Communities and Local Government CommitteeW ritten Submission from Buckinghamshire County Council

1. Introduction

The County Council will be making a full response to DCLG in due course. This will reflect views expressed at a forthcoming debate at full Council. Therefore, the views expressed to the CLG Select Committee should be regarded as preliminary at this stage and may be modified in the final response to Government. Accordingly, the County Council will advise the Committee of any changes that it may wish to make to the response below.

If the Select Committee would like further information or clarification on any of the points raised the County Council would be happy to assist.

For information the number in brackets in the responses to the Select Committee’s questions refer to paragraph number in the text of the draft NPPF.

2. Summary of the County Council’s Response

The County Council:

welcomes the Government’s aim of making the planning system more “user friendly” by reducing the amount of planning guidance but considers that this may create areas of uncertainty and ambiguity;

is concerned that the draft NPPF fails to explain the transitional arrangements for moving from the current plan-making system to new style Local Plans and the cost implications of revising (in some cases, recently adopted) Core Strategies to ensure consistency with the NPPF;

welcomes the draft NPPF’s support for the protection of the Green Belt and key environmental and heritage assets;

considers that the draft NPPF, by promoting a strong pro growth agenda, does not strike an appropriate balance between the economic, social and environment elements of sustainability. Further, the County Council believes that in formulating local plans and making decisions on planning applications, local authorities are best placed to decide on the weight to be attached to the individual components of sustainability;

believes that the “Core Planning Principles” set out in the draft NPPF omit key planning principles relating to achieving good design; mitigating and adapting to climate change; and, providing appropriate infrastructure to support planned growth;

supports the Government’s commitment to a plan-led planning system but believes this is undermined the inclusion in the “Core Planning Principles” of the statement “…the default answer to development proposals is “yes” except where this would compromise the key development principles set out in this framework;

is concerned that the draft NPPF’s presumption in favour of sustainable development and the comment that “…objectively assessed development needs should be met…” will undermine the localism agenda and the ability of local communities to determine appropriate levels of growth in their areas;

expresses grave concern at the statement in the draft NPPF that “Local authorities …should grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out-of-date” as this could lead to development in areas not supported by District Councils e.g. on major greenfield sites around Aylesbury;

is concerned by the proposal that identified housing supply over a five year period should be increased by at least 20% as this could require the allocation of more housing sites than might be necessary to meet assessed need;

believes that the statement “ Local Plans should be prepared on the basis that objectively assessed development needs should be met, unless the adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits…” will add to development pressures and debates on the meaning of “significantly” and “demonstrably” in this context;

questions whether the “duty to co-operate” and joint working between local planning authorities will achieve the draft NPPF’s aim of ensuring that that unmet development needs in a particular local authority area (e,g. because of planning constraints such as the Green Belt) will be met through increased provision in neighbouring authorities;

is disappointed at the lack of recognition of the key role that upper tier authorities play in the planning and delivery of key infrastructure needed to support planned growth. This could be addressed in the NPPF if upper tier authorities were to be given the role of preparing Infrastructure plans as proposed in the Conservative Party’s Green Paper, “Open Source Planning”.

3. Responses to Select Committee 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?

1.1. It should be recognised that the existing regime of PPGs, PPSs, MPGs MPSs etc already provides, for the most part, reasonably clear and comprehensive guidance to local authorities, planning inspectors and the development industry and has been developed over time at considerable expense. However, the County Council considers that there is merit in the Government’s intention to streamline and simplify existing planning guidance and bring it together in a single national planning policy framework.

1.2. The deletion of over 1,000 pages of guidance will inevitably create gaps and areas of ambiguity which may only become apparent over time. The County Council intends to examine this issue in more detail and respond accordingly to DCLG in its final response. In the meantime, the County Council would like to highlight the lack of clarity regarding transitional arrangements between the current and revised planning system. Are local authorities who have recently adopted Core Strategies and other Development Plan Documents (DPDs) expected to commence work on the review of these documents as soon as the NPPF is adopted so they accord with the new Framework? If so, what are the cost implications of this?

