HC 1526 Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from John Rhodes

Summary

I am one of the four members of the Practitioners Advisory Group that advise the Government on the draft NPPF.

Planning policy has become too extensive, confused and inaccessible—the NPPF is necessary in order to provide a focused planning policy framework.

The NPPF needs to be read and understood as a whole. In particular, the recent debate has tended to draw battle lines around a choice between un-bridled growth or environmental protection. In fact, the fundamental purpose of the NPPF is to achieve responsible growth, which includes achieving positive environmental outcomes.

Some limited changes would be sensible to the Government’s draft NPPF in order to ensure that it represents a planning framework which can meet all proper objectives.

(a) Background and the Practitioners Advisory Group

1.1 It may be helpful to the committee to understand the way in which the Practitioner’s Advisory Group draft NPPF was prepared—particularly as the Government’s draft appears to be based so closely on its wording.

1.2 I was invited as one of four people around Christmas 2010 to form a Practitioner’s Advisory Group (PAG) to advise the Minister on the potential form and content of a draft national policy framework. There are several characteristics of the work of the PAG which it is important to record:

(a)We were each invited in our own capacity, rather than as representatives of groups.

(b)We did not know each other before we met for the purposes of forming the PAG but it was clear from the start that we each had different experiences and different perspectives to bring to the debate.

(c)We were given no brief or instructions, apart from a general invitation to prepare a draft national policy framework. It was stressed that this should be our own work but also stressed that it should be work that was agreed between us as a group. We had no chairman or formal voting structure and issues were resolved and agreed between us as we went along.

(d)We reported to Greg Clark and John Howell on a regular basis and they expressed some views to us as we reported our progress but it was emphasised to us that the draft should be our own work and our own opinion and that we should not be significantly influenced by any pronouncements of Government policy, views of civil servants or other factors.

(e)We were provided with a very helpful secretariat from CLG but we undertook the drafting of chapters ourselves and we iterated emerging drafts of the document between us until we achieved an agreed document.

(f)The extent, structure, headings, contents and order of the draft were all a matter for the PAG.

1.3 Whilst it may be possible to characterise individual members of the PAG as either being obviously for growth or for the environment, we learnt in fact that we tended to agree about most things. Perhaps most importantly, we all want to achieve a planning framework which was capable of delivering win:win scenarios, ie a positive approach to planning which delivered necessary development but which also protected and enhanced the environment. We wanted to dispel the notion that economic growth must always be associated within environmental degradation. Our intention was to produce a balanced planning framework, ie the sort of planning policy framework which all interest groups should be able to recognise and support.

(b) The need for reform and a new perspective

1.4 The sheer scale of planning policy has grown relentlessly over the last 20 years. Many of the policy developments have been sensible, and a number of the policy documents have been well written. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the current scale of national planning policy is far too long to be accessible to the public or to convey a clear and consistent message about what is genuinely important in informing planning decisions. In my 30 years of practice as a private sector planning consultant, I became increasingly aware that there was a tendency for planning policy to become repetitive and to lack focus. Many policy documents are more like essays on a topic, often reciting at length matters which are obvious but without actually identifying what is genuinely important. An example might be PPG13—a landmark in planning policy and much respected for its exposition of the importance of sustainability principles. Nevertheless, it is possible to read the whole of PPG 13 without knowing whether or not planning consent should be granted or refused on transport grounds for a particular development.

1.5 Plan making has become far too complex and many plans share the same characteristics as Government policy. There is a “safety first” tendency in planning policy making which means that planners find it difficult to resist adding more and more text in order to try and cover themselves and every eventuality, with the result that clarity, vision and delivery objectives tend to be obscured.

1.6 There is also a tendency for the planning profession to become an industry in itself, rather than recognising that it is simply an agency for delivering important societal requirements, ie high quality development and environmental protection. Many plan making processes are overly complex, often based on detailed forecasting which is quickly out dated. Employment policies are an example—often supported by a plethoral of technical studies which collectively add very little to the question which should be asked, ie “what does business need?”.

