Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)

1. The North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) unit welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Committee’s inquiry on the draft NPPF. This submission has been informed by extensive discussions both within the partnership of the North Wessex Downs AONB and among officers of South East and East Protected Landscapes (SEPL, the group that brings together National Parks and AONBs across the two regions). The views expressed here do not, however, necessarily represent the collective or individual positions of individual members of the North Wessex Downs AONB partnership or SEPL.

Overview of the Draft NPPF

2. The draft NPPF would turn our existing planning system on its head. It would fundamentally change the purpose of planning from making decisions on land use in the wider public interest to facilitating (principally economic) development.

3. England is one of the most, if not the most, urban and densely populated countries in Europe, so almost every scrap of land is hotly contested by competing interests. Despite this, our sophisticated system of strong planning controls has delivered significant benefits for society, the economy and sustainability in recent decades. In the face of intense demographic, economic and political pressure to do otherwise, it has enabled England and the UK largely to retain a clear distinction between urban and rural areas, to conserve large tracts of open country and direct much of the pressure for development to regeneration of under-used existing urban land, buildings and infrastructure.

4. The draft NPPF essentially abandons or severely weakens several foundations of the system that has given us these benefits. These include:

the priority accorded to channelling development pressures to achieve and support urban regeneration, in particular the sequential (“brownfield first” approach to site allocation and release;

unambiguous policies and minimum standards to require and encourage more efficient use of land, including minimum housing densities and maximum car parking standards;

an emphasis on encouraging more efficient location of different kinds of associated development so as to reduce the need to travel and, by extension, its economic, social and environmental costs;

the town centre first approach to shopping, leisure and office development; and

longstanding and effective policies to protect the “ordinary” (ie undesignated) countryside for its intrinsic value.

5. It would also significantly weaken protection for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and National Parks and their setting against damaging development, and make it much harder to achieve the objectives set out in the Government’s own Natural Environment White Paper.

Specific Questions

Is the definition of “sustainable development” contained in the document appropriate?

6. The definition of sustainable development given in paragraph 10 of the draft NPPF is flawed because it appears to posit planning as principally a tool for promoting and enabling economic development. This is perhaps most clearly shown in the title “Delivering sustainable development” as if sustainability were entirely about building things. The Government appears to have ignored decades of careful thinking and experience about the concept of sustainable development that was the focus of the Rio Earth Summit and redefined it as development in the strict legal sense of the Town and Country Planning Acts.

7. Its reference to natural resources, some of which, eg water, are increasingly scarce across much of the country, is wholly inadequate in its failure to place natural resources in their full context, providing ecosystem goods and services vital to the economy and society. Among other things, it omits any reference to the need to conserve such resources, to use them in ways that are dramatically more efficient, and in many cases to reduce our demand and use for them overall.

8. The reference to well-being is welcome, but this is not carried through into the rest of the document. The NPPF also fails almost entirely to recognise the extraordinarily important role the planning process plays in forging as broad and democratic a consensus as possible over extremely difficult and divisive questions of conservation and change in the use of land. The planning system has many imperfections, but no other sector in our society enables such significant and opportunities for democratically accountable public engagement and oversight. The description in paragraph 11 of the integration of the objectives is a very good one; overwhelmingly, however, the rest of the document appears designed to ensure that no such integration in necessary and economic pressures will overrule other factors in all but exceptional circumstances.

Is the presumption in favour of sustainable development a balanced and workable approach?

9. The presumption in favour of sustainable development is neither balanced nor workable. Despite what the Government claims, it would fundamentally undermine the plan-led system. It should be remembered that the plan-led system, introduced under section 54A of the 1991 Act, replaced the presumption in favour of development that had existed until then. How the two could co-exist the draft NPPF does not explain,

10. This problem is compounded by the explicit statement in paragraph 14 that councils should “grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date.” The requirement to allocate sites for 20% more housing than is needed (paragraph 109) would on its own presumably make most existing development plans fail the test of general conformity in paragraph 26. Presumably even where local authorities have up-to-date plans most would thus be deemed out-of-date once the final NPPF was published. That would mean a period of years while replacement plans were produced, during which the automatic approach in paragraph 14 would apply.

11. Even where a development plan passed the test in paragraph 14 its primacy would be dramatically compromised by the draft NPPF. In place of a considered decision in line with a democratically agreed plan and the range of evidence and other factors relevant to a particular case, the draft NPPF would put a default “yes”. For the decision to be otherwise it would have to be shown that:

“the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole” (paragraph. 14).

