Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the West Midlands Planning and Transportation Sub Committee

Summary of Main Points

Overly succinct policy leads to differences in interpretation and a lack of clarity—danger of planning by appeal, Ministerial Statement and recourse to the Courts, which is counter to Government’s overarching objectives.

Lack of clarity as to what constitutes an up to date Local Plan that is consistent with the NPPF.

Internal inconsistencies—Local Plans v Neighbourhood Plans, housing need v housing demand and duty to cooperate v local discretion.

Definition of sustainable development differs from that recently offered by DEFRA and sees economic growth as “first amongst equals”; removes local discretion.

Core planning principles unclear and inconsistent with other policy objectives and guidance.

NPPF very much led by Treasury and BIS; no objective evidence that planning system a barrier to growth or acknowledgement of its role in shaping markets.

Missed opportunity to articulate a spatial vision to rebalance England. Concern that may exacerbate past trends of decentralisation from urban areas, such as West Midlands Metropolitan Area.

Removal of spatial dimension a matter of concern as links with other national policies lost, particularly in relation to climate change.

Whilst strengthened, duty to cooperate needs to go further, particularly in terms as to how conflicts can be resolved.

Accompanying impact assessment selective in terms of evidence used and in acknowledging key conclusions.

Evidence that communities universally welcome additional development unclear.

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?

General

1. The draft NPFF makes a bold attempt to simplify the planning system. There is no doubt that 1100 pages of guidance is excessive, has led to duplication and is only navigable by specialists, thus making it distant from the communities that it means to serve.

2. Reducing this to 58 pages, however, is too draconian. Succinct policy is open to interpretation leading to the very uncertainty that Government seeks to remove. Where existing policy has been summarised, it is often necessary to have knowledge of the origins of that policy as expressed in PPGs / PPSs to fully understand its context; this is unlikely to assist the layperson. There is a concern that this uncertainty will lead to more planning by appeal, Ministerial Statements and, ultimately, recourse to the Courts.

3. The relative brevity of the NPPF is illustrated when compared to the recent Planning for Travellers consultation, which devoted 33 pages to a single issue. If, as proposed, this is inserted in full within the NPPF, it will lead to the document appearing unbalanced.

Local Plans

4. As the Local Plan takes centre stage under the revised system, clarification is sought as to what comprises a Local Plan, especially during the transition period, and what it may legitimately contain.

5. Paragraph 58 of the draft NPPF states, in summary, that unless local authorities have up to date plans consistent with the NPPF, then proposals should be determined in accordance with its presumption in favour of sustainable development.

6. Paragraph 48 also states that in examining Local Plans, unmet development requirements from neighbouring authorities should be met where practical to do so. It is not clear what mechanism there is for deciding this and there is a potential conflict between the Duty to Cooperate and local discretion.

7. To provide necessary certainty, it is suggested further guidance is sought from Government:

What comprises an up-to-date and consistent plan?

Are plans that have recently been adopted, such as the Black Country Joint Core Strategy, considered to be up to date?

Will plans that add more detail than the NPPF requires be deemed inconsistent with it? If so, how is this consistent with localism?

If local authorities are obliged to amend existing or plans or those that are well established is this not likely to lead to further uncertainty and delay?

What status do emerging plans have?

The NPPF advises that Local Plans should be single documents; are local authorities expected to merge existing Area Action Plans and Core Strategies into a single document?

Is the Planning Inspectorate likely to be sufficiently resourced to deal with the additional demands placed on it? How will it distinguish between the Duty to Cooperate and local discretion?

Regarding transitional arrangements, particularly as local authorities have been discouraged from repeating regional / national policies?

Internal conflicts within the NPFF

8. The relative brevity of the NPPF and some loose drafting has led to some internal conflicts, and your Committee is drawn to the following examples.

Local Plan v Neighbourhood Plan

9. NPPF (para 51) states that Neighbourhood Plans must conform with Local Plans. However, if there is a conflict then the Neighbourhood Plan takes precedence. If a Neighbourhood Plan advocated, for example, more retail development in a centre than that advocated in a Local Plan, which allocates development in accordance with its defined Network of Centres (NPPF para 76), then how would this be resolved?

