Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from ARUP

Executive Summary

(i) We welcome the concept of bringing national planning policy together succinctly as long as it is accompanied by technical guidance to ensure clear and consistent application, and to promote high design and operational standards. We make constructive suggestions for improving some of the weaknesses that we perceive in the draft NPPF.

(ii) We suggest:

ways of restoring a more balanced interpretation of sustainable development (our paragraphs 2.2–2.3, 2.7);

mechanisms to avoid potential weaknesses in the draft NPPF being exploited at inquiry (our 2.10) and in local plan examinations (our 5.7);

ways of giving the NPPF a stronger spatial dimension (our 2.2, 3.2); and

a need for a clearer decision-making framework for development ancillary to nationally significant infrastructure projects included in the National Policy Statements (our 4.2–4.3).

(iii) Finally we consider that the NPPF should be seen as only one element in the government’s strategy to improve house building levels and to facilitate economic growth. We therefore hope that the Committee will take a long-term view when examining the underlying philosophy of the draft NPPF.

Introduction

0.1 Over the past few years Arup planners have supported both developers and local authorities on some of the country’s most significant development proposals en route through the planning system. These include:

three of the new nuclear powers station proposals;

major new settlements near Bedford and Cambridge;

major mixed use development in London, such as King’s Cross;

major transport infrastructure including Crossrail and Thameslink;

the London Olympics; and

major retail, waste and leisure development.

0.2 Based on this experience, and on our policy research, we consider ourselves to be at the leading edge of planning and have a track record of innovation.

0.3 We welcome the principle of bringing national policy together succinctly. But our experience in helping the Welsh Assembly Government to produce Planning Policy Wales and its subsequent update confirms that it needs very careful drafting such that inconsistencies and uncertainties are not exploited at inquiry or in local plan examinations. We also have concerns that some of the technical guidance on which we rely to advise on high design and operational standards when working as part of development teams may be swept away in the rush to simplify planning policy.

0.4 Whilst we understand that the draft is largely intended to simplify and consolidate existing policy, we are most disappointed by the lack of forward thinking within it. Much of the prescribed policy appears, somewhat selectively, to draw on thinking developed several decades ago. This is reflected in the debates it has already sparked which are rather reminiscent of the 1980s. We consider it unlikely that without a more fundamental review of actions needed to ease the housing crisis, the objectives of the NPPF and Government will be met.

0.5 Our intention is to comment constructively mostly within the terms of the draft, having thought through how the proposed framework might be applied in practice. We hope that the Committee will consider the risk of unforeseen consequences as a result of often subtle policy changes and omissions from previous PPSs – hence the Committee needs to be aware of what is in, and what is out of, the draft NPPF.

0.6 Our response to the Committee’s questions is selective, focusing on those where we have the most technical expertise.

Question 2: 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

Is the definition appropriate?

2.1 The definition of sustainable development, as contained in paragraph 10, covers the three main issues: economic, social and environmental. The subsuming of the fourth element of prudent use of natural resources (as contained in PPS1) under the environmental heading means that the concept of limited resources (including of land) is demoted. The inclusion under this environmental heading, since the Practitioners Advisory Group version, of mitigation and adaptation to climate change and of moving to a low carbon economy are both welcomed, but this positioning makes them seem to be less central than their overarching role in PPS1.

2.2 The mention in paragraph 11 that the planning system must play an active role in guiding development to sustainable solutions could be enhanced by clarifying what these solutions could include in terms for example of locations well served by public transport. This could indeed be an appropriate place for listing the key sustainable development principles which are referred to in paragraph 19 point 2 but not collated together anywhere in the document.

2.3 We do have a major concern that, having provided a definition in paragraphs 10 and 11, paragraph 12 states that what constitutes sustainable development in practice is set out in the NPPF “taken as a whole”. There are significant problems in placing the onus on a document which as it stands has serious shortcomings:

There is no overall vision of what constitutes the successful sustainable development whose implementation the NPPF is seeking to achieve—there are only fragmentary mentions in for instance the section on sustainable communities (paragraph 124).

