Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the Highgate Society

I write on behalf of the Highgate Society, which is the recognised Civic Amenity Society for the whole Highgate area, covering the N6 postal district of London. It has about 1,400 members. The Society was established in 1966 and has continued since then to be active in local planning, transport and open space issues, and has worked closely with the four local authorities covering its area. Its Environment Committee and its Planning Working Group include active and retired professionals in the planning and related fields.

There has been a very well publicised reaction against this Framework from the countryside lobby, in particular from the National Trust. But we are of the view that the urban environment is as much under threat. We are assured under the Historic Environment section of the draft framework that the “heritage assets” will be protected, but it excludes the everyday places which contribute so much to the urban fabric. Having studied the document, the Highgate Society has major concerns regarding the loosening of planning controls, the presumption in favour of sustainable development and the impact this will have on our specific neighbourhood and London as a whole.

We fully recognise that the Planning System could benefit from a well-considered re-examination. However, making it easier to understand and operate, which we interpret as the overt aim of the proposed reforms, is not the same as making it easier to develop, regardless of impact, which appears to be the underlying motivation. Whilst unfortunate, we believe you will find that there is an overriding perception among groups such as ours that the process is being driven not by any wish to refine and improve the planning system, but by aggressive lobbying from the development and building professions.

We urge the select committee to understand the major concerns which have been expressed nationwide about the proposals, and to recommend that:

(i)the document be sent back to the drawing board as it is seriously flawed and unfit for the purpose of guiding and directing good Town Planning, and with the potential to open the flood-gates to virtually unrestricted development;

(ii)all the existing PPSs should be reviewed independently by separate (and widely representative) groups of experts in each field (rather than the limited four “practitioners” who, we understand, compiled it).

(iii)the resultant documents should be put out for consultation in the normal way.

General Comments on the Draft NPPF from The Highgate Society

1. Summary

The NPPF disempowers, rather than empowers local communities.

Potential for confusion with other relevant legislation.

The definition of “sustainable development” is not appropriate.

Relationship between NPPF and other planning statements is inconsistent.

Concerns that Local Plans will be considered “out of date”.

Evidence on which the policies are based on is deeply flawed.

Committee urged to recommend the rejection of the draft NPPF.

2. 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?

We are of the view that the NPPF, linked with the Localism Bill, actually disempowers communities through its pro growth agenda, thus removing the right for communities to object to more development regardless of how inappropriate it might be.

The document states that “Neighbourhoods will have the power to promote more development than is set out in the ... local plan”. However, the Localism Bill specifically prohibits communities from arguing for “less” development. Indeed, the NPPF and the Localism Bill together constitute, in our view, a dangerous denial of local democracy, by specifying this. What, then, is the point of a Local Plan? What dangerous precedents might the preferences of a single neighbourhood set for neighbouring ones who do not want the same policies, when it comes to appeals?

The instruction that “the default answer to development proposals is ‘yes’” is not only a denial of local democracy, but illogical. The implication is that this means “any development proposals” however bad will be approved. The answer is surely that a decision should be in accordance with the local development plan. It should explain where LPAs should put weight when making decisions—as the NPPF stands, it is effectively a presumption in favour of development.

Similarly, the instruction to Local Authorities that they must “approve all individual proposals wherever possible” is illogical, and promising a field day for developers and their lawyers, since it is surely possible to grant permission?

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

The simplistic “core planning principals” underlining the change in legislation are expressed repeatedly throughout the document. These are pro growth, presumption in favour of sustainable development (although what this is, is not explained – see below), and the need for more housing.

Whilst we agree that that current regulations could certainly be shortened and consolidated to make them more comprehensible and less opaque, not least for the benefit of community groups like ours who have to navigate their ways through a legislative labyrinth. However, there appears to be no recognition of the need to take a holistic look at the PPS in combination with existing legislation, which will always take precedence over guidance. This will create not only confusion, but conflict which, as with many other aspects of the NPPF, will benefit few but the legal profession.

4. 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?

No, the definition is not appropriate. While the document’s basic premise is that there should be “a presumption in favour of sustainable development”, the terminology used is unclear and conflicting and suggests to us that the Government do not understand what this means. The end result will, we have no doubt, mean a presumption in favour of all development, because developers with sufficient resources will employ the best legal consultants to establish that their development is sustainable (would any developer ever claim that their development is not?), while local authorities and community groups will not have the resources to contest this. The word “sustainable” has been diverted to mean something different from everybody else’s understanding of what the planning system is trying to do.

