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HC 1526 Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from Adrian Penfold

Introduction

The Government’s planning reform package contained in the Localism Bill, the Plan for Growth and the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is, when taken as a whole, avowedly “radical”. It is based on an analysis of status quo, much of which is described in the February 2010 Conservative Party Green paper, Open Source. The analysis suggests that that the existing system is too controversial and bureaucratic, and that it leads to “rebellion” by local communities. The proposed solution is “rooted in civic engagement”. Communities must have their say and even “control”. By decentralising, it argues, we can bring communities together in a sustainable way.

Key Points

The NPPF should I believe be considered in this context, ie, the wider package of reform and the intention to decentralise, or localise. With that in mind, it appears to me to have a number of objectives and would benefit from these objectives being set out in the document, and from a clearer narrative describing how each of these objectives is intended to be met. The objectives could be described as:

1.Making localism work—aspects of the Localism Bill, particularly neighbourhood planning, have wrongly created expectations that local control is about stopping development regardless of the need for it, its quality, sustainability etc. The NPPF therefore has an important role in setting a positive framework for local and neighbourhood plans

2.Reducing the amount of Government policy—leaving more to local communities to determine within a broad national framework, as set out in paragraph 5 of the draft.

3.Simplifying national policy—making it more comprehensible to all users of the planning system.

4.Making policy more coherent—bringing together all policy in one place at one time provides the opportunity to improve consistency and to ensure that the policies on different issues are contained within a broad set of policy objectives. This is a key test for its success or failure.

5.Introducing policy changes—the draft NPPF includes a number of detailed policy changes which require separate consideration, eg removal of offices from town centre sequential testing, and removal of the residential car parking cap. Reduced and simplified guidance will also be required on some aspects of the document, eg the nature of the evidence required to support local and neighbourhood plans. It would be helpful if Government were to set out a programme for production of that guidance.

The document could be strengthened to clarify the main purposes of the planning system, providing a stronger foundation for the core principles and policies that follow, and a clearer vision to inform all those who operate in the planning system. In particular that foundation, or vision, might include:

1.A strengthening of the description of sustainable development. Whilst the commitment to brevity is welcome and the existing text in PPS 1 dealing with sustainability is perhaps too lengthy, it would be worth considering whether some of that text might be usefully imported into the NPPF. Similarly, the 2005 UK Sustainable Development Strategy reference to “environmental limits” might be a helpful concept for considering the balance between the need for development and economic growth, and wider environmental and social factors.

   The description of sustainable development should set an important objective for the NPPF as a whole, as well as for the new generation of local plans, based on the NPPF, that will follow. It should though be made clear that this definition doesn’t set criteria for the determination of planning applications; the definition should rather inform and guide the rest of the NPPF, and the new generation of local plans which will in turn form the basis for the determination of planning applications. The definition’s function is for example not to act as a means to justify development that is clearly not compliant with an up to date, evidence based local plan.

2.Making clear the requirement for local and neighbourhood plans to meet objectively assessed development needs, unless the adverse impact of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits of meeting those needs. If the planning system cannot meet the needs for housing, places for people to work, regeneration and infrastructure, including the need for economic growth, within a sustainable framework, it will become discredited.

3.Meeting the challenges of climate change, both mitigation and adaptation.

4.Doing all this within a plan led system, and making it clear to local planning authorities that a plan led system cannot operate effectively without up to date plans, and that these plans must be based on a thorough assessment of needs. This tenet should apply to neighbourhood plans as well as to local plans.

Response to Questions

1. Does the NPPF give sufficient guidance to local planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and others, including investors and developers whilst at the same time giving local communities significant power over planning decisions?

The NPPF is part of a wider package of reform, much of which gives significantly greater power to local communities, through neighbourhood planning, local referenda, designation of Assets of Community Value etc. Additionally, more of the value created by growth will be retained at local level through the New Homes Bonus, Business Rate Retention and CIL.

A key role for the NPPF should be to ensure that plan making takes place within a properly considered evidence based policy context. As I explain above, I believe the document could be strengthened to improve its usefulness to local planning authorities when producing their local plans.

Developers and investors look to the planning system for clarity on what development will and won’t be allowed. Policy which is consistent, coherent and readily interpretable is therefore important. Localism will inevitably lead to wider diversity of policies and community organisation structures from area to area; the better developers appreciate that they need to respond to this and, where possible, operate as a part of the local community where they are investing. Some consistency in the preparation of the evidence base for planning is though required and this is an area where further guidance will be needed.