There is no provision for testing the extent to which sustainable development is actually achieved over time—indicators or targets are only mentioned in relation to biodiversity (paragraph 168), not for instance in relation to carbon emissions.

There are elements from the previous PPGs and PPSs that have played an important role in defining sustainable development that are missing from the current draft—for instance the provision for a consistent set of maximum parking standards for non-residential development to influence car use.

Recommendation 2.1: That the Select Committee takes the opportunity to stand back and examine the text of the NPPF as a whole to ensure that there is clarity and consistency in the vision of what can be achieved, on the full range of measures that are advocated, and on the indicators or targets that will help to assess performance.

Is the presumption balanced?

2.4 The concept that the planning system is based on judging the needs of development against potential adverse impacts is well established. However, it is clear from the draft NPPF that the emphasis is now being placed on supporting economic growth (paragraph 13). This is sometimes referred to as supporting “sustainable” economic growth (as in the first sentence of the paragraph)—but not consistently.

2.5 The first difficulty is that the text conflates the concept of economic growth mentioned in paragraph 13 with sustainable development in paragraph 14. This means that what is being discussed in the following paragraphs are development proposals providing for economic growth, not proposals for sustainable development. The presumption is therefore in favour of development, not of development that could be considered sustainable.

2.6 There are then two statements that seek to encapsulate what is expected of the planning system:

Local planning authorities should plan positively for new development and approve proposals unless the adverse impacts “would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits” (paragraph 14).

The default answer to development proposals is “yes”, “except where this would compromise the key sustainable development principles set out in this Framework” (paragraph 19 point 2).

2.7 The difficulty here is that there is no assistance provided on how the new concept of “demonstrability” is to be addressed; and there is no coordinated list of key sustainable development principles.

Recommendation 2.2: That the Select Committee seeks an understanding of the key sustainable development principles and the extent to which they can be brought together in one place within the NPPF to aid decision making; clarifies that the presumption is in favour of development that addresses the sustainable development principles; and asks for guidance to be provided on the work needed and the factors involved in demonstrating adverse impacts.

Is the presumption workable?

2.8 One of the more innovative aspects of the NPPF is the proposal that permission is granted for development if the local plan is “absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date” and it meets the criteria assessed against the policies in the Framework taken as a whole (paragraph 14).

2.9 The aim of this change in procedure is to encourage LPAs to make progress with their local plans, and meanwhile prevent the holding up of development applications (because of the uncertainty of local authority intentions) and enable a higher proportion of permissions to be granted. There are several risks involved in this new process:

It is likely that the drop in applications described in the Impact Assessment accompanying the NPPF (pages 20–23) is substantially related to economic factors; while the proportion of approvals has been rising rather than falling—so that the change may have very little impact.

There may be more refusals and appeals in the context of uncertainty created by this approach (as recognised by the Impact Assessment page 30), so that the main aim of increased development and economic growth may not be achieved.

There could be increased pressure from developers in the short term to create land banks and gain permissions in the context of an NPPF that may be less clear on what is expected in terms of sustainability (see our paragraph 2.3).

There will be a loss of influence of the local community and of local context in any decision making undertaken during the interim period, and there may be resentment of the process leading to the removal of the decision making context to national level.

2.10 It would therefore seem appropriate to examine whether the inclusion of point 3 under paragraph 14 is likely to be helpful in achieving short term economic growth or long term sustainability. If it remains, we suggest that clarification is given to introducing a mechanism to save key strategy principles from the last adopted local plan, even if all elements do not comply with the NPPF, to avoid a policy vacuum being created in many authority areas.

Recommendation 2.3: That the Select Committee give priority to examining the evidence on whether this part of the presumption is likely to achieve its aims, or lead to adverse effects that could undermine the long term aims of the planning system as set out in the key sustainable development principles.

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

3.1 The 10 core planning principles set out in paragraph 19 are a useful attempt to bring together in one place the fundamentals of what planning should aim to achieve. However as currently expressed they fail to give a clear steer on the locational aspects of sustainable development. This is all the more worrying because:

There is no mention in the core planning principles of planning’s role in the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change.

