. Lots of warm words about the importance of the environment, but nothing of real use in defining what appropriate or inappropriate development might mean in practice.”

Whilst Tom Burke of the Green Alliance has stated:

“What the Government actually means by “Sustainable Development” is the tired old Treasury mantra of “Sustained Growth”: that is, growth that goes on forever. It definitely does not mean growth that recognises environmental risks and constraints.”

The definition could be greatly improved if it recognized environmental limits. Indeed examples elsewhere in the UK and the Commonwealth commonly do this.

I would urge the Committee to examine definition and policy on the application of the principle of sustainable development used in Quebec, New Zealand and Wales.

For example the New Zealand Resource Management Act includes the concept of environmental limits and this wording is reflected in the proposed definition put forward by Wildlife Link. The Quebec Sustainable Development Act builds on the Brundtland definition and includes the concepts “an ongoing process to improve the living conditions of the present generation that does not compromise the ability of future generations to do so and that ensures a harmonious integration of the environmental, social and economic dimensions of development”.

This is not rocket science and with it, it is possible to meld these well tested legal definitions together in a form of words that might be acceptable to both ministers and environmental stakeholders. I suggest combining the Brundtland, Canadian and New Zealand definitions as follows:

“an ongoing process to improve the living conditions of the present generation that does not compromise the ability of future generations to do so, and that ensures, as far as possible, a harmonious integration of the environmental, social and economic dimensions of development within the limits set by the environment and technology.”

What matters though is how this translates into planning decisions. I would advise the committee to take evidence from Clive Bates the Director General for Sustainable Futures of the Welsh Government. The Welsh approach is based on the concept of environmental well-being. This derives from UN/WHO work and considerable research. The principle is that the health and well-being of people will not be sustained if the wellbeing of ecosystems, natural capital, and social, human and economic capital. This concept is critical to the first UK National Ecosystems Assessment carried out by DEFRA. Yet the NPPF nowhere refers to this, the health of ecosystems, or the wellbeing of society. It is clearly a lack of joined up government.

This is the single greatest weakness of the NPPF. A presumption in favour of sustainable development badly defined and poorly operationalised, as here, is simply a presumption in favour of development without limits - unsustainable development.

Is the presumption in favour of sustainable development a balanced and workable approach?

No, neither. The presumption - or PISD as it has become known - has a central logical flaw. The fact that sustainable development cannot be achieved without certain kinds of growth doesn’t imply that all kinds of growth promote sustainable development. Strikingly there is no presumption against unsustainable development. It is unbalanced.

A related flaw is apparent if we look at para 14, which sets out 3 combinations, but is silent on the fourth logical one.

Development Plan Adopted and Up to Date

Development Plan either non adopted , not up to date, Silent or Indeterminate

Scheme accords with Development Plan

Approve without delay

Grant Permission

Scheme contrary to Development Plan

NPPF is silent

Grant Permission

Now the assumption is that, as in the top left box, section 36(1) of the Planning and Compensation Act (2004) applies:

If regard is to be had to the development plan for the purpose of any determination to be made under the planning Acts the determination must be made in accordance with the plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

But a reader from outside a planning background will not know this. The NPPF is a document that is supposed to be usable by non-experts, but which will in fact but unusable unless you know the legal principles on which the planning system is based and on which the NPPF is silent. It will not be usable by lay people - contrast it with, for example, the opening pages of Planning Policy Wales which sets these principles out clearly.

The presumption in favour of development is quite old, dating back to the Circular accompanying the Chamberlain Housing Act of 1923:

the presumption should always be in favour of the person seeking consent to interim development, and obstacles should not be placed in the way of such development, except in the case where it is clearly detrimental to local interests and needs.

Over the years the wording of it, as a policy not statute law, has changed. It was given particular stress in circular 22/80. Following the passage of the Planning and Compensation Act 2001, which introduced the Presumption in Favour of the Development Plan national policy at the time (PPG1) was alteration to square with it - though there was a tension. In 2005 PPS1 abolished the Presumption in Favour of Development - Leaving only the Presumption in Favour of the Plan. This created a problem. It depended on up to date plans.

The poor, and late, plan coverage has been a problem throughout the history of British Planning. Currently around 30% of UK planning authorities have adopted core strategies. If plans are slow to prepare and late, and plan making is the primary means to provide additional housing, then they will create a continuously growing shortage of housing and an ever greater amount of new housing that needs to be allocated to catch up.

The national housing shortage is well documented. The number of households in England is projected to grow to 27.5 million in 2033, an increase of 5.8 million (27%) over 2008, or 232,000 households per year. This translates into a requirement for new dwellings of roughly 240,000 dwellings a year. In Q2 2011 housebuilding fell 4% in England from the previous quarter. In 2011 we look likely to build only around half the houses needed as a nation.

When the Q1 housebuilding statistics were released the government claimed this was evidence that the policies of revoking regional plans and introducing the New Homes Bonus was working. In fact analysis of the data showed that the Q1 rise was due to a rise in London, the one region to have maintained regional housebuilding targets. In Q2 housebuildingfell year on year by 26%. Planning approvals for housing are also down dramatically. This has lead to a furious dispute between bodies such the the CPRE and the HBF on the significance for the NPPF. A detailed analysis I have conducted on the data is that both are wrong on this issue (or right depending on how you see it), houses aren’t being build because of lack of demand in a depressed market, but if demand recovered landbanks of housebuilders are dangerously low, only about a third of what they should be to meet household formation. This is storing up a problem as it will slow recovery from the great recession. The problem is not the number of applications being refused but the fall in the amount of land planned for housing since the abolition of regional spatial strategies.

