Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from Oxford City Council

Brief Summary of Key Points

The absence of detail will make the implementation of national policy advice much more difficult and potentially subject to a greater degree of interpretation; such as in the case of the town centre first policy.

Localism is important and will encourage a more active involvement by local people in the plan-making system through the new Neighbourhood Plans and decisions on planning applications. The new NPPF advice should however recognise the important role that Local Plans play in identifying local needs and allocating housing and employment growth and developing local policies that reflect local circumstances.

The Core principles listed all appear reasonable; the difficulty however will come when these principles need to be tested and implemented in relation to a policy and or particular proposal.

Protection given to the green belt in the NPPF is excessive and damaging to sustainability in its environmental, economic and social dimensions.

The need to approve many new Local Plans and potentially “certify” others as being in conformity with the NPPF could greatly increase the workload of the Planning Inspectorate which is likely to be under increased pressure due to the “Planning Guarantee”.

To require LPAs to review Core Strategies would be likely to delay much needed housing and economic growth.

In the absence of national guidance new Local Plans may develop into larger policy documents incorporating both strategic and local policy advice.

It will be important for clear guidance to be included to set out the “transitional arrangements” and the requirements for existing plans to be in conformity with new national policy advice. Recently adopted Core Strategies should be recognised as being in conformity, since they were prepared in the context of existing national policy advice; which is summarised in the core principles of the new NPPF.

Only 53% of LPAs have published Core Strategies the remainder rely solely on national planning guidance for advice to inform their policy decisions. LPAs and Planning Inspectors rely on this advice to provide clarity on planning issues which may not be clear cut at the local level.

The new LEPs were set up to fill the sub-regional policy vacuum, however these will not be an appropriate vehicle to resolve disagreements where conflicts exist between different authorities. Duty to co-operate assumes agreement can be reached; if not there seems no effective mechanism for resolving conflicts.

There is clear tension between the presumption in favour of development in the NPPF and the importance attached to a Core Strategy/Local Plan. Clarity is required to inform the decision maker.

1. Does the NPPF give sufficient guidance to local planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and others, including investors and developers?

No, whilst the proposed new guidance includes many of the key principles already established in national policy advice it lacks the detail necessary to support its implementation. This is one of the few cases where normally the argument is that “the devil is in the detail”, but in this instance “there is no detail”. In order to understand the draft NPPF, still need to refer to previous PPS’s. For example, the sequential and exceptions test for flooding only makes sense if you know the different zones categories of land-use vulnerability.

Policy vacuum

With the impending abolition of regional spatial strategies (RSS’s) which provided an important over-arching framework for resolving some of the key issues, not least housing growth requirements, there is now a policy vacuum. The Coalition Government have responded by encouraging the formation of Local Enterprise Partnerships at the sub-regional level, but these will not be an appropriate vehicle to resolve disagreements, in particular where conflict exists between different local authorities in a LEP area; moreover, LEPs do not cover the whole country. There is intended to be a “duty to co-operate” between local authorities but this does appear to assume that an agreement can be reached. In some cases there will be differing views that cannot be reconciled, but no advice on what happens next and how these can be resolved at the sub-regional level.

Plan-making system

We understand that only 53% of all local authorities in the country have Core Strategies published. It is however still not clear how the “transitional arrangements” will work even for authorities, such as Oxford, that already have adopted Core Strategies; it is to be hoped that these will automatically receive Certificates of Conformity with the new NPPF. There is however no guarantee that this will be the policy approach adopted. What would happen for example if a Local Authority with an adopted Core Strategy applied for a Certificate of Conformity but was then found not to comply? Would it be made a compulsory requirement that all adopted Development Plans need to apply for conformity or left to be voluntary?

The procedure needs to be made clear and confirm that any adopted Core Strategies are in compliance, at the very least for a reasonable period of time until the next review, say five years. An alternative approach would be to dispense with the requirement to achieve conformity, and assume that plans conformed, read the NPPF in such a way that it did conform, and then apply the NPPF rather than the Core Strategy/Local Plan only when there was a clear conflict between the two; such a judgement would be made with reference to individual applications and would not require a re-examination of the whole Core Strategy/Local Plan.