1.7 Planning applications have become more and more expensive to prepare. The information requirements for applications have increased as policy and legislation add greater burdens, greater regulation and more requirements for compliance. Apart from the increased entry price for a developer, applications have become less accessible to the public, they take longer to prepare and longer to determine. In recent years, for instance, sustainability requirements have properly achieved greater and greater significance in the determination of applications. Nevertheless, rather than a strong national code to which all development should comply, applicants are faced with multiple standards each developed and applied with different levels of skill and understanding from one authority to the next.

1.8 All of this complexity makes planning less accessible but also generates increased opportunity for legal challenge—the more specific requirements there are, the more opportunity there is to challenge an omission or an inconsistency.

1.9 The public have become turned off to planning and often feel excluded or unqualified to engage in the debate. In practice, however, most planning decisions should be relatively straightforward—is the development a good idea or not?

1.10 All of the additional layers placed on the system have been well intentioned but it is my belief that the Government was right to develop the radical proposition that fundamental change rather than further tinkering was required.

(c) The need for a positive framework

1.11 It is perhaps easiest to look at house prices to identify that planning has not delivered. Throughout the south-east in particular, housing has simply become unaffordable to new generations and the simple truth is that not enough housing has been developed. This may be due to multiple factors including mortgage availability etc but planning has an important part to play. In particular, it has become increasingly clear that many planning authorities simply do not accept an obligation to meet housing requirements. Depressingly, numerous plans undertake Strategic Housing Market Assessments to identify affordable housing needs but do not plan to address the consequences of those assessments. The inevitable result is that housing shortages will become more extreme and house prices will continue to become more and more unaffordable. The normal policy reaction has been to increase affordable housing policies from say 20% to 40% or 50% - or even 100% but this is not a sufficient response because:-

30% or 40% of insufficient homes still generates insufficient affordable homes; and

The viability of development is challenged and the incentive to develop is reduced.

1.12 It is probably true that the same constraint do not apply to all sectors of the economy. Office rents, for instance, have stayed relatively stable in real terms as have industrial land prices. Nevertheless, the country does face an urgent need to regenerate itself. As well as seeking to address chronic housing shortages, the planning system needs to be up to the challenge of:

Restructuring the economy to meet the challenges of global competition, the need for a low carbon economy and increasingly flexible ways of working;

Ensuring a dynamic retail economy which maximises productivity;

Renewing the nation’s infrastructure; and

Achieving environmental enhancement rather than simply insisting on environmental protection.

1.13 Revising national planning policy is an important step but it is only one part of the change which is necessary in planning and it needs to be seen as part of a package with other measures including:

Revising guidance as well as policy. Planning guidance has grown even more than planning policy and the extent of its requirements creates similar opportunities for legal challenge and bureaucracy. For this reason, the PAG wrote additionally to the Minister advising that similar initiatives should be taken with planning guidance, drawing on the experience of planning officers and practitioners;

Planning needs to become more accessible to communities. Simplifying guidance is a good start but there is an important message to get across about the opportunity which planning provides for communities to genuinely shape their environment;

Money—the NPPF is rightly complemented by initiatives to secure funds locally to achieve infrastructure and other community objectives. For too long, there has been no proper answer to the question “but what’s in it for us?, with the tax and rates benefits of developments being returned to central government. CIL, the New Homes Bonus, TIF etc all provide opportunities for communities to develop proactive plans to achieve the types of cities, towns and villages that meet their requirements.

1.14 All these issues raise questions of communication. There are big messages that need to be given and understood and the NPPF is just the start.

(d) The Importance of the Local Plan

1.15 The PAG could have recommended scrapping Section 38(6) of the 2004 Act which provides that planning decisions must be made in accordance with the policies of the local plan, unless there are other material considerations—but we all quickly agreed that local plans should remain at the heart of the planning system. If local authorities and local communities take the trouble to generate local plans which are consistent with the NPPF, they should be able to rely on those local plans to refuse development as well as to positively shape the development which is necessary.

1.16 We wrestled with the potential intellectual conflict between a presumption in favour of sustainable development and a presumption in favour of the local plan. Our response was to suggest that the presumption should inform the plan, ie that plans must be positively prepared to meet the expectations of the NPPF. If this is achieved, decision making does not really need to be different in principle from the way it has always operated. Positive plans should meet development requirements, there should be less opportunity for planning refusal as a result but unacceptable development would still be contrary to the plan and properly refused. The presumption in favour of development would not then apply again to somehow trump the plan—as it will already have been taken into account in the formulation of the plan.