Though plan making progress has been unacceptably slow there was an upturn in housebuilding levels in the years following the 2004 Act, The Barker Review 2004 and the Housing Green Paper 2005 which set national housebuilding targets, progress sustained until the Great Recession. This progress has been undone, in part by the by the recession and in part by the dramatic lowering of housebuilding targets in development plans since May 2010 (this is not a political point simply a statement of fact). A reduction estimated by BNP Paribas in June as being on average 20.6% per authority.

From Planning Inspectorate Data it is clear that in early 2010 around 2/3rds of English Planning Authorities were programmed to have examinations completed and adopted plans in place by the end of 2011. So clearly despite the slowness of plan making a big “bulge” of catching up was due to come forward. Finally by the end of 2010 was programmed national coverage of regional plan housing targets. So plans were coming forward, despite a desperate dragging of feet by a minority of Local Planning Authorities, with up to date numbers meeting housing need, otherwise they would not have been found “sound”. When these plans were adopted there was sure to be a bulge in housing starts. There always is when new plans, releasing new land, are adopted.

All of this good work was undone by the unwise, and as it turned out unlawful, “revocation” of regional plans in June 2010. They still have not been revoked. The Localism Bill has not yet been granted Royal Assent. Even then the SoS has undertaken in April, not to enact Secondary Legislation until, as he is required to do under a European Directive, a Strategic Environmental Assessment of the effects of revocation, consulted on this and react to the results of consultation. This consultation has not yet even begun, but is required to by the EU directive, be at an “early stage” of the decision making process. One that the SoS needs to take with an “open mind”. Given ministers statements and caselaw it is likely that statements of predetermination will see a successful legal challenge. Please question the minister on the reason for the delay. Please also question the minister, in the light of his wholly inadequate response to your committees earlier report on the abolition of regional plans, that if the SA/SEA finds significant adverse social, environmental or economic impacts will they reconsider the “intention” to revoke? In any event it looks like that it will be at least a year more, more likely two, of regional plan targets before they are revoked.

Since the June 2010 statement there has been a dramatic slowing of planning for housing, as your committee found. Plans about to be submitted have been delayed by a year or more. Even plans mid examination have been delayed, with one examination (South Wilts) that should have lasted at most a few weeks now lasting over a year as the authority rewrote it mid inquiry to reduce housebuilding. Even in one case a plan was withdrawn the day it the inspectors report was received (Coventry). Other plans have been withdrawn the even though they have been submitted (Aylesbury), and the SoS has allowed them to do so (the power to prevent this stalling is proposed to be removed by the Localism Bill). So for these and many other local planning authorities effectively starting again they are at least two years from adoption.

What we have seen is the largest and most important housing sites in England deleted. Growth areas around Milton Keynes, Aylesbury, Northampton, Bristol and many other towns have now gone, or have been frozen in ministerial induced uncertainty. The system of planning for housing has been thrown into chaos. Ministers have stated that eventually the New Homes Bonus will induce more housing to be allocated, one has to ask where? Can ministers name a significant number local planning authorities that have decided to increase its housebuilding levels above regional plan levels?. Rather LPAs have overwhelmingly either kept to the same targets or significantly reduced them.

Seeing this dramatic scaling back one has to ask if Ministers are giving up on the plan-led route and are looking for a plan b?

Frustration with slow progress on plan making has affected national policy several times before and I would suggest to your committee it is the key issue regarding the NPPF.

Ensuring that plans were simpler and quicker to prepare were central to the Falconer reforms enacted in 2004, on which I advised the then ODPM . Unfortunately the implementation was poor. By creating new statutory plans rather than amending existing statutes there was the impression given that everything had to start again in new form. Wales, which instead had a one page reform of development plan law in the form I had recommended, now has 70% coverage as opposed to England’s 30%. Rather than making large “strategic” housing allocations part of strategies this was shifted back - an error not corrected until 2008.

Some pre-development authorities have pressed forward, others awaited until controversial issues were resolved, a minority has dragged their heels, waiting for the election. Those recaltrants, urged on by then shadow ministers, felt they would have the ability to set what targets they liked. The now ministers have sensibly considered that this would result in a unacceptable slashing of housebuilding and plans should meet need, or ensure that it is met elsewhere. But those local authorities now feel betrayed.

The problem was there was never enough carrot and stick to rapidly produce plans that local politicians saw as career destroying. The current government has rightly seen the need to have more of both. The issue is how it is done.

The tactic has been set out by John Howells MP in “Open Source Planning” the consequences of which were laid out in a Speech he made to the HBF in February, - where a development plan was out of date it was then to be “assumed to have a completely permissive planning system” and a developer could then build “what they like, where they like and when they like”, provided they met new national planning guidance being worked up in tandem with the localism bill.” This is exactly what has been introduced in the NPPF. Your committee may well ask whether this is Town and Country Planning at all?

What will happen then where a planning application comes forward following adoption of the NPPF and relevant policies in the NPPF are not up to date?

This is an issue that has been current since the Barker Review of Land Use Planning in 2006, it did not originate with the coalition government. From this came the suggested wording that there should be a presumption in favour of development where a plan was out-of-date, absent, silent, or indeterminate. This was proposed in the draft PPS4, applying only to economic development not housing, but following consultation feedback did not find its way into the final version.

The wording of the NPPF in para 16 mean that in this case decisions makers should “grant permission...unless the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole”. (para 14)

In addition where the application is for housing, and the plan cannot demonstrate a five year housing supply then para 110 baldly states that “planning permission should be granted no if and no buts, effectively a “double presumption”.

It unlikely that there will be a single development plan in the country that will be up to date in the manner that the NPPF requires when it is finalised. Even the 30% of adopted plans will not have the extra 20% of housing required by the NPPF in the first five years (para 109).