The concept of accessibility within both existing and new development in order to promote social inclusion appears to be downplayed in the document as a whole.

3.2 Accepting, somewhat regrettably, that the Government has turned its back on including any form of national spatial vision in the NPPF, there are several locational principles that are buried in the later topic sections that could usefully be included in paragraph 19, namely:

“plan for new development in locations and ways which reduce greenhouse gas emissions” (paragraph 150);

“support the pattern of development which ……..facilitates the use of sustainable modes of transport” (paragraph 83, note deliberate omission of the words “where reasonable to do so” which weakens the principle); and

“recognise town centres as the heart of their communities and pursue policies to support the viability and vitality of town centres” (paragraph 76).

3.3 This clear expression of locational principles is crucial to avoid the unintended consequences of allowing more dispersed development through the planning system in response to short term economics.

3.4 We support the opening phrase of the bullet point 1 that “planning should be genuinely plan-led”, but are worried that local authorities may be constrained in setting out a “positive long-term vision” for their area by other elements in the draft NPPF eg:

a tension with the presumption in favour of sustainable development (paragraph 20); and

wording such as “In preparing plans to meet development requirements ……” (paragraph 165). Plans should be about more than this.

3.5 We consider that the core planning principles would be clearer if they focus on what planning aspires to in terms of outcomes rather than interspersing them with process issues on “how” these principles might be achieved, eg in point 2 last part.

3.6 The relationship between these core planning principles and the intended key sustainability principles referred to in point 2 should also be clarified.

Recommendation 3.1: That the Committee probes the missing locational dimension within the core planning principles; and considers ways of strengthening the focus on what planning should aim to achieve.

Question 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?

4.1 The relationship between the NPPF and the National Policy Statements (NPSs) for major infrastructure is not clear. Both are important elements of national planning policy but are currently unconnected. Our experience is that this is already an area of intense and unresolved legal debate which is proving costly for local authorities.

4.2 In particular, the intended influence of the NPPF on decision making on development consent orders (DCO) within the major infrastructure regime is unspecified. This gap is most evident in relation to ancillary off-site development which is included within a DCO. Specifically the guidance needs to make clear the material relevance of both the NPPF and local plan to development including accommodation, construction sites and transport infrastructure (such as park and ride sides) which are ancillary to the main infrastructure project.

4.3 This comment relates to our experience on the Hinkley Nuclear Power Station proposal where the developer has been suggesting that National Planning Policy (in the existing PPS and the PPG series) and in the local plan is not material to the ancillary development or is superseded by NPS considerations.

4.4 A related challenge of DCOs is the inability of the proposer to amend submitted schemes when the only decision options for Commissioners are to make or dismiss the Order. This is being exploited by proposers in relation to ancillary development. This is because, given national policy considerations, the promoters perceive that Commissioners are unlikely to refuse to make the Order. This seems to allow developers to promote off-site ancillary developments which are both unsustainable and do not meet the normal requirements of national or local planning policy.

Recommendation 4.1: That the Committee consider ways of making the relationship between the NPPF and NPSs explicit to provide a decision making framework for development ancillary to nationally significant infrastructure that conforms to sustainable development principles.

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

5.1 Although the draft NPPF has provided some welcome elaboration of the duty to cooperate included in minimalistic form in the Localism Bill, our answer to the question is still No, for the reasons below.

5.2 We welcome the indication of the topics on which “strategic priorities” should be set out in the local plan (paragraph 23) and their link with putting the duty to cooperate into action (paragraph 44). However it is questionable whether local authorities individually or in groupings will have the necessary evidence, in all parts of the country, on which to make reasoned judgements on issues operating at a sub-regional, regional, or inter-regional scale. This relates to the concerns expressed by the Committee in its recent report on RSS abolition about the dismantling of regionally based monitoring systems. Of particular concern is intelligence about migration patterns, the need for specialised waste facilities, coastal change, achievement of renewable energy generation, and the level of CO2 reductions in relation to international obligations.

