Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from Community and Regional Planning Services

Introduction

1. Community and Regional Planning Services is an independent planning consultancy operating throughout England and offering a full range of planning advice and resources to both public and private clients at national, sub-national and local levels. We specialise in “third party” work for small businesses, parish, town and community councils, amenity groups and private individuals. We have experience in using planning policy both in connection with development plans and in development management, including appeals and inquiries. We also undertake studies, research and policy advice for NGOs and statutory agencies. We provide training in the planning system through seminars and workshops. Through all our work runs the thread of a high level of environmental awareness and commitment together with community sensitivity.

2. We do not purport to represent any particular clients or other interests in responding to the Committee’s Call for Evidence, but do so from the perspective of our lengthy experience across a wide range of land-use planning issues.

Summary

This Evidence:

welcomes the more concise form of the NPPF compared with previous Planning Statements and Guidance;

draws attention to both procedural and policy weaknesses in the draft NPPF and calls for improvements in the final version; these include:

the time given to local planning authorities to adjust to the new NPPF and the policy changes which it incorporates;

the need for a real improvement in the status of local communities in respect of plan-making and development management decisions;

town centres and office uses;

the viability of developments and developer obligations/contributions;

housing land allocation;

the effective use of land and the priority to be given to “previously-developed land”; and

transport issues;

discusses the definition of sustainable development and the “Presumption in favour”;

suggests adding three topics to the “Core principles”; and

discusses the “duty-to co-operate” and the problem of larger-than-local infrastructure.

Evidence

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?

1. The NPPF is a bold attempt to consolidate national planning policy into a more concise and readable form. This will be widely welcomed by various users of the planning system, local authorities, developers, local communities and third parties.

2. The NPPF incorporates policy changes, of course, as well as being “slimmed down” when compared with previous Planning Policy Statements (PPSs) and Guidance. However, in the spirit of “localism”, local planning authorities (LPAs) may wish to incorporate some of the lost detail from the PPSs into their local plans where this does not conflict with the NPPF, since previously they were advised not to repeat the text of PPSs in local plan documents. Without this, some local authorities may consider there to be policy gaps.

3. With the policy changes that the NPPF includes, even recently-adopted local plans may find overnight that they do not conform to the NPPF, thus rendering them liable to the “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, through no fault of their own. LPAs should therefore be given time to adjust their local plans to the new regime, both to incorporate new national policy initiatives and selected detail from the PPSs. This could in many cases be achieved by the production of a short update Local Development Document (including any necessary consultation and Examination). We suggest a period of 12 months from the date of issue of the final NPPF before the “presumption in favour of sustainable development” can be invoked.

4. “Local communities” has different interpretations according to context. Even in a compact urban local authority such as a metropolitan or London borough, “local community” has to mean some neighbourhood or other meaningful area at sub-authority level. Some rural local authorities are now geographically very large, especially after the last round of local authority reorganisation and the creation of some large unitary authorities the size of their former counties. In these instances, “local communities” are usually much smaller, equating to market towns or even individual parishes.

5. Even with the proposals in the Localism Bill and the NPPF, local communities are not really going to see any greater powers over planning decisions in general than was previously the case. Parish and Town Councils are statutory consultees, for both development plans and planning applications, but the weight given to their views varies considerably from one authority to another.

6. The one exception will be where a neighbourhood plan is produced but, apart from the power to identify “Local Green Space” land for community use, local communities will only have “the power to promote more development than is set out in the Local Plan” (to quote draft NPPF para 17) and not less. This is hardly “giving local communities sufficient power over planning decisions” – at least not in a balanced way. Except where there are Neighbourhood Development Orders, local communities’ influence over the location and design of development is likely to be no greater than at present, making the announced intentions of the Localism Bill rather hollow.

7. Whilst LPAs must remain the sole planning authority for their areas (except where Neighbourhood Development Orders are in place), it is recommended that more weight be given than hitherto to the views expressed by democratically-elected Parish and Town Councils (where such views are expressed), both in respect of local plan preparation and of development management decisions.

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?

8. “Sustainable development” is not actually defined in the draft NPPF except by a footnote reference to the 1987 Brundtland report, and it does not appear in the Glossary.

9. An attempt to explain the use of the term is made in draft NPPF paras 10-12, with an emphasis on pursuing the “three components in an integrated way” i.e. the economic, social and environmental roles. Planning is in a unique position to do this. Unfortunately, the draft NPPF, despite its “core planning principles” – which in some cases are undermined by the detail which follows them – is too orientated towards economic growth, favouring business above all else. Of course all want to see a favourable economic climate and the planning system can contribute to this, but the popular image that planning stands in the way of businesses is, in general, a myth.

