Operation of the National Planning Policy Framework - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

2  Delivering sustainable development

10. We have seen that the presumption in favour of sustainable development is intended to be the "golden thread" running through the NPPF.[21] In this chapter, we will look at the NPPF's approach to sustainable development, considering first its definition and then witnesses' concerns about the way it is operating in practice. We will then turn to look at how the concept of sustainable development has operated in respect of infrastructure, renewable energy and the natural environment.

The definition of sustainable development

11. During our previous inquiry into the NPPF, we looked carefully, with helpful input from the Environmental Audit Committee,[22] at the definition of sustainable development. We set out in a recommendation the elements that we considered a definition of sustainable development should contain.[23] The Government accepted our recommendation,[24] and included in the NPPF a definition that included both the United Nations ("Brundtland")[25] definition of sustainable development, and the five "guiding principles"[26] from the 2005 UK Sustainable Development Strategy.[27] The NPPF also points to the environmental, economic and social dimensions of sustainable development and states that "economic, social and environmental gains should be sought jointly and simultaneously through the planning system".[28]

12. Some evidence suggested that there was a problem with the definition of sustainable development in the NPPF. The Town and Country Planning Association, for instance, told us that the NPPF contained "certainly no recognisable definition of sustainable development".[29] As we have seen, however, the NPPF clearly combines the widely-recognised Brundtland definition with the UK Government's guiding principles, and makes a strong statement of what constitutes sustainable development. In our view, nobody has come up with an improved definition.
The NPPF definition of sustainable development[30]

International and national bodies have set out broad principles of sustainable development. Resolution 42/187 of the United Nations General Assembly defined sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The UK Sustainable Development Strategy Securing the Future set out five 'guiding principles' of sustainable development: living within the planet's environmental limits; ensuring a strong, healthy and just society; achieving a sustainable economy; promoting good governance; and using sound science responsibly.

13. There is, however, one area of ambiguity that we consider should be addressed. After defining sustainable development, the NPPF then states that the policies in paragraphs 18 to 219 "taken as a whole, constitute the Government's view of what sustainable development in England means in practice for the planning system".[31] Neil Blackshaw, Principal at Easton Planning, described this as "a curiously circular argument" and said that it might not be "entirely helpful given the crucial importance of the concept in the NPPF".[32] We agree: the definition should stand on its own as a beacon informing the rest of the NPPF, not the other way round. It is vital that those making planning decisions are absolutely clear about what constitutes sustainable development: telling them to look at the framework as a whole to understand what the Government means by sustainable development can only be a distraction from the carefully-written definition set out at the start. We recommend that the Government remove from the NPPF the statement that the policies in paragraphs 18 to 219, taken as a whole, constitute the Government's view of what sustainable development means in practice. The definition on page 2 of the NPPF needs to stand on its own.

Sustainable development in application

14. In our view, concerns about sustainable development stem more from problems of application than of definition. A recurring concern in our evidence was that greater emphasis was being given to the economic dimension of sustainable development than to the environmental and social ones.[33] Kingswood Parish Council, from Gloucestershire, told us that in its area "little weight [was] being given to the value of the [Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty] or the environmental value of the countryside".[34] Similarly, the Theatres Trust told us that it had experience of excessive weight being applied to the economic component of sustainable development, which was leading to "development that has an adverse effect on our heritage, town centres and cultural well-being".[35] The Acting Chief Planning Inspector at the Planning Inspectorate (PINS), Ben Linscott, however, told us that he was confident that his inspectors did not "unreasonably elevate one [dimension] over either of the others".[36]

15. It is important that the definition of sustainable development in the NPPF is applied equitably and consistently, and that approval is given only to development that meets this definition. While the NPPF makes clear that the economic, environmental and social dimensions of sustainable development should be given equal weight, we were concerned to hear so many people tell us that this was not happening in practice. If these witnesses are right, confidence in the NPPF will be undermined. Planning inspectors and local authorities must account for the decisions they make and must be able to explain how all three dimensions of sustainable development have been given equal consideration. We recommend that the Government take appropriate steps to impress publicly upon both the Planning Inspectorate and local authorities the importance of giving equal weight to each of the three dimensions of sustainable development, as required by the NPPF. Both the Planning Inspectorate and local authorities, when they make their decisions on planning applications, should set out clearly how all three factors have been considered as part of the decision-making process.