Housing Requirements

10. NPPF (para 28) states that Strategic Housing Market Assessments should identify the scale and mix of housing for the local population, whilst immediately beneath there is requirement to take account of migration. Migration is one of the biggest challenges facing strategic planning and there is a danger that some authorities may revert to planning for zero net migration. This is further confused by NPPF (para 109) which requires that Local Plans meet full demands in the housing market area.

11. There is also a greater emphasis on planning to meet demographic projections (NPPF para 111). The status and role of these is also a contentious issue when planning strategically. It is not best practice to plan on the basis of trend based projections as these vary and are self reinforcing; instead, these are one factor that should be taken into account when preparing local forecasts of housing requirements. The terms need and demand are also used interchangeably and these have very different meanings.

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?

12. The principles of sustainable development have become enshrined within the planning system over the past two decades as well as other Government policy areas, and the definition is crucial.

13. DEFRA recently published the document Mainstreaming Sustainable Development; this takes a corporate approach to embedding sustainable development throughout Government policy, and:

…recognises that the three “pillars” of the economy, society and the environment are interconnected (page 2).

14. It proceeds to state that:

As part of our commitment to enhance wellbeing, we will start measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life.

15. The definition offered by the NPPF is inconsistent with this guidance as the economic dimension is seen as the first amongst equals. This can be interpreted to mean that any growth is sustainable and consequently should be permitted. What constitutes sustainable, therefore, is likely to be a source of debate and consequent delay. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of many developments that do not have economic benefits, otherwise they would not be pursued by the private sector.

16. NPPF (para 11), states that:

These three components should be pursued in an integrated way, looking for solutions which deliver multiple goals.

17. This is a crucial phase and should be amplified and be at the heart of the document, as it encompasses what the planning system is about. It would also help allay some criticism of the NPPF.

18. The NPPF removes local discretion and flexibility in policy application. For example, the relative weight given to each of the sustainability criteria may vary between local authorities and even within their administrative areas, dependent on local circumstances. Local communities and elected Members are best based to make this judgement.

19. The NPPF’s definition of planning for prosperity could be interpreted narrowly, focusing on Gross Value Added (GVA) or company profits; there is no direct reference to creating / safeguarding local jobs, which is of upmost importance to local authorities.

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

20. It is not obvious what the role of this section is. It appears to be an unfocused list ranging from high level principles to detailed policy requirements; for example the first bullet states that planning should be genuinely plan led, whilst the final bullet point advocates ensuring a good standard of amenity.

21. Elsewhere, there is duplication and inconsistency with other parts of the NPPF, namely the strategic priorities and accompanying advice to local authorities, with no clarity as what takes precedence.

22. For example, the core principle relating to transport (NPPF para 19) states that:

Planning policies and decisions should actively manage patterns of growth to make the fullest use of public transport, walking and cycling, and focus significant development in areas which are or can be made sustainable.

23. This, however, is diluted by one of the objectives for transport (NPPF para 83) which states that:

Where practical, encouragement should be given to solutions which support reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and reduce congestion. The planning system should therefore support a pattern of development which, where reasonable to do so, facilitates the use of sustainable modes of transport.

24. Finally, and as highlighted elsewhere in this submission, these core principles offer limited scope for local discretion and are likely to be a source of delay in plan preparation and development management.

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?

25. It is a matter of concern that many of the more fundamental policy changes advocated through the NPPF emanate directly from the Treasury/ BIS in the Growth White Paper and Plan for Growth that accompanied the Budget in March 2011. There was no opportunity to comment on these proposals.

26. These introduced the presumption in favour of sustainable development, the default answer to development being yes, the primacy of the NPPF and liberalising the Use Classes Order. It is not clear how these sit with DCLG’s localism agenda.

27. The Plan for Growth also seeks to rebalance the economy, with less reliance on the South East nationally and less on public sector employment elsewhere. Although Enterprise Zones and the Regional Growth Fund are in place, the NPPF is a missed opportunity to offer a geographical focus to address spatial inequalities and economic / population imbalances between London / South East and the remainder of England.

28. This is a particular concern for the West Midlands Metropolitan Area, which has an established urban renaissance strategy and has suffered disproportionately during the recent economic downturn. This strategy seeks regeneration of the urban area through increased investment and population growth facilitated in part by stemming selective out migration of economically active residents and jobs to the Shires. There is a danger that this approach will be weakened and exacerbate past unsustainable development pressures in the Shires, leading to a “hollowing out” of the urban areas. A recent report by the Centre for Cities cites evidence of the decentralisation of jobs.

