Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten submission from Hampshire County Council

Executive Summary

Hampshire County Council welcomes the aim to simplify the planning process and slim-down the abundance of existing policy guidance. Hampshire has accommodated a significant amount of growth in the past. We see ourselves as “open for business” and are keen to ensure that the national policy context is framed in such a way that it allows us to continue to support appropriate levels of sustainable growth in the future. Our comments on the NPPF should be seen in this light.

The County Council is concerned, however, that the NPPF does not provide an appropriate or balanced context for the preparation of local plans or the determination of planning applications at the local level.

It fails to adequately recognise the importance of planning for strategic issues at the larger-than-local level eg at district and borough level.

The Government’s definition of sustainable development places too much emphasis on the achievement of economic objectives at the expense of social and environmental considerations which risks new development being unsustainable.

The Impact Assessment accompanying the NPPF does not fully consider the range of options open to the Government in seeking to revise and consolidate existing planning policy guidance.

It is not adequately justified and is lacking in robust evidence for the approach it advocates.

It is based on a flawed understanding about what the planning system aims to achieve and how it needs to operate to achieve it

The draft framework has over-simplified existing policy guidance to such an extent that a great deal of important detail is lacking in a great many areas.

It fails to provide an effective and timely mechanism to ensure the Duty to Co-operate is adequately addressed early enough in the planning process

It fails to adequately address the resolution of conflicts that will inevitably arise at times during implementation of the duty to co-operate.

There is a lack of clarity in a number of areas regarding how the NPPF relates to other aspects of Government policy.

It is inconsistent in its use of terminology in a number of areas

It risks the creation of a period of local policy void by failing to put in place reasonable transitional arrangements between the new and old planning systems

All of these flaws run the serious risk that, rather than clarify, simplify and speed up the planning process, it will result in greater uncertainty, frustration and delay.

1. Introduction

1.1 Hampshire County Council is supportive of the desire to simplify and rationalise the plethora of existing Government planning policy guidance. As a county and a council which likes to see itself as “open for business” we clearly recognise the importance of economic prosperity, employment opportunity and the desire to foster and facilitate growth; particularly where this brings about regeneration. Hampshire has accommodated significant levels of growth over the past 30 years but this has not been accompanied by the necessary supporting infrastructure. Hence the County Council’s view is that growth should not be allowed to occur at any cost. Development should only be allowed to occur where it is accompanied by the local and strategic infrastructure necessary to support it and provided that the environmental and social costs of development do not outweigh the economic benefits. The desire for growth and prosperity, therefore has to be balanced against other important considerations.

1.2 The planning system is concerned with the balance and resolution of competing (and often conflicting) interests in the development and use of land and seeks to secure the best outcome for society at large with whom it must engage in the decision making process through a political, democratically accountable system. It is therefore, by its very nature, complex, convoluted, controversial and takes time.

1.3 It is the County Council’s view that the NPPF does not adequately recognise or reflect these complexities. Instead it puts an over-emphasis on achieving economic objectives and meeting the needs of the development industry at the expense of environmental and social objectives. Furthermore it seeks to impose a one-size-fits-all policy context which over-rides consideration of local circumstances.

1.4 That is not to say economic considerations are not important; merely that the balance in the NPPF is tipped too far in the direction of economic imperatives and that this is applied uniformly across the country. However, the implication of the balance being wrong is that the NPPF will fail to achieve its ultimate goal – sustainable development. It will lead to more delay rather than a speedier system, more confusion rather than greater clarity and, ultimately, a by-passing of the plan-led system as more and more decisions are determined through the appeal process. Not only is this counter to the principles of localism but it will mean more cost and delay for the development industry and local resentment rather than mutual acceptance of the benefits of growth; the exact opposite of what Government intends to achieve with the NPPF.

1.5 Furthermore, the NPPF is undoubtedly expected to endure for a sufficient period of time to provide the certainty and consistent policy context the development industry desires. Whilst it is, to a degree understandable that emerging Government policy takes a pro-growth stance at this particular point in the economic cycle, the fact that it is a cycle and the economy will slowly recover from the current trough means the policy must remain appropriate throughout times of both boom and bust. Hence our calls for a more balanced and measured approach

Response To Select Committee Questions

2. 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?

2.1 The NPPF gives a very clear message. Unfortunately, however, in the County Council’s view, it is a message with the wrong emphasis that will undermine localism and the long-term sustainability of communities.

