Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE)

Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) is the national body of the Rural Community Action Network. Our members are charitable local development agencies that provide local support for rural communities throughout rural England. They act as a catalyst in generating community-led initiatives which enhance the vibrancy, well-being and sustainability of rural communities. Our members specialise in supporting communities to undertake community-led planning (parish and town plans) for which the Localism Bill measures on Neighbourhood Planning will, for the first time, provide a statutory framework.

Our network has a genuine focus on sustainable development, tackling social, economic and environmental needs of local communities in a way that entails positive planning for sustainable change. In particular, the rural housing enablers employed by our members, have worked over many years to encourage communities to recognise local affordable housing needs and achieve solutions which benefit from strong community support.

Summary of Evidence

ACRE has addressed overleaf the first four of the six questions in the call for evidence. Whilst broadly supportive of many of its principles:

We cannot agree with the implicit assumption that all development can be judged beneficial because of its contribution to overall housing numbers.

The “degree of certainty” principle does not extend to communities that adopt a positive approach to planning for future housing, facilities and services. The Right to Plan should not be undermined by the right of developers to overturn the plan at a subsequent date.

There is insufficient scope in the new proposals on green space designation to reinforce the value and principles of a plan-led system that can direct the right scale of development to the right sites at the right time, thereby maximising the benefit to sustainable development.

The transition to the new arrangements will be the biggest challenge for local authorities, inspectors and communities alike. We anticipate that the NPPF will herald a period of “planning by appeal”, rather than relying on adherence to the current plan-led system.

We are concerned that the purpose of neighbourhood plans, which we strongly support, will be thwarted by communities rushing to prepare plans that make use of the new Green Space Designation in an attempt to control ad hoc development.

The approach to viability, deliverability and infrastructure contributions may prove to be in conflict in rural areas and lead to underfunded services and failure to maximise the potential for affordable housing.

The encouragement to small scale development in rural areas to achieve affordable housing is welcome, but needs reconfiguring to achieve maximum potential. We believe that the NPPF should explicitly retain rural exception sites to confirm it is still an allowable policy for local plans

There are unintended encouragements in the NPPF for local planning authorities to adopt quasi—“key settlement hierarchy” policies to restrict development in rural communities via their definition of sustainable development, which may condemn many small rural communities to inherent unsustainability.

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 view is that it is the transition to the new arrangements that will be the biggest challenge for local authorities, inspectors and communities alike.

Whereas the NPPF is currently out for consultation, the Planning Inspectorate issued advice to inspectors in August that states they are able, from now on, to give “some” material weight to the emerging NPPF in deciding planning appeals on site-specific applications.

A local authority may apply for a certificate of conformity with the NPPF under a system yet to be defined by government. This will help authorities that have already adopted local plans, or are about to do so, to avoid later arguments by developers on non-compliance with the NPPF during public examination or appeal processes. However, we assume that existing local plan policies that adopt a normal presumption against development in the countryside will have to be removed to achieve compliance, because these would be in conflict with the NPPF.

In the short term, adopted or emerging local plans will not have envisaged the presumption for development which is inherent within the NPPF. Even though a test of conformity is obtained, the plan may not contain any equivalent of the proposed Local Green Space Designation on specific sites where development should be discouraged.

It is therefore highly likely that planning decisions during the transition period will begin to centre on the degree of material weight given by planning appeal inspectors to the emerging NPPF. This, in turn, may herald a period of “planning by appeal, testing out that degree of weight, rather than relying on adherence to the current plan-led system.

We believe that the NPPF polarises the debate at an appeal, consideration of which is limited to a particular site. The NPPF presumption for development except in the most valued landscape and countryside means that it is difficult to take account of whether this is the right development proposal of the right scale and in the right place. Instead, it will be a matter of deciding between two extreme points of view on whether the site deserves protection. The result is that decision-making at appeal will downgrade the validity of the local plan policies which may have positively allocated other, more suitable areas for development, in favour of allowing sequential growth on an ad hoc basis.

For local communities, nothing will do more damage to the credence given by local people to the planning system, or do more damage to the level of volunteering effort that local people are prepared to offer to make positive planning work.

According to the draft NPPF, green space designations can only be made when a plan is prepared or reviewed. Retrofitting existing plans does not appear easy. The transition phase would extend to the point at which a revised formal development plan document could be adopted. For a local plan that has been recently adopted, the prospect of an early return to the huge bureaucracy and cost of formal consultation and Examination in Public may be unwelcome. For some planning authorities, this transition period could therefore last many years.

However, when the Localism Bill is enacted, Neighbourhood Plans can also include green space designations and the timetable for their development is not tied to the local plan cycle. Designations would need to meet the specified NPPF criteria and not compromise the strategic policies in the local plan. Government wishes to see neighbourhood plans contributing to housing growth above and beyond the local plan. However, unless the NPPF transition issues are resolved, it would seem that the driver for communities will be more about trying to exercise some control over ad hoc, developer-led growth in the non-designated countryside. For ACRE’s members, this presents a challenge in supporting communities to think positively about local needs on housing, facilities and services.

