Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the Friends of the Earth

Friends of the Earth is the UK’s most influential environmental campaigning organisation, with the world’s most extensive environmental network, with around 2 million supporters across five continents and more than 76 national organisations worldwide. Friends of the Earth has a network of campaigning local groups working in more than 220 communities throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Friends of the Earth works with directly affected communities to engage in the planning system. Friends of the Earth has been involved in the planning reform agenda to promote the principles of sustainable development, public participation and environmental justice, and to tackle the climate challenge.

Summary

Friends of the Earth believes that the planning process provides one of the most important mechanisms for delivering sustainable development that is fair and democratic.

It is recognised however that the current planning system is difficult for communities to engage with, and policy could be made more accessible.

Friends of the Earth is concerned that the NPPF fails to recognise environmental limits, and therefore encapsulates a fundamental misinterpretation of what it means for development to be sustainable.

The NPPF must deliver a clear framework for the development and use of land in England in line with the principles of sustainable development that is directive, appropriate and consistent in order to be fit for purpose. There must be integrated policies which give sufficient detail to allow for clear decision-making and mediate conflicting priorities.

Planning has an important role to play in rebalancing power to give both people and the environment greater emphasis in the management and use of land. It must also ensure that we are able to build energy efficient and affordable homes, and grow green industries in order to meet people’s needs and the climate challenge.

Reducing complexity will be useful for planners, developers and communities, but should not be at the expense of tried and tested policies.

There is a lack of regional planning guidance which is necessary to address “larger than local issues” such as adaptation (and an absence of the necessary governance structures at regional level).

Friends of the Earth is profoundly concerned that the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was prepared without sufficient research into the benefits and outcomes of the land-use planning system. There has been insufficient transparent dialogue and discussion with a wide range of stakeholders, or collection of evidence, which would have been necessary to ensure a sound outcome.

Fit for Purpose

1. The NPPF is a document which simultaneously undermines the concept of sustainable development, particularly by failing to recognise environmental limits, and also fails to set out clear policy which describes sustainable development on the ground. It also fails to build on previous successful policy and practice, and planning research on the implementation of sustainable development.

2. In order to be fit for purpose the NPPF should set out key decision-making principles which are based on the UK Sustainable Development Strategy 2005. This can then provide a means to make consistent judgements by checking whether the outcome of the proposed development would be compatible with the principles set out. The detail of the document should both describe sustainable development in the relevant areas and be fully integrated eg so that housing is not described in isolation. There should also be associated tests which help improve decision-making such as the retail need and impact test, the sequential approach, the waste hierarchy, modal shift and car parking standards for example. There needs to be regional planning guidance (within the context of boundaries and governance structures) to address larger than local issues.

3. In order to restore public legitimacy, it must be clear that the NPPF is based on sound evidence of effective policies in practice that deliver sustainable development, and with proper support for public participation in planning decision-making.

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?

1. The guidance presented is very thin overall. The issue with the lack of detail is that it makes it unclear what sort of quality of development is expected and will be promoted. For instance the prioritisation of viability tests will reduce the ability of local authorities to press for measures eg such as reducing the need to travel by car in new developments.

2. There is a lack of clear transitional arrangements that will affect the implementation of this guidance. There are also areas where the guidance is open to legal challenge and these should be darified—for instance where Neighbourhood Plans “take precedence” (para 51) over local plan policies, as this is not the case in law.

3. There are policy conflicts between the section on climate change and that on transport and housing. The complexity of the impacts and benefits of large developments are not properly explored which will lead to delay as these are argued through on a case by case basis.

4. As the impetus for planning reform has come from BIS (announced in The Plan for Growth) this has led to a flawed starting point. Focussing the planning system on approving growth will not give local communities more power over planning decisions. If local authorities are told that the “default answer to development is yes”, this is in conflict with the plan-led system if the development is outside the plan, and clearly puts communities in a defensive position. In development management the local authority role is to “influence development proposals to achieve quality outcomes” (para 54). Saying no to development is not possible unless “the adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits” (para 20). There is no guidance on what the terms “significant” and “demonstrably” and “benefits” mean in this context. It goes on to say “when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole” but as the policies are generally pro-development this is a cyclical argument, and again grounds for refusing unsustainable development are not clear.

5. Everyone has an interest in an efficient planning system which delivers timely decisions. Fulfilling this objective requires a clear understanding of what is “delay” and what are the vital components of the process of decision making. Unnecessary delay due to administrative failure should be effectively dealt with. But developers and builders in the UK must also raise their game. The standards employed here lag behind countries such as Germany and Denmark. Where delay is caused by the submission of poor quality developments that local authorities attempt to improve, the response should not be to blame delay on the planning system. Instead, methods to improve the quality of new developments should be examined. The industry should also be incentivised to make the improvements necessary to address rising household and business energy costs and the need to reduce carbon emissions. There are many factors in the time taken to make decisions on applications and these vary between local authorities and between individual developments.