So early next year where a council has not been meeting its five year supply, which very few will because of the recession and the NPPF raising targets, the presumption. as worded. means that the decision maker will be required to grant permission unless it is contrary to the NPPF.

However with the default “yes” in the draft NPPF there are actually very few cases where it would be contrary and could be refused. There are obvious examples where policy similar to current applies, such as AONB, European protected sites, Green Belt, the new Local Greenspace designation (for small areas when plans are adopted). But these only apply to a minority of areas. What is notable is how the NPPF strips away policy protecting most of England. I will go into the key problematic policy changes later but some are worth highlighting to illustrate just how much the NPPF has opened the taps to development in many areas:

Firstly the policy preference towards previously developed sites is removed.

The protection of the countryside for its own sake is removed, a policy that has stood for 60 years.

The protection for employment sites is removed, even where there is a strong demand for and local shortage of such sites.

There is no protection for attractive or sensitive landscapes, other than national designated areas or small areas of local green space.

The ability to set a strategy to prioritise some sites over others when there is a shortfall is removed.

There is no requirement that new housing is well designed, only that its design is not “unacceptably poor”.

What this means is, in effect, in the large majority of cases such applications will have to be approved. Realising this a flood of speculative applications, which previously would have been refused, are now coming forward.

What the draft NPPF does is in effect turn back planning much of planning policy 30 years to 1980. Noted planning lawyer Martin Goodall saw the change coming in March 2011:

The general approach of the government, developed in the Conservative party’s final years in opposition, appeared to be rather anti-development, and brought joy to hearts of the NIMBYs. Now, we are getting pronouncements which sound much more like those of Thatcher and Heseltine post-1979, promoting the idea that development could and would be the engine of economic recovery......Could we be about to see the end of the “plan-led” system and a return to planning by appeal? ...Perhaps Pickles and his merry men should make a start by dusting off Circulars 9/80, 22/80, 15/84 and 14/85 and re-publishing them in modern form.

This is just what we have seen. These ancient and discredited circulars from the Nicholas Ridley era of planning by appeal have indeed been resurrected. Whole phrases and policies from these circulars have been reborn in and as the NPPF.

As of August 2011 local planning authorities now have five to eight months to prepare new development plans before the maelstrom of the presumption is released when the NPPF is finalised. This is unrealistic, even the swiftest plan revision will take a year. Indeed many of the staff who would be preparing plans will be fighting appeals for speculative applications on unsuitable sites.

What is worse the fundamental platform on which updated plans are prepared, knowing what the housing target should be, has been taken away with the planned revocation of regional plans. Decision makers are unclear on what to base future 5–15 year housing targets. In the West Midlands and South West, where regional strategies are out of date and reviews never finished, plans in some districts are over 10 years old. This has given the SoS considerable difficulties in a recent appeal deciding exactly what the five year target should be based on. Indeed in that same case the scheme was refused on “localist” anti-development grounds last year - and following judicial review with the reinstatement of regional plans - was approved under the post-budget “Planning for Growth” this year. This illustrates the u-turn in national planning policy away from localism.

The Planning Minister has stated that it will be “very rare” that local planning authorities will plan for less housing than needed. This is a pamglossian attitude as experience has already shown that many if not most areas are seeking less. The majority of examinations ongoing since the publication of the NPPF have seen inspectors writing to the local authorities saying stop them they as havn’t provided enough housing and/or that the expectations that other authorities will take the shortfall are not justified - examples Rochford, South Wiltshire, South Oxfordshire, Luton and South Beds, Castepoint & Harborough District. The Telegraph commented that the attitude of the minister that all areas would agree to meet their own housing need in full as “Pollyana-ish naivete” I have to agree.

One saving grace of the NPPF is that sites still have to be suitable for housing. But local planning authorities will not be able to choose between the most suitable and less suitable. If a site meats the minimum thresholds of the NPPF, in terms of infrastructure, flood risk, having some potential access to public transport etc. then it will be acceptable at “five year supply” shortage appeals, even though the site might be the least suitable, least accessible and least preferred site around a settlement - previously “safe” areas are now under threat. Para 19 only allows choice of land of “lesser environmental value” at development plan, and not planning application stage. This completely undermines planning and plan making.

The approach contrasts with the “plan, monitor, manage” approach of current policy in PPS3 paras 6072 (and which certainly is too long and woolly) which requires “management action” when there is a shortfall - ie the local planning authority deciding which additional sites to bring forward, against its strategy.

It is essential that where land releases take place it takes place against a strategy. Otherwise we could see chaotic appeal led planning of the sort we saw in the 1980s where housing is planned on a site by site basis, without due consideration, and without regard to the view of the local community about how their future should be shaped.

In many cases, particularly for many of the “cause célèbre” housing sites, it is not an issue of whether but when sites are developed. At many appeals local groups may oppose a site in principle, but the arguments turn not on a site’s suitability, because alternative sites often turn out to be far less accessible and sustainable, but when. Does the area have a four year housing supply or seven, for example. This often comes as a surprise to local residents. But understanding this can take the heat out of many arguments about housing targets. A slightly higher or lower housing target will in most cases simply mean whether a site is pushed back or brought forward by a small number of years. The real priority is to ensure that all English local planning authorities have a “rank order” of development sites in a housing delivery plan.

Such an approach is already partially in place with almost total coverage of England now with Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessments (SHLAAs). This shows that there is plenty of potentially suitable housing sites, England has a shortage of housing not housing sites, but whether or not they are acceptable depends on a strategy. Sites may be physically “suitable” but not “acceptable” according to a strategy which sets growth in one direction or another to ensure acceptable cumulative impact and to match development to infrastructure.