29. By means of comparison, the Wales Spatial Plan sets out a clear geographically based vision for balanced economic and community development linking with strategic infrastructure priorities.

30. There is scant regard to strategic infrastructure in the draft NPPF. There needs to be coordination between the National Infrastructure Plans and the likes of high speed rail and future aviation policy, which could have fundamental effects on the socio economic geography of England and the wider United Kingdom. Whilst the National Infrastructure Plan was a welcome publication, it is largely a position statement rather than a forward looking plan.

31. The NPPF reverts planning to a narrow focus on land development programmes rather than having the broader spatial component that was introduced in the 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act. The existing PPS1 (Para 30) sets out spatial role of planning:

Spatial planning goes beyond traditional land use planning to bring together and integrate policies for the development and use of land with other policies and programmes which influence the nature of places and how they can function.

32. Since its inception, spatial planning has been a very useful tool in that it has fostered interdisciplinary working and drawn together investment programmes from key sectors such as housing, environment, health and transport to deliver common policy objectives. To dispense with this concept is considered to be a retrograde step and your Committee is urged to ask Government on what grounds this decision has been made.

33. In abandoning the spatial component of planning, only lip service is paid to integrating policy across Government; whilst broad objectives are alluded to, this is implicit rather than explicit and the distinct absence of cross referencing is noticeable. A particular oversight is lack of acknowledgement of the contribution that the planning system makes to responding to climate change as expressed in the Climate Change Act, the UK Renewable Energy Strategy and the Coalition’s Carbon Plan.

34. Equally at the local level, the lack of a spatial focus is disappointing as this formally articulated the need to develop a shared spatial vision to bring together local and sub regional strategies such Local Transport Plans and Community Strategies.

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

35. The West Midlands Metropolitan Authorities, through the Planning and Transportation Sub Committee, have a long established tradition of joint working on strategic planning and transportation matters and this is set to continue. This is reflected in the Joint Interim Strategic Planning Statement that it recently agreed in the light of the proposed abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies.

36. The duty to cooperate has been strengthened in the Localism Bill, but it remains is real challenge to ensure that it provides an effective mechanism for strategic planning. At the very least, it is suggested that there is a formal requirement for local authorities to collaborate and prepare Strategic Infrastructure Assessments which seek to ensure that issues such as infrastructure, economic development, housing and the environment are considered in a coordinated way and to use common evidence bases.

37. Paragraphs 44 to 47 of the draft NPPF are drafted loosely and the likely sanctions for not cooperating are not fully set out, and there is no identified mechanism for resolving conflicts. In responding to your Committee’s Report on the Abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies: a planning vacuum, the Secretary of State (para 33) made it clear that:

Where local councils fail to cooperate on cross boundary issues their local plans will not pass the independent examination.

38. It is simply too late for matters to be resolved at this juncture, as it will lead to further delays and poor planning.

39. The dynamics of the West Midlands are complex as are the relationships between the Metropolitan Area and its Shire neighbours, particularly in terms of migration patterns and commuting.

40. The NPPF suggests that there is a ready consensus awaiting and willing recipients to accommodate additional growth that cannot be met in the authority that generated it. This may not be the case especially given the scale of future development requirements and the requirement for local discretion.

41. A radical change of position by one or a group of authorities, therefore, could have wider ramifications thus preventing other authorities adopting their plans, which would lead to further delays and uncertainty. This is illustrated by the recent Inspector’s Report on the Stevenage Core Strategy, which found it unsound, as neighbouring North Hertfordshire withdrew its support for an urban extension to accommodate growth generated by Stevenage.

42. It is also uncertain as to what the precise role and expectations of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) on local and strategic planning processes will be and further clarification through the NPPF would be beneficial, particularly relating to strategic pan-LEP issues.

Are the policies contained within the NPPF sufficiently evidence based?

Planning as a barrier to growth

43. The evidence base for the more fundamental changes advocated through the NPFF is weak and very much driven by a Treasury / BIS view of the planning system which is not substantiated. No objective evidence is offered that the planning system operated in England is more restrictive than in the named competitor countries, nor what contribution it may / may not have made to Britain’s comparative advantage in 1998.

44. Furthermore, no objective evidence is offered that the planning system contributes to the shortfall in housing. As at 2009 there were almost 17,000 committed plots in the Metropolitan Area, sufficient to accommodate 7.5 years of very challenging housing requirements. The credit crunch and resulting economic downturn have led to less mortgage funding being available, particularly for first time buyers who drive the market.