5.3 This shows that the duty to cooperate needs to be thought of in a wider context, as appears to have been accepted in relation to minerals with the continuation of the Aggregates Working Parties and the national coordinating group, but not for other topics. Consideration should therefore be given to re-establishing coordinated intelligence systems as a partnership between government, its agencies, local government experts, and industry as appropriate. Without this evidence it will be difficult for Inspectors to test that necessary development is accommodated within individual local plans, including waste local plans.

5.4 We welcome the additional suggestions about ways in which groups of neighbouring authorities can apply the duty to cooperate in practical terms, including joint committees and/or a memorandum of understanding (paragraph 46). These are tried and tested processes within which joint core strategies have been and are being prepared. This works well where:

they are built on historical working relationships and cultures;

there are common interests between local authorities; and

there is strong local political leadership, and especially where the composition of Councils and hence value systems is the same or similar.

5.5 However there is still no mechanism for dealing with disputes between neighbouring authorities, eg where a more rural local authority may be reluctant to take unmet housing requirements, ie overspill, from an adjoining under-bounded city or historic town—witness the current impasse between Stevenage and North Hertfordshire.

5.6 It is questionable in such circumstances as to how easy an Inspector would find it to apply the newly formulated soundness tests (paragraph 48) when he/she has only one plan before them at a time. To illustrate this using the above example:

In examining the urban plan, if that is submitted first, how far would an Inspector be expected to examine the impacts of accommodating unmet requirements in neighbouring districts, having first tested capacity issues in the urban area? and

In examining the plan(s) within the rural hinterland if this is submitted first, how would an Inspector measure unmet housing requirements without testing land capacity in the exporting authority, and options for accommodating the unmet requirement in all nearby authorities?

5.7 One option would be for the Planning Inspectorate to require the simultaneous examination of adjoining local plans for local authorities who had failed to agree on the scale and accommodation of unmet housing requirements. In the medium term, but probably requiring new primary legislation, there could be a new reserve power for the Secretary of State to impose a joint strategy area in which local authorities could choose to produce either:

a joint Local Plan strategy and key diagram, or

coordinated Local Plan strategies and key diagrams to be examined simultaneously.

Recommendation 5.1: That the Committee consider how coordinated evidence and monitoring systems should be re-established as a context for joint working on strategic priorities, particularly in terms of accommodating essential but unpopular infrastructure; and consider whether the duty to cooperate needs to be strengthened in respect of dispute resolution between neighbouring authorities, eg in accommodating unmet housing requirements.

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

6.1 Our major concern is that an inadequate interpretation of the evidence base on housing policy has been used to flavour key messages in the NPPF. In particular there is an implicit assumption that the slowdown in housing construction is due solely to the planning system, and that planning policy should be orientated to give a short term impetus to growth. This has led to polarised reactions to the NPPF in the press advocating the supremacy of either economics or the environment. The draft NPPF seems to be based on the same flawed assumption as to the role of planning in the housing supply process as in past policy, and a lack of understanding of the actual workings of the housing market. This represents a missed opportunity for more innovative thinking, and parallel actions to open up the housing market to a wider range of suppliers.

6.2 In particular, our interpretation of the evidence is as follows:

The planning system has been making sufficient provision in relation to the allocation of land and the granting of permissions. At the current time there are large numbers of outstanding permissions for new dwellings, which the RTPI estimate at around 300,000 units. Over the past 20 years completions have generally fallen short of allocations.

Local planning authorities are unable to influence the implementation of permissions and the failure to implement is a huge source of frustration to them.

The downturn in housing supply is largely a result of the reduction in funding for affordable housing and in the difficulties of securing new mortgages for homebuyers.

The market power exercised by the major players in the house building industry is resulting in a sub-optimal supply of new housing.

The system of obligations and contributions for infrastructure and affordable housing requires reform so that the these requirements may respond to market conditions and avoid current problems where many much needed and consented housing developments have become unviable as a result of the downturn in the market.

Recommendation 6.1: That the Committee takes a long-term view when examining the underlying philosophy of the NPPF, seeking a more balanced approach to sustainable development, and recommending a more fundamental review of actions needed to resolve the housing crisis.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011