I propose a reform which will ensure that there is continuous and steady delivery of new housing at a pace to meet our nations needs - the national government’s main concern - but in a way that is planned and occurs in a manner determined by local government and communities - local government’s main concern.

Such an approach would have three components:

(1)Set a strict, tough and binding statutory timetable for plan making. With a period of one year (till end of 2012) before the full force of the “presumption” applies to new housing to enable local planning authorities to get new plans in place.

(2)All local planning authorities to publish a “housing site ranking” in advance of their final plans - with appeals determining whether sites in that ranking are brought forward or not.

(3)Tough new structures over the duty to cooperate’ to resolve inter-authority squabbles which are holding up plan making.

I deal with the third issue in a later section. All three parts are crucial to reforms that would work.

The idea of a short delay before the “presumption” comes into play has been suggested in Open Source Planning and also supported by an Jack Dromy MP. It is possible to get plans in place within 1 year. The regulations allow for it and the “stick” of the presumption coming into play encourages it. Amendments to the localism bill could make it statutory and set financial and other penalties, such as powers in default, or powers for planning consultancies to take over plan making in default, if plans are not in place. The main issue is a logistical one, determining many plan examinations at once in Autumn 2012. This is manageable. Local Planning Authorities can prepare joint plans to reduce the number of examinations. There were a number of plan examiners laid off in 2010 because of a “lack of demand” with many plans delayed then. Temporary and retired inspectors can be brought in. Planning barristers can be drafted in as temporary inspectors rather than fighting appeals (each appeal of course takes two barristers). It is doable, with resources and efforts, resources which would otherwise be spent at appeals.

The housing site ranking is simply an extension of what many authorities are doing already. Even before an authority finalises its housing target in its submitted plan it can publish its preferred site ranking at an earlier stage. All local authorities now have consulted on spatial directions of growth and so there is no reason why they cannot decide on a rank-ordering, even though they might argue that at a certain point development should not take place. This would be then used on appeal if an area fell short on its five year supply. Where a site was next in line the decision would be straightforward. If it was further down an appellant would need to successfully argue that it should be preferred over other higher ranked order sites.

This would be much better than the crude binary “yes”, “no” approach. If a local group wanted to argue that a site they wished to protect should be ranked lower, it would require then to demonstrate that other sites should be ranked higher. The reality that tough decisions on housing cannot be dodged would be apparent.

Finally your committee might want to consider that the “presumption in favour” might also be balanced by a few other positive planning presumptions in favour, to ensure that poor schemes do not slip through. I would suggest:

A presumption in favour of quality urban and landscape design;

A presumption in favour of priority to use of sustainable modes of transport;

A presumption in favour of sustainable and inclusive communities (paras 124-127 of NPPF); and

A presumption in favour of increased biodiversity (para 169).

Are the “core planning principles” clearly and appropriately expressed?

What function is this section supposed to fulfil? It is a curious hotch potch of high level principles, operational principles and specific policies. Much of it is repetitive of other sections of the NPPF and could be easily edited out. Where it does duplicate other policy sections the differences are confusing. For example the second bullet in para 19. is worded slightly differently than the wording in para 14. Which wording has priority? What are the “key sustainability principles”, they are nowhere defined.

The section would be clearer if it was split into key objectives for the English Planning System, right at front of the document - first paragraph. Then the key operational principles - how this will be put into practice, the plan-led system and the presumption in favour of sustainable development. Then the Core Spatial Planning Policies that the remaining sections of the NPPF are elaborations of.

It is in this last function that the section falls down on most. If one were to ask a representative cross section of the public what they wanted out of the planning system they might reply - more affordable homes, no sprawl, good designs, schemes in the right place, community involvement, matching development to infrastructure, providing for business, improving and regenerating our cities, protecting our villages and best countryside, enhancing wildlife, prosperous town centres, halt the decline of local facilities etc. None of these are part of the core principles. Compare the section with its equivalent in para 13 of PPS1 to see the decreased emphasis on many of these central issues.

Indeed any document that does not promote good design of development, so it goes in the right place, in a planned way as determined by the community, cannot call itself a planning document. These are the core principles of good planning. The NPPF indeed is not a planning document, it is a deregulation document allowing poorer design, in an appeal-led unplanned way over the heads of the community. It is about enhancing the rentier unearned income of landowners, a value itself created by the community and extracted from through economic rent - a deduction that destroys growth rather than creating it. The NPPF is a rentiers charter, flogging a discredited approach to growth, at the expense of the earth, based on boosting the profits of the few rather than the many, that has brought the country and the world economy to disorder and economic ruin.

The core principles needs to set out what the roles are of the key components of English places, cities, market towns, the countryside, the coast, villages. It needs to set out the context for the national policy of urban containment, and planned growth to prevent sprawl. Finally it needs to set the scene for a step change towards more but better and more sustainable development.

Is the relationship between the NPPF and other national statements of planning-related policy sufficiently clear? Does the NPPF serve to integrate national planning policy across Government Departments?

Since 2004 we have gone beyond old-fashioned narrow land use planning to a modern European approach of spatial planning which “goes beyond traditional land use planning to bring together and integrate policies for the development and use of land with other policies and programmes which influence the nature of places and how they can function.” (para 30 PPS1). This concept of spatial planning is entirely absent from the NPPF draft, it takes planning back 10 years. There is no mention of “place shaping” - the process of bring about a shared spatial vision. There is no mention of community strategies (despite legal duties), there is no equivalent of the PPS12 section on the process of infrastructure planning (paras 4.8-4.12). Without joint infrastructure planning growth won’t happen. Infrastructure won’t suddenly and magically turn up when development is completed.