Under the current planning system, the great majority of planning applications are permitted, often against reasoned local objections, and not infrequently because the Local Authority has neither the skills nor the resources to counter expensive legal opinion or repeated applications and appeals aimed at wearing them down.

In our view, the only acceptable phraseology should be a “presumption that all development must be sustainable.”

5. Is the relationship between the NPPF and other national statements of planning-related policy sufficiently clear?

We believe the relationship is inconsistent and this inconsistency is compounded by stating that the policies of a Neighbourhood Plan “take precedence over existing policies in the Local Plan, where they are in conflict”—but the Neighbourhood Plan has to be approved, and must not be in conflict with the Local Plan. Since the Local Plan has been drawn up by the democratic process with local involvement, a separate neighbourhood plan which will override it or set precedents which will affect other areas, will surely be in conflict with the principle of local democracy. We consider that the document is largely the result of intense lobbying from the development industry, and is predicated on the fallacy that the Planning System is standing in the way of economic recovery. Our experience, and that of other groups like ours, is that even with a relatively strong planning control system, it is all too easy for badly-designed, selfish and unnecessary development to get permission. We are all in favour of good new development; the problem is that we all too rarely get it. The planning system is weak enough already; it can be rationalised and modernised, but must not be weakened. It offers only ambiguity, rather than certainty—although it might cynically be argued that the only certainly it offers is that planning permission will normally be given.

6. Does the NPPF serve to integrate national planning policy across Government Departments?

We are unable to respond in detail to the query regarding integrating national policy across Government Departments as we, as a community group, are not party to the inner working of these. That being said, from our own experience, we are aware of occasions where there is a direct policy conflict. An example of this is Lifetime Homes, which is being integrated into Local Plans but which directly conflicts with Environment Agency advice on flooding, is impossible to integrate into inner urban site and blocks the unlocking of family housing for families.

A major omission, in our view, is that there appears to be no indication of how the NPPF is intended to relate to, or in the case of conflict will be reconciled with, existing legislation—for example, the Town and Country Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990—which will still apply, and which will carry the superior weight of statute.

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

Local Plans will be required to be consistent with the NPPF; but many London Borough Local Plans have only been recently approved, and some are still awaiting final approval. Since it states that permission must be given if a Local Plan is out of date, developers will be able to argue that all Local Plans are out of date.

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

We believe the evidence supporting this document is deeply flawed and reflects the lobbying from certain interested parties. The make up of the Practitioners Group advising on the document reflects this, consisting predominantly of those with a vested interest in unrestricted development, the one representative of a “community group” being the RSPB.

The draft document reflects this by failing to provide any supporting evidence for the policies. There is nothing in the document to support the core planning principals and to justify the view that planning legislation is stifling the economy and restricting the provision of housing. In fact all the evidence points to the contrary, with 80% of all planning applications being approved and the example in London (an area of housing deprivation) where 170,000 units of housing have gained planning approval but have not been implemented.

We believe that the document is a representation of vested interests and has not looked at the other factors stifling growth and in particular the provision of much needed housing. The reasons for the lack of housing are largely economic and reflect the difficulty in obtaining mortgages, high building costs, the hoarding of land in land banks until the market “picks up” and the reduction in financing of social housing. The impact of loosening the planning regulations will not help this, but will just lead to unrestrained development resulting in a severe deterioration in the quality of the environment:

9. Conclusion

We trust that the above will assist you in understanding the major concerns held by ourselves and community groups like ours with long experience of the planning system, and other individuals and bodies (including experienced planners, architects and other professionals) with whom we have discussed the issues, that the whole document is deplorably deficient and will result in a major deterioration in the overall living and working environment—urban and rural—for the sake of a flawed and narrowly-focussed economic thesis. We should add that the reactions of the numerous people—previously unaware of the draft NPPF—to whom we have explained our perceptions of it, are incredulous that any responsible Government should contemplate a weakening of the planning system on such a scale and for such unacceptable reasons.

We therefore urge you, once again, to recommend the rejection of the NPPF and the re-commencement of the whole debate on modernising and consolidating the planning system along the lines suggested in the final paragraph of our covering letter.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011