For Local Planning Authorities with no published Core Strategy, being 47% of the country, these are left having to rely solely on national planning policy guidance for advice to inform their policy decisions. This will make it difficult for Local Planning Authorities or other decision makers such as the Planning Inspectorate in the case of appeals to turn to NPPF guidance to support their decisions; since the lack of detail will make it increasingly hard to rely on. In this case the default position for the decision maker is that unless “the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits” then planning permission should be granted.

A further concern is that the Planning Inspectorate will face enormous pressure to examine a vast number of planning documents within a short time-frame, at the same time as delivering a “planning guarantee”. There could well be major resourcing pressures.

New Local Plans

In the absence of planning policy detail being provided at national level together with the threat that if a plan is “silent” on an issue there will be a presumption in favour of development; the likelihood is that the preparation of new style Local Plans will need to include much more detail. The Government seem quite keen on reducing the suite of Development Plan documents to largely one Local Plan. The difference being that it will need to include the strategic over-arching spatial strategy together with the level of detail set out in the old style Local Plan.

Green Belt

We are concerned that excessive protection is given to the Green Belt in the NPPF, contrary to the suggestions of, for instance, the Barker Review of Land Use Planning. There is in fact strong evidence to support targeted reviews of the Green Belt, allowing tightly-confined urban areas which are major employment locations, such as Oxford, to expand, rather than putting new development in other locations and encouraging further road transport to employment locations.

Town centre first policy

It is important to retain the principle of the town centre first policy, which is welcomed. However its implementation and effectiveness over recent years has relied on the necessary tests, such as the sequential test and impact test to achieve the objective of promoting the vitality and viability of town centres. It is therefore to be hoped that some additional explanatory information will be provided which can briefly summarise the approach that should be followed. We suggest at the very least there are references made to further advice on the methodology that is already available in supplementary best practice. In the absence of this information it is difficult to see how the principle of promoting a town centre first policy can be successfully implemented and the necessary economic investment and regeneration of town centres can be encouraged.

2. Does the NPPF give local communities sufficient power over planning decisions?

The importance of Localism is recognised and will encourage a more active involvement by local people in the plan-making system through the new Neighbourhood Plans and decisions on planning applications. However in cases where there is no Core Strategy or the plan is “silent” on a particular issue a proposed development will only need to meet the limited criteria for “sustainable development” set out in the NPPF to be acceptable. It is likely therefore that Local Planning Authorities will be under considerable pressure to refuse proposals. Local peoples’ expectations will be raised and in cases where there is strong opposition to a proposal elected members will be lobbied to refuse particular schemes, whilst conversely there will be strong pressure from developers to approve new development that meets NPPF broad advice on “sustainable development.” At appeal however the Planning Inspectorate will have little guidance or advice at national policy level to inform its decision.

Sustainable development

The present planning system promotes both sustainable development and a “spatial” approach to planning which recognises its role in bringing together environmental, social and economic issues. The requirements of a Sustainability Appraisal in assessing the preparation of Planning Documents make this an essential and integral part of the process. The new national advice needs to reinforce and articulate this fundamental role with clear guidance for the decision maker.

“Presumption in favour of development” versus a “plan-led approach”

There is a clear tension between the presumption in favour of development being put forward in the new guidance and the importance attached to a Core Strategy/Local Plan. The Core Strategy is prepared and adopted by a Local Planning Authority to reflect and plan for the needs of local people, both residents and the business community. It therefore needs to be made clear that an up-to-date Local Plan that recently adopted should be assumed to be compliant with the NPPF unless there is a clear and obvious contradiction.

It would be extremely dangerous for a “presumption in favour of sustainable development” to render all adopted Local Plans obsolete: then the planning system as we know it being a “plan-led system” would carry little weight in practise if decisions are made purely in relation to national guidance. It is therefore important for the advice to explain how the “transitional arrangements”, conformity procedure and sequential approach to decision making should be made.

