Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the North West Transport Roundtable

Summary and Recommendations

The North West Transport Roundtable welcomes the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee inquiry into the Draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) because we believe that a sound and democratic planning system is fundamental to working within environmental limits and ensuring a high quality of life for future generations. We have serious concerns that the proposed reforms will not achieve either and will result in a built and unbuilt environment of a reduced quality. Local communities will be disenfranchised – not given extra say over their surroundings as was promised - and the UK will fail to meet its carbon reduction targets as a result of bad planning decisions.

The proposed planning reforms are moving in the opposite direction to the government’s declared “localism” agenda. Local communities would have less opportunities to have a say on planning than they have had in the past and are still not being given a right to appeal planning decisions, whilst principal authorities would have less freedoms to make their own planning judgements.

The poor definition of what is to constitute “sustainable development” and the fact that there are no specified requirements for it effectively neuters the use of the word “sustainable” in the Draft NPPF.

Open spaces, areas of countryside and the urban fringe without special designations would be particularly susceptible to development and sprawl because there is no firm requirement to adopt a sequential land use approach and no strong policy against out-of-town developments. There is also a serious risk of many Green Belts being reviewed and reduced in size, negating their prime purpose, and there is much less likelihood of investment in towns and cities desperate for regeneration.

Environmental considerations - including the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, meet carbon reduction targets and comply with the Climate Change Act – are not given equal weighting with economic considerations. This is a blinkered and flawed approach that would have repercussions ultimately on the economy and on the quality of life. It needs to be remedied.

Key principles should include reducing the need to travel, recognising environmental limits and – in tune with the Natural Environment White Paper – retaining protection of the natural environment.

The NPPF lacks specificity and balance and risks repeating planning mistakes made in the past.

Who we are, why we were established and our approach to influencing policy

The North West Transport Roundtable (NW TAR) operates under the auspices of the Campaign for Better Transport (CfBT). We are an umbrella body that promotes sustainable transport, healthier lives and low carbon lifestyles. The regional roundtables came into being in the late 1990s to represent the opinions of organisations and individuals who believe in sustainable transport and to try to bring about more environmentally friendly transport and planning policies. We engage only on policy issues (we are not a direct action organisation) and we do so at a variety of different levels. Many of our recent outputs are viewable on our website www.nwtar.org.uk.

Evidence

Q1: 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?

A: Local planning authorities (LPAs) are being told to provide a five-year housing supply plus 20% but they are not allowed to take account of windfall sites, which can be significant, and they are not being given the tools to negotiate with developers for the most sustainable locations to be used first and to help them protect the undesignated parts of the countryside for its own right or the urban fringe from out-of-town developments that would generate unnecessary transport movements. Also, because of the direction to LPAs in the Draft NPPF to say “Yes” to development perceived as economically beneficial, there is an unwritten implication that it would be acceptable to reduce the size of Green Belts. Certainly many LPAs are already talking about reviewing their Green Belts to accommodate development.

The guidance to LPAs is inadequate because it does not take sufficient account of environmental considerations including the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nor does it guard against Green Belts being reduced in size, an action that would defeat their prime purpose of separating built areas.

The Planning Inspectorate’s role in respect of Local Plans was reduced under the Planning & Compulsory Purchases Bill to primarily focusing on the overall soundness of the plan. The proposal in the Draft NPPF is to re-confirm this reduced role whilst ensuring it has been prepared in accordance with the Duty to Co-operate and legal procedural requirements.

The guidance to the Planning Inspectorate is inadequate because it assumes that LPAs have listened to comments made to them during their consultations and have reacted to sensible, cogent suggestions and made amendments This is not always the case. Under the system that applied prior to the enactment of the Planning and Compulsory Purchases Act, it was possible for challenges to be made at the public inquiry/examination in public stage to individual policies - as a result of which they were often amended and improved. This is no longer possible. Organisations and individuals who take an interest in the process are expected to prove that the entire document is unsound. This is rarely the case but in any event such a requirement is quite beyond the limited resources of local communities and bodies which are non statutory and non commercial. Consequently, this requirement is contrary to the localism agenda.

Investors and developers are basically being given a much freer rein to build in areas which do not carry special designations. However, many such areas provide important open spaces and green lungs in built up areas and food production in the countryside. There appears to be no recognition in the Draft NPPF of the benefits that have been gleaned from directing developments to brownfield areas in the first instance or the disbenefits of removing such policies. How are towns and cities in need of redevelopment ever going to achieve the renaissance they seek if it is made easier for developers to build on greenfields?

The guidance to investors and developers is totally inadequate. Because it does not require them to focus on brownfield land first, it will result in urban sprawl and unsustainable patterns of development.

Local communities are still not being given the right under the proposed NPPF to appeal planning decisions (ie. the “third party right of appeal”) and nor would they have the right to ask at a Local Plan inquiry for an individual policy to be re-phrased and improved. They are only being offered the right to approve development, via Neighbourhood Plans, not to question it – despite pre-election promises.

Local communities’ democratic rights are being reduced. They will have less say on planning decisions because their objections to individual planning applications are less likely to receive a proper hearing at the principal authority level due to the fact the principal authority is being told to say “Yes”. It will also be even harder for local communities and NGOs to engage on major infrastructure projects than previously.

