Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the Institution of Civil Engineers


ICE is a non-commercial organisation obliged by Royal Charter to act in the public interest. Its membership has extensive experience of England’s planning system, often in dealing with its more difficult subjects and projects. We are in process of consulting more widely with members.

ICE is strongly pro-planning and pro-sustainable development. Major infrastructure investment is vital to the transition to a low carbon economy, to economic recovery and to social wellbeing. ICE welcomes the Government’s intention to simply planning guidance and to make sustainable development the purpose of the planning system. ICE’s ambition can be characterised as “the right development, in the right place, at the right time”.

We believe that the draft NPPF gives a good general overview of the Government’s objectives for planning policy but that there are important clarifications and drafting amendments required to ensure that these objectives are achieved.

ICE has particular concerns about the impact of the NPPF in a period where there is limited local plan coverage. The Framework rightly establishes the importance of local plans—but does not appropriately address the implications of their short-medium scarcity.

The Framework does not provide a clear vision of a future England. It—and other planning policy—seems largely “placeless”. Without addressing the widely disparate patterns of growth across England, it may be that planning can never reconcile the intense and competing demands of growth and conservation in the south eastern corner of the country.


The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Communities and Local Government Committee’s inquiry. England’s planning system is of critical importance to all its citizens, and is has a major influence in the professional activities of civil engineers.

Founded in 1818, ICE is the professional organisation for the civil engineers responsible for construction of the infrastructure—transport, energy generation and distribution, water supply and treatment, waste management, and flood defences—required for a successful low-carbon economy and an enhanced quality of life. We are a UK-based international organisation with over 80,000 individual members and are recognised as a public voice for the profession.

ICE has a Royal Charter which obliges us to act for the public benefit and it is in this spirit, and drawing on our expertise in infrastructure planning, investment and delivery, that we contribute to debate on planning reforms.

ICE has been closely following the Coalition Government’s planning reform activities over the past year. We established an expert member panel to analyse and contribute to the development of the Localism Bill and National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and have published views on both (at the pre-consultation phase of the NPPF in February). Our interests in both documents (as in the planning system generally) is in ensuring that they provide the most appropriate environment for timely provision of the infrastructure essential to a successful, low carbon economy.

General Observations

ICE is in process of consulting with its members on the draft NPPF—so our contribution at this stage may be regarded as interim. In places we have identified what we consider to the important questions for investigation—rather than the answers. Our view will become more fully-formed in the next few weeks and we would be pleased to contribute further at a later stage.

The Committee specifically invited comments on a number of questions: our responses to these are given below. We feel that the following general observations may provide a helpful context for our answers:

We endorse the Government’s objective of simplifying England’s planning system, with the intention of making it more efficient and effective.

The planning system has been a frequent source of frustration to the development of infrastructure, sometimes imposing major—and we believe not always necessary—obstacles of delay and increased cost.

Despite the difficulties often faced, ICE is strongly pro-planning. We want to see a strong, positive, efficient and comprehensive spatial planning system which gives certainty to investors and developers, provides an effective vehicle for local residents and businesses to shape the future development of their area, and realises national social, environmental and economic ambitions.

We favour strong, clear and concise national planning guidance which provides a robust framework for local interpretation—allowing different areas to realise their contribution to national objectives.

We are not automatically of the view that the shortest possible national planning guidance is the best. While there is a case to say that the current system had become unwieldy and impenetrable, planning deals with many, complex and competing subjects and interests. Local interpretation is vital but detailed national guidance can be useful.

ICE, while a non-commercial organisation, represents professionals whose job it often is to build things. We have represented our approach to planning reform as seeking “the right development, in the right place, at the right time”. We believe that, in practice, this also means, “more development, in more places, and more quickly”. It does not, however, mean “any development, anywhere, as quickly as possible”. Indeed, poorly-planned development can create more problems than opportunities for infrastructure providers and managers.

ICEs View on the Committees Specific Questions

1. 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?

Our interim impression is that the draft NPPF gives a good flavour of the Government’s ambitions for sustainable development. We endorse the general sentiments in the document. However, there are a number of areas where we wonder if the more detailed content undermines the higher purpose.

On the issue of empowering local communities, we endorse the importance that the NPPF places on the production of up-to-date local plans (and the associated efforts to make these easier to produce), as well as the emphasis on neighbourhood planning and on early consultation on planning proposals.

The question of whether the power is “sufficient” goes to the heart of what planning is for. Should local communities have the right to veto development in their area, even if this might be against the wider public interest? ICE member regularly face this challenge. The NPPF appears to suggest that developers’ and the wider public interests (as expressed in national and local authority policy) should generally be predominant, with communities given the opportunity only to influence the ways in which these interests are met. Front-loading the planning process through good local planning and pre-application consultation are important in reconciling competing interests.

