Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the Country Land and Business Association

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee on the National Planning Policy Framework.

The CLA represents over 35,000 members in England (and Wales). Our members both live and work within rural areas and operate a wide range of businesses including agricultural, tourism and commercial ventures. At the last count the CLA represents some 250 different types of rural businesses. The quality of the countryside, and its natural resources, is of vital importance to our members. Most objectives for the countryside—economic, social and environmental—rely on landowners and managers for their success, and frequently bring them into contact with the planning system.

The CLA’s key priorities for the NPPF are:

To ensure that rural areas, and the businesses and communities that live and work there, are given the same opportunities to benefit from sustainable development as urban areas.

That the concept of sustainable development, as it is applied to rural development whether for economic, social or environmental purposes, is defined and applied by decision-makers in a balanced manner and does not focus solely on the environment but takes account of all three pillars.

To ensure the NPPF recognises that whilst rural areas will have the same concerns over economic development, jobs, housing and services as urban areas, the solutions for rural areas will be different but also more capable of flexible application. This requires the NPPF to be properly rural proofed to remove the unintended consequences that urban-biased policy has on rural areas.

That rural businesses are provided with “investor certainty” through a flexible planning system.

To ensure that communities drawing up plans and taking development decisions have access to the “toolkit” of policies which they need if they are to be equipped to do this effectively.

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 power over planning decisions?

The CLA welcomes the shorter and clearer draft National Planning Policy Framework (draft NPPF) document. We support its ambition to promote new and better quality job creation and necessary housing development and infrastructure, whilst at the same time conserving and enhancing the environment (landscape and biodiversity etc…). Against this backdrop, we believe the Government has largely succeeded in producing a framework that is comprehensive, balanced and short.

The succinctness of the NPPF means that guidance will be required both from the Government and from other bodies. The NPPF policies must be underpinned by the guidance and templates communities need to create better places to live and work in. Without guidance, local communities may feel disinclined to get involved in planning at local or neighbourhood levels. Armed with succinct, and where necessary detailed, national policy and guidance they can use their time effectively. They can choose to simply let the national planning policy, on a topic or series of topics operate in their area, or decide to overwrite some or all of it as it applies to them. If they did choose the latter they would be starting from an informed position. Clearly local and neighbourhood plans have to be in conformity with the NPPF and so any “rewriting” of national planning policy will be subject to examination. Those areas of Government-related policy, such as neighbourhood planning, community right to build and Local Green Spaces designation, for example, are likely to require detailed Government guidance.

However, we are aware that the Government is saying that it is not up to them to produce guidance and therefore it will be up to trade and industry bodies to produce informal guidance to underpin policies set out in the NPPF. There are two problems in relation to this. Firstly, the status of this “informal guidance” is unclear, and secondly, it is unclear how much guidance will be produced or is necessary. If the Government do not badge “informal guidance” in future, then this begs the question of how much weight it will carry, and whether or not adherence to it will be a material consideration when determining planning applications and appeals or developing local or neighbourhood planning policies.

As a result, there is a very real potential for a number of competing bodies to simply produce “guidance” to support their own aims and objectives thus leading to vast quantities of competing and confusing advice for communities and applicants alike. Much of this guidance will not have been subject to widespread consultation because of the cost implications, and some of it may not be underpinned by a proper evidence-base.

We suggest that the Government must give a much clearer indication about the weight that informal guidance will carry? What it should include and what it can and cannot be used for?

Does the NPPF give communities sufficient power over planning decisions?

Yes, the NPPF promotes a plan-led approach with local plans produced by elected members and subject to widespread community consultation. The NPPF sets out the Government’s proposals for neighbourhood plans which allow communities to get involved in decision-making as to where development should be best placed within a community and what it should look like. The NPPF requires local plans to reflect the needs of communities for employment, housing, services. All of the above is to be underpinned with evidence-based analysis.

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?

“Sustainable development” is the concept that underpins the planning system and is rightly a key topic for the Government and society.

For a number of years Government has expended a great deal of effort refining the concept of sustainable development as it applies to the planning system, largely through planning policy, to give it operational significance. However, for rural areas, this effort has been unsuccessful because the planning system allows the turning down of planning applications on “sustainability” grounds, without the grounds for the refusal needing to be explained. Sustainable development has suffered from too narrow an interpretation, the outcome being to prevent much-needed economic development and new housing in rural areas because there is “no bus stop”—an oft quoted reason given for refusing rural diversification planning applications.

The concept has three limbs: economic, social and environmental. Crucially, both the policymaker and the decision-taker are expected to take a balanced approach to all three. Unfortunately, in the recent past the concept has been allowed to promote an unbalanced approach to decision-making especially in respect of potentially beneficial rural development. This unbalanced approach is financially and socially unsustainable in rural areas.

The Government’s draft NPPF sets about rebalancing the three pillars of sustainable development so that all the pillars are of equal length.