2.2 The NPPF is extremely clear that sustainable development is about positive growth and that the role of the planning system is wherever possible to allow positive growth to go ahead without delay. It prioritises the need to support economic growth above all other objectives by requiring “significant weight” (13) to be accorded it. Plans should meet objectively assessed development needs in full. Planning policies should take into account market signals such as land prices, commercial rents and housing affordability (19). Development should be approved where it complies with the plan. If a plan is “absent, silent or indeterminate” development should similarly be allowed. All of this should apply unless the adverse impacts of allowing development “significantly and demonstrably” outweigh the benefits (14).

2.3 All of this is absolutely clear. However, if one consideration is given undue prominence in the decision-making process (in this case the imperative to achieve economic growth) it precludes a balanced assessment of the impacts of a development taking place. It also seems inconsistent with the localism agenda which seeks to give local communities greater control over the planning of their local areas. Both local communities and decision-makers are, effectively, given a power just to say “yes” to growth (other than in very exceptional circumstances) rather than being able to consider what is best for their areas. This is unlikely to empower local communities.

3. 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?

3.1 There is nothing wrong with the principle of a presumption in favour of sustainable development per se. However, whether or not it is appropriate in practice depends on how sustainable development is defined and how strictly the principle is to be adhered to in the day-to-day decision-making process.

3.2 Given the objectives of the planning system set out above any presumption should only be a starting point; a guiding principle. That provides comfort to the development industry as a context within which decisions will be taken. However, it should not be an automatic right. Given the need to weigh a variety of complex, inter-related and often competing interests in the balance there has to be sufficient flexibility to accord these various considerations due weight as local circumstances dictate. So the principle of a presumption in favour of sustainable development can only be a balanced and workable approach provided it is viewed in this light and provided the definition of sustainable development itself is appropriate, is understood, is applied consistently throughout Government policy and is adopted as a theme across Government policy.

3.3 The County Council is concerned that these circumstances do not prevail in the NPPF as it stands meaning the approach is neither appropriate, balanced nor workable. There are three points to raise:

(i) The definition of Sustainable Development

3.4 Government defines “sustainable” in the Ministerial Foreword to the NPPF as meaning ensuring better lives for ourselves that don’t mean worse lives for future generations and “development” as meaning growth. The County Council takes issue with this latter part of the definition. Development does not necessarily mean growth. Development is defined as an occurrence, event, fact or happening, especially one that changes a situation. Growth goes beyond that and implies an increase in the level or scale of development which is in addition to that which has occurred in the past. Put simply an increase of development activity may not always be sustainable as the Government defines it. It may result in economic benefits but that is not, in itself, sustainable.

3.5 The most oft-quoted definition of sustainable development is that set out in the 1987 report of the Bruntland Commission “Our Common Future”. Here sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. At the 2005 World Summit it was recognised that achieving sustainable development requires the reconciliation of environmental, social and economic demands – the so-called “three pillars” of sustainability.

3.6 In the same way that it is the aim of the planning system to seek to reconcile competing interests in the use of land it is the aim of sustainable development to reconcile these three competing aspects of sustainability. It cannot be assumed to be sustainable to automatically prioritise any one of the “pillars” (whether environmental, economic or social) over the other two. Yet that is what the Government’s approach seeks to do by defining development as “growth” and making “yes” the default response to development proposals in the NPPF.

3.7 Interestingly, in the “Easier to read summary of the draft National Planning Policy Framework” Government defines sustainable development as “What we do today to meet our needs, must not stop future generations being able to meet their own needs.” This is a definition, clearly based on Bruntland, which we would wholeheartedly support.

(ii) Sustainable Development vs Sustainable Economic Growth

3.8 In parts of the NPPF (13, 19 etc) Government seems to mix and match the use of the terms “sustainable development”, “development” and “sustainable economic growth” as if they were interchangeable. They are not for the reasons set out above. However, in using the terms in this way the NPPF seeks to give an over-emphasis to its pro-development approach.

