Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from Dr Gavin Rider

Questions:

1.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?

2.Is the definition of “sustainable development” contained in the document appropriate; and is the presumption in favour of sustainable development a balanced and workable approach?

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

4.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?

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

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

Responses:

1. No – there is no capacity for local communities to exercise any “power” over planning decisions. The “exercise of power” would suggest the capability to express both support and opposition. The draft NPPF and Localism proposals appear to provide no powers for local communities to oppose planning decisions, or to challenge them if they have already been granted. There must be a public right to challenge planning decisions and to have those decisions changed, otherwise there is no community “power” at all.

2. No – “sustainability” is an abstract and unquantified concept that cannot be relied upon to be consistently applied from one area to another. It appears to permit the idea that an area’s natural beauty can be totally destroyed by development providing there are plenty of other areas elsewhere that would be available for later exploitation by future generations. “Sustainability” cannot possibly apply to the consumption or exploitation of a finite natural resource such as open landscape, purely because it is limited. Only if a natural resource will regenerate, as a crop does, will it be possible to regard the consumption of that natural resource to achieve economic growth as “sustainable” – and even then the rate of consumption must be balanced by the rate of regeneration for the consumption to be “sustainable”, which is at least a quantifiable assessment. One cannot possibly apply such an evaluation to the consumption of open countryside by development, so consumption of the open countryside for housing development can never be considered as “sustainable”.

3. No – the principles of the policy are to make great use of the term “sustainable” and to claim that the new planning policy will simultaneously protect and enhance the natural environment while encouraging development. But the abolition of planning restrictions that were put in place to do exactly the same thing and their replacement by a universal “presumption in favour of development” cannot possibly be considered either clear or workable.

4. No comment.

5. Probably.

6. No – there is no mention of the need for evidence to justify allowing housing development in the open countryside, nor is there any definition of the criteria by which that evidence could be judged to be “robust”. The document is completely unhelpful in its treatment of the need for evidence, including making completely meaningless statements such as “evidence supporting the assessment should be proportionate, using only appropriate available evidence”. This appears to be saying that the evidence is only really required if it is already available. That seems to imply that if the evidence of the need for a development is not available the default decision should be to approve the development anyway. That will lead to the uncontrolled exploitation of the open countryside for financial gain by developers who are only interested in making a profit for themselves, not in satisfying a local housing need.

Previously, “exception site policy” allowed Affordable Housing developments to be undertaken in the open countryside where development would normally be prohibited, providing the need for the developments was proven by “robust and shared” evidence of the local housing need. This at least provided some kind of yardstick by which proposals could be judged, albeit in a somewhat flexible and ill-defined way. There has been no “quality control” applied to either the production or the evaluation of this evidence, so developers have effectively been allowed to generate their own (highly questionable) evidence to support their development proposals. Local authorities have been deficient in not testing the evidence rigorously enough – they have generally accepted any and all evidence provided to them regardless of its integrity, as long as it supported the proposed development. Local authorities themselves have been guilty of generating invalid evidence of housing need to support exception site developments by extracting unqualified figures from Choice Based Lettings registers, contrary to all the guidance published by the DCLG. This is not objective. It has permitted planning approval to be given for developments that are supported by nothing more than false and invalidly produced evidence of the need for them.

What is needed is an independent auditing function, whereby the justification for granting planning permission for developments outside normal development boundaries (i.e. in the open countryside) will be subject to random checking. The independent auditor should have the power to inspect any planning application at any time to confirm that the evidence of the need for it is “robust”. The auditor should have the power to reverse incorrectly granted planning consent and to impose fines for such incorrect approval. This would serve as a disincentive for local authorities to “bend the rules” and would encourage “good practice”. The public should have the ability to call in the auditor to review any planning approval that they consider has been incorrectly granted. Only if the public have a right to challenge planning approvals in this way will there be real “localism” and community power.

I would suggest that the Environment Agency would perhaps be a suitable body to undertake this independent auditing function, as they are currently consultees on planning applications anyway and their basic remit is to protect the natural environment.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011