16. The NPPF states that part of the planning system's role in ensuring development is sustainable includes "identifying and co-ordinating development requirements, including the provision of infrastructure".[37] In our view, development can only be sustainable if it is accompanied by the infrastructure necessary to support it. Many of the parish councils, community groups and local residents submitting evidence told us that permissions were being given to housing development without adequate consideration being given to its impact on local infrastructure such as schools, health care, transport and sewerage.[38] East Leake Parish Council in Hampshire, for example, stated that the size of its village was increasing by 25% but that "infrastructure [was] not being developed apace".[39] It is important that infrastructure provision takes place at the same time as housing development, or the development will be unsustainable. We recommend that the Government issue guidance reminding local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate of the importance of timely infrastructure provision to delivering sustainable development. In setting out the reasons for approving development, decision-makers should fully explain the consideration they have given to its impact on infrastructure and explain how and where they expect the infrastructure to be provided, and to what timetable.


17. The Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) was brought into force in 2010. Councils can charge CIL on new development in their areas and use the proceeds to fund infrastructure.[40] They set out the levy rates in a charging schedule.[41] The NPPF states that CIL "should support and incentivise new development, particularly by placing control over a meaningful proportion of the funds raised with the neighbourhoods where development takes place".[42] Under regulations made in 2013, parish and town councils receiving new development are allocated a proportion (15% or, if a neighbourhood plan is in place, 25%) of the CIL collected in their area.[43]

18. The introduction of CIL was intended to replace the system whereby local authorities used planning obligations (often referred to as section 106 agreements) to secure a contribution to local infrastructure from developers, although section 106 agreements are still necessary for the provision of affordable housing. DCLG has described CIL as a "fairer, faster and more transparent" approach.[44] From April 2015, the Government intends to limit to five the number of planning obligations that can be pooled to fund a single piece of infrastructure.[45] The property company, Savills, has said that this measure will "severely curtail [local authorities'] ability to utilise section 106 as a mechanism for funding strategic, or non-site specific, infrastructure post-April 2015".[46]

19. So far, the number of councils choosing to use CIL has been limited. Research by Savills forecasted that 68% of councils would not have CIL in place by April 2015.[47] This slow adoption rate has led some parish and town councils and community groups to express concern that they are not receiving infrastructure funding because CIL is not being charged.[48] In comments to the press, Cllr Ken Cleary, Chair of the Larger Local Councils Committee at the National Association of Local Councils, said that, as a result, councils were missing out on "crucial investment in infrastructure needs identified by the community, such as improvements to parks and play areas, community facilities, road or traffic schemes and other local projects".[49] We are concerned that parish and town councils might not receive infrastructure funding when the principal authority has decided not to charge CIL. This problem is likely to be particularly acute in neighbourhood planning areas. It would be unfair if a parish council or neighbourhood forum found it had no way of funding the infrastructure allocated in its neighbourhood plan. Local authorities should be particularly mindful of the need to support infrastructure requirements identified in adopted neighbourhood plans. We strongly encourage parish and town councils and neighbourhood forums that have an adopted neighbourhood plan to request from their local planning authorities a share of infrastructure proceeds from section 106 agreements, where the Community Infrastructure Levy is not in place. We encourage local planning authorities to give full consideration to such requests.

20. We gathered that councils might be reluctant to adopt CIL because they do not consider it to be as effective a means of funding infrastructure as planning obligations.[50] Phil Crabtree from Leeds City Council said that section 106 agreements were "simple and understood".[51] The council was now, however, in the process of implementing CIL because it would no longer be able to have more than five planning applications contributing to a collective pot.[52] In our view, the slow adoption of CIL by local authorities speaks for itself: it is clear that some councils consider section 106 agreements a more effective means of securing infrastructure contributions from developers. We consider that, if councils wish to continue using section 106 they should be able to do so, without the Government placing unnecessary restrictions upon them. The Government has committed to conducting a review of CIL in 2015.[53] In our view, it would be preferable to maintain the status quo until this review has had a full opportunity to consider the operation of CIL and its interaction with section 106 agreements. We recommend that the Government revoke its decision to limit to five the number of planning obligations that can contribute to a single piece of infrastructure until the proposed 2015 review of the Community Infrastructure Levy has taken place. In the meantime, local authorities should have a free choice between the use of the Community Infrastructure Levy and section 106 agreements for the funding of infrastructure.

Renewable energy

21. The NPPF sets out a number of "core planning principles" to underpin plan-making and decision-taking. One of these includes the statement that planning should "support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate […] and encourage the use of renewable resources (for example, by the development of renewable energy)".[54] The NPPF includes a number of provisions on renewable energy, including that local authorities should "recognise the responsibility on all communities to contribute to energy generation from renewable or low carbon sources".[55] Generally, our evidence considered these provisions to be sound.[56]