A specific issue that the Committee may wish to investigate is the NPPF’s statement that local planning authorities should “Grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date”. Given the limited local plan coverage (many of which will not be NPPF-compliant), we think this could—in the short-medium term, at least—significantly disempower both communities and planning authorities.

A further issue is that Government has a tendency to discuss communities’ views as if they could be expressed as a single, homogenous voice. More than in many areas of public policy, in planning, this is often not the case—there may often be differences of interest and opinion (even if they are not equally vocal). There can be rational reasons for local communities (or members of them) to oppose development that is in the wider interest. We welcome the Government’s intention to redress the balance of incentives for communities to accept development through the likes of financial compensation. Specific efforts—including the New Homes Bonus and Community Infrastructure Levy—to date do not appear to have been well-considered, however, and may not have the desired effects.

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?

We have noted that “the presumption in favour of sustainable development” has been the focus of much debate and media attention. However, the planning system has long contained positive presumptions—even if it wasn’t always widely-understood.

ICE considers that such a presumption is appropriate as an overarching goal– the difficulty arises in defining what “sustainable development” is, and how that can be channelled through local plans. At a very broad level, the Brundtland definition is good. The Government further recognises broad environmental, social and economic dimensions relevant to the planning system.

Unfortunately we envisage that the direction to “Grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date” will compel many less sustainable proposals to be consented. This is particularly the case in the short-medium term, as most local authorities do not have NPPF-compliant local plans in place. Government assures us that plan coverage will increase quickly but we can see strong incentives for developers to rush to submit applications in the interim, perhaps to slow plan development, and to seek out less restrictive (but potentially less suitable)—locations. Such tactics are not new in planning but the draft NPPF risks exacerbating them. We can see that a period of laissez-faire would boost short-term economic growth consider that the long-term implications of poor development may be worse than a slowing of the reform process. The Committee may wish to consider the feasibility of transitional arrangements.

There is a further issue in the relationship between a “plan-led” system and the presumption. Local plans have a vital role in defining sustainable development in their areas, and it is to be expected that there will some geographic variation. ICE is uncertain that the draft NPPF recognises that some local plans may, for good reasons, decide that some forms of sustainable development are not desirable in specific locations. In such cases, which has primacy?

There are also some drafting points in the Framework which we fear may serve to undermine the Government’s ambitions for sustainable development. The use of terminology such as (eg) “Where practical” (in paragraph 83) seems likely to allow developers to argue too easily that reducing congestion and carbon emissions isn’t practical in their current application. The relaxation of the “town centre first” policy for offices and removal of car parking caps for major non-residential developments also needs to be carefully considered.

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

Our interim view is that they are. Our view is that most of the general sentiments and ambitions expressed in the draft NPPF are appropriately expressed—it is in the important details and exceptions that issues arise.

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?

The draft NPPF appears to be largely a standalone document. In many cases this is not a problem but there are situations where other planning policy will come into contact with other policy, perhaps particularly—in the case of infrastructure—the new National Planning Statements (NPSs). The NPSs are referred to on a few occasions in the draft NPPF, and we suspect that—in practice—the two will generally co-exist comfortably. The relationship with the National Infrastructure Plan should be clarified and strengthened when that document’s second iteration appears shortly.

The generally “light touch” and permissive nature of the draft NPPF will not hinder other parts of Government concerned with development. However, it is unclear whether the Framework would do much to encourage better planning and sustainable development practices either. We also think the Committee might wish to investigate how helpful the draft NPPF is to the conservation and environmental protection interests in Government.

We think that the removal of waste policy should be reviewed: while the forthcoming waste strategy may contain excellent coverage of planning issues, why was this approach adopted for only one sector? Is it an appropriate treatment, and—if so—would it be appropriate to other infrastructure or other planning issues? Or are there cross-cutting planning goals that may be lost if policy is distributed amongst sector-specific (and perhaps not primarily) planning-focused strategies?

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

ICE specifically identified the duty as a potential weak point in the original Localism Bill, and was heartened by the overwhelming support on this point from other organisations. We were concerned that there was a lack of clarity about when planning authorities must co-operate, on what issues, and how effective collaboration would be assessed. While some authorities already co-operate effectively on a voluntary basis (and may continue to do so), others do not and would not. We feared that larger-than-local strategic planning might become a nice—rather than a need—to do, with the result that vital infrastructure such as for transport and energy would not be properly planned and delivered in many areas.

