Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the RSPB

The RSPB welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to the Communities and Local Government Committee inquiry into the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This written evidence complements our parallel submission on sustainable development in the NPPF to the Environmental Audit Committee.


(i) The draft NPPF in its present form is not fit for purpose. Although it contains a number of positive environmental policies, these are fatally undermined by the presumption in favour of sustainable development and an overriding emphasis on economic growth throughout the document.

(ii) The RSPB strongly objects to the clause which states “the default answer to development is ‘yes’”, which subverts the principle that decision-makers should approach issues in an even-handed manner.

(iii) The NPPF does not fully integrate national planning policy, which could have been resolved by the preparation of a spatial national planning framework for England.

(iv). We welcome the reference to environmental issues under strategic priorities, but further guidance is needed to clarify what constitutes effective cross-boundary working under the duty to co-operate.

(v) The NPPF does not adequately reflect evidence about the economic value of the planning system and of the natural environment.

Fitness for Purpose

1. The draft NPPF in its present form is not fit for purpose. Although it contains a number of positive environmental policies, these are fatally undermined by the presumption in favour of sustainable development and an overriding emphasis on economic growth throughout the document.

2. Our comments on the presumption are examined in detail in our written evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee. In this submission we focus on answering the committee’s questions but also provide examples of the unnecessary policy emphasis on economic growth.

Guidance and Local Power

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?

3. The RSPB accepts the need to streamline planning policy. However, the NPPF is not the strategic, spatial policy framework that the RSPB and others such as RTPI have long advocated, which would give useful additional guidance to users of the planning system.

4. There may also be issues with the interpretation of the policy content of the NPPF, because of the use of inconsistent language, especially around sustainable development. This issue is explored further in our evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee.

5. There is an inevitable tension between the Government’s national aspirations and the desire to devolve power to local communities, and this is reflected in the NPPF. From an environmental perspective this can be seen in the tension between the need to deliver on national and international commitments (such as to halt biodiversity loss by 2020 and to generate 15% of the UK’s energy from renewable sources by 2020) and the lack of clarity about how strategic planning through the duty to cooperate will allow local and neighbourhood plans to cumulatively deliver these outcomes. We will explore this issue further for individual policy areas in our detailed response to the Government’s consultation.

6. Local planning authorities and other users of the planning system frequently rely on additional technical and good practice guidance, much of which is currently produced by Government. The RSPB understands the Government’s desire to reduce the length and complexity of planning policy and guidance, and agrees that there is scope for a greater role for expert and user groups to be involved in producing this guidance. However, care needs to be taken not to lose valuable guidance from the system, nor to have competing technical guidance which gives rise to uncertainty or is just a waste of resources.

7. There is still a role for Government in providing supporting guidance, especially on procedural and legal issues, such as development plans and development guidance. From a nature conservation perspective, definitive guidance on statutory obligations for biodiversity conservation and their impact within the planning system (currently in Circular 06/2005) is particularly useful and should be the responsibility of Government, so the RSPB is pleased that it does not appear on the list of guidance to be replaced by the NPPF.

Sustainable Development

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?

8. This issue is addressed in detail in our written evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee. In summary, the definition of sustainable development should be based on the guiding principles of the UK Sustainable Development Strategy, including the need to live within environmental limits. The presumption should then be based on that definition. The current wording of the presumption and the over-emphasis placed on economic growth in that section and in the rest of the document fatally undermines the positive environmental policies in the NPPF.

Core Planning Principles

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

9. The RSPB strongly objects to the clause in the 2nd bullet of paragraph 19 which states, “Decision-takers at every level should assume that the default answer to development is ‘yes’, except where this would compromise the key sustainable development principles set out in this Framework.”

10. We note that this clause was not included in the text of the Practitioners Advisory Group’s proposed draft NPPF, on which the text of the core planning principles are otherwise closely based. A similar phrase was first used in HM Treasury’s Plan for Growth (March 2011). There appears to be a perception in Government and the business community that the default answer to development by local planning authorities is “no”, but the Government’s own statistics show that the rate of approval for planning applications has been a minimum of 82% for at least a decade, and is currently around 90% for major commercial applications.