As an organisation that has long campaigned for a balanced approach to be taken to the concept of “sustainable development”, we broadly support the draft National Planning Policy Framework’s focus on providing for “sustainable development” in both rural and urban areas. It will, however, always be extremely difficult to define. At a national level the definition will become very general and often and as potentially beneficial rural economic development proposals have experienced to their detriment, too general to be of much help in making decisions. It can leave open wide areas for dispute or discretion as one can see from the current press coverage.

The draft NPPF discusses the three components of sustainable development being delivered in an integrated way “looking for multiple wins”. With a generalised definition, how can the concept of “balance” (or in new parlance “trade off” or “multiple wins”) applicable generally, be incorporated? The other option is to go for an itemised more specific definition which ends up long, complex and looking remarkably like the present combination of detailed central advice-come-statute plus development plans with strings of policies.

Perhaps the Government should consider issuing guidance on “sustainable development” or at the very least reintroducing the definition of sustainable economic growth that figures in PPS4.

Turning to the presumption in favour of sustainable development, it is a pity that much of the recent press coverage has been somewhat misleading. The presumption will be part of a plan-led system which at local plan level will have been through a variety of public consultations. Local plans are required to be formulated on the basis of up-to-date objectively assessed development needs and flexible enough to respond to rapid shifts in demand or other changes. If planning applications accord with the local plan then the presumption can be used to approve it rapidly. Lastly, the presumption comes in to play if a local plan is absent, silent or indeterminate or a policy is out of date.

The criticism in the press is that communities could find inappropriate development imposed on them because the presumption would be used to determine planning applications. We believe this criticism is wrong. The presumption is about delivering the sustainable development i.e. development that accords with the principles of the NPPF. This requires that decisions in respect of development proposals are made in a balanced manner by reference to the economic, social and environmental factors that apply to that particular development proposal.

Given that putting in place and maintaining an up-to-date local plan is one of the most important activities of a local planning authority, it is astonishing to us that even today around approximately 53% of local planning authorities do not have an up-to-date local plan in force. We do not understand why it is taking some local authorities so long to put an up-to-date plan in place.

Without an up-to-date local plan, then presumption in association with policies set out in the NPPF can be used to make decisions on planning applications, as long as consideration is given to economic, social and environmental factors. In those local authority areas without a local plan in place, the only way of providing some certainty for investors is the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

Given the number of out-of-date local plans today and the uncertainty that this provides to investors, we do wonder whether more enforceable requirements could be placed on local authorities to produce new local plans.

The sequential test—the draft NPPF has omitted offices from the sequential test and this has been raised as concern in the press. The CLA views the omission as helpful for farm-based diversification proposals for conversion of redundant farm buildings to office space in that these development proposals should no longer be turned down because of a sequential test requiring all office space to be located in towns and cities. Low key office space can and should be located in rural areas to accommodate those businesses who wish to work in more pleasant surroundings. This office space is likely to be accommodated in converted farm buildings, but some CLA members are providing new build incubator office units in farmsteads or in villages.

Brown field landagain this matter has been raised in the press. The presence of a brownfield land target in PPS3 had the unintended consequence of putting a housing development premium on the small amount of brownfield land located in rural areas that had been allocated for employment use. The practical effects were that for example a farm machinery dealership wanting to buy rural brownfield land to expand its outlets could not afford to do so because of the residential premium.

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

The core planning principles summarise the key elements of the existing PPGs and PPS. It also requires decisions to be based on the key sustainable development principles set out in the NPPF which we support.

We strongly support the following principles:

The primary objective of development management should be to foster the delivery of sustainable development rather than hinder it/

To focus on viability and deliverability of development.

The need for high design standards.

A strong emphasis on pre-application advice.

That information required of an application is proportionate to the scale of the development and its likely impact.

The need to involve neighbours and neighbourhoods in, respectively, planning applications and neighbourhoods.

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?

No, it is not clear that the NPPF is the overarching statement of national planning policy. Rather it appears to be one of portfolio of documents which also includes the National Planning Statements. This lack of clarity was one of the reasons why the CLA lobbied for mention of the NPPF on the face of the Localism Bill.

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

Local planning authorities will have to address a range of cross-boundary planning matters eg housing, transport, minerals, waste etc. The NPPF requires planning authorities to plan strategically and this coupled with a strengthened Duty to Cooperate clause in the Localism Bill moves things in the right direction.

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

We are very pleased to note the requirements in the NPPF for up-to-date evidenced-based assessments of economic, social and environmental characteristics and prospects of an area, and that housing, economic and other uses are integrated.

We believe however that assessing the need and supply of employment land should not be undertaken at the same time as housing land assessments only “where possible”.

It is our opinion that no housing assessment or land provision exercise should be done prior to a thorough employment land study. Employment is what leads the demand of housing, and not the other way round.

A similar misconception prevails in rural areas—rising employment in rural areas is what is leading to the demand for housing development. There are very strong sustainability arguments about being able to site housing land next to employment land—something rural areas used to be good at achieving. It is fundamental to a successful process that the NPPF is changed to reflect the fact that employment land studies must be undertaken before housing land assessments.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011