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?

I have explained above that I believe the description of “sustainable development” should be strengthened, particularly to assist local planning authorities when producing their plans. The most important definition will though be contained in those local plans, when broad principles are applied at the local level to local circumstances.

As an example, it is important that previously developed land and land of low environmental quality is preferred when allocating sites for development. There may though be local circumstances where such an approach is not the best solution when considering all the environmental, social and economic factors: where perhaps an urban extension site is preferable to a previously developed site many miles away from any existing settlement, because of the availability of schools, shopping centres, extendable bus, train or tram routes etc. That decision should be taken locally within a non-prescriptive national policy framework.

On the Presumption, the main feature is I believe the reliance on policy; the plan or, where there is no plan, the NPPF. This doesn’t seem to be a major shift from present practise, rather a clarification of much of what happens now when, in the absence of an up to date plan, the 1,300 pages of existing PPS’s and PPG’s are brought to bear on the decision. I do though believe that paragraph 14 could be amended to clarify what applies to plan making and what to development control. I would also add the words “and other material considerations” to the end of the paragraph as there may well be other factors to consider when determining planning applications, particularly in the transition period before the adoption of a new generation of local plans.

The word “indeterminate” is I believe unhelpful. Most plans in my experience require the interpretation and balancing of policies in order for the decision maker to reach a conclusion. They are rarely absolutely determinate when applied to a specific proposal.

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

I recognise them as important principles for the planning system. I have three comments:

(a)A specific reference to addressing climate change would be helpful.

(b)“…. the default answer is “yes”…” phrase in bullet 2 has given rise to much comment. It seems to me to be at odds with much of the other text which has a focus on meeting needs and the importance of the plan for determining what is acceptable.

(c)Bullets 4 and 5 refer to the environmental quality or value of land in considering which land should be released. The public debate focussing on the “Brownfield” versus “Greenfield” issue suggests the need for some additional clarity on this point, perhaps by reference to ‘previously developed land’. For the reason I set out above, I don’t though believe that the answer at the local level will always be the same. Local solutions should not be artificially constrained by central prescription.

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?

All policies affecting development, not just planning policies, work best if they are integrated across Government. The final Report of my review for Government of Non-Planning Consents found this not to be the case and made recommendations in this area. Most of those who are involved in development, whether as developer/investor, local communities, statutory agencies, interest groups or decision makers, would benefit from better information and coordination on policy making and project decisions. This applies to local and national level.

5. Does the NPPF with the ‘Duty to Cooperate’ provide a sufficient basis for larger than local strategic planning?

Cooperation between local authorities, and indeed other agencies (see below), is important to the delivery of wider than single local authority infrastructure, much of which is crucial to supporting development. The London-wide CIL which part-funds Crossrail is a good example of this. In my experience though, a Duty to Cooperate is unlikely to be effective unless there are reasons for authorities to cooperate. Local Enterprise Partnerships may have a role in this, and the proposed Enterprise Zone retention of business rate growth at wider than local authority level is an interesting initiative in this area. Perhaps a proportion of CIL could be required to be targeted at cross boundary projects in a similar way to the “meaningful proportion” required to be spent at the community level.

The Town and Country Planning Association in its response to your Committee recommends that the Duty to Cooperate be extended to include other public bodies and privatised utilities. I support this recommendation because many of these bodies have a key role in plan making and development control. Their engagement, or lack of it, can compromise the effectiveness of both processes.

6. Are the policies sufficiently evidence-based?

No response.

Conclusion

The draft NPPF is to be welcomed as an opportunity to simplify and streamline planning. It can also bring greater coherence to the existing overlong and sometimes confusing policy statements and guidance. The Government also has the opportunity to introduce a number of policy changes and, most importantly, to emphasise the need for a positive attitude to plan making and development control, to meet objectively assessed, evidence based needs unless there are sound reasons not to.

There are areas that can be strengthened, particularly the vision and objectives for the planning system and the importance of sustainability as a guiding principle. The operation of the presumption in favour of sustainable development could also be clarified, particularly in relation to plan making. Finally, the various proposed policy changes are quite rightly the subject of intense debate. It is for the Government and Parliament to decide on what, if anything, in the draft, should be changed. I have attempted to address some of the points that have been raised but have not felt it appropriate to submit my own detailed assessment of all of the proposed policy changes.

October 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011