There are a number of disjunctions with national policy is some departments. As stated the NPPF seems to be ploughing a different furrow from DEFRA and its policy statements on sustainability, the natural environment and the National Ecosystem Assessment.

The simple offloading of waste issues to the National Waste Strategy is problematic. This has yet to be produced. There is an urgent need to find more space for waste uses now to meet the requirements of the EU landfill directive - we cannot wait until 2012 when the National Strategy is produced. If Regional Plans are revoked there will also be a clear breach with EU Directive 2008/98/EC unless and until the National Waste Strategy contains local planning authority by local planning authority targets for the apportionment of waste.

Does the NPPF, together with the “duty to cooperate”, provide a sufficient basis for larger-than-local strategic planning?

No. It is already being applied and is showing that without further strengthening it is unworkable. The “duty to cooperate” would be created by section 95 of the Localism Bill, and this section was heavily modified in committee stage in the Lords. It would insert a new section 33A into the 2004 act requiring to “to engage constructively, actively and on an ongoing basis in any process ...the preparation of development plan documents”, on a “strategic matter” concerning two or more local planning authorities.

Notwithstanding your committees concerns about the vagueness of the wording used the bill proposes a duty to engage not a duty to agree. We might well see and have and are seeing neighbouring authorities arguing for years about what should the outcome be. Indeed a “duty to agree” would be preposterous. So what are the issues and potential solutions for the many matters where housing and other issues spill over local authority boundaries? Because of the extremely tight “underbounding” of many large towns in the 1974 local government reorganisation this issue affects most such areas as well as many smaller towns.

NPPF para 44-47 refers to the duty, it cross refers para 23 strategic priorities on the matters cooperation should cover (note the countryside and the rural economy are not such matters curiously). Para 46 is the critical one providing the “teeth” of the post-regional plan system:

“Local planning authorities will be expected to demonstrate evidence of having successfully cooperated to plan for issues with cross-boundary impacts when their Local Plans are submitted for examination. This could be by way of plans or policies prepared as part of a joint committee, a memorandum of understanding or a jointly prepared strategy which is presented as evidence of an agreed position”.

Para 48 provides a new soundness test - that plans should be:

Positively prepared ...based on a strategy which seeks to meet objectively assessed development and infrastructure requirements, including unmet requirements from neighbouring authorities where it is practical to do so consistently with the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

It is important for your committee to understand how this will work in practice. At the outset of an Examination in Public (EiP) into a submitted plans an independent inspector will deal with the lawfulness of a plan. If the inspector considers there is a prima-fasce case that a plan is unlawful they will write to the LPA recommending that it is withdrawn. Of course parties may issue a legal challenge once the binding report is issued. The legal test will be “engage constructively” but the policy soundness test will be stricter “successfully cooperated”. The inspector may find that the outcome of cooperation is unsatisfactory and find the plan unsound.

This is already being applied and I will give two crucial recent cases.

The first is Rochford, a district in the Thames Gateway Essex mostly greenbelt. Like many areas where Greenbelts were too tightly drawn and remaining areas within the inner boundary of Green Belt had run out (they were typically drawn up lifespans of 20 years) meeting needs implied a green belt strategic review. The regional plan set targets which implied such a review. The submitted plan however proposed a low target and meeting the shortfall in a neighbouring authority - Basildon - which also had a high target requiring a review. Basildon said no we don’t want the extra housing. Rochford asked for the examination to be suspended until after the localism bill got royal assent, the inspector said no in the first case to apply the “duty to cooperate” she said that it could be found unsound as the delivery of the strategy would depend upon delivery in the adjoining authority.

The lesson is clear, the combination of the requirement to meet objectively assessed needs and the duty to cooperate means that local planning authorities, in areas of tight planning or boundary constraints must either:

(a)have agreed diversionary strategies to areas outside the constraints; and

(b)have a strategic review of those planning constraints.

There is a name for such strategies - regional planning.

The second case is Stevenage. Here regional plans have followed the longstanding expansion of Stevenage to its North and West into North Herts district. Before proposed revocation of the regional plan both were cooperating on a joint approach. After the statement in June 2010 North Herts pulled out - a deliberate strategy of non-cooperation.

Because of this the inspector found the Stevenage plan “unsound”. It was undeliverable because of the non-cooperation. The very same week the CALA II decision came in - the regional plan had to be conformed to. Shortly thereafter the NPPF was published. The end result of this is the bizarre outcome that if the plan was examined today it would not be Stevenage that would be found unsound but North Herts, for not cooperating. Not surprisingly Stevenage have issued a judicial review.

Some authorities at EiP have also had to delay or suspend examinations because of challenges that they have not carried out Strategic Environmental Assessments on the impact of reducing housing targets from the regional plan levels (example South Wilts).

All of this produced a chaotic situation. Not only do local planning authorities now only have a matter of months to produce up to date plans, they have in the same timescale to agree on joint strategic plans for the same areas and resolve disputes - example expansion of Harlow, Oxford, Bristol, Milton Keynes, Northampton - that have been raging for 30 years or even longer without resolution.

There is a risk that some authorities will effectively seek a joint strategy of non-cooperation - gaming the system - by agreeing jointly to propose together as low a target as they can possibly get away with. There is already some evidence of this occurring in places such as in most of Herts and around Milton Keynes.

Looking at the two options above is stark and politically unacceptable to many Green Belt authorities, either take certain urban expansion areas out of the Green Belt, or cooperate with districts many miles away outside the Green Belt to take the overspill. Unless this takes place as a nation we shall fall short of meeting housing needs.

Indeed it is easy to forget the reason we had growth areas and growth points was, in part, a means of resolving pressure on large towns and preventing unacceptable sprawl by diverting pressure to planned areas which would undergo large scale, planned, employment led-growth. Indeed from the figures in the Housing Green Paper, Homes for the Future 2005, it is clear that the then government decided on this approach as to do otherwise would mean increasing housing numbers for districts outside the Green Belt by around 40% on average.