Evidence base

In the event of planning permissions being refused this can only be undertaken on the basis of clear evidence being produced by the Local Planning Authority and local objectors to support their case. Whilst in practise this does not differ significantly from the present position it does mean that local people believing that a particular scheme does not properly comply with for example a Neighbourhood Plan proposal will need to ensure that there is a sufficient amount of evidence to support their plan. In some cases this could be an onerous requirement.

Viability issue

This viability issue appears to be solely linked to an economic justification to show a scheme is unviable. The burden of proof should rest with the developer to make a case and for it to be tested by the LPA; whereas the new advice appears to be suggesting that by merely stating that a scheme could be made unviable is sufficient to warrant its approval without providing supporting evidence.

The issue of viability does need to be seen in its wider perspective involving environmental and social issues as well as economic. In a similar way to which the Government and the Treasury appraise major projects through the “Green Book” approach, which properly assesses schemes looking at the costs and benefits of including aspects relating to environmental, social and economic matters. It has to be clear that until a scheme is sustainable, encompassing social and environmental as well as economic dimensions, it will be refused—it should not be acceptable to approve schemes which are not “sustainable” on grounds that to make them “sustainable” would, at the same time, render them unviable.

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

It is unfortunate that there is no real mention of the economic, social and environmental benefits that “regeneration” can bring to an area. Surely national policy should say something about this important aspect that should be supported at national level and then left to the Local Plan to highlight where best this should take place to bring the greatest benefits. Regeneration and spatial planning do play a key role in balancing the housing and economic growth of a city; and identifying where future growth should be promoted. These aspects can be particularly significant in helping to focus future investment and drive forward economic prosperity.

One particular concern to many local authorities is on housing numbers. It is clear that sites need to be identified to meet need + 20%; however, no methodology is set out to calculate this, so local authorities will be “in the dark”, and there is a risk of local authorities opposed to development seeking to choose whatever methodology will give the lowest number of homes, while still meeting with the approval of PINs. There is therefore a strong case for setting out a common methodology to assess housing need.

Whilst the core planning principles listed all appear reasonable. The difficulty however will come when these principles need to be tested and implemented in relation to a particular scheme. For example, the first principle states that “planning should be genuinely plan-led”, which is supported; however in the absence of details explaining the “transition arrangements, conformity requirements and weight to be attached to adopted Core Strategy policies as opposed to NPPF approach it will be difficult for decision makers to be clear which should take precedence.

If the default answer to new development is yes and reliance is placed on new national guidance and a proposal complies with NPPF advice it is hard to see how the planning system will still be genuinely plan-led. The adopted Core Strategies or Local Plans should be assumed to be compliant with the NPPF unless there is clear evidence that they are not, since these reflect the economic, social and environmental priorities of the local area; and will allow “Localism” to be expressed.

4. 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?

The guidance would benefit from further explanation of the over-arching nature of planning and how it should continue to play a “spatial” role; in terms of bringing together a range of social, economic and environmental issues. We believe a good example of different government departments needing to work together towards a single goal would be in seeking to encourage the regeneration of an area. In Oxford an analogy would be the work of the Physical and Economic Regeneration Board in working towards a range of projects that will seek to “break the cycle of deprivation”.

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

To a degree this matter has already been discussed earlier in answer to the first question, where points were raised on the creation of a spatial “planning vacuum.” The formation of regional spatial planning was largely to allow the opportunity to look at the needs of the region as a whole and independently determine which areas were best able to absorb future housing and employment growth; and resolve spatial issues of contention. There will now be serious problems if a consensus cannot be reached, as there will be no effective mechanism for resolving them.

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

The policies themselves are reasonably based on existing evidence. The incorporation of these principles supported by local evidence will take time for local authorities to integrate them into their local plans and to inform planning decisions.

7. Transition

This is an important element of the new process, but has already been discussed in detail earlier in this note.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011