Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the Commission for Rural Communities

1. About the Commission for Rural Communities

1.1 The Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) was established in April 2005 and became an independent body on 1 October 2006, following the enactment of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act, 2006.

1.2 The Commission has the following three roles:

(1)Listening to and representing the views of rural communities.

(2)Giving expert advice.

(3)Acting as an independent watchdog.

1.3 We have a statutory responsibility to act as an advocate for rural communities and businesses and provide independent advice to government and others to help ensure that policies and programmes reflect the needs of people living, working and doing business in rural England. We have a particular focus on tackling disadvantage and economic under-performance.

1.4 In June 2010 the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced the abolition of the CRC as an independent arms length organisation. In the period leading up to our planned closure in 2012, we are continuing to fulfil our statutory functions via our Chairman and nine Commissioners. Some of the CRC’s previous work has transferred to a new Rural Communities Policy Unit within Defra.

2. General Assessment of the Fitness for Purpose of the Draft Framework

2.1 It is important when assessing the proposed changes to the planning system to strike an appropriate balance between the benefits of new developments to the social and economic sustainability of rural communities and protection of the countryside’s visual amenity and environmental qualities.

2.2 The Government’s priority in favour of economic growth has raised understandable concerns regarding the future of the green belt, even though this is explicitly protected under the draft NPPF. The CRC favours a plan-led approach rather than a deregulated free-for-all: local plans are central to striking an appropriate balance between countryside protection and economic and social sustainability. In this plan-led context, a presumption in favour of sustainable development should help provide much needed housing in villages where the default position has all too often been “no”. Current policies have meant that in many rural areas, development necessary for the ongoing viability of communities has been prevented. It is vital for our countryside’s future that planning policy strikes a better balance between the social and economic sustainability of rural communities and their environmental sustainability.

2.3 England’s villages need more housing if they are going to survive, and thrive as vibrant communities for the next generation. That is the best way to keep the ever decreasing number of rural shops, post offices and pubs open, all of which provide a lifeline for local people. Not huge developments which dwarf the existing village, but small developments of perhaps ten or twelve dwellings, in keeping with the environment. Not just affordable houses, though that is essential in many areas, but some market as well. These are the clearly evidenced conclusions of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission, the Matthew Taylor Review and many other studies.

3. Comments on the Committees Specific Questions

Please note we have responded only to questions where we feel our views are most relevant.

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?

3.1 There is ambiguity when the framework describes Local Plan making, and later Neighbourhood Plans. This is causing considerable confusion for rural housing associations over how the various plans will inter-relate.

3.2 For example, the framework states that local planning must set out the strategic priorities for the area, including housing and economic development, and allocating sites to promote development. It also states that local authorities should prepare a strategic housing assessment but it doesn’t say whether this should contain numbers—presumably because the Government wants to move away from a target driven culture. In the section on neighbourhood planning, the framework makes clear that these “must be aligned with the strategic needs and priorities of the wider local area, and therefore must be in general conformity with the strategic policy of the local plan.” However, if the strategic plan contains no allocations on a site specific basis, it would be open to legal challenges which drag out the planning process.

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?

3.3 The presumption in favour of sustainable development should help provide much needed housing in villages where the default position has all too often been “no”. This should also be viewed in the context of the abolition of regional targets which were often a restraint on building in villages as the numbers were often used up in urban areas. In the same way the abolition of the brownfield target should help in villages as there often hasn’t been enough brownfield land to provide sites. This has delayed development, especially of affordable housing, and increased costs unnecessarily.

3.4 There is some ambiguity about the concept of sustainable locations, which might be open to legal challenge. The NPPF says that “To promote sustainable development, housing development should not be located in places distant from rural services.” This could be used to perpetuate the old “key villages” hierarchy for development, which would undermine the sustainability of smaller rural communities, and exacerbate the problem of a lack of affordable rural housing in smaller communities, thus contributing to a spiral of decline, as highlighted previously by both the 2006 Affordable Rural Housing Commission and more recent 2008 Mathew Taylor report. The CRC has always advocated looking at communities as “clusters” rather than in isolation. It rejects the idea that rural communities are inherently unsustainable, and believes that people in rural England should be allowed to find ways of making their communities more sustainable, including through new housing and employment.

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

3.5 The CRC welcomes many of the principles outlined in the NPPF, including those concerning a plan-led approach based on wide consultation with decisions taken at the lowest level possible, and the reference that planning policies should make effective use of land, and promote mixed use developments that create more vibrant communities. Many rural settlements are becoming the increasingly exclusive preserve of wealthier households, especially in smaller settlements.

3.6 We also wish to acknowledge the welcome references to particular rural circumstances in relation to business and transport. The housing section also refers to the need for “inclusive mixed communities”.