1.3. The localism agenda appears to give local communities more power to decide on the scale of growth in their areas than in the past. However, this objective has to some extent been overtaken by the presumption in favour of sustainable development, introduced in “The Plan for Growth (HM Treasury/BIS) in March 2011.

1.4. In practice the role of local communities in planning decisions will be limited to Neighbourhood Plans, Neighbourhood Development Orders and Community Right to Build Orders. But while neighbourhoods will have the power to increase development they will not be able to reduce growth levels below those set out in the strategic policies in the Local Plan (50).

1.5.The key issue might not be whether local communities have sufficient powers but rather the extent to which they might want to exercise those powers. At present the commitment of local communities to the production of neighbourhood plans seems to be low (although this may change over time).

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?

2.1. Paragraph 9 of the draft NPPF includes the most widely used and understood definition of sustainable development taken from the 1987 Report of the Brundtland Commision – a definition which is supported by the County Council. An interpretation of what this means for the planning system is provided in paragraph 10 and three components of sustainable development identified - planning for prosperity (an economic role); planning for people (a social role); and planning for places (an environmental role).

2.2. The County Council notes that one of the four aims of sustainable development in Planning Policy Statement 1, Delivering Sustainable Development, the prudent use of natural resources, has been subsumed within the “planning for places (an environmental role)” component of sustainability in the draft NPPF. However, the prudent use of natural resources is a key element of sustainability and as much an economic as an environmental role. It should therefore be retained as a separate component of sustainability and should be seen as a key element in achieving the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainable development“...meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

2.3. Subject to the caveat above, the County Council generally supports the government’s definition of sustainable development for the planning system and particularly welcomes the recognition that: “These three components should be pursued in an integrated way” (11).

2.4. Thereafter, the draft NPPF appears to attach greater weight to the economic component of sustainable development than to the environmental and social components by emphasising the need to ensure that “...the planning system does everything it can to support sustainable economic growth” and “...plan positively for new development, and approve all individual proposals wherever possible” (14).

2.5. Further evidence of the lack of balance between the key components of sustainability is provided by the requirement that local authorities should “...grant planning permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date” (14). The only exceptions would be where “...the adverse impacts of development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole” (14).

2.6. In broad terms, there are, potentially, two distinct interpretations of the “presumption in favour of sustainable development”:

A presumption in favour of development with a token nod in the direction of sustainability to soften a strong pro growth, pro development agenda;

A presumption in favour of development providing it accords with the sustainability principles in the draft NPPF, avoids development in the Green Belt and important landscape designations such as AONBs; does not threaten important environmental and heritage assets; minimises pollution, resource use and, where possible, the need to develop greenfield sites; seeks to minimise greenhouse gas emissions etc.

2.7. Much of the criticism of the draft NPPF by environmental bodies and others is predicated on the assumption that the Government’s interpretation of the presumption in favour of sustainable development is closer to the first of the definitions above rather than the second. As such it is seen as failing to provide an appropriate balance between the three components of sustainability.

2.8. The County Council believes that only the second interpretation of the presumption of sustainable development would be in accordance with the wider principles of sustainability outlined in other parts of the draft NPPF. Further, the County Council considers that, in formulating local plans and making decisions on planning applications local authorities are best placed to decide what weight should be attached to the individual components of sustainable development. This should not be pre judged in the NPPF.

2.9. In the County Council’s view, the final version of the NPPF should make it absolutely clear what is meant by the presumption in favour of sustainable development so that it can be seen to be a balanced and workable approach. At present that balance appears to be missing. However, the County Council notes and supports the NPPF’s stated aims of protecting the Green Belt and key environmental and heritage assets.

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

3.1. No. The core planning principles ignore key priorities expressed elsewhere in the draft NPPF and are poorly drafted. For example the draft states:

“The Government attaches great importance to the design of the built environment...”(114) and “It is important to plan positively for the achievement of high quality and inclusive design all development (115).