We were encouraged by the Government’s amendment of the duty in the Bill, developed further in the NPPF. In recognition of the Government’s wish to use positive incentives to encourage enlightened behaviour, we wonder whether there might be scope to use the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) as a tool to incentive better strategic planning. Given the larger-than-local nature of much infrastructure, CIL seems better-suited to this level than to the neighbourhood incentives that Government is currently considering.

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

While the current system provides plenty evidence to justify its reform, it is much less clear what evidence the Government has used to develop the new proposals in the NPPF. Much of the current planning reform seems based on assertion.

The ICE is currently consulting members for their views on the new Framework. Many of our members have practical experience of managing major projects through various versions of the English planning system and will be able to bring an “evidence-based” perspective to the new policy proposals. We would be happy to relay these views to the Committee in due course.

There are a number of specific points in the draft Framework where we think there is a lack of evidence or clarity that may hinder the delivery of the “right infrastructure, in the right places, at the right time”. We are still considering these but can already draw attention to:

Changes to the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). We have clearly expressed our view to Government that CIL should be protected for its original purpose of providing new and upgraded infrastructure required by, and necessary to accommodate, development. This is still the purpose against which the Levy is justified but the Government’s changes make it increasingly unlikely that Levy income will be used in this way—it increasingly appears to be simply a tax on development. ICE will continue to address CIL through the Localism Bill’s Parliamentary process.

We are concerned that the wording of some sections, particularly on Transport, allows unsustainable development to be permitted. Paragraph 83 is a case in point. While much of the Transport section appears to reflect good practice, it seems rendered more optional than compulsory by the use of phrases like “Where practical”.

Related to our transport concerns, we would like the Committees to investigate the likely effects of removing the “town centre first” presumption on office development. Out-of-town is often easier to develop but sustainable transport – greener modes and shorter distances—is often less suited to such locations. There seems scope for increased car dependence and emissions—and greater strain on already hard-pressed road infrastructure while public transport (which tends to serve town centre locations better) is undermined.

Removal of housing density requirements. While respecting the removal of top-down targets, the Committee may wish to reflect on the impact of lower densities on sustainable development, particularly the need to travel and by which mode and the impact on infrastructure. The same questions apply to development in countryside locations and the relaxation of the emphasis on “brownfield first” development. Brownfield development is not always more sustainable, and is often more challenging for developers, but it is often better-served by existing infrastructure.

The provisions for “Local Green Space” (paragraphs 130–132) designations are somewhat unclear. Where there are particularly valuable and irreplaceable spaces not covered by existing designations then protection is appropriate. It should not be possible to use the designation as a general anti-development tool, however.

Neighbourhood Development Orders (NDOs). It is unclear how scale-based requirements (eg traffic impact assessments, Section 106 or Community Infrastructure Levy payments) might be applied where planning permission has been given under an NDO.

There are plenty examples of different approaches to national planning and guidance across Europe, including in other countries of the UK. Not all are applicable, of course, but it is not clear to us what has been learned from these.

Witnesses may also like to offer a brief general assessment of the fitness for purpose of the draft Framework as a whole

Overall, ICE considers that the general objectives of the draft NPPF are commendable. They represent a positive step in reforming a planning system that has become unwieldy. While we think there are improvements that should be made to the document, we also consider that it can achieve sufficient “fitness for purpose” with some relatively small (but significant) amendments. It is unfortunate that much public debate on the Framework has become polarised between business and Government on one side and some conservation interests on the other.

We agree that sustainable development should be the underpinning objective the NPPF, and of the planning system generally. We are also like the clarity that “development [in spatial planning] means growth” (as stated in the Framework’s Ministerial foreword) but have some concerns that “sustainable” is more open to interpretation, particularly in the absence of effective local plan coverage. In the short-medium term, there appears to be some danger of poor quality development gaining approval. Poor choices in the built environment tend to have long lasting public consequences.

There are a number of specific statements or loopholes in the draft NPPF that give cause for concern, and may threaten the commendable objectives. We suggest the Committee pays particular attention to these. ICE will continue to test the document against the practical experience of our members over the coming weeks.

Finally, ICE also contributed to DCLG’s pre-consultation exercise on the NPPF in February. While some of the arguments that we and others made at that point have been accepted, the call for a national spatial vision was resisted. The draft NPPF is largely “placeless” (the words “city” and “cities” do not appear once). Yet much of the controversy about the document reflects England’s (and the UK’s)—unusually for such a populous “Western” nation—spatial concentration. Demand for development in the South Eastern corner appears insatiable, leading to the conflict we currently see over scarce land resources. Meanwhile, many parts of northern England wonder where development is going to come from. It may be beyond the Committee’s immediate remit but it seems a question that should be addressed.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011