3.7 However, the core planning principles in the NPPF, as well as the section on plan making, are not sufficiently clear as they don’t specify the detail the “positive long term vision” should contain.

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?

3.8 In order to fully understand the Government’s proposed changes to the planning system, the draft NPPF has to be seen in conjunction with the Localism Bill. Through the Localism Bill, the CRC understands that the government is making provisions to ensure that councils will be able to protect the green belt as part of their Local Plans. This important check, if carried out properly, will be crucial in ensuring that the countryside is preserved, whilst also assisting the people who live in rural areas to thrive. We would strongly recommend that concerns of loss of countryside protection might be assuaged by increasing the time permitted for local plans to be prepared, such that in the vast majority of rural England locally agreed plans would provide the context for the application of the presumption for sustainable development.

3.9 There is though scope for confusion over how the Localism Bill and NPPF are to relate, in particular for example concerning referenda. The NPPF makes clear that if Neighbourhood Plans don’t conform with the Local Plan, they won’t be put to a referendum. However, elsewhere in the Localism Bill the Government is proposing that local people should be able to trigger a referendum on any issue they want. This gives rise to the question of what will happen if a community demands a referendum on a proposed development and says no if that development is in the local plan. This has the potential to create real problems for local decision makers.

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

3.10 It is essential that the NPPF stresses the importance for Local and Neighbourhood Plans to be based on a strong evidence base which informs plan making and therefore helps to ensure that resulting activities are fit for purpose and address the real needs of an area.

3.11 It is important that any collection and analysis of evidence recognises the distinctiveness of rural areas, and the barriers to and opportunities for growth in these areas. This may not be a straightforward task. Due to their size and dispersed nature, the characteristics of for example some rural economies may not initially be visible. Using datasets at the lowest spatial level available, for example at lower super output area level, will help local authorities and communities understand what is happening in their communities.

3.12 The CRC has a wealth of evidence available which can be used to assist the above, for example our report on filling gaps in the evidence base on rural deprivation, which estimates the overall rural share of deprivation at a national, regional and output area level, and identifies very small area “hotspots”, highlighting the existence of rural deprivation even in areas which are relatively prosperous and are not picked up by the Indices of Multiple Deprivation.

Additional Comments

3.13 The current planning system has meant that in many rural areas, development necessary for the ongoing viability of communities has been prevented by the lack of brownfield land available, and the fact that the housing targets laid down in regional plans were often used up by urban areas, leaving little scope left for development in villages—a point highlighted by the 2006 Affordable Rural Housing Commission, which found many people in villages frustrated about their inability to build because the allocations within the Regional Spatial Strategy had already been used up nearer towns. This has been reinforced by subsequent detailed research.

3.14 Another concern for CRC is the future of exception sites, namely sites which are provided exclusively for affordable housing in perpetuity—ie they cannot be sold on the market. Under this provision, landowners have sold land to housing associations and community trusts at substantially discounted prices to enable affordable housing to be built in the smaller rural settlements. There is an urgent need for clarification that exception sites will be allowed to continue, as the framework does not explicitly refer to them. This has led to considerable concern from Rural Housing Associations as over half—57%—of affordable housing in settlements under 1,000 has been on exception sites, and just over a third in settlements of over 3,000.

3.15 The NPPF does state that local authorities in rural areas should be responsive to local circumstances, particularly for affordable housing and goes on to say that “local planning authorities should in particular consider whether allowing some market housing would facilitate the provision of significant additional affordable housing to meet local needs.” We welcome these proposals, which will not only ensure more balanced communities and help young people seeking to form new households; this may also assist the financing of affordable rural housing through cross-subsidy so long as land prices are not inflated as a result, which is a serious worry among rural housing associations.

3.16 The NPPF’s accompanying Impact Assessment includes a heading on “removing exception sites”, which states that “the rigid requirement for sites to be only for affordable housing limits local councils’ options for meeting the full range of housing needs”. This heading suggests that exception sites are being removed, but an exemplary case study is then offered of an exception site policy operated in Cornwall. Clearly there is some confusion and clarification is required. If local authorities were no longer allowed to operate a rural exception sites policy, there is real concern that communities may be less receptive to proposed developments with no assurance that the houses will go to local people in need. Furthermore, there is concern that the economics of some small developments will be undermined by the reluctance of landowners to continue selling land at discounted prices if they think the land will be used for some market housing. There is also a related worry that where local authorities have no adopted plan, local planning applications relating to green fields will be judged against the national policy framework. If that does not contain an exception sites policy, they might have no legal basis. This underlines the earlier recommendation that local authorities should have more time to prepare up to date plans. Alternatively, it might be possible to deal with this through supplement planning guidance.

The CRC commends this submission to the CLG Committee and hopes that it provides helpful assistance to informing the Government’s thinking on the NPPF.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011