3.9 As a policy objective, being resoundingly pro-growth or pro-development is perfectly valid. However, if that is the objective then Government should be honest about this; it should recognise that, if the prioritisation of economic growth or proactively supporting and driving forward the new development that the country needs are the key objectives, these will have potentially undesirable social and environmental consequences. It should not seek to claim, as the NPPF appears to, that a pro-growth agenda is necessarily sustainable. Government should also recognise that the planning system is not the only tool at its disposal to achieve this objective

(iii) Other Material Considerations

3.10 As stated above planning is concerned with reconciling competing interests in the use of land. The nature of those interests and the unique circumstances of each piece of land mean that different considerations are important in each development proposal. The same approach is followed and the same principles applied to deciding applications, but each development proposal and each site is different, both in itself and in the way it interacts with its surroundings and the impacts it has on local infrastructure, services and communities. In order to achieve successful planning outcomes practitioners must have the ability to account for these variations in the decision-making process. They should also be able to negotiate improvements to development proposals and address infrastructure deficits if these are appropriate / necessary to make the development acceptable in planning terms. Without this ability the quality of development and the built and natural environment and quality of life for local communities will suffer immensely.

3.11 Therefore the presumption in favour of sustainable development, particularly in so far as it is laid out in the draft NPPF, should not be the over-riding consideration. There is some concession to this point in the NPPF where Government allows material considerations to be taken into account and weighed against the presumption in favour of sustainable development. However, this is very much secondary to the application of the presumption itself. Only where adverse impacts “would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits” (14) should the presumption be over-ridden. Elsewhere the NPPF requires:

objectively assessed needs to be met (14 & 21);

plans to positively support local development (17);

planning to proactively support and derive the development the country needs (19);

full account to be taken of market and economic signals such as land prices (27);

household and population projections to be met (28); and

authorities not to over-burden development with such a scale of requirements for affordable housing, infrastructure contributions and so on so as to render it unviable even at the lowest point in the economic cycle (39, 41 & 73).

3.12 The point being that the NPPF is not, in the County Council’s view, advocating a balanced approach to assessing development proposals. It is not aiming to reconcile the three pillars of sustainability and it is not adequately acknowledging the important local and site specific considerations that local communities consider important and require decision-makers to tack into account. Rather it is stressing that development should be permitted at (almost) any cost.

3.13 It is this imbalanced approach and the way it is equated with “sustainable development” and how this over-rides local considerations which are of greatest concern to the County Council.

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

4.1 No. The principles are inconsistent both within themselves and with other aspects of the NPPF meaning that they are unlikely to be delivered in their entirety. Put simply, if plans and planners are expected to place so much weight on proactively driving forward and supporting growth, meeting development needs in full and not over-burdening development with financial impositions then that seriously compromises their ability to deliver the other social and environmental principles set out in paragraph 19 of the NPPF.

4.2 If “yes” is the default response to new development proposals then this may pose a risk to environmental and heritage assets, the protection of local amenity and place undue pressure on existing infrastructure. If planners are expected to accept proposals as they are submitted and are unable to seek improvements (on the basis that doing so may impose additional cost on developers) it limits our ability to promote mixed use schemes, encourage the use of renewable energy technology and promote resilience to climate impacts, advocate designs and layouts which promote alternative forms of transport to the private car, improve health and well being and secure the infrastructure many communities desperately need. The same applies to securing good design in new development which, interestingly, is not a core planning principle but which seems to be given a high priority later in the NPPF (114-123)

4.3 On a more technical point, there is an inconsistency between the desire for “succinct local plans” and the presumption in favour of sustainable development (14). The presumption states that planning permission should be granted where “the plan is absent, silent or indeterminate” on a point. This clearly steers plan-makers to ensure they produce plans that deal with every eventuality in order to ensure that they are not silent, indeterminate or fail to deal with a possible development proposal. If they did fail to cover all the bases there would be little point producing a local plan at all as the default, set out in the presumption, is that permission should, in such circumstances, be granted. All of this suggests local plans will need to be detailed and comprehensive rather than succinct. This, in turn, has implications for both the time and cost of their preparation and how accessible (or otherwise) they are to the layman.

4.4 It should be clarified that this is not an argument for deeply convoluted and impenetrable local plans. It is an argument for a more balanced and sensible approach to decision-making which does not set the default position as being to approve all applications for new development.

5. 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?

5.1 No. The document sets out to be a self-contained planning policy statement. As such it seems to pay little regard to other Government policy objectives. In particular it is inconsistent with the localism agenda in that it prescribes that the default response local communities should make in response to development proposals is “yes” (other than in a very limited number of very exceptional circumstances). This largely prevents local communities expressing any contrary view. It is this contrary view which prevails across much of the country.

5.2 In many places, by over-simplifying existing guidance, it seeks to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. For example, it may not be unreasonable to abandon the 60% brownfield target. Not least since it was never properly justified in the first place and has been consistently exceeded. However, that does not mean that the principle of prioritising brownfield development over Greenfield (where this can be shown to be an appropriate, realistic and deliverable objective) must also be lost. The principle could be retained even if the target is lost.