So the consequences are clear. If the Green Belt is “solid and absolutely inviolate” as the SoS claims, and there are to be no national growth areas then there will need to be massive growth in remoter rural England. If the local authorities concerned cannot agree this then they wont get their plans through and developers will then be able to build “what they like, where they like, when they like”.

If not inviolate then LPAs could meet housing need locally by a review of Green Belt inner boundaries. Good examples of this stark choice are the three ministers constituencies, Tunbridge Wells - Greg Clarke, Brentwood - Eric Pickles, and Welwyn Hatfield - Grant Shapps. If you meet local objectively assessed need you have to go into the Green Belt. Indeed precedent, such as the Woking first EIP, has set that meeting housing need, a national policy, is sufficient to meet the “exceptional circumstances” test of national Green Belt policy. Indeed this is a good thing as the alternative, moving all development outside the Green Belt, is not always the most sustainable solution, as the first Barker report found. In the 1980s there was a considerable over-expansion of Green Belt, indeed it was a perverse effect of the “liberalisation” of planning in that era as Green Belt was applied strictly when other policies promoted growth. Green Belts typically have a life span of 20-30 years - that is the inner boundaries allowed for growth over that period. Now they are straining.

Indeed Welwyn-Hatfield has recently consulted on various options - one of which - meeting housing need locally would lead to two-three times more loss of Green Belt than was proposed under the regional plan.

Indeed such calculations, now being undertaken by many authorities, give the lie to the statements that the Green Belt is “safe”. Indeed the NPPF is biggest threat ever faced to the Green Belt.

The reason is the Green Belt was designed from the outset as one of a series of tools to be applied through a “larger than local” plan. Without such a plan the Green Belt is much weaker and may break under strains. Development pressures will build to explosive levels locally, to the extent that some future government may consider that Green Belts are too restrictive and should be abolished (as has been discussed within the corridors of Whitehall and Downing Street several times under different governments), or their will be numerous local incursions as pressures build up. The alternative to regional planning is political suicide, and the government have now committed it.

Ministers may have hoped that by saying the Green Belt is “safe” they would diffuse matters. Given that the vast majority of the public confuse the Green Belt with “greenfield” they may have hoped that people would be fooled. The real problem is that the NPPF combined with the abolition of regional planning threatens both with unplanned housing via planning by appeal. Indeed the real risk is that many local leaders may find the choice of proposing targets meeting need, or accepting need displaced from elsewhere, too politically difficult; and may simply go down the planning by appeal route - then blaming the government or planning inspectors as they used to blame Regional Assemblies. We already have an example in Horsham District where the leader has said ok if this is what you want but it will mean losing on appeal. This case is notable as this was the first sound core strategy in the country. If this authority finds it is politically difficult to plan positively for growth then almost everywhere will.

Larger than local planning performs an essential economic function without it you can either build too few houses, diverting spending to land rent, or too many, creating indebtedness and the ghost estates you see in Ireland and Spain. The countries with the weakest planning systems and a lack or regional planning have suffered most in the Great Recession. Good planning is not a “drag anchor” to growth, it is its foundation.

The informal arrangements proposed by the NPPF for larger than local planning are inadequate. Guidance by the Planning Officers Society on informal arrangements does not try to conceal how inadequate they are. A “memorandum of understanding or a jointly prepared strategy” would come under challenge at the first EIP of the jointly affected local planning authorities. Objectors would say that they have not had an opportunity to comment on such an approach or look at its strategic environmental effects. This is a legal requirement under EU directive 2001/24/EC which is blind to borders and whether plans or programmes are statutory or not (as long as they are required by “legislative, regulatory or administrative provisions”). Therefore all such joint approaches will require strategic environmental assessment and the early consultation on reasonable alternative options that this requires. The first examination in the area will become the examination for the whole of the affected area, this is unsatisfactory and potentially unlawful. An informal system of joint larger than local examinations will be needed. Effectively local planning authorities will have to rebuild the whole structure of regional and subregional planning.

It is not that the government is opposed to larger than local planning, rather they have opposed the form it took before, and sought futilely to abolish it without proper parliamentary authority or following correct legal procedures, and now faced with a vacuum that is causing chaos and shrinking housing numbers nationally. They are now hoping local planning authorities will get together spontaneously to fill it.

There is a way forward. Advisers such as John Howell MP and Minister such as Bob Neill have said they are fans of the old structure plan system. It is “larger than local planning” of roughly that scale we need, around the travel to work areas/housing market areas of our larger towns, or groups of smaller towns in between.

But counties, the previous basis of structure plans, are not always a good basis for doing this today. We now have many unitary authorities in historic county areas - such as in Kent and Essex, so counties taking on functions would create a democratic deficit. In some cases such as Berks no historic county is left at all. In some counties we already have successful joint arrangements in parts of counties (East and West Northants, South Worc, PUSH [South Hampshire], Greater Norwich). However in other cases towns that need to expand are right on county borders, such as Milton Keynes and Harlow.

I propose a series of pragmatic reforms as follows:

(1)The power to prevent local planning authorities from withdrawing plans without SoS agreement stays (the Localism Bill clause 97 is removed) - to prevent a stalling strategy.

(2)A new clause is inserted to the Localism Bill - right after the new “duty to cooperate” clause - setting out a statutory duty for local planning authorities to have entered into a joint strategic planning scheme for an area.

(3)A new clause is inserted into the Localism Bill making such joint strategic plans statutory and providing for their examination. Any “local plan” within the area of a joint strategic plan would need to be in “general conformity” with the joint strategic plan.