3.2. Both these statements (which reflect the weight attached to good design in Greg Clark’s foreword) are wholeheartedly endorsed by the County Council. However, the importance of good design is not reflected in the core planning principles (even though it is currently one of the key principles in Planning Policy Statement 1). This needs to be addressed in the final version of the NPPF.

3.3. Planning has a major role to play in mitigating and adapting to climate change. The section on “Climate change, flooding and coastal change (148-162) recognises this and states that the planning system should aim to:

“, consistent with Government’s published objectives, radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, through the appropriate location and layout of new development, and active support for energy improvements to buildings and the delivery of renewable energy and low carbon energy infrastructure.”

3.4. However, there is no reference to the role of planning authorities and transport authorities in addressing climate change in the list of core planning principles. The County Council considers this to be a major omission.

3.5. The second planning principle (19) contains the statement:

“Decision-takers at every level should assume that the default answer to development is “yes” except where this would compromise the key sustainable development principles in this Framework”.

3.6. In the County Council’s view this contradicts and undermines the first principle that “planning should be genuinely plan-led...” It is assumed that in order to gain approval all Local Plans will necessarily have to accord with the NPPF, make appropriate provision for housing, employment and other infrastructure and receive the endorsement of an independent planning inspector. Once the plan has been adopted planning decisions should be taken in accordance with that plan.

3.7. To be internally consistent, the draft NPPF should make it clear that the only circumstance where the default answer to development might be yes is “...where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date” (14). This would accord with paragraph 26 in the draft NPPF:

“In the absence of an up-to-date and consistent plan, planning applications should be determined in accord with this Framework including its presumption of sustainable development”.

3.8. In the County Council’s view the statement that “...the default answer to development is “yes”...” is not a core planning principle at all but rather a fallback position where the above statement might apply. As such it should be removed from the list of Core Planning Principles”.

3.9. The draft NPPF proposes to remove the target for achieving 60% of housing development on brownfield sites on the basis that it is arbitrary and has led to distortion in the land market (page 49, Draft NPPF Impact assessment). According to the Impact Assessment the removal of the target would give greater discretion to local councils to determine the most suitable sites for housing without top down Central Government intervention.

3.10. While the County Council has no objection to the removal of targets and greater discretion being afforded to local councils, it believes that, in the first instance, priority should be given to the development of suitable brownfield sites to minimise the development of the open countryside. The County Council considers that this should be a core planning principle.

3.11. No reference is made in the core principles to the importance of ensuring that appropriate infrastructure is provided in the right place and at the right time to support planned growth. However, the importance of infrastructure planning is acknowledged in the draft NPPF:

“...Local Plans should: plan positively for the development of infrastructure required to meet the objectives, principles and policies of this Framework...” (24) and:

“Local Planning authorities should work with other authorities and providers to:

Assess the quality and capacity of transport, water, energy, telecommunications, utilities, health and social care, waste and flood defence infrastructure and its ability to meet forecast demands; and

Take account of the need for nationally significant infrastructure within their areas”

3.12. The core principles should recognise the key role the planning system plays in the planning and delivery of infrastructure. In addition some reference should be made to the need to maximise spare infrastructure capacity wherever possible.

3.13. In summary, as they stand, the core principles in the draft NPPF contain a number of significant omissions. In addition, there is scope for considerable improvement in the way in which these principles are drafted to improve both consistency and clarity.

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

4.1. No. There is no reference to the National Infrastructure Plan or National Policy Statements and how these relate to the NPPF. As drafted the NPPF is somewhat insular and fails to make connections to other relevant Government Strategies and White Papers. This could be addressed by including an Appendix setting out a list of other relevant national policy documents (which would need to be regularly updated).

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

5.1. No. The Government’s declared intention to abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and allow local authorities to determine appropriate growth levels has resulted in a number of authorities significantly reducing proposed housing allocations in their emerging Core Strategies/Local Plans to levels well below those set out in RSSs. This has very significant implications for achieving the broad quantum of housing development needed at national and sub-national levels.