11. The clause, despite the caveat, is clearly driven by an economic growth agenda. It is political rhetoric and inappropriate in a planning policy document. It subverts the principle of good governance that decision-makers should approach issues in an even-handed manner, which is particularly important in the highly-contested arena of land-use planning. Even if there was currently a bias against development (and in some places, for some types of development, the RSPB accepts that this might be the case), it would be entirely mistaken to correct this by swinging the pendulum to the other extreme.

12. The RSPB recommends that this clause (the final sentence of the 2nd bullet, paragraph 19) should be deleted.

13. In the 3rd bullet of paragraph 19 we are concerned by the reference to market signals, which we discuss further below (paragraph 29b).

14. The RSPB strongly supports the remaining core planning policies.

Other National Policy

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?

15. National policy statements (NPS) for various types of infrastructure are the principal other type of national planning-related policy. It is not entirely clear from the NPPF (paragraph 6) the extent to which NPS will be a material consideration for small infrastructure schemes (for example, small-scale renewable energy projects), or the extent to which the NPPF may be a material consideration for nationally-significant infrastructure projects, particularly where NPPF policy on some issues (eg environmental protection) may be more up-to-date than the NPS.

16. The more critical issue, however, is that neither the NPPF nor NPS fully integrate national planning policy, which is effectively split by scale and development type (large-scale infrastructure in NPS, everything else in the NPPF.)

17. This could have been resolved by the preparation of a spatial national planning framework for England, as recommended by a recent report produced for the RSPB (A Natural Planning Framework, Collingwood Environmental Planning, 2011) which considered UK and international experience of embedding the natural environment in national spatial strategies. A strategic and spatial national framework would also be a better way to reconcile England’s socio-economic development needs with finite space and environmental capacity.

18. As the draft NPPF is not spatial, it must provide the right parameters within which local authorities will create their own, or joint, spatial policies to deliver sustainable development, as discussed below.

Strategic Planning

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

19. As currently drafted, the NPPF and the duty to cooperate do not provide a sufficient basis for larger than local strategic planning. This is largely because the draft NPPF deals too narrowly with land use and fails to recognise the need to have a spatial planning system. One of the key principles of Planning Policy Statement 1 (Delivering Sustainable Development, 2005) was that “a spatial planning approach should be at the heart of planning for sustainable development”, where “Spatial planning goes beyond traditional land use planning to bring together and integrate policies for the development and use of land with other policies and programmes which influence the nature of places and how they can function.”

20. Challenges such as climate change and protecting and enhancing nature are best addressed by providing direction and guidance from the national strategic level so that the local level can implement strategies that, together, can be greater than the sum of their parts. In the case of the natural environment, effective planning, including the implementation and maintenance of ecological networks, will often need to take place at a landscape or ecosystem-scale that is incompatible with administrative boundaries. Such action will require effective joint-working by adjoining local authorities, and in many instances may be required to enable compliance with the legal obligations of the Birds and Habitats Directives.

21. In the absence of a spatial NPPF, there must be a strong duty to co-operate between local authorities that will enable strategic spatial planning across local authority boundaries. We are pleased to see that certain environmental matters referred to as strategic priorities (paragraph 23) will require cross-boundary working in order to be considered sound at examination. However, further guidance will need to be issued to clarify what constitutes “effective” cross-boundary working under the duty to co-operate. We believe that effectiveness of cooperation should be assessed on the basis of outcomes achieved through joint working. This should ensure collaborative work is carried out early in the plan-making process and should encourage continuing co-operation for the duration of the plan-period (eg in terms of evidence collation, monitoring and reporting).

Strategic planning and the natural environment

22. While much has been achieved through conservation action to date, in England, 45% of priority habitats are declining, alongside 29% of priority species. The Making Space for Nature report (the “Lawton review”) and the UK National Ecosystem Assessment found that much of the decline in England’s biodiversity and the UK’s ecosystem services can be attributed to the fragmentation and loss of habitats, often caused by inappropriately located, poor quality development. Strategic spatial planning, however, can ensure that the right type of development is located in the right place, avoiding this kind of unnecessary damage.