Q2 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?

A. At the heart of a sound planning system, there needs to be genuinely sustainable development and for this to happen there needs to be a statutory definition of “sustainable development” that will help to provide greater certainty in decision-making. The definition in the Draft NPPF is not sufficiently robust and is open to widespread interpretation (and mis-interpretation). Many environmental non-governmental organisations (NGO)s, including the North West Transport Roundtable, signed up to a joint statement on the Localism Bill which proposed the following definition:

“sustainable development” means development that meets the social, economic and environmental needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, including the application of the following principles:

(i)living within environmental limits;

(ii) ensuring a strong, healthy and just society;

(iii)achieving a sustainable economy;

(iv)promoting good governance; and

(v)using sound science responsibly.

The national, regional and other NGOs who signed up to this definition asked for it to be included in both the Localism Bill and the NPPF.

As far as the presumption in favour of sustainable development is concerned, it should be noted that there is no reference in the Draft NPPF of the need to meet any specified standards. The requirement is that there should be no demonstrable harm to the objectives of the NPPF as a whole. Bearing in mind that the NPPF as a whole is an economically-focussed document which does not demand a balance of the five principles listed above, the outcome it would prompt would not be a balanced one. This would have impacts on the quality of the environment and ultimately, therefore, on the economy.

Q3 Are the “core planning principles” clearly and appropriately expressed?

A: The core planning principles identified in the Draft NPPF are not definitive enough on the sequential use of land. They merely require that “where practical and consistent with other objectives, allocations of land for development should prefer land of lesser environmental value”. Nor are they definitive enough on heritage assets or the most fertile farmland and nothing is said about ensuring the provision of local foods for local markets in order to reduce food miles. Nor are any parking standards required – a measure which can be used to control car use and help achieve modal shift.

The core principles fail to call for policies and planning decisions which recognise environmental limits or the inherent value of the countryside and which will “reduce the need to travel”. (Reducing the need to travel is only mentioned in connection with making better use of new technologies, not as an over-arching aim). Without the inclusion of these fundamental ly important criteria, LPAs will be struggling to refute planning applications that would create worse air pollution and which are clearly not in the best interests of the communities and/or the natural/ unbuilt environment for which they are responsible. There needs to be much greater emphasis on each local authority playing its part in meeting national carbon emission targets and not agreeing to developments in locations that will encourage more car use.

Q4 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?

A. In February 2011, the Coalition Government launched “Mainstreaming Sustainable Development”, a package of measures it committed to enacting across all government departments and all emerging policies. The NPPF should be cross-hatched to the commitments made then by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for the Environment. Even more importantly, the NPPF needs to comply with the 2008 Climate Change Act and support the legally binding carbon emission reduction targets which the UK government signed up to earlier this year. It needs to explain how compliance is to be achieved. It is wholly inadequate to say: “Where practical, encouragement should be given to solutions which support reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and reduce congestion” (para 83).

Also, the NPPF needs to take cognisance of the Natural Choice, the Natural Environment White Paper which commits to: “retain protection and improvement of the natural environment as core objectives for local planning and development management” (para 2.35). It should also be noted that the White Paper makes it quite clear open countryside, forests and farm land are included in the definition of what constitutes “the natural environment” – without any caveats or exclusions.

Q5 Does the NPPF, together with the “duty to co-operate”, provide a sufficient basis for larger-than-local strategic planning?

A. Only to some extent. Local authorities do not have a good history of working in harmony with each other but NW TAR witnessed a significant improvement during the time that regional working was mandatory. Our fear is that LAs will revert to working in their own silos, will only co-operate where essential and will not see the bigger picture or examples of best practice being carried out by other authorities.

Q6 Are the policies contained in the NPPF sufficiently evidence-based?

A. No. The Draft NPPF is particularly remiss in how it approaches infrastructure requirements. It tells LPAs to say “Yes” to planning proposals and not to place unnecessary planning conditions on permissions granted and it also tells them to take account of nationally significant infrastructure within their areas (which local communities will have little say about) and to assess the capacity of transport to cope. The implication appears to be (because nothing is said to the contrary) that local authorities must work out how to provide whatever supporting infrastructure might be necessary. As the proposed NPPF makes it easier to get permission for out-of-town developments, this could provoke demands for more highway infrastructure, whether this is road widening, bypasses or entirely new roads. The evidence already exists to show that this has happened in the past through bad planning. Lessons need to be learnt from past mistakes. Also, Campaign for Better Transport research into out-of-town developments near motorways, published this month, show that both traffic movements and CO2 emissions rise by an alarming amount and place stresses on the strategic road network.

Q7 Is the Draft NPPF fit for purpose?

A. As the previous responses indicate, we believe the answer to this question is “No”. It lacks specificity, it lacks the all-important balance that needs to be struck between economic, social and environmental issues, it lacks a proper definition of sustainable development and it risks repeating past mistakes. The overall effect is to move in the opposite direction to the “localism” agenda.

We hope our comments are of some value and we hope the NPPF will be re-appraised.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011