Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from Banbury Civic Society

Summary

The Banbury Civic Society is not averse to the NPPF in principle. Having a succinct, overarching national planning policy makes good sense and would bring England into line with Wales and Scotland.

In Wales and Scotland the overarching planning policy document is supported by Circulars (which interpret Statute) and Technical Advice Notes (TANs—Wales) or Planning Advice Notes (PANs—Scotland), which provide more detailed guidance on the application of planning policy and statute law.

Our concern is that the NPPF attempts to combine overarching planning policy and the interpretation of statute in a single short document. With the rhetoric of the “presumption in favour of development” contained in the NPPF, this sends out unclear signals at least, which will result in uncertainty and chaotic decision-making. The uncertainty and will undoubtedly result in damage to statutorily protected heritage assets and a series of challenges through the courts.

There has been a long-standing consensus that “The purpose of the planning system is to regulate the development and use of land in the public interest”. The NPPF and recent exhortations of the SoS and others has been to redefine the purpose of the planning system to be the de-regulation the development and use of land in the economic interest.

Does planning deter development? A system that approves 87% of applications, generally within 8 weeks of registration, can hardly be described as a major deterrent to development.

Will de-regulation result in an increase in housing supply? With 1,300,000 homes or potential homes being available immediately and thousands more in the pipeline, the planning system cannot be held responsible for the shortfall in housing supply. Private sector house builders rely on a rising market and will never build out to the point where house prices fall. When house prices fall, they simply stop building, as the present situation so painfully reveals.

Will de-regulation produce sustainable economic growth? As Spain and the Republic of Ireland show, development as an economic driver relies on speculation and easy finance. The idea that development can lead to a sustainable, construction-led recovery is clearly deeply and fundamentally flawed.

The NPPF does not reflect the 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy. It rewrites more than two decades of intense discussion and redefines the very meaning of sustainable development in terms that misconstrue the term as equivalent to “sustainable economic growth”.

The NPPF requires Local Plans and Core Strategies to be based on an assumption that development should be permitted wherever possible and that “significant weight should be placed on the need to support economic growth”.

The NPPF leaves an unlawful policy vacuum with regard to the historic environment. It is said that policy on the determination of applications affecting Scheduled Monuments, Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas (as well as undesignated heritage assets) should be determined locally. This flies in the face of the Government’s duty to uphold the protection of heritage assets protected under statute. Locally our Draft Core Strategy has not one single policy on the historic environment. The adoption of both the NPPF and Draft Core Strategy will leave an almost complete historic environment policy vacuum.

The Concept of a National Planning Policy Framework

The Banbury Civic Society is not averse to the NPPF in principle. The Welsh have their overarching “Planning Policy Wales”, the Scots have “Planning Policy Scotland”. Having a succinct, overarching national planning policy for England, which may be amended as times and economic circumstances change, makes good sense and would bring England into line with Wales and Scotland.

The difference is that in Wales and Scotland the overarching planning policy document is supported by:

a series of Government Circulars (which interpret Statute), and

Technical Advice Notes (TANs—Wales) or Planning Advice Notes (PANs—Scotland), which provide more detailed guidance on the application of planning policy and statute law.

All of these Circulars and PANs/TANs are published and “owned” by the Scottish or Welsh governments, giving all the suite of documents significant weight as highly material consideration in the determination of planning applications, appeals and enforcement actions.

Our concern is that the NPPF attempts to combine overarching planning policy and the interpretation of statute in a single short document. We understand that (eventually) the NPPF will be supported by a series of “good practice guides”, to be “owned” not by the Government (as in Wales or Scotland), but by other interested non-governmental bodies. For example, the “good practice guide” that will provide guidance on development and the historic environment (including statutorily-protected Listed buildings and Conservation Areas) will be drafted and “owned” by “The Heritage Alliance”, a body which very few people outside of the heritage community have ever heard of. With the rhetoric of the “presumption in favour of development” contained in the NPPF, the fear is that a historic environment “good practice” guidance produced by an unknown non-governmental body will be seen as nothing more than its name implies—guidance on good practice (ie nice, but not essential or particularly material), rather than what it should be seen as, viz. legal interpretation of the provisions of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act and the Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas Act and guidance on how these statutory instruments should influence planning policy and decision-making.

The replacement of Circular 8/1987 (“Historic Buildings and Conservation Areas—Policy and Procedures”) by PPG15 (“Planning and The Historic Environment”) (a Planning Policy Guidance Note) clouded matters, as did the subsequent introduction of the replacement PPS5 (“Planning for the Historic Environment”). Replacing a Circular with “Planning Policy Guidance” had be a dodgy step as it clouded the distinction between “guidance” and the interpretation of Statute, but at least PPG 15 and PPS 5 were substantial, detailed documents, published by a government department. The prospect of combining PPS5 and Circular 01/2001 in a “good practice guide” “owned” by a non-Governmental body (the Heritage Alliance) has to be a very grave mistake that must send out unclear signals at least, which will result in uncertainty and chaotic decision-making. The uncertainty and will undoubtedly result in damage to statutorily protected heritage assets and a series of challenges through the courts.

The Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development

There has been a long-standing consensus that “The purpose of the planning system is to regulate the development and use of land in the public interest”. The NPPF and recent exhortations of the SoS and others has been to redefine the purpose of the planning system to be the de-regulation the development and use of land in the economic interest.