(4)Requiring local planning authorities to submit a strategic planning scheme to the SoS within 2 months of Royal Assent of the Localism Bill. The policy presumption would be that where submitted by two or more local planning authorities these would be automatically approved unless the SoS used powers in default (see below). Such a scheme would have the option of proposing that larger plans, or joint plans (eg Cornwall, South Worcs) where the plan covers one or more whole housing market areas, would also function as a strategic planning scheme - removing the need for two tier plans.

(5)Where authorities refuse to enter into a joint strategic planning scheme or where one is submitted with key authorities omitted the SOS would have a new default power, created by adding a new clause 29a to the Planning and Compensation Act 2004 to set up a joint planning committee under section 29 of that Act.

(6)That minister undertake to revoke regional plans until these new strategic plans replacing them are agreed – then RSS can be revoked in the areas covered (you would also not need to SEA the revocation, only the replacement strategy).

This would work much better than the suggested localism bill clauses on joint infrastructure plans. These missed the point. You can’t separate infrastructure from development and they proposed no path for implementation. Effectively it sets up a new flexible “structure planning” type arrangement, but locally driven. The default SOS default power might never be used, but the threat to use it would work wonders in creating locally driven agreement. The reforms would merely formalise what LPAs are doing in the absence of regional plans anyway.

Looking at how this might go ahead you could see joint committees set up at County level in some counties such as Oxon. Some counties might form joint committees with unitaries, the District and the County (Dorset, Herts). In some very large counties the counties might be split to reflect existing sub-regional arrangements (eg North and South Devon, Hamps, and North and South Essex and Kent). Large towns on county edges would need cross-border joint committees that might go one or two parishes out. This would prevent the expansion of a large town dragging down through controversy the planning of all districts around it.

These reforms would work in conjuction with the proposed reforms to the “presumption”. It would be a workable, natural and pragmatic solution. The presumption should be for statutory committees under section 29 of the 2004 act, or else new plans will need to be agreed via every single constituent, rather than by majority vote. The experience is that statutory committees (such as East Northants) have worked much more swiftly than informal arrangements.

Finally the presumption of having one local plans should not apply to joint waste plans. These have worked very well and now face having years of work thrown away by the NPPF.

Are the policies contained in the NPPF sufficiently evidence-based?

No. The only evidence listed for the policy changes is in the impact assessment published alongside the draft. However this only lists some of the main changes, and omits the most controversial changes. This suggests that the process is not evidence driven.

This impression is reinforced by a comment made by the planning minister Greg Clark on the day of the launch of the NPPF. When asked what percent of LPAs had adopted plans. He said to the Property Week interviewer he did not have the latest figures. In fact the latest figures were prominently published in the impact assessment with a map and large table. This indicated to me the impact assessment was not even read by the Planning Minister, and the impact assessment represents an ex-poste facto justification of policy changes made for ideological rather than evidence based reasons.

Strikingly low the document does not consider at all the impacts of the major changes in policy, which the government has not wished to draw too much attention to: for example the removal of protection of the countryside for its own sake, the removal of the strict protection of the undeveloped coast, the removal of protection of viable employment land.

A major change that one might have been expected to be backed by firm research evidence is the removal of the priority given to previously developed land. The impact assessment only refers to the removal of the national target percent. Here the evidence given is sound. The national target would be impossible to be met in future years as with the exhaustion of large previously developed sites in many parts of the country and the need to meet housing needs the proportion of non-previously developed sites was bound to rise. In any event the change of the definition of previously developed land (excluding gardens) makes year on year comparisons impossible.

However it is possible to drop a national target and retain the priority for previously developed sites. The impact assessment seems to suggest that previously developed sites are always more expensive. Not the case some are and some are not and in any event national policy continues to retain a test that housing sites be viable and deliverable so it is not directly relevant. One might expect a thorough research based assessment of this thesis.

Similarly there is no evidence presented for many of the key changes. For example a major change is the removal of the power for local communities protect employment land, to provide for their business needs (NPPF para 75). There is no independent research on the impact of this. It, together with the planned changes to the use classes order, it is likely to be wholly counterproductive to the government’s growth ambitions. Employments premises are likely to vanish completely from many urban areas, especially large parts of London. This will mean a shortage of ready to go employment premises in those areas most needing of local employment and small business growth. Firms will scatter to cheaper out of the way locations and ones where they can operate without nuisance complaints from neighbours moving into converted factories next door. The agglomeration economies of cities will be lost. Employees will have to commute outwards to work often by car. Because of the increased travel costs many people may leave cities to maintain family budgets. The risk then is that cities will hollow out of the working poor with a movement of jobs to the suburbs and rural areas, starting a cycle of decline seen in many “urban prairie” donut cities like Detroit, and St Lois.

The impact will be even worse on new zoning for employment land. Local planning authorities are often keen to maintain a balance between new homes and new jobs to reduce unnecessary car trips on local roads. If one such authority found it needed to zone 50 HA of each it might find that under the NPPF that most of the employment land was developed as short term cheap sheds that after a very short period were converted to or developed for housing. This would be encouraged by the NPPF. So lets say 40ha of the 50Ha went to housing. That would mean that to get 50 HA of employment land, for which there is local demand, they would have to zone for housing on 250Ha of land, well in excess of need. Local authorities will find themselves in such circumstances asking why should we be zoning for employment land at all? Hence the policy change, rather than being planning for growth, is likely to lead to less zoning for employment needs than current, and less zoning for new housing, on the assumption that much new housing will come from land currently zoned for employment. By not thinking matters through and not conducting research on policy changes it is likely to have the opposite unintended consequence of what is intended.

