Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from West Berkshire Council

Executive Summary

West Berkshire Council welcomes the aim to simplify the planning process and slim-down the abundance of existing policy guidance. West Berkshire has accommodated a significant amount of growth in the past. West Berkshire is “open for business” and we 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 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.

The Government’s definition of sustainable development appears to place 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.

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.

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 West Berkshire Council is supportive of the desire to simplify and rationalise the plethora of existing Government planning policy guidance. As a unitary authority 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. West Berkshire has accommodated significant levels of growth over the past 30 years but this has not been accompanied by the necessary supporting infrastructure. Development should therefore 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 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 It is entirely possible that the NPPF as currently proposed 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 Impact Assessment that accompanies the NPPF suggests a further review in three years time thus introduces a further period of uncertainty with respect to policy formulation.

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 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, without a suitable transition period between the old system and the new, 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.

3.3 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”. 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.” The Council believes that this is a clear and simpler definition which should be used throughout the NPPF.

3.4 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.

3.5 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 and 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 and 73).

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

3.7 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 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).

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, PPS5 is reduced to just three lines in an area such as West Berkshire with 1,900 listed buildings this is of concern.

5.3 A significant 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 West Berkshire submitted its core strategy for examination two days prior to the “revocation” of the regional strategies. We are currently still at examination 14 months later and the issue of the NPPF is being raised which might mean that the council is forced to redo its’ plan to take account of these changes with a new evidence base at considerable cost to the local community. 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.

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

6.1 No.

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.

7.2 As the CLG select committee recognise 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 Where the NPPF proposes new measures such as the 20% addition to five year housing supply (109), no reasoned explanation or justification is given for this figure of 20% as opposed to any other figure.

7.4 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. It is a major flaw in the impact assessment and the evidence base for the NPPF that these intermediate options have not been assessed.

8 September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011