10. Other examples of the NPPF’s not following through the principles of sustainability include a weakening of developer obligations, the location of office development, the re-use of previously developed land and transport. See our comments on “General assessment of the fitness for purpose of the draft Framework as a whole”, below.

11. The planning system has since its inception in 1947 stuck to the principle of balancing competing interests and in modern thinking this means integrating the demands of the economy with those of social needs, protection of the environment and the prudent use of natural resources. The NPPF is in danger of upsetting this careful balance.

12. The “presumption in favour of sustainable development” as it stands is dangerous. It is understandable that pressure needs to be put upon some local authorities to accelerate their plan-making in order to ensure that their local plans are up-to-date, although time should be allowed for this before any “presumption” is invoked (see our answer to the Committee’s first Question). Para 15 of the draft NPPF states that LPAs should produce “clear policies that will guide how the presumption will be applied locally”. If this means that the “presumption” could not be invoked until the local planning authority had devised, consulted on and adopted such policies, then well and good.

13. Otherwise, unless the “presumption” is qualified to a much greater extent than at present, some undesirable consequences could arise. The only example given in the draft NPPF of where a proposed development would not be permitted under the “presumption” is in relation to a site protected under the Birds or Habitats Directives (para 16) – the possible inference being that no other policy constraints would stand in the way of invoking the “presumption”, especially at appeal.

14. Policy constraints such as National Parks, AONBs, heritage coasts, conservation areas, World Heritage Sites, Scheduled Ancient Monuments, Green Belt, local strategic gaps, SSSIs and other recognised wildlife sites, ancient woodland, locally valued landscapes and open public amenity areas should be accepted as locations where the “presumption” would not apply. Even with these policy constraints’ being listed, the “presumption” could lead to unacceptable development in other areas of open countryside.

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

15. Para 19 in the draft NPPF and its bullet-points are a succinct strategic vision for plan-making and planning decisions. Although each of these themes is developed further in the NPPF, some matters are so important that they should be promoted to Core Planning Principles (or what is already in para 19 should be suitably enhanced). These are:

the importance of food security and therefore the need to protect productive farmland from irreversible development;

reducing the need to travel (only briefly touched upon in para 82), not merely emphasising sustainable transport; and

the importance of enabling local communities, especially rural ones, to retain their identities and therefore avoiding patterns of growth that cause these identities to be lost.

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?

16. To answer the second of these questions, the one difficulty would appear to be the conflict between the aspirations of “localism” and the need to plan larger-than-local infrastructure. This does not mean that the passing of Regional Strategies is lamented: these were not very successful in integrating national and sub-national infrastructure with more local development proposals either.

17. We explore this in greater depth in answer to the next Question, but suffice it to say here that there will have to be increased monitoring and involvement in local planning by national infrastructure providers such as the Highways Agency, Network Rail, the Environment Agency and gas, electricity and telecommunications network operators to ensure that their forward investment plans keep ahead of development proposals. Hitherto, many of these bodies have confined their strategic planning roles to working with regional and sub-regional plans and have given less attention to local plans. This must now change.

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

18. The “duty to co-operate” will ensure that local authorities work with their neighbours to resolve planning and infrastructure issues that cross local authority boundaries. The extent of such co-operation will be examined by Local Plan Inspectors and Local Plans will be deemed unsound if any necessary co-operation is not demonstrated.

19. However, the mere “duty to co-operate” may prove insufficient in two respects. Firstly, planning for large-scale infrastructure which extends or impacts beyond neighbouring authorities. If one or more developments proposed are of such a scale or impact (or a number of smaller developments cumulatively have such impact) that infrastructure is affected a considerable distance away, then co-operation between neighbouring authorities may not be good enough. An authority making such a proposal in its local plan, or a developer submitting an application for a large development, must be obliged to show that it/he has considered the wider implications of the proposal and that appropriate provision is or can be made and funded by the relevant infrastructure provider(s).

20. The Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), depending on their geographical coverage, may have an advisory role here – but no more than that. LEPs have no democratic representation and their plans do not have to be subject to public consultation (or possibly even Strategic Environmental Assessment). Their advice to LPAs, therefore, cannot be definitive. Furthermore, their raison d’être is the promotion of economic development and they are therefore not in an ideal position to balance economic, social and environmental planning policies.

21. Secondly, a local “duty to co-operate” is likely in some areas to give rise to imbalances especially between housing and employment. One authority may be promoting housing growth but with few employment opportunities, whereas another may have little potential for housing (due, perhaps, to environmental or other policy constraints) but is strong on promoting employment. Unless these two authorities are close neighbours, this could give rise to increased longer-distance commuting – an unsustainable position which has both infrastructure and environmental consequences.

22. Even if housing and employment are in close proximity, local housing may not be able to supply the necessary skills that the employers seek. This is an additional factor that could give rise to unsustainable commuting, and goes to show that appropriate in-depth analysis of these issues is required: the promotion of mere numbers (whether of housing or jobs) is insufficient.

23. As well as a duty to co-operate, therefore, LPAs should have an obligation in their local plans to assess where residents of any proposed new large-scale housing developments are likely to work and where employees of any proposed large-scale commercial or industrial developments are likely to live, this evidence to be examined by the Local Plan Inspector. Similarly, promoters of large-scale developments at the application stage should carry out equivalent assessments (this goes further than the existing travel assessments or travel plans).

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

24. [We have not answered this Question.].

General Assessment of the Fitness for Purpose of the Draft Framework as a Whole

25. As it stands, the draft NPPF represents a good start but there are many areas where improvement is needed. Areas of concern not already mentioned above include:

Although “effective use of land” is mentioned in the “Core planning principles” (para 19), the draft NPPF does not otherwise give sufficient emphasis to the re-use of “previously-developed land” (PDL) or to prioritising the allocation and development of sustainable PDL sites before greenfield locations. Local authorities should be required as part of their plan-making continually to assess the actual and likely availability of urban PDL for various uses and to apply a sequential test when allocating land for development. This is not merely about protecting the countryside (though that is important) but about supporting urban regeneration in a positive and pro-active way.

The NPPF is too weak on the question of the viability of developments (paras 39ff). Development proposals have to be viable in order to proceed, but no development should be permitted to do so if it cannot meet its obligations to mitigate its social and environmental impacts. Mitigation of these impacts is just as much a legitimate cost as land acquisition, construction materials or labour, to be taken into account when assessing viability. Planning authorities should not be encouraged to reduce these legitimate obligations in order to “improve” the viability of a proposed development, otherwise the remaining unmet costs (whether monetary, social or environmental) fall on the wider society of businesses and residents.

Office uses should be included with retail and leisure uses for which it is preferred that they be located in town centres (paras 76ff refer). Offices generate considerable commuting travel journeys and town centre hubs are better served by public transport compared with suburban or out-of-town locations. Furthermore, town-centre offices provide employees easy access on foot to retail and leisure uses at lunchtimes and before/after work, thus strengthening the town centre economy. A strong town-centre policy for office development would support the Government’s climate change policies by avoiding damaging increases in car use and would support much-needed urban regeneration and revitalisation of our High Streets.

The section of the draft NPPF on transport (paras 82ff) provides too much emphasis on “giving people a choice about how they travel”. This is weak. Much stronger policy is needed on locating development where non-car modes of transport are available or can be provided and – for larger developments generating considerable numbers of trips – the contributions that developers should make towards the provision of public transport services and cycling routes serving their sites. The advice (para 86) that:

development should not be prevented or refused on transport grounds unless the residual impacts of development are severe, and the need to encourage increased delivery of homes and sustainable economic development should be taken into account.

   is unacceptable. LPAs must be given the discretion (a) fully to assess the transport impacts of a proposed development, (b) to require developer obligations or contributions as necessary to mitigate those impacts and (c) ultimately to refuse permission if such impacts are not adequately mitigated.

The requirement for an additional 20% allowance for housing allocation in local plans (para 109) unnecessary and unacceptable. The mere allocation of additional land over and above that calculated to meet local needs does not of itself increase the rate of housing development, which is much more determined by market conditions and the availability of finance than it is by the availability of land. Much allocated land has remained undeveloped for many years, even through the so-called “boom” times. Increasing allocations beyond that required to meet local needs merely deters the development of the more difficult – but usually more sustainable – sites, many of which are on previously-developed land and in urban areas, at the expense of greenfield, rural and urban-fringe land. Also, where a LPA can demonstrate a history of windfall sites coming forward which have contributed to – and are likely to continue to contribute to – a substantial proportion of housing completions in its area, then it should be able to make an allowance for windfall sites in its five and 10-year supply calculations, without this being treated as an “exception”. This is particularly important for local authorities whose areas are mostly urban or are highly constrained by eg Green Belt.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011