23. Without action to restore some of the habitats that have been lost, biodiversity will continue to decline. Here again, there is a crucial role for strategic planning. The Lawton review sets out a practical vision for addressing the fragmentation of our natural environment by restoring ecological networks across the country, based on five components:

(1)Get sites into favourable condition.

(2)Increase the size of protected sites.

(3)Create new sites.

(4)Improve the connectivity between sites.

(5)Manage the wider countryside more sympathetically to reduce pressures on sites.

The exact “mix” of actions required will vary from place to place, and decisions are often best taken at a larger-than-local ecosystem-scale, through close co-operation between local authority and a range of other partners (ie statutory bodies, NGOs, communities, land owners and businesses).

24. The Natural Environment White Paper established the linked concepts of Nature Improvement Areas (NIAs) and Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs), both of which are expected to work across administrative boundaries to deliver improved ecological networks, as set out in the Lawton review. The RSPB believe that the NPPF should reflect the crucial role of planning in delivering for the natural environment, and meeting the ambitions of the White Paper, by explicitly linking to these two important initiatives in paragraph 168.

Strategic planning for renewable energy

25. The NPPF must also do more to ensure the delivery of low-carbon and renewable energy infrastructure at both a local and larger-than-local level. Despite a continuing emphasis in the draft NPPF on the need to plan positively for the economy and housing, the language used for low-carbon and renewable energy provision is comparatively weak.

26. To be effective, planning of renewable energy deployment, particularly onshore wind, needs to take place in the context of the potential for renewable energy deployment at a larger spatial scale than local authority areas. In 2010, DECC funded nine regional energy capacity studies to help local authorities and local communities in England identify and maximise opportunities for the deployment of renewable and local carbon energy technologies in their areas. Seven of the nine assessments for England are now available, and the final two will be published shortly. The North West renewable and low carbon energy capacity and deployment project has produced an assessment of the potential accessible renewable energy resources at 2020. While the focus of the project has been to present the results at sub-regional and sub-national scales, much of the data can be interrogated down to Local Authority level. The NPPF should require local authorities and communities to take into account the results of the regional renewable energy capacity studies when developing their local and neighbourhood development plans.

27. The current draft NPPF requires local authorities to “consider identifying suitable areas for renewable energy development”. We do not feel that this is sufficient to ensure a strategic approach to planning of renewable planning. A study commissioned by the RSPB recommends a more comprehensive and structured approach to deployment of renewable energy that distinguishes “spatially the potential areas where development should be prioritised, restricted or avoided”. This approach would offer invaluable clarity to developers and conservation groups and help the effective consideration of alternatives at early stage.

28. The NPPF should require local planning authorities to develop spatial frameworks for renewable energy, in particular onshore wind, in their development plan, based on the regional renewable energy capacity studies and using DECC’s Renewable and Low Carbon Energy Capacity Methodology.

29. The spatial framework would support early engagement of stakeholders and provide a basis for debate between a range of stakeholders without which discussions can often be repetitive and divisive, and become dominated by responses to individual planning applications. This is particularly important in the case of onshore wind which tends to be very controversial at a local level.

Strategic planning and a supportive evidence base

30. Effective, strategic planning for the environment requires a robust evidence base just as for housing and the economy. It is not possible to make space for people and nature if either is considered independently of the other. The requirement for a robust evidence base for the natural environment should be clearly set out in the section “Using a proportionate evidence base”, just as it is for housing and business requirements. A robust evidence base would include inventories of important wildlife habitats and species, and areas suitable for restoration, much of which is already available from other sources.

31. A trusted, reliable source of data which can be easily accessed by local planning authorities, and also business and communities, is a prerequisite for effective strategic spatial planning. Consistent mechanisms for research and data gathering should be provided to address the current gaps in data available at the larger-than-local level. For example, DECC has made a commitment in its UK Renewable Energy Roadmap to ensure that an up-to-date evidence base is available on the potential impacts of wind turbines, such as noise and shadow flicker, implications for landscape, habitats and species.