45. The fact that planning can help create and shape markets and overcome economic disparities has been overlooked. As a local example, local authorities across the West Midlands have collectively retained a large single site to accommodate major new footloose investment. This site is known as i54 and lies immediately to the north of Wolverhampton, adjacent to J2 of the M54. There have been several attempts to relax the planning policies on this site, but it is now subject to interest from Jaguar Land Rover for a reported £67 million new engine plant that would create around 1,000 jobs. Whilst this is far from certain, had this site not been safeguarded, then the opportunity would not have arisen.

46. At the other end of the scale, many West Midlands firms rely on cheap start up premises, and these need safeguarding through the planning system.

Accompanying Impact Assessment

47. The accompanying impact assessment is selective in its analysis and, notwithstanding this, the draft NPPF does not reflect some of its key messages. Rather than assess the impacts in an objective manner, it reads as a justification for the NPPF as drafted. Some examples are offered below.

Removal of offices from town centre first policy

48. The risks identified in removing offices from the “town centre first policy” simply states that people may have to travel further to work, with adverse impacts on carbon emissions. This will be mitigated as (page 37):

Office development will still be the subject to the policy requirement that development stating significant people movement should be located in accessible locations where sustainable transport modes can be maximized. Such locations tend to be in urban areas.

49. This is very simplistic as out of town business parks cannot match the accessibility benefits of town centres, which usually function as multi modal interchanges. The justification is weak and should take into account other matters such as:

Offices provide substantial footfall which supports the wider regeneration of centres.

This approach may prompt further decentralisation.

The impact on land markets, as offices are favoured in out of centre locations rather than B2 general industrial due to higher rental values and plot densities.

Reduced choice for manufacturing industries, which are crucial to the Metropolitan Area’s economy, and genuinely need good access to the motorway network.

Impacts on the strategic highway network during peak periods.

Social inclusion as jobs will be less accessible to those without access to a car.

Brownfield Land

50. The NPPF proposes removing the national policy that prioritises brownfield development for housing and sets a 60% target. The impact assessment (P50) acknowledges that local circumstances can determine the suitability of brownfield land, that there are costs and benefits to developing both and that it is a matter for local authorities to determine an approach appropriate to their area. This analysis, however, is not reflected in the NPPF itself which weakens the ability of the likes of the West Midlands Metropolitan Area to prioritise brownfield sites in accordance with local circumstances. Your Committee is urged to draw Government’s attention to this and seek amendment to the final NPPF.

Planning Appeals

51. Page 13 of the impact assessment states that greater clarity in national policy will lead to fewer appeals. Pages 25 to 26 suggest that the risk of permission being allowed on appeal will ensure that local authorities seek to approve planning applications in accordance with an up to date plan or, in its absence, the NPPF.

52. This analysis is flawed, in that it assumes that there is universal acceptance that the NPPF as drafted is clear. A common thread throughout this evidence is that the NPPF is open to wide interpretation. A potential risk that has not been identified in the impact assessment is that the development industry may deploy a “straight to appeal” tactic, particularly in the short term.

Evidence that Communities Support Growth

53. Government has expressed the view that communities are likely to be more receptive of growth if they see the benefits of it. Whilst there is some evidence of this, acceptance is far from universal as is illustrated by research undertaken by the former (pro housing development) National Planning and Housing Advisory Unit summarised below.

62% of 25–34 year olds support house building in their area compared with 47% of 55–64 year olds.

Opposition to new house building is generally greater in areas of high demand.

The acceptability of house building increases if reassurances regarding infrastructure and services are given.

Opposition to house building is greater amongst homeowners.

54. The P&T Sub Committee acknowledges the need for new development and its responsibility for ensuring that housing needs are accommodated and has a growth led strategy to achieve this. As is illustrated above, however, acceptance is not universal and is resisted most in areas of higher demand, the very areas that the market will prioritise.

55. Whilst guidance on CIL requires that a proportion of receipts are repatriated to the communities where development occurs, initial analysis suggests that in parts of the Metropolitan Area’s receipts may be limited due to viability issues. A common theme throughout the NPPF is that viability and deliverability must not be compromised and this raises the question as to whether sufficient funding will be available for infrastructure.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011