ACRE will be advocating for better means by which the transition to the new arrangements can be managed, to avoid the worst impacts highlighted above: These include:

More clarity as to whether all development is seen as beneficial simply for the housing numbers it can deliver.

Temporary measures to provide a bridge between the global countryside policies that will lose effect under the NPPF and the introduction and adoption of formal green space designations, including potential options of using Supplementary Planning Documents.

Measures to avoid the use of single-issue neighbourhood plans during the transition period whilst giving confidence to communities that holistic plans will deliver stronger influence under the NPPF.

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?

Sustainable development is confirmed in the NPPF as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. We agree this should be the guiding principle, and believe this implies the planning system should focus on a long term, plan-led, but enabling approach to development. The NPPF says that, for planning, sustainable development means planning for prosperity, people and for places, balancing the needs of the economy, housing and services with enhancing and protecting the environment. We also agree with this. Furthermore, we also accept that this is not always a trade-off or compromise—in many cases, for instance, economic growth can deliver improvements to the environment.

However, government places particular emphasis on sustainable economic growth through positive planning. To achieve this, the draft NPPF makes a fundamental change to the planning system so that local authorities should grant permission where the local plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or out of date, or where refusal is justified by overriding reasons based on sustainable development principles. The implication is that the government’s vision of sustainable developmental is that all development is inherently assumed to bring benefit, because of its contribution to housing numbers. We do not agree.

To impose the proposed balance in protecting the valued landscape and countryside, all future local plans would include the new green space designations on specific sites which provide justification for refusing development. But such designations have to be evidenced, used sparingly and adopted through a formal plan process. Housing developments, however, do not have to justify the benefit they bring, nor do they have to be debated or consulted upon during the plan preparation period. The NPPF is therefore a long way from adopting a reasonable balance between economic, social and environmental objectives.

Development in the right place, of the right scale and of the right kind, according to what has been adopted in the local plan, can bring benefits to existing communities, but may be less appropriate to pursue once other ad hoc development have been allowed under the presumption for growth.

Communities will not take kindly to a system that reduces certainty in achieving their carefully constructed neighbourhood plans, seeing them de-railed instead by sequential planning permissions granted through the presumption for growth. The purpose of neighbourhood planning is to give communities the power to shape development in their local area. Provided they adopt a positive attitude to planning for housing growth, it seems reasonable to ensure that development outside areas designated for housing has to have a higher justification than simply its contribution to housing numbers. The NPPF limits the use of green space designations and this in turn reduces its potential use as a means of preserving the integrity of a neighbourhood plan. To overcome this, a compromise might be to significantly reduce the weight given to the presumption for growth if the development proposal was not identified with an adopted neighbourhood plan.

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

We believe that the core planning principles are clearly expressed in term of development of local and neighbourhood plans. However, it is at the planning application stage that the principles are confounded by the “presumption for development”. It is the definition of a local plan being “silent”, that is in question. We assume that local authorities can no longer include generic protection of the countryside policies that discourage development, because this would conflict with the NPPF presumption for development.

We are concerned that the concept of a plan-led system is inconsistent with the default answer being “yes” where there is a gap in the measures that local planning authorities can use to justify refusal. The proposed list of designations of sites which form the basis of justifying refusal are powerful but limited in the extent to which they can be used. Significant areas of the hinterland of rural communities will be vulnerable to unplanned development applications,

The “degree of certainty” expressed in the first planning principle does not therefore extend to communities that have adopted a positive approach to planning for future housing, facilities and services, yet are faced with the prospect of other unplanned developments being approved. The Right to Plan should not be undermined by the right of developers to overturn the plan at a subsequent date.

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?

We are concerned that the thrust of the NPPF proposals is to view planning as achieving a balance between growth of housing numbers and preserving the best and most valuable countryside. We do not think this is consistent with all the other factors that underpin sustainable development.

In particular, we are concerned at interpretations of the sections on viability and deliverability and sections that address delivering quality developments that meet local needs.

The emphasis on viability does carry risks for rural areas. Assessing viability, in terms of the financial return to the landowner/developer, will be a combination of two factors tested at different parts of the planning/development control process. This contrasts with the custom and practice in most rural communities where discussions on what would make a development acceptable take place when specific proposals are on the table.

In rural communities, local facilities and services are often provided by the community themselves. Communities must rapidly acquire skills in assessing and advocating, at the local plan development stage, for the infrastructure needs related to various scales of development. Whereas the process of neighbourhood planning has been explored by government, we are unaware of any initiative that has linked this to the accompanying burden that communities will now need to carry as a result of the switch to the community infrastructure levy process. Clarity is needed on whether issues concerning infrastructure contributions can be revisited for a particular community or group of communities as part of a neighbourhood planning process.

The NPPF appears to state that planning authorities should err on the side of accepting reduced infrastructure contributions, rather than using this as a reason for refusing applications. Where infrastructure costs are expensive compared to the scale of development proposed—a situation which is particularly relevant to rural communities—it would appear that achieving a compromise decision can only lead to the community receiving less in the way of infrastructure from a development than it would otherwise warrant.