6. The Committee on Climate Change’s report Adapting to Climate Change in the UK -Measuring Progress pointed out that “In almost all of the nine English local authorities studied, development in areas of flood risk had increased, and in four of them the rate of development was higher than across the locality as a whole” (p 9). This means that guidance needs to be improved to deal with these risks, not lessened or weakened, or made optional at local level.

7. There is a vital distinction between consultation, which is essentially about communicating the results of decisions which have already been taken, and participation, which is meant to genuinely include people in the formulation of ideas and the development of proposals, and therefore to give them power of influence. Participation requires a range of operational principles, particularly honesty and responsibility, by all participants.

8. If the Government wanted to give communities more power, it would say that communities should be involved in planning decision-making. It fails to say this in the core planning principles of the draft NPPF (para 19). PPS1 stated in its core principles: “In developing the vision for their areas, planning authorities should ensure that communities are able to contribute to ideas about how that vision can be achieved, have the opportunity to participate in the process of drawing up the vision, strategy and specific plan policies, and to be involved in development proposals.”

9. It should be the purpose of the planning system to mediate between differing interests. Greater emphasis should also be placed on quality decisions which have fully engaged the local community, and must be part of the core planning principles. The draft NPPF states that the planning system is important in facilitating social interaction and creating inclusive communities. But it does not mention issues of equality in outcomes, and instead talks about “designing places which promote: opportunities for meetings between members of the community who might not otherwise come into contact with each other,”(p 35, para 125). This is not sufficient guidance in helping to address rising social inequalities and disenfranchisement.

10. The local authority is also given very directive guidance eg in relation to housing—which does not include ensuring that communities are able to contribute to a vision for housing needs in their area. The impact assessment states that “Other research has shown that national targets decrease the attention decision-makers give to community groups” but the NPPF has set out an effective target in one of the most contested areas, namely housing, by stating a need to demonstrate a five year housing supply with an added allowance of at least 20% (para 109) and for permission to be given where this cannot be demonstrated (para 110). The question is how much community involvement (which is not mentioned in the section on housing) will be possible in the bounds of this policy.

11. The question is also whether the local authority will have the power to refuse if the housing development is on greenfield, without good transport links, lacking local services and of poor standard, or without an affordable component. The local authority will be struggling to find policy in the NPPF that helps them deliver energy efficient and affordable homes in sustainable bcations which reduce the need to travel by car.

12. The draft NPPF will cause confusion because of the internal conflicts eg in how to address climate change.

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?

13. The heart of the concept of sustainable development is that economic, social and environmental progress are seen as an integrated whole and not as individual sectors whose interests are crudely traded off against each other. The Government states in para 13 that it “is committed to ensuring that the planning system does everything it can to support sustainable economic growth. A positive planning system is essential because, without growth, a sustainable future cannot be achieved.” In fact, a sustainable future cannot be achieved without the recognition of environmental limits.

14. The definition of sustainable development is flawed—it is really about the prioritisation of economic growth “therefore significant weight should be placed on the need to support economic growth throughout the planning system.” (para 13).

15. The treatment of economic considerations inside the paradigm of sustainable development should be founded on the spatial expression of “Securing the Future”, the UK’s sustainable development strategy. In particular the NPPF should seek to build upon the principles set out in Chapter 3, “One Planet Economy”, which addresses sustainable consumption and production.

16. The presumption in favour of sustainable development is merely a presumption in favour of development if the term sustainable is not clearly defined. As Owens and Cowell (2011) point out in Land and Limits there is a “fundamental dislocation between competing interpretations of what it means for development to be sustainable.”(p 41).

17. Friends of the Earth supports the introduction of a definition of sustainable development based on the five principles of the UK strategy as the purpose of planning on the face of the Localism Bill.

18. The presumption in favour of sustainable development is not a “balanced approach” as the presumption operates in a way that undermines the plan-led system. It is inherently an emphasis approach, where development approval is favoured. The presumption is described as a core principle of both plan-making and development management (para 20).

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

19. The core planning principles do not express an accepted understanding of sustainable development as set out in the UK Sustainable Development Strategy.

20. The core principles are conflicting — on the one hand saying that “planning should be genuinely plan-led” and on the other that the “default answer to development proposals is yes”.

21. The language differentiates between the wording for allocating land for development eg “should set out a clear strategy” and eg “seek to protect” environmental assets, with weaker terminology for environmental outcomes.

22. There is no mention of community involvement or equality outcomes.

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?

23. There should be detail as to how the NPPF relates to the Natural Environment White Paper, the National Policy Statements (NPS), the National Infrastructure Plan, and the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan, and the forthcoming National Adaptation Plan.

24. It is unclear as to how the NPPF will relate to waste planning. While the Government have set out that waste planning will be attached to the Waste Plan, it means that developments which are generators of waste, and which need to incorporate resource re-use and recycling, will face a gap in integration.