12. This would place a huge burden of proof on those assessing applications and proposals to show that it might or might not be acceptable. The likely result would be developments with damaging consequences—both individually and cumulatively—that could be foreseen but that critics could not sufficiently demonstrate at the time of decision.

13. Elements of existing planning policy that are critically important for achieving genuinely sustainable development but threatened or ignored by the draft NPPF include the following:

Urban regeneration: The emphasis on re-using empty or under-used buildings and previously developed land before greenfield sites, ie the sequential approach to land for housing. Application of this policy has admittedly had some undesirable effects in some cases, eg business relocation to provide housing sites, leading to reverse commuting, and inappropriate garden development, but it has underpinned extensive private and public investment in urban regeneration since the Conservative government of the 1990s and Labour’s subsequent White Paper Planning for the Communities of the Future of 1998.

Efficient use of land: Minimum standards for efficient use of land, notably on housing density, which has risen by 72% from 25 dwellings per hectare (dpha) in 2001 soon after revised PPG3 was published to 43 dpha in 2010. This is still barely half the 80-100 dpha that is found in some of our prized historic townscapes such as Georgian squares and Cornish fishing villages. Latest Government statistics show the density of housing on greenfield sites just above the minimum 30 dpha that was set out in PPG3 and PPS3 (DCLG, LUCS 2010 provisional estimates).

Reducing the need to travel: This has informed planning policy and decisions since the publication of revised PPG13 in the mid-1990s, albeit not always as much as it might have. Benefits include reduced costs in travel time and congestion; lower greenhouse gas emissions; reduced infrastructure needs and maintenance costs; and better air quality. The draft NPPF has only some vague wording to encourage sustainable travel modes, and only where this is “practical”.

Protection of the countryside for its intrinsic value: This policy principle (PPS7 para 1 iv) has underpinned the continued clear distinction between town and country here, in stark contrast to places where a more liberal planning regime has applied, eg Ireland, Portugal and large parts of the USA.

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?

14. No. The emphasis in the draft NPPF on economic growth at the expense of society’s other needs and objectives would do the opposite of integration.

15. On climate change, the reduction in the emphasis on efficient use of land, location of development and reducing the need to travel, together with strong discouragement of local authorities from imposing any standards that might add to developers’ costs, all serve to make higher direct and indirect emissions from development more likely.

16. The draft NPPF indicates no understanding of the Government’s policy on the natural environment, either. Over the past year protected landscapes have paid close attention to the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP). That document includes a reference to the land use planning system playing its part in delivering the Government’s objectives, but this is lacking from the draft NPPF. The NEWP draws on the recommendations of Sir John Lawton’s report Making Space for Nature. Lawton highlighted the need to restore, expand and connect wildlife habitats on a grand scale. Central to this is the need to move away from viewing nature and landscapes as compartmentalised oases of conservation with no relation to their hinterland. The draft NPPF does the exact opposite: it contains (albeit flawed) policies on protection of National Parks and AONBs but removes the universal protection currently afforded to the wider countryside and weakens protection for sensitive townscapes.

17. The inevitable effect of radically reducing controls over development outside protected landscapes would be to make it far harder to achieve the kind of comprehensive, landscape approach to conservation and enhancement of the natural environment that is widely agreed to be needed, both to redress biodiversity losses and to enable greater ecological resilience to the future effects of climate change.

Protected Landscapes

18. All the above are general points, applicable across the board and with greater or lesser relevance to nationally protected landscapes, ie AONBs, National Parks and the Broads. On protected landscapes specifically, Ministers have repeatedly said that the draft NPPF would maintain the existing level of protection against damaging change. This is highly questionable for the reasons set out below.

Weakening of the headline policies in PPS7

19. PPS7 para 21 says:

Nationally designated areas comprising National Parks, the Broads, the New Forest Heritage Area and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), have been confirmed by the Government as having the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty. The conservation of the natural beauty of the landscape and countryside should therefore be given great weight in planning policies and development control decisions in these areas.

20. Compare draft NPPF para. 167, fourth bullet pt, which says:

Local planning authorities should: … give great weight to protecting landscape and scenic beauty in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The conservation of wildlife and cultural heritage are important considerations in all these areas, and should be given great weight in National Parks and the Broads.

21. The status of protected landscapes and the policies that flow from it, both clearly set out in PPS7, have been elided in the draft NPPF and the result is both less clear and a substantial weakening of the policy.

