Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the British Council of Shopping Centres

As you may be aware BCSC represents businesses operating in the retail property sector. Our membership is made up of approximately 2,600 professionals working within the retail property sector. This includes investors, developers, shopping centre owners, major retailers, surveyors, architects and local authority officers. Given our members’ interest in the regeneration and the growth agenda we thought it would be appropriate to offer some thoughts on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) as requested in your recent call for evidence.

The retail and retail property industries together play a strategic role in sustaining communities, with 7.6 million people currently employed in the UK. In 2008 alone around £6 billion was invested in the UK by the retail property industry, creating tens of thousands of new jobs.

Since 2008, as a consequence of the economic crisis the retail property pipeline has faltered, with 50 million sq ft effectively on hold, awaiting a significant improvement in economic conditions before building can commence. The consequence of this is that jobs, in construction and in retail, are not being created, public spaces are not being renovated, and, in some cases, town centres are suffering further degradation and decline.

Against this backdrop, we welcome the Government’s commitment to streamline the planning system, acknowledging that there has been broad recognition that the existing system was slow, complex and unresponsive—adding to the already dire situation whereby it is not unusual for a complex retail scheme to take 10 years to deliver from concept to opening.

As evidence of this, you will no doubt be aware of the recent British Chambers of Commerce survey of 5,300 businesses which revealed starkly that businesses with the potential to expand currently have little confidence that the planning system responds to proposals in a fair or even-handed way:

Seven in 10 experienced applicants (who have been through the planning process on multiple occasions) believe planning decisions are taken on political grounds, rather than on the merits of the application itself.

Over half believe that planning Committees make decisions contrary to the advice of planning officers.

Among those businesses who have never applied for planning permission, more than one in 10 had not done so because of cost, complexity, delays, and/or a belief that they would simply not be granted permission.

This clearly supports the Government’s original premise: there is a real need for a simplified national framework. In the current economic climate, therefore, it is crucial that we work together, industry, Government, local government and communities and interest groups to ensure that all unnecessary barriers to sustainable growth are eliminated.

We have set out our position on the NPPF in a number of responses to Government, and are, as requested by the Committee, keen not to simply regurgitate messages that have been articulated elsewhere. That said - we do believe that it is useful to note the key principles that we believe should inform the planning process. These include:

the role, purpose and benefits of a plan-led system;

the importance of maintaining up-to-date development plan documents;

the role of neighbourhood planning in the plan-making process, and the relationship between national and local plan making;

the importance of evidence-based planning that reflects the need and demand for new retail development and the capacity to accommodate it, to enable appropriate sites to be identified in the right locations; and

need for planning to be a transparent and democratic process emphasising the importance of appropriate and proportionate consultation.

We have always maintained that there should be a strong emphasis on promoting sustainable economic growth, greater productivity and building prosperous communities, with additional objectives to:

promote the right business in the right place stimulating sustainable economic growth and enhancing competitiveness;

protect and enhance town centres;

build prosperous communities;

deliver more sustainable patterns of development;

promote high-quality and inclusive design; and

improve accessibility.

We would be more than happy to discuss these principles in more depth with the Committee and would welcome the opportunity to present oral evidence.

To take each of your questions in turn:

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?

Whilst we recognise the Government’s reluctance to provide centrally produced guidance given its commitment to local decision makers’ autonomy, we strongly believe there is a requirement for Government to work with local councils and industry to produce some form of advice to council on the interpretation of particular elements of the NPPF, and especially in our view the application of the sequential approach.

The Guidance in PPS4 was useful for councils, developers and their advisors and should be the starting point for any discussion of additional advice on the streamlined NPPF. BCSC is of course willing to contribute to a working group looking at this. If local authorities are being expected to shoulder more responsibility to establishing an evidence base on the suitability, availability and viability of sites for development then Government needs to ensure that Councils are equipped to do so—and at the highest professional standard. Otherwise, there will be a danger of delays, due to challenges and appeals, and inappropriate development being delivered as a result of poor decision making.

We would therefore strongly urge the Committee to push Government to develop guidance to support local authorities as they seek to implement the policies of the NPPF.

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?

We have previously publicly supported the Government’s aim to make planning policy localist in its approach and we strongly support the Government’s commitment in favour of sustainable development. We consider, importantly, that such an overarching commitment to sustainable development is critical in ensuring a local approach does not add unnecessary delays and costs to delivering retail-led development, and all of the social, economic and environmental benefits it delivers for local communities.

Clearly, we recognise that the presumption of sustainable development will be applied locally. It is therefore important that each local authority sets out its own criteria with clear policies in local plans to guide developers as they draw up proposals for future projects. Clarity on a local level will be essential in this regard.

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

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?

We are supportive of the core planning principles as expressed on p.5 of the NPPF document. In particular, we are strong advocates of a plan-led system with up to date Local Plans setting out clear frameworks for interested developers to respond to. We also welcome the Government’s explicit commitment that the default answer to development proposals should be a “yes”, except where this would compromise sustainable development principals.

We note that the planning principles include a commitment to the promotion of mixed use development. We are supportive of this. However, we are concerned that the NPPF actually contradicts this by removing offices from the sequential assessment. BCSC urges the Committee to refer this point to Government to encourage them to treat office development in the same vein as retail.

On the principle that local planning policies should take into account market signals in decision making we think that, though desirable in some circumstances, there is a danger that a move too far towards a market rather than plan led system would make it far easier for some types of development to receive a positive decision on the basis of a developer’s view of a particular market and the benefit it might bring.

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

We appreciate the sentiment expressed in section 27 onwards regarding the need for each Local Authority to ensure that the Local Plan is based on adequate and up to date evidence. However, as above, we question whether all local authorities will be adequately resourced to deliver on this. We would suggest that the Committee recommends that the Government reconsider this point or clarify how it believes that each local authority will be able to meet this requirement.

Beyond the evidence base for each local plan, we feel that the Government also needs to commit to analysing the effectiveness of the NPPF is in the years to come.

Looking beyond the existing evidence base (both Government and privately held) we do have some concerns that there is insufficient collection of data relating to the development of in-town versus out of town space. At present, Government does not collect this information over time. As a consequence, in the future it will be very difficult to assess whether the introduction of the NPPF has been successful in its objective of maintaining a Town Centre’s First policy. We would strongly recommend that the Committee raises this concern within the contents of its final report.

To Conclude

BCSC favours a clear and transparent plan-led approach to sustainable economic development. We believe that plan making and development management should be evidence based and take full account of the views of local communities, of which local businesses are a key component. We believe that neighbourhood planning has to be compatible with the rationale for a presumption in favour of sustainable economic development and does not add additional bureaucracy and cost for businesses.

We are of the view that the “town centres first” approach to planning for new retail development remains a valid mechanism for promoting local economic growth and the vibrancy and vitality of towns and cities, and should therefore be maintained in the NPPF and extended to offices. Similarly, the present impact tests defined in PPS4 provide an appropriate framework to maintain a balanced approach to the positive and negative consequences of potential development and their weight ascribed in the decision making process.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss these comments in more detail as part of the evolution of the NPPF and if there are any comments or points of clarification in the interim, then please do not hesitate to contact us.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011