22. While there were few concerns about what the NPPF said about planning for renewable energy, there was unease, especially amongst the renewable energy industry, about what was happening in practice. RenewableUK, an industry body, told us that planning for onshore wind energy was "becoming an increasingly politicised issue rather than being decided on a given project's individual merits, on a case by case basis".[57] The Confederation of British Industry told us that such intervention was "having a serious impact on investor confidence in the renewable energy sector and indicates a lack of trust by government in the planning profession to interpret policy and guidance appropriately".[58] There was particular concern about the number of appeals relating to onshore wind energy that the Secretary of State had chosen to recover for decision by himself rather than a planning inspector. According to data provided to us in October 2014 by RenewableUK, the Secretary of State had recovered 45 renewable energy projects since June 2013, and decisions had been made in 18 cases: two projects had been approved and 16 (89%) had been refused. In six cases, projects had been refused contrary to planning inspectors' recommendations.[59]

23. We saw evidence that the Secretary of State was more likely to refuse renewal energy applications than those for other types of development. A Planning magazine analysis of 2013 recovery and call-in decisions found that 81.25% of housing schemes were allowed by the Secretary of State, compared with only 28.6% of renewables schemes.[60] Nevertheless, we did not find convincing evidence that his decisions had been made contrary to the NPPF. When asked about Secretary of State's decisions on recovered appeals, Simon Ridley, Chief Executive of PINS, told us that planning decisions were "a matter of judgment on the evidence as to the weight given to various considerations in policy or more broadly than that" and that it was unsurprising that the Secretary of State and a planning inspector might come to a different view.[61] Kris Hopkins MP, the Minister with planning responsibility for renewable energy, said that when making decisions on behalf of the Secretary of State, he spent "time deliberating and considering each of those applications, and there is not a political decision there; there is one based upon the evidence that was presented to me".[62] It seemed to us significant that the industry was not seeking to challenge the Secretary of State's decisions in the courts.[63]

24. Notwithstanding the merit of the decision taken, however, it did seem to us that the process could be speeded up. The Government has been very clear that it wishes to see planning decisions taken more quickly. In 2012, the Secretary of State expressed concern that some councils were "failing to make planning decisions in a timely way" and said that planning delays created "uncertainty, both for local residents and local firms". He appears not always to be living up to his own exhortations.[64] RenewableUK stated that the average time between recovery and a decision being made was seven months, and the slowest case had taken 14 months to be decided by the Secretary of State.[65] Mr Hopkins told us that he understood that those seeking a return on their investment would like to see a swifter process, but he stressed the important role the democratic process played.[66]

25. The Secretary of State has the power to recover planning appeals relating to wind energy projects, and to determine them in accordance with Government policy. We found no evidence to suggest that he was doing otherwise. We do, however, consider that he could make decisions faster, in line with his own expressed views about the importance of reducing planning delays. Investors will be deterred if wind energy projects continue to spend upwards of two years in the planning system. We recommend that the Government take appropriate steps to speed up the process of taking decisions on recovered planning appeals. If necessary, it should allocate more resources to the team supporting the Secretary of State on planning decisions.

Biodiversity and the natural environment

26. The NPPF includes a section focused on conserving and enhancing the natural environment, which sets out how the planning system should "contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment".[67] This was another area on which questions were raised that the policy in the NPPF was not being met in practice. Simon Marsh, Head of Planning Policy at the RSPB, told us that the policies within the NPPF were "actually very positive towards the environment".[68] He expressed concern, however, that the policies were not necessarily being applied by all local authorities in their local plans. The RSPB had conducted an analysis of a small sample of local plans and had found that overall they did "not set out coherent, strategic and spatial visions for biodiversity".[69] Mr Marsh considered that a number of councils were "missing that opportunity to set out a more positive vision of what they might be doing for the environment in their area". The RSPB suggested that a lack of ecological expertise within local authorities might be part of the problem.[70] The NPPF provisions on the natural environment have an important role to play in ensuring sustainable development is delivered. Local authorities are missing an opportunity if they do not set out a clear vision for the biodiversity of their area. Moreover, if they do not set out clear policies in respect of the environmental aspects of sustainable development, it may be harder to resist the economic aspects taking a more dominant role. We strongly encourage all local authorities to make the natural environment an important theme in their local plans. To do so, smaller authorities may need to tap into ecological skills available elsewhere, be it in other local authorities or the Planning Advisory Service.


