Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the Federation of Master Builders

Introduction

The Federation of Master Builders (FMB) is the largest employers’ body for small and medium sized firms in the construction industry, and with over 10,000 members is the recognised voice of the SME building sector.

Summary

1. The FMB broadly welcomes the NPPF.

2. The NPPF strikes a reasonable balance between the requirements for housing, growth and infrastructure, and the need to protect the country’s natural heritage.

3. How effective the NPPF will be in practice will largely depend on how it is interpreted at local level and in the courts.

4. The FMB’s main concenr is that the hiatus in planning identified by the Communities and Local Government Committee earlier this year will persist while the new system is introduced.

Evidence

General Assessment of the Draft Framework

5. The call for evidence suggested that witnesses may like to offer a brief general assessment of the fitness for purpose of the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) as a whole. The following constitutes the FMB’s response to this portion of the call for evidence. The remainder of the memorandum focuses on the specific questions posed.

6. The FMB broadly welcomes the NPPF. While we agree that development control is necessary to prevent inappropriate development, the bureaucracy and delay incurred by the current system adds nothing of value of the process or the quality of its outcomes.

7. In our view, the NPPF is a clear statement of what the Government wants, and a genuine attempt to improve the efficiency of the planning system. The messaging is clear: the Government wants an efficient system that delivers responsible, high quality schemes that serve the needs of local communities without compromising the needs of future generations.

8. The draft NPPF contains a number of proposals that the house building industry has been calling for. These include switching the default position for planning from no to yes; approving applications that accord with statutory plans without delay; and the granting of permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date.

9. Critics of the NPPF suggest that the current draft if approved will remove safeguards that protect much of the country’s natural heritage. This is not the case.

(a)First, the NPPF is explicit in protecting green spaces. It states that “Local communities through local and neighbourhood plans should be able to identify for special protection green areas of particular importance to them. By designating land as Local Green Space local communities will be able to rule out new development other than in very special circumstances.

(b)Secondly, the NPPF contains an entire section setting out the importance of Green Belt land. This includes the statement in paragraph 144 that “A local planning authority should regard the construction of new buildings as inappropriate in Green Belt.” This is followed by a short list of exemptions for agricultural and forestry buildings; outdoor sport and recreational facilities; modest alterations to existing buildings; limited infilling in villages; and limited infilling or redevelopment of preciously developed sites. These are all required for the maintenance and enjoyment of Green Belt land.

(c)Thirdly, the previously cited proposals favoured by the house building industry only require the system to be more positive in its outlook, and more efficient and effective at plan making and determination. Ultimately the power still rests with those who make the plans with which development must comply and they are subject to democratic accountability by local councillors.

10. Overall, we feel that the NPPF strikes a reasonable balance between the requirements for housing, growth and infrastructure, and the need to protect the country’s natural heritage.

11. While the Government’s intentions are clear, how effective the NPPF is in delivering sustainable homes and economic growth will depend on how it is interpreted in practice. Given that views on development proposals tend to be highly charged and diametrically opposed, it is very difficult to comment on the likely efficacy of the NPPF until its core principles have been through the clarification process in the courts that will inevitably form a key stage in the bedding down process for the new planning system.

12. The main problem for housing delivery is that the length of this bedding down process serves to extend the hiatus in planning identified by this committee in its report on the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies back in March this year.

13. The consequences of the ongoing uncertianty continue to be felt. The latest Housing Pipeline Report from the House Builders Federation suggests that just 25,171 residential permissions were granted in the second quarter of the year, down 24% on the previous quarter and 23% on the same period last year. It is the second lowest number of permissions granted in a quarter in the last five years this is well below the 60,000 per quarter level that the HBF suggest is required to meet the current housing shortfall.

14. In cumulative terms, projections from the CLG indicate that over the 2010–15 period there will be around 1.406m additional households in England. Over the same period, there will be just 884,000 net additions to the housing stock, according to forecasts by Experian. This suggests that by 2015 demand will outstrip supply by 521,600 which is higher than the dwelling stock of Birmingham in 2010 (420,870).

Questions

15. 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?

16. The FMB believes that the NPPF provides clear guidance to local authorities on what the overall objectives are, and that it places the onus on them to deliver it. The FMB also believes that the safeguards for green spaces and Green Belt mentioned previously, when combined with existing democratic controls and the provisions of the localism will be more than sufficient to facilitate community control over development.

17. 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?

18. While the intention of sustainable development is clear, what it means in practice is the subject of some debate and is largely dependent on the stance taken.

19. An absolute interpretation suggests that sustainable development is a contradiction in terms as all development consumes resources that cannot be replaced; therefore no development can be sustainable. An equally extreme position could be adopted to argue that all housing developments are sustainable as housing is necessary to meet the needs of current and future generations.

20. More reasoned debate will focus on whether compliance with Part L of the building regulations is sufficient for buildings to be considered sustainable. If not, how far beyond this standard is it necessary to go to meet the definition, and how will this change following the planned changes to Part L in 2013 and 2016.

21. The likelihood is that most local authorities will want to go beyond building regulations compliance in interpreting what sustainability looks like in their area, and that authorities with significant anti development sentiment will go substantially further as a politically acceptable means of deterring development proposals.

22. While the intentions of the sustainable development policy are clear and appropriate, it is the interpretation of the policy at local level and in the courts that will determine whether it is a balanced and workable approach to development management. Ultimately there will always be conflicting interpretations of planning policy based on the priorities of those interpreting.

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

24. Yes and no. The intention of the core planning principles is clearly set out set out in paragraph 19 of the consultation document. However, the interpretation in practice will make this less so as interpretations will be driven to a greater or lesser extent by local sentiment on a case by case basis.

25. 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?

26. Our current understanding is that the NPPF will replace the planning policy statements and any further national statements have yet to materialise. As such the FMB declines to comment further.

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

28. The NPPF clearly states that “local planning authorities will be expected to demonstrate evidence of having successfully cooperated to plan for issues with cross boundary impacts when their local plans are submitted for examination.” However, it does not make clear what is to happen in circumstances where discussions have broken down or become deadlocked as is likely to happen in relation to controversial development proposals. This area requires further explanation.

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

30. It is difficult to say as the references and evidence base have not been included in the NPPF.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011