5.3 A major flaw is the lack of transitional arrangements between the existing suite of policy guidance, statements, regulations and local development frameworks and the new NPPF which is to take effect immediately and over-ride that which currently exists. The existing system has been created over a number of years through extended periods of consultation and engagement with a wide range of stakeholders and partners including local communities. To set that aside, in effect, overnight and give prominence instead to a radical and untested NPPF is wholly inconsistent with Government’s localism agenda.

5.4 To cast the many recently adopted or published core strategies on the scrap heap and require a planning system to be built from scratch across the whole country cannot be a sensible way forward. A way must be devised of creating a period of transition between the primacy of plans based on the old suite of guidance to allow the creation of new plans based on the NPPF. If only the NPPF takes precedence in the interim this is to deny local communities any say in how the future of their communities is shaped.

5.5 The relationship between the NPPF and local plans is far from clear. The NPPF says it will be “open to” local authorities to seek a certificate of conformity with the NPPF. Does this mean they are obliged to or not? If not, what benefit is there in obtaining a certificate? How will it be obtained and from whom? What will be the added status of a plan which has a certificate compared to one which doesn’t? What of a plan which is refused a certificate of conformity? The certification process is likely to be very time and resource consuming for both local planning authorities and Government itself. These are important matters which must be clarified.

5.6 There is also a lack of clarity in terms of how the NPPF relates to aspects of the Localism Bill. The point is made throughout our response that the NPPF limits the degree of choice communities have in making local decisions. However, there is also a lack of clarity surrounding the “Duty to Co-operate” and planning for strategic issues. The NPPF (45) indicates that, in two tier areas district and county councils should co-operate on “relevant issues”. It is the County Council’s view that this term is too vague and that the NPPF should elaborate on the type of instances where such co-operation might be appropriate. A good starting point would be the list of matters set out at paragraph 23 of the NPPF headed “strategic priorities”.

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

6.1 No. The County Council has made numerous representations in response to recent Government policy consultations making the point that Government fails to fully appreciate the nature of decision-making and service delivery in two-tier areas. The NPPF still does not adequately reflect the situation outside London where funding is directed to the district councils level yet a great deal of the responsibility for service provision dependent on strategic infrastructure lies with county councils. In London the Mayor is able to produce a strategic plan and act as a CIL(Community Infrastructure Levy) charging authority. The same is not the case outside London.

6.2 In order to redress this balance the County Council seeks the same powers as the Mayor given our role in delivering much of the infrastructure necessary to support local services. Without such powers, given the lack of obligation on districts (as CIL charging authorities) to spend any CIL receipts on the actual infrastructure used to justify the application of CIL or to distribute funds to bodies who are responsible for infrastructure delivery, the ability to address large scale strategic infrastructure and planning issues is greatly diminished. This is a significant issue in Hampshire where we have accommodated a significant amount of development in the past but this has not been accompanied by the infrastructure necessary to support it. We have begun to address this through a number of significant regeneration and investment programmes. However, must retain the ability to continue this work to address the legacy problems created by past growth. At the very least we have argued, along with others, that there is a need for a formal and statutory role for county authorities to address larger-than-local strategic issues, particularly in so far as the delivery of infrastructure is concerned. We have called, and we repeat here, for counties to be required to produce statutory Strategic Infrastructure Assessments to influence and inform the preparation of local plans.

6.3 This “hole where strategic planning used to be” was an issue acknowledged by the report of the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee into the Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies (March 2011). Paragraph 145 of the report is copied below. None of these points are addressed in the NPPF.

“We are concerned not only at the speed at which the Government has sought to abolish RSSs, but also at the apparent lack of understanding by the Government of what RSSs provide and what should replace them. The DCLG has not explained how infrastructure, economic development, housing and environment protection be retained at a strategic level nor has it explained how the current planning system will move to the new system, after the Localism Bill comes into effect, without any transitional arrangements in place.

Nor has it explained how local authorities will collect data and evidence that necessarily underpin local planning decisions. Nor has it described convincingly how local authorities will be persuaded to work with other local authorities and the newly-formed Local Enterprise Partnerships, when planning issues affect larger than the local area. There are concerns that it may be left to the courts to intervene when local authorities are reluctant, or indeed hostile, to working with other local authorities. The Government has offered no explanation of how the duty to co-operate will be measured or enforced. It has given no guidance as to how accommodation for Gypsies and Travellers will be provided, nor how renewable energy and planning for climate change will be considered. Ministers have said that the gold standard upon which they are to be judged will be the building of more homes, but much of the evidence suggests that the New Homes Bonus may well be ineffective in increasing house building at all, let alone the building of the right homes in the right places.”