27. There was one aspect of the natural environment on which it was suggested the wording of the NPPF could be strengthened. The Woodland Trust said that the NPPF was giving insufficient protection to ancient woodland. It told us that it had "282 on-going objections to planning applications that would result in the direct loss or damage of ancient woodland".[71] The NPPF currently states that permission should be refused for "development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland […], unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss".[72] The Woodland Trust suggested that this paragraph be amended to state that ancient woodland be lost only in cases where the loss could be proved to be in the "overriding public interest".[73] In oral evidence, however, Richard Barnes, representing the Trust, considered that the term "wholly exceptional" could be used and would mirror what the NPPF says about designated heritage assets within the built environment.[74] Simon Marsh shared the view that ancient woodland was irreplaceable and needed protecting through the planning system. He argued that designating more ancient woodlands as sites of specific scientific interest would make a useful contribution.[75] We agree that ancient woodland should be protected by the planning system. Woodland that is over 400 years old cannot be replaced and should be awarded the same level of protection as our built heritage. We recommend that the Government amend paragraph 118 of the NPPF to state that any loss of ancient woodland should be "wholly exceptional". We further recommend that the Government initiate work with Natural England and the Woodland Trust to establish whether more ancient woodland could be designated as sites of special scientific interest and to consider what the barriers to designation might be.

21   See NPPF, para 0 Back

22   Environmental Audit Committee, Sustainable Development in the National Planning Policy Framework, Oral and written evidence, HC (2010-12) 1480-i Back

23   CLG Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2010-12, The National Planning Policy Framework, HC 1526, para 66 Back

24   DCLG, Government response to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee Report: National Planning Policy Framework, Cm 8322, March 2012, para 21 Back

25   United Nations General Assembly, Resolution 42/187: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, 11 December 1987. It took the definition from Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission of Environment and Development, October 1987, Chapter 2. This report became known as the "Brundtland Report" after the Chair of the Commission, Gro Harlem Brundtland. Back

26   HM Government, Securing the Future: delivering UK sustainable development strategy, Cm 6467, March 2005, p 16  Back

27   NPPF, p 2, box Back

28   NPPF, paras 7 and 8 Back

29   NPP 164, para 3.7 See also, for example, NPP 23 [Hilary Robarts Arnold] and NPP 347 [Note of discussion forum]. Back

30   NPPF, page 2 Back

31   NPPF, para 6 Back

32   Neil Blackshaw (NPP 78), para 5  Back

33   See, for example, Theatres Trust (NPP 100) para 7; Wychavon and Malvern Hills District Council (NPP 145) para 5.2; Kingswood Parish Council (NPP 198), Suffolk Association of Local Councils (NPP 219) para 2.2. Back

34   Kingswood Parish Council (NPP 198) Back

35   The Theatres Trust (NPP 100), para 11 Back

36   Q729 Back

37   NPPF, para 7 Back

38   Note of discussion forum (NPP 347). See also, for example, Dr RE Colyer (NPP 16); Kirklevington and Castleleavington Parish Council (NPP 33); Doug Webb (NPP 35); Whitchurch Village Action Group (NPP 44) and Wantage and Grove Campaign Group (NPP 71).  Back

39   East Leake Parish Council (NPP 27)  Back

40   DCLG, 'Community Infrastructure Levy', updated 23 May 2014 Back

41   DCLG, National Planning Practice Guidance, 'The Community Infrastructure Levy', updated 12 June 2014 Back

42   NPPF, para 175 Back

43   The Community Infrastructure Levy (Amendment) Regulations 2013 (SI 2013/982). See also DCLG, 'Community Infrastructure Levy', updated 23 May 2014. Back

44   DCLG, 'Community Infrastructure Levy', updated 23 May 2014. Section 106 is contained in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Back

45   DCLG, National Planning Practice Guidance, 'The Community Infrastructure Levy', updated 12 June 2014. This restriction already applies where CIL has been introduced. Back

46   Savills, Spotlight: CIL: The Countdown to April 2015, July 2014, page 2 Back

47   Savills, Spotlight: CIL: The Countdown to April 2015, July 2014, page 1 Back

48   Note of discussion forum (NPP 347). On local councils' concerns about CIL, see also Suffolk Association of Local Councils (NPP 219) para 1.3. Back

49   Local Government Executive, 'NALC: Community Infrastructure Levy not working', 6 May 2014 Back

50   See, for example Milton Keynes Council (NPP 180), para 3.1. Back

51   Q545 Back

52   As above Back

53   Q816 [Brandon Lewis] Back

54   NPPF, para 17 Back

55   NPPF, para 97 Back

56   See, for example, Confederation of British Industry (NPP 166), para 21; RenewableUK (NPP 205); Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (NPP 262)  Back

57   RenewableUK (NPP 205), para 3.5 Back

58   Confederation of British Industry (NPP 166), para 21 Back

59   RenewableUK (NPP 205), Appendix 1 Back

60   "Secretary of state under the spotlight", Planning magazine, 17 January 2014 Back

61   Q712 Back

62   Q841 Back

63   Q450 [Gemma Grimes] Back

64   HC Deb, 6 September 2012, col 401 Back

65   RenewableUK (NPP 292) Back

66   Q842 Back

67   NPPF, paras 109ff Back

68   Q198 Back

69   Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (NPP 212), Executive Summary Back

70   Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (NPP 212), para 36 