25. It is unclear what the relationship is supposed to be between the draft NPPF, and the “Mythbuster” on planning which was recently published.

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

26. There are four paragraphs on “planning strategically across local boundaries”. These seem to be focussed on cross boundary issues, rather than seeing a local authority area as part of a larger region. It seems that there could be co-operation between a local authority and its neighbouring authorities but that this co-operation would take place in bilateral terms rather than multilateral terms. There is no clear model and a number of options are suggested to demonstrate successful co-operation.

27. Friends of the Earth recommends greater regional planning guidance, and support in the form of providing the evidence base collected for the Regional Spatial Strategies to be made available to the relevant local authorities so that time and effort is not wasted, and the most efficient use is made of existing knowledge.

28. There is a lack of recognition that different regional circumstances regions will require different approaches. There should be a planned approach which attempts to rebalance eg economic activity across England as a whole. The weak co-operation measures will not tackle issues identified in the Regional Spatial Strategies.

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

29. Overall the policies in the NPPF are driven by an economic growth imperative rather than an evidence base derived from examining the most effective policies in practice to deliver more sustainable development.

30. The Impact Assessment looked at six reports in total only, including Kate Barker’s report, which as Friends of the Earth pointed out was flawed at the time and in response to the Planning White Paper published shortly after: “Case studies are used selectively and there is an inability to distinguish between what is essentially hearsay and what is verifiable evidence. The failure to distinguish lobbying from hard data has led to major mistakes some of which, such as the analysis of the “need” test, have been acknowledged by Kate Barker herself.”

31. The lack of an evidence base is apparent for instance in proposals in the NPPF to further weaken provisions to support small and independent retail and town centre first policy. Small shops and businesses are vital for the local economy and jobs. Independent retailers are operating in a fiercely challenging environment with unfavourable economic conditions and dominance of the grocery sector by a handful of retailers with the power and resources to bend the planning system to their advantage.

32. The language of the policy of the sequential approach to site selection which stipulates retail to be located in town centres only “where practicable” (para 78) is not based on the evidence of what impact this policy has. The presumption in favour of development set out earlier in the NPPF will over-ride the policy intended to support town centre first and could lead to a new rush for unsustainable, car-dependent, out-of-town retail sites.

33. The draft NPPF has nothing to say on the role of planning in supporting local businesses and food producers. This is despite the evidence that shows that small shops provide more jobs per retail floor space and recycle more money in the local community. The current system is stacked in favour of the major retailers (82% of all retail planning approved in 2010 went to the big four supermarkets) and the draft NPPF will only make the situation worse, with a significant weakening of the impact assessment (para 80) and town centre first policy.

34. In another example, the policy presented on Transport does not seem to be based on evidence as to the impact that it has for instance on carbon emissions. Transport represents about a quarter of UK CO2 emissions so it is inconceivable that carbon reduction targets can be met without a significant reduction in transport emissions. Yet despite the introduction of cleaner vehides, UK domestic transport emissions are no less than they were in 1990. In the long term, low carbon vehicles will help but they are unlikely to be a significant part of the UK car fleet until well into the 2020s.

35. So, in the meantime policies that reduce the need to travel by car and increase the use of sustainable modes walking, cycling and public transport are essential. They would also enhance personal choice, reduce oil dependency, cut congestion, improve health and help address isolation and inequality—particularly for the quarter of UK households without car access. The NPPF should therefore look at the evidence and ensure that planning policy has a key role to play in reducing the need to travel by car and by facilitating the necessary shift to sustainable travel behaviour. Without adequate consideration of sustainable transport access in planning policy, car dependence is the inevitable outcome.

36. Paragraph 84 of the NPPF lists the twin objectives of “facilitating economic growth” and “supporting reductions in GHG emissions and congestion” but gives much lower priority to the 2nd requirement i.e. “where practical” and “where reasonable to do so” (para 83). This is not in line with the evidence presented by the Committee on Climate Change that carbon emissions reduction needs to happen as a focus, rather than as an optional extra. Evidence has been presented by the Campaign for Better Transport on the type of planning policies that would achieve more sustainable transport patterns through planning.

37. What is clear from these two examples is that the evidence as to planning policy that can have effect and positive impacts in terms of more sustainable development has not been properly examined. The rewriting of national planning policy has in effect been based on an ideological frame to promote growth, and not on sustainability in practice.

Recommendations

Friends of the Earth recommends:

that the NPPF core planning principles are revised to implement the accepted principles of sustainable development as set out in the UK Sustainable Development Strategy 2005;

that the NPPF retains existing tried and tested effective policies from Planning Policy Statement 1: Sustainable Development;

that the presumption is based on the five principles of sustainable development and firmly set in the context of the plan-led system, and not used to undermine it;

that the core planning principles set out the need to reduce of carbon emissions, and promote outcomes that address inequality issues; and

that community involvement is a core planning principle.

More detailed recommendations are included in Friends of the Earth’s submission to the consultation on the draft National Planning Policy Framework.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011