The implications would be even worse for those previous “growth areas” such as Cambridge and Milton Keynes, where much housing demand over 15 years would have been generated by people moving to these areas to jobs that have not been created. In these areas the question that they will have to answer before they can set their housing targets is just how much growth they should assume. With the dropping of national growth areas some areas such as Milton Keynes are now only planning to meet “local” need for housing, which assumes limited employment growth. This is a worrying repeat of the 1980s reaction to planning liberalisation by counties such as Herts and Hampshire, which imposed “no growth” policies, restricting employment growth to push down housing targets. What is worse without being able to control what is built on new employment land even those areas with growth ambitions for will be unable to determine how much land to zone and hence what housing targets derived from “employment-led” growth to go with.

Government policy in this field seems to have been excessively influenced by James O’Shaughnessy special advisor to the Prime Minister; who rather than town planning believes that development decisions should be dependent on market pricing and where “Local Government’s role was guiding where to build not whether or what to build”. His blind “boy racer” special advisor dogma that markets are always “efficient” in the allocation of resources (all evidence of global economic collapse to the contrary) has had an excessive bearing on the content of the NPPF. Indeed expert civil servants at the DCLG have barely got a look in. It is more troubling those that key figures closely associated with the NPPF are alumni of the think tank “The Policy Exchange”. The Policy Exchange is part of the “Stockholm Network” of European groups funded to promote or undermine sustainable development, with close links to ferociously anti-sustainable development and extreme American groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute. Indeed it is telling that the Stockholm Network is largely funded by Exxon Mobil well known for its funding of false climate change denial science. Indeed the NPPF is just a smokescreen to hide, through its redefinition of “sustainability”, the promotion of an extreme “tea party” like vision promoting “property rights” over all other considerations.

The bias in the NPPF creation process is evident in the role and make-up of the “Practitioners Advisory Group” tasked with drafting the NPPF - the name is a minsnomer as none of the “Practitioners” are drafters of plans or determine planning applications. It comprises a well known ant-planning councillor, a property developer and an agent for property developers, finally a token member of an environmental group - the RSPB - who later described their involvement and role was to provide “green-wash” to the process. Indeed the whole process of preparation of the NPPF has been a closed source one. Rather than a typical White Paper process before the election we have had a consultation largely confined to members of one political party, no widespread canvassing of expert opinion for ideas for reform, bypassing of DCLG officials through the practitioners group process, and lack of opportunity for line-by-line comments on the draft suggest that the government has made up its mind and was determined to push the NPPF through even before a single consultation return was received.

Indeed the attitude of ministers has been to be defensive on the NPPF, with numerous press briefings that changes will be “pushed through”, to distort what the NPPF actually says, and to bizarrely brand genuine concerns from groups such as the National Trust as “a carefully choreographed smear campaign by left-wingers”.

Two public statements by ministers Greg Clark MP and Andrew Stunnell MP have seriously distorted what the NPPF actually says. This leads me to conclude that either ministers have not fully read and have misunderstood the NPPF as it doesn’t say what they want it to say, or they are distorting its true meaning - which is it to be? Greg Clark has stated that the NPPF is against sprawl. A fact check of his blog post shows that the NPPF doesn’t use the term sprawl once, and in fact would make unplanned sprawl much easier.

Whilst Andrew Stunnell MP has stated that the NPPF would require development to be well designed. It certainly does not. One of the major problematic changes in the NPPF is its downgrading of design control to exactly the same wording used in circular 22/80, that only “obviously poor designs” can be refused. Anyone who has faced barristers at any public inquiry in the 1980s or early 1990s knows what that has been found to mean. It is green light to the mediocre, the bland, the undistinguished, the formulaic and the merely arguably and slightly poor; a policy that led to the bland little box housing of that era.

Ministers need to launch a major listening exercise, similar to that in the NHS, to canvass a broader range of views of those working and involved in this sector and to switch from a hectoring anti-planning mode into a genuine listening mode.

Various bodies will be suggesting major rewrites of the NPPF, which is what it needs. I shall be submitting a suggested redrafting shortly.

I would finally recommend that the committee continues to investigate in more detail some of the key policy changes. A number of specialist bodies will be giving more detailed evidence on issues such as the watering down of transport policy, open cast, and heritage policy so I won’t go into detail here.

It is necessary to point out to you committee certain changes which might pass unnoticed. For example the strict presuming against development of the undeveloped coastline that doesn’t require a coastal location, and the integrated policy on coastal planning we currently have, would both be deleted and replaced in much weaker form.

Secondly it prevents (para 141) one important means of controlling development in the Green Belt known as “infill only villages” that is for more open and smaller villages in the Green Belt allowing some limited infill according to strict rules. What this means in practice is that many such villages would have to be deleted from the Green Belt and much more intensive development allowed within them. This is a major threat to the Green Belt. This has proved a useful and pragmatic tool and should stay.

Thirdly It deletes the policy against large adverts on buildings and the open countryside. Until local plans are in place (needlessly duplicating this policy) we are likely too see a proliferation of such hoardings across the countryside.

Finally it makes it very difficult to steer developments to sites which cause the least congestion and which are the most accessible. This is because of the deliberate addition of text to make it almost impossible to refuse a scheme on adverse transport impact. As the main author of the NPPF John Rhodes has said:

“We’ve tried to write some text which says ‘…you don’t solve world hunger’ in other words in the South East you are not responsible for congestion on the network it is not a proper reason for refusing planning permission and unless there is some extreme harm in relationship for instance to safety which obviously shouldn’t be allowed, once you have done what you can transport shouldn’t stand in the way of granting planning permission”.

Logically this is exactly the same position as a promoter of a power station saying they are not responsible for CO2 emissions, everybody else is.

August 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011