22. The draft NPPF wording on protected landscapes (ie AONBs, National Parks and the Broads) should be changed to refer clearly to their status, their purpose of conserving and enhancing natural beauty, and their setting. This could simply add “enhancing” and a reference to setting to the existing policy in PPS7 with or read along the following lines, for example:

[Local authorities should] give great weight to the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and their setting, respecting the highest status of protection afforded to them for their landscape and scenic beauty.]

23. The inclusion of “conservation and enhancement of natural beauty” is critical to the continuing protection of AONBs in particular. These are the principal purposes of National Park and AONB designation. Relevant bodies have a statutory duty under section 85 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 to have regard for these purposes. The same Act also requires all AONB partnerships to produce a quinquennial AONB management plan, which constitutes a material consideration of significant weight in planning decisions, appeals and inquiries. For AONB management plans to be most effective, the NPPF ought preferably to refer to them. The minimum requirement is that the NPPF include explicit reference to the purposes of designation (as above).

Reduced protection for the setting of protected landscapes

24. Related to the point about the conflict between the draft NPPF and the Natural Environment White Paper above is the question of the setting of AONBs, National Parks and the Broads.

25. Setting is impossible to define precisely because in every case it will vary with the landscape and the proposal in question. It is not a precisely defined buffer. At its most basic, things that could harm the setting are things that would significantly affect views of or from the designated area.

26. The North Wessex Downs AONB is fringed by settlements, some of them large. They include the western fringes of Reading, Basingstoke, Andover, Ludgershall, Devizes, Calne, Swindon, Wantage/Grove, Didcot and Wallingford. In some the built area literal abuts the protected area and others are a short distance away, but all are very much within the AONB’s setting In almost every single one of these places development has been or is currently being proposed that could significantly affect the setting of the AONB. A recent appeal saw 750 homes dismissed on grounds including the effect on the AONB setting. In other cases careful siting, design, lighting etc. can remove the impact or reduce it enough to make it acceptable. Existing policy in the South East Plan provides important protection against development that would affect the setting of protected landscapes in a crowded region. The loss of this policy with the demise of the SE Plan demands its replacement but the draft NPPF is silent on the issue. The removal of protection for the countryside for its intrinsic value, combined with the presumption in favour of sustainable development, would make damaging change in the setting of protected landscapes much more likely and conservation and enhancement of their natural beauty far harder.

Removal of policy to address the need for affordable housing in protected landscapes

27. Current policy helps local authorities in protected landscapes to address local need for (especially affordable) housing in their areas without needing to accommodate market housing (to provide a cross-subsidy) that would damage the qualities for which the landscapes were designated. This is principally in two ways:

paragraph. 21 of PPS7, which highlights the need to address “identified local needs [for housing]” in National Parks and AONBs;

paragraph 30 of PPS3, which enables small amounts of “affordable housing in perpetuity” to be provided, for example in sensitive villages within a protected landscape or elsewhere where other housing development would be harmful and unnecessary.

28. The draft NPPF includes neither of these important nuances in policy. The Government has also changed the definition of affordable rented housing in Annex B of PPS3, which could put such housing out of reach of those who most need it, especially in outstandingly beautiful landscapes where housing is prized - and priced - accordingly. Together these changes would make it much harder for protected landscapes to provide that housing in their communities which is genuinely needed and resist that which would compromise the purposes of designation.

Weakening of the presumption against minerals sites in protected landscapes

29. MPS1, para. 14 states:

do not permit major mineral developments in National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites except in exceptional circumstances.

30. Compare the draft NPPF paragraph. 102:

Local planning authorities should: as far as is practical, ensure sufficient levels of permitted reserves are available from outside National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage sites.

31. Replacing the need for exceptional circumstances with a general reference to practicality would significantly weaken protection of National Parks and AONBs against minerals extraction.

32. There is a general point to be made here. If the general countryside is no longer afforded protection in policy for its intrinsic value then presumably the level of protection for protected landscapes starts, as it were, from a lower base. There is also the presumption in favour of sustainable development, which would presumably apply in protected landscapes (the draft NPPF does not say that it wouldn’t; much could hang on whether harming the natural beauty of a protected landscape were deemed compatible with sustainability). The combined effect of these factors suggests that, while protected landscapes would continue to enjoy much more protection from damaging development than other places, their overall planning status and the degree of protection they enjoyed would nevertheless be lower.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011