Following the recent directive issued by the Secretary of State, this change of orientation is already deemed to be “a material consideration” in all new planning applications, enforcement actions and and appeals, despite it never having been a manifesto commitment of either Coalition partner and despite the consultation on the NPPF still being ongoing.

This change in the understanding of the purpose of the planning system is based on the premises that:

(1)Planning deters development;

(2)De-regulation will end the housing crisis and lower house-prices; and

(3)Development inevitably produces sustainable economic growth.

To take these in turn:

(1)Does planning deter development? The purpose of planning is to deter the wrong sort of development in the wrong place. This it does relatively well. Otherwise, 80% of planning applications are approved, normally inside of eight weeks. Of the remaining 20%, another 30% is approved on appeal. As system that approves 87% of applications, generally within 8 weeks of registration, can hardly be described as a major deterrent to development.

(2)Will de-regulation result in an increase in housing supply? In the UK there are 700,000 empty homes. A further 300,000 homes are consented, but have not been built. Sites are already allocated in adopted Local Plans and LDF Core Strategies for a further 300,000 homes, whilst sites for hundreds of thousand more will be allocated as local planning authorities complete their LDF Core Strategies. With 1,300,000 homes or potential homes being available immediately and thousands more in the pipeline, the planning system cannot be held responsible for the shortfall in housing supply. Building more houses when 700,000 houses stand empty cannot be remotely sustainable. As the consented-but-not-commenced houses show, the reasons for the current shortfall in new starts is entirely due to economic factors: developers cannot borrow construction capital in a falling market, the buy-to-let bubble has burst and potential landlords and first-time buyers cannot raise mortgages. Houses are simply not being built because private-sector demand is at an unprecedented all time low. It is of course absurd to believe that more planning consents will make houses more affordable. Private sector house builders rely on a rising market and will never build out to the point where house prices fall. When house prices fall, they simply stop building, as the present situation so painfully reveals.

(3)Will de-regulation produce sustainable economic growth? There is absolutely no evidence that development produces sustainable economic growth. In a market economy development is instead a by-product a economic growth. Spain and the Republic of Ireland have both been through periods of unfettered house-building and built development that have had short-term benefits in terms of employment. The resultant “development bubble” has left the towns and countryside of both countries irredeemably ruined physically and left both countries economically ruined, to the point where they may still force the rest of us into a very serious double-dip recession. As development as an economic driver relies on speculation and easy finance, the idea that development can lead to a sustainable, construction-led recovery is clearly deeply and fundamentally flawed.

Sustainability

The principles of sustainable development have been a focus of international discussion for 25 years and the concept was introduced into national planning policy in 1992, shortly after the Rio Earth Summit. Planning has been dealing with sustainable development for nearly 20 years. The principles agreed in DEFRA’s Securing the future—delivering UK sustainable development strategy (2005) were widely praised among a wide variety of stakeholders:

Ensuring a strong, healthy and just society.

Achieving a sustainable economy.

Promoting good governance.

Using sound science responsibly.

Living within environmental limits.

Critically, sustainable development is about ensuring these principles are integrated and achieved together. The Government has indicated it supports the 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy but this is not reflected in the NPPF. This rewrites more than two decades of intense discussion and redefines the very meaning of sustainable development in terms that misconstrue the term as equivalent to “sustainable economic growth”. The overall effect is to introduce what is in effect a double presumption in favour of development. There is already a legal presumption in favour of planning applications being determined “in accordance with” the development plan (which Ministers have described in terms of the plan being “sovereign”). This is very welcome but only insofar as development plans are themselves prepared in an unbiased way. Instead, the draft NPPF requires them to be based on an assumption that development should be permitted wherever possible and that “significant weight should be placed on the need to support economic growth”.

Historic Environment

The Banbury Civic Society is particularly concerned about the protection of the historic environment—a priceless and irreplaceable resource that not only provides local identity and sense of place, but which is also a key driver for sustainable regeneration. The leaked draft of the NPPF stated that “the protection of the historic environment is of ‘overarching importance’”. This introductory sentence has now disappeared entirely from the consultation draft of the NPPF. With the exception of a few overarching platitudes discouraging substantial harm to statutorily designated heritage assets, the NPPF directs local planning authorities (local communities’) to use their Core Strategies to inform developers and householders how applications affecting the historic environment will be determined locally. In the absence of an up to date Local Plan or Core Strategy, the “presumption in favour of development” will take precedence in all cases. As a way of administering and interpreting statute law, this seems utterly perverse.

In Cherwell District, we do not yet have an adopted Core Strategy. When existing Local Plan policies were “saved”, we lost most of our Local Plan policies on the protection of Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas, because the Government Inspector found that “they simply repeated PPG15”. PPG15 was subsequently replaced by PPS5, which will now be subsumed into the NPPF. We do have a Draft Core Strategy, but because of the direction that Core Strategies should not repeat national policy, the Draft Core Strategy has not one single policy on the historic environment. It is, in reality, little more than a site-allocation policy document, responding to where the District’s quota of houses and employment land would go. The adoption of both the NPPF and Draft Core Strategy will leave an almost complete historic environment policy vacuum.

To conclude, as an illustration of what we have to look forward to and what we are up against with our local policy-makers, we submit recent correspondence with Cherwell’s Head of Planning over a matter of plastic windows in a Conservation Area. Despite trying to use the leaked draft of the NPPF, we failed to move the Head of Planning, who believed that the claimed “economic fragility” of the development and the “exhortations of the SoS” to support economic development took precedence over PPS5 and the provisions of the adopted Conservation Area Appraisal.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011