1.17 Section 38(6), therefore, remains the law. The NPPF is policy—clearly it will be very important policy but the law will still require planning decisions to start with the Local Plan, where the Local Plan is up to date.

1.18 The same consideration should apply to Neighbourhood Plans. There is possibly some need to bring greater clarity to the NPPF in relation to Neighbourhood Plans. Para 52 rightly requires Neighbourhood Plans to be in general conformity with the strategic policies in the Local Plan. It could be made clearer, however, that this must mean that Neighbourhood Plans cannot be adopted until there is an up to date Local Plan in place. The NPPF should also make clear that Neighbourhood Plans must do more than “have regard to” the NPPF. The purposes of the NPPF would be undermined if areas became covered by Neighbourhood Plans which were inconsistent with its objectives—particularly if Neighbourhood Plans were adopted before NPPF consistent Local Plans were in place.

1.19 The suggestion that existing plans should be certificated against the NPPF if they are to continue to carry weight was a deliberate suggestion of the PAG. In my view, it is important that all planning authorities understand the deliberate and significant shifts in policy which the NPPF represents. Some authorities may remain in denial of the extent of the policy changes and insist that their plans remain up to date with the consequence that the relative importance of the NPPF and the existing plan will cause confusion, beneficial development may be rejected and planning appeals may be necessary in order to establish the reality of the position in individual districts. The opportunity for certification can cut through these risks in order to bring necessary clarity.

1.20 In my view, it is likely that a large proportion of existing plans, particularly in the south-east of England, will be shown to be inconsistent with the NPPF at least in some respects. The certification process is capable of highlighting that fact relatively quickly and this should accelerate the necessary stimulus to growth, particularly housing growth, in the south-east of England.

(e) The importance of the environment

1.21 A full reading of the draft NPPS identifies the extent to which it seeks to protect the quality of the built and natural environment. The NPPF expects high quality design (paragraph 115), it encourages authorities not only to prefer the development of least environmentally sensitive land in their Local Plans (para 19) but to plan positively for environmental enhancement (paragraph 24) and for developers to mitigate or compensate for any significant harm to biodiversity (paragraph 169). The draft also promotes the use of money from developments to fund local objectives and services, including plans for environmental improvements (paragraph 18). Green belt tests and green belt purposes are unchanged from PPG2 (paragraph 133 onwards) and valued landscapes are directly protected (paragraph 167 onwards). A careful framework was also put in place to protect the historic environment (paragraph 176 onwards) with clear presumptions against substantial harm to heritage assets of the highest significance and with the importance of other heritage assets to be properly weighed in planning decision making.

1.22 These characteristics of the NPPF have tended not to feature in much of the more sensational press coverage in recent weeks. They are, however, an essential component of the NPPF and a deliberate part of the balance which is struck between the need to ensure a positive approach to development and the need to not only protect but to positively enhance that which is genuinely important about the national or local environment. In fact, policies for environmental enhancement are new to the NPPF and they deliberately exceed the requirements of existing national policy. The same could be said of NPPF policies relating to climate change which the PAG readily recognised was one of the most important challenges to be addressed.

(f) Applying the presumption

1.23 Against this background, allegations are made that the presumption effectively allows developers to build what they want, where they want—which, of course, is neither the intention nor the effect of the draft NPPF.

1.24 The presumption is set out at para 14. It makes clear that the presumption is intended to inform the plan making process, so that the Local Plan stays at the heart of the planning system. In drawing up the plan and in making planning decisions where the plan is silent or out of date, the presumption applies. However, the terms of the presumption are clear, presuming in favour:-

… “unless 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.”

1.25 As a number of the more informed commentators have explained, this does not represent a seismic shift from the way in which the current planning system works. In the absence of an up to date plan there should and long has been a presumption in favour of development but it is not a presumption in favour of all development—only that development whose benefits are not significantly and demonstrably outweighed by adverse effects. Whilst the words have clearly caused concern, I do not think they should. Insignificant harm should obviously not be enough to refuse planning consent. Neither should the benefit of consent be withheld if likely harm cannot be demonstrated.