Evidence Base

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

32. Where there are policy shifts in the NPPF, these are generally in favour of a liberalised, pro-growth planning regime. The presumption in favour of sustainable development is the most notable example of this. These shifts are based on a perception that the planning system is slow, costly, and hinders economic growth.

33. There is no doubt that at times, planning can be unnecessarily bureaucratic, and that local planning authorities have been slow in adopting local development frameworks (LDFs). Although LDFs were intended to be in place within three years of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, at the present time only 30% of local planning authorities have adopted core strategies.

34. However, there is much evidence to show that the development management (planning applications) process is performing well. A very high proportion of all planning applications are granted; Government’s own statistics show that the rate of approval for planning applications has been a minimum of 82% for at least a decade, and is currently around 90% for major commercial application. Furthermore, rather than hindering economic growth, planning adds value to the economy; in 2003, the then ODPM Select Committee Inquiry into Planning and Competitiveness, said “Claims that planning damages the nation’s competitiveness seem to have been made without evidence. The evidence that we have received suggests that businesses generally support the planning system and seek a number of changes in implementation, which do not necessarily require legislation.”

35. There is also a significant weight of evidence which shows that a healthy natural environment is good for the economy. Industries directly dependent on natural capital and natural services, such as agriculture, conservation and nature-based tourism, support significant levels of economic activity and employment. For example, in England in 2004, almost 300,000 jobs were supported by the natural environment through industries such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, conservation and tourism. The recent findings of the UK National Ecosystems Assessment (NEA) emphasise the role that ecosystem services play in supporting and enhancing the economy, revealing that nature is worth billions of pounds to the UK economy.

36. Taken together, this suggests that the NPPF does not adequately reflect all the available evidence about the economic value of the planning system and of the natural environment.

Policy Emphasis

37. Although the Committee is not examining individual planning policies in detail, the RSPB would like to draw attention to the marked policy emphasis in favour of economic development and housing growth throughout the NPPF. As we point out in our evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, we do not object to economic development and housing growth in themselves, but we do object to an emphasis which gives them pre-eminence over the social and environmental aspects of sustainable development, thereby making it more difficult to reject damaging proposals.

38. This pre-eminence can be illustrated with the following examples.

(a)In comparison with references to economic and housing development, the NPPF’s language about environmental protection and enhancement is much less positive. Frequent caveats are attached to environmental policies (and no corresponding caveats to economic policies), and unnecessary references are made back to the presumption in favour of sustainable development, such as:

Paragraph 19, 5th bullet: “Where practical and consistent with other objectives, allocations of land for development should prefer land of lesser environmental value”.

Paragraph 130 (Local Green Space): “Identifying land as Local Green Space should therefore be consistent with the local planning of sustainable development and complement investment in sufficient homes, jobs and other essential services”.

Paragraph 165 (Natural environment objectives): reference to the presumption, and development needs.

Paragraph 169 (Biodiversity): reference to the presumption.

Paragraph 169, 4th bullet: ancient woodland should be protected “unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss”.

(b)Paragraph 27 (evidence base): the need to take “full account of relevant market and economic signals” (our emphasis) implies that local plans will need to accommodate whatever the market demands. This does not recognise that markets consistently fail to reflect the full environmental value of land, which may be unquantifiable.

(c)Using a proportionate evidence base: local authorities are required to have extensive and well-defined requirements for economic and housing needs (paragraphs 28–32), but the requirements for the environmental evidence base are much less prescriptive (paragraphs 34–37).

(d)Paragraph 45 (strategic planning): reference to Local Enterprise Partnerships, but no corresponding reference to Local Nature Partnerships.

(e)Paragraph 109, 2nd bullet (housing supply): a requirement to include an additional allowance of 20% more housing than that which has been identified as necessary in a Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment is excessive, especially as many areas of high housing demand are in areas of high environmental quality.

(f)Paragraph 152, 3rd bullet: weak encouragement for renewable energy opportunity mapping, as local planning authorities should only “consider identifying suitable areas for renewable and low-carbon energy sources”; there is no requirement to do it.

September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011