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

7.1 No. This is apparent from the Impact Assessment which accompanies the NPPF. Here, rather than relying on evidence, Government seems to justify the pro-development approach advocated in the NPPF based on a misunderstanding of what the planning system aims to achieve and how it works to achieve it. As stated throughout this response, the planning system aims to balance competing objectives for the development and use of land. This makes it a complex, contentious and convoluted process as there is a need for transparency in how all of the competing interests are weighed in the balance in the decision making process. That process is subject to detailed scrutiny by all interested parties. This will remain the case regardless of this NPPF.

7.2 As the CLG select committee recognise (see paragraph 6.3 above) there is no evidence that Government’s incentives to promote new development in local communities will work. Until such a time as they manifestly do work many local communities will remain sceptical of and reluctant to accept new development, particularly in rural villages. This puts democratically elected representatives in the unenviable position of having to make decisions which may be in accordance with Government policy but against the wishes of the local community (or, more likely, vice-versa). The likelihood in such circumstances is that decisions are ultimately taken higher up the decision-making hierarchy either through planning appeal or, ultimately, by the Secretary of State. Whilst this may ensure a decision is made, it does nothing to incentivise communities to welcome new development.

7.3 Part A of the Impact Assessment accompanying the NPPF appears to be based on the premise that process costs determine the number of planning applications received and that, if the process was less convoluted and took less time, more applications would be forthcoming. As stated above, it is unlikely that the inherently complex and contentious process could be made quicker if it is still to remain inclusive and transparent. However, even if it could, it would make little difference to the number of applications received.

Or, at least, Government produces no evidence of this. Developers do not submit applications for the sake of it. They submit applications for development for which there is demand. If demand is constrained through a lack of availability of mortgage and development finance (see para 7.5 below) the number of planning applications will remain subdued regardless of what improvements are made to the planning process.

7.4 The Impact Assessment also seems to assert that the chance of success is a determining factor in deciding whether or not to submit a planning application. Again, there is no evidence for this assertion. As the Impact Assessment notes (p13), the success rate for planning applications in 2009-10 was 85%. 85% is a very good success rate and shows that planners are not frivolously refusing planning applications. Rather, it shows planning applications are only refused where this is absolutely necessary and with good justification. Compare the 85% planning application success rate with the 33% appeal success rate (p27). Developers still take refused permissions through the appeal process despite this low success rate. This illustrates that, if the demand for the development was there, the developer would take the chance of submitting an application anyway as the financial rewards are so substantial and the costs of not doing so damaging to commercial competitiveness.

7.5 Part B of the Impact Assessment goes on to assert that the main reason previous housing targets set out in Regional Spatial Strategies were not met was because of the planning system: because the targets were imposed from above and never owned locally and, if they had been, all would have been well. This completely underplays the fact that the credit crunch hit and the country entered a period of recession which is on-going today. The availability of both development and mortgage finance dried up almost overnight which effectively curtailed demand for new housing and the ability of developers to fund new development. If one reads any of the quarterly reports of any of the major housebuilders in 2011 it is clear that the main factor determining their volumes is the finance market – not the planning system. The planning system, admittedly, has a role to play in terms of the “burdens” it imposes on the development industry. But this is very much secondary to the availability of finance. And, it should be borne in mind that those “burdens” are not imposed willy-nilly. They are negotiated with developers in order to mitigate and minimise the impact of new development on local communities.

7.6 Overall, the County Council considers the Impact Assessment to be insufficiently robust as it is based on these fundamental mis-understandings of both the planning process and how it responds to the market.

7.7 Not only that but, where the NPPF proposes new measures such as the 20% addition to five year housing supply (109), no reasoned explanation is given for this figure of 20% as opposed to any other figure.

7.8 The assessment itself is also over-simplistic as it assesses impacts against only two alternatives: no change or the NPPF. That is not a robust way to evidence and substantiate policy change. At the very least there should be a middle-ground option which recognises that there is a benefit to be gained from some change to the status quo but not the radical change proposed in the NPPF (see para 5.2 above by way of example). It is a major flaw in the impact assessment and the evidence base for the NPPF that these intermediate options have not been assessed.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011