1.26 As the phrase requires, the NPPF needs to be read as a whole. Its policies on environment, design, heritage etc are all there to help to inform what may be important about harm. It deliberately sets out the principles of what it is important to expect from any development so that the debate on harm from any particular proposal can be properly informed.

1.27 In response to some of the criticisms that have been raised it may be helpful to say the following:

(1)The NPPF deliberately does not require every development to demonstrate its sustainability. Arguments about the true definition of sustainability and whether any individual development is genuinely sustainable are potentially endless. True sustainability is almost a “holy grail” and such a test would dramatically extend rather than reduce bureaucracy and debate in the planning system. Instead, the NPPF works the other way around. It presumes in favour of development unless a level of harm is caused that infringes the principles of the NPPF. The NPPF adopts the most accepted definition of sustainability and does not seek to change it. Rather, it seeks to explain how it should be applied in planning decision making.

(2)The question “what does this mean for individual development proposals? is almost impossible to answer in the abstract and the NPPF deliberately does not descend to endless descriptions of scenarios which may or may not justify the refusal of planning permission. Every planning decision needs to be considered on the merits in the light of its own circumstances and it is impossible for national policy to seek to anticipate every relevant circumstance. Instead, it is a framework for decision making. It trusts to the common sense of the decision maker by providing the tools for that decision but not by predetermining the outcome.

1.28 Where genuine and demonstrable harm would be caused by a development, it should not be planned for in a Local Plan or approved in a planning application unless its benefits outweigh that harm—this is a clear planning principle which should not in my view be controversial.

(g) Communities

1.29 Many have suggested that the NPPF places growth above localism.

1.30 To some extent this is true in the sense that the NPPF does not give communities a completely free hand in how they may plan their local areas. This is because the Government has identified that there is a national imperative in the nation planning to meet its own requirements. Government is entitled (almost obliged) to ensure that that is the case and a framework which enabled the blanket resistance of development would severely harm the national interest.

1.31 Nevertheless, it is important to recognise:

(1)the sheer scale of national policy telling communities what to do is dramatically reduced;

(2)regional targets have been scrapped so that communities must identify for themselves their own development requirements and plan to meet them where they can;

(3)local authorities and communities are also having devolved to them a higher proportion of the proceeds of growth—providing the tools for genuine control over investment decisions and the real opportunity to generate sufficient funds to achieve important local objectives; and

(4)planning policy is being made more accessible and easier to understand for communities who are encouraged to engage directly in the planning process to shape their areas. In time, we should see communities taking the initiative to develop plans for their towns which define development where they want it to take place on terms that meet local objectives and on a scale which generates sufficient funds to provide necessary local infrastructure and services. Until now, the planning system has denied communities that opportunity.

(h) Changes to the draft NPPF?

1.32 I understand that the Committee is more interested in matters of principle than matters of detailed drafting. I anticipate that the PAG will make its views known to CLG on any detailed drafting issues but we have not yet met in order to determine any comments. From my perspective, some change may be necessary in the following principal areas:

(1)Greater clarity on the relationship between the Local Plan and the presumption;

(2)More clarity about the relationship between Neighbourhood Plans and Local Plans and a clearer test that Neighbourhood plans must conform with the NPPF;

(3)The opportunity could be taken to integrate the operation of CIL more closely with Local Plans;

(4)I prefer the approach of the PAG draft to the question of local sustainability standards, ie that they should not be separate local standards but there should be strong national standards, preferable codified and operated through Building Regulations rather than planning control;

(5)The role of cultural facilities in enhancing sustainable communities could be developed further in the text;

(6)There are some additions that have been made, for instance, to the town centre section and to the heritage section of the document which may detract from its clarity and purpose; and

(7)Care needs to be taken that the document is not compromised by un-coordinated revisions—it must always be coherent as a whole.

(i) Conclusion

1.33 The draft NPPF may not be perfect—extensive consultation, scrutiny and examination is an extremely important part of the process. Nevertheless, in principle, it holds the potential to bring multiple benefits and to provide the country with the planning framework that it deserves.

8 September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011