The NPPF approach to viability and infrastructure costs should, we propose, distinguish between developments that are part of a local or neighbourhood plan and developments which are likely to be approved via a presumption for growth policy. An unplanned development may require far more in terms of infrastructure to make them acceptable. Such additional costs may no longer be recoverable under the Section 106 obligations, yet were not able to be included in the infrastructure delivery calculations when the local or neighbourhood plan was developed. If the planning authority also has to consider reducing its planned infrastructure contributions in the light of the viability of the proposed development, then this seems to be a recipe for underfunded services and facilities in rural areas.

In summary, we feel this compromises the ability of the NPPF to satisfy and integrate the objectives of departments across government which would not wish to see reduction in funding for essential services or facilities due to the viability and deliverability tests.

Secondly, we do not think the NPPF adequately integrates measures to address the constraints and opportunities that relate to Defra’s aims of creating vibrant and sustainable rural communities, for the following reasons.

Quasi-key Settlement Policies

Throughout the NPPF, the principle of locating housing development close to services is reaffirmed. In rural areas, the NPPF states that housing should not be located in places distant from local services. Where large scale development is proposed in less sustainable locations, local planning authorities should require investment to improve the sustainability of the site.

The policy encouraging proximity of housing to services appears to support “key settlement hierarchies” that, under the guise of testing sustainable development principles, prohibit development in rural communities that cannot sustain the required services. All investigations into creating vibrant rural communities have argued against such approaches, since they condemn most small rural communities to inherent unsustainability.

Whereas this may not be the intention, and other proposals on allowing small scale developments in rural areas demonstrate this, we are nevertheless concerned about two unintended consequences of measures in the NPPF that will encourage such policies:

Local authorities may introduce key settlement hierarchies into a local plan under the guise of sustainable development principles as a blunt instrument to defend rural communities from unplanned development in the countryside as a result of the presumption for growth.

The test of viability appears in conflict with the policy on requiring investment in infrastructure for development sites in less sustainable locations. If this requirement makes the development proposal not viable, the NPPF argues that this should not be the only reason for refusal. The result is that in certain rural areas, all development may be considered “unviable”.

Rural Affordable Housing

We applaud the specific mention of the need for affordable housing in rural areas, which is entirely consistent with Defra’s priorities on rural housing. But we are not sure whether the measures chosen to deliver this will be as successful as they could be. The NPPF directs councils to be responsive to local circumstances and plan housing to reflect local requirements, especially for affordable housing. It also allows for local planning authorities to cross-subsidise affordable housing with open market housing to meet local needs.

We understand that rural exception sites will still be allowable, provided relevant local planning policies exist. The NPPF Impact Assessment covers the role played by rural exception sites and rightly mentions that affordability is a key barrier in extending its use. However, we urge that confirmation within the NPPF is given that local planning authorities can retain exception sites as another “tool in the box”.

ACRE acknowledges that cross-subsidy on small scale developments in rural communities may, in the current climate of public investment, be a successful approach to funding affordable housing for which there is a widespread need across almost all rural areas. However, we are disappointed that the proposals focus on an open market model where a high proportion of affordable housing might be obtained. The proposals in the NPPF will support landowner expectation that the site qualifies as an open market site and from which they can realise open market value by negotiating down the proportion of affordable housing, particularly when the viability and deliverability tests are applied.

We would prefer this turned around to a policy that distinguishes such sites from normal development and acknowledges that the aim of such a development is primarily to satisfy local affordable housing needs that have been adequately evidenced. Under such a policy, it follows that the proportion of market housing allowable on such a site is sufficient only to make the scheme viable. This reinforces the understanding that the only justification for development of the site is its contribution sustainable development in providing affordable housing, with consequent effect on the anticipated financial return to the landowner.

Such a proposal is more likely to be acceptable to a local community that has been encouraged to recognise and solve their local housing problems. Without this change of emphasis, we are uncertain whether communities would wish to make positive plans for such sites, as they currently do for exception sites, when they have no guarantee that the expected quantum of affordable housing will materialise.

We are also concerned, that, to meet rural needs, the ability to retain affordable housing for local people “in perpetuity” is a key factor in persuading communities to accept small scale affordable housing developments. Although not stated directly, we believe that the intention is that restriction of enfranchisement rights and housing nomination processes (which are currently deliverable by exception site policies) will not be allowable within neighbourhood plans, although they would be allowable in Community Right to Build Orders.

We see absolutely no justification for this anomaly. It will be a strong inhibitor for those communities that accept the need for some affordable development as part of a neighbourhood plan, but would not support it if the affordable element could not be retained in perpetuity.

In summary, we consider that there is much in the NPPF that could be used to support positive planning in rural areas. We acknowledge that this could result in benefit to local people, local community facilities, services and the quality of the environment. However, if the planning system is to gain credence with local communities, and lead them to volunteer their effort in participating in plan-making, there are unintended impacts from policies in the draft NPPF which urgently need addressing prior to implementation.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011