5.2. Clearly, the Government believes that sufficient housing can be provided by planning across local boundaries based on the duty to cooperate:

“Joint working should enable local planning authorities to work together to meet development requirements which cannot wholly be met within their own areas – for instance, because of lack of physical capacity or because to do so would cause significant harm to the objectives, principles and policies of this Framework” (47).

5.3. It is difficult to see why local authorities that are planning to meet assessed housing needs in their own areas would also voluntarily seek to accommodate unmet demand arising in neighbouring authorities. This issue is likely to be particularly significant in those authorities where a decision has recently been made to reject “top down targets” in RSSs (incorporating unmet demand elsewhere) in favour of locally assessed housing needs in accordance with Government’s localism agenda.

5.4. Up until 2004, County Councils, through the preparation of County Structure Plans, were tasked with resolving complex issues regarding the best locations for meeting unmet demand arising in those Districts heavily constrained by planning and environmental designations e.g. Green Belts and AONBs. This was usually resolved by increasing housing allocations in less constrained Districts. As a result County Councils broadly met housing needs arising within their administrative areas, albeit not necessarily in those local areas where housing need was generated. When Structure Plans were abolished this role passed to the Regional Assemblies in the formulation of Regional Spatial Strategies.

5.5. The County Council believes that further guidance is needed in the draft NPPF to explain how the “duty to cooperate” will ensure that housing needs across sub national or housing market areas can be met. As drafted, NPPF relies on a process of negotiation under the duty to cooperate to fill the policy vacuum created by the abolition of RSSs. In the County Council’s view, this aspiration may prove to be somewhat difficult to achieve in practice.

5.6. For the “duty to cooperate” to be successful it must be capable of meeting the Government’s aim of significantly increasing housing supply. At present there is a lack of clarity as to how this might be achieved. It is far from clear how sufficient housing will be provided, should negotiation between authorities not be successful, without compromising the Government’s localism agenda.

5.7. As far as economic growth is concerned the draft NPPF comments:

“Local planning authorities should work collaboratively on strategic planning priorities to enable delivery of sustainable economic growth in consultation with Local Enterprise Partnerships.” (45)

5.8. However, the draft NPPF is silent regarding those areas that are not within a Local Economic Partnership (which applies to three of the four Districts in Buckinghamshire)

5.9. The County Council welcomes references to the need for county and district authorities to work together on relevant issues in two tier areas (45); the need for local planning authorities to work with County and neighbouring authorities and LEPs to maintain a robust evidence base to support economic development (29); and, the need for local authorities to work with transport providers in developing strategies to support sustainable economic growth. However, the County Council believes that the draft NPPF underplays the key role of County Councils play in the planning and delivery of key infrastructure such as transport and schools which are essential in supporting planned housing growth and economic development. This could be addressed in the NPPF if upper tier authorities were to be given the role of preparing Infrastructure Plans as proposed in the Conservative Party’s Green Paper, “Open Source Planning”,

5.10. Very little information is given in the draft NPPF regarding the funding of infrastructure needed to support planned growth other than in paragraph 18 which refers to revenue generated from development helping to sustain local services, fund infrastructure and deliver environmental enhancement. Under the CIL charging regime District Councils are the CIL Charging Authorities and have discretion regarding the allocation of CIL payments. However, there is no guarantee that payments will be made to County Councils to fund the key infrastructure for which they are responsible.

5.11. For larger than local (and local) planning to work successfully, the duty to cooperate must address the way in which CIL funding is to be apportioned to County Councils.

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

6.1..The draft NPPF proposes a number of measures to achieve the Government’s aim of significantly increasing the supply of housing. One of these seeks to:

“…identify and maintain a rolling supply of specific deliverable sites sufficient to provide five years worth of housing against their housing requirements. The supply should include an additional allowance of at least 20% per cent to ensure choice and competition in the market for land…” (109).

6.2. Although the justification for increasing housing supply is addressed in the NPPF Impact Assessment (pages 56 – 59) there appears to be no evidence base to support the figure of 20%. The County Council believes that robust evidence is needed to justify this figure as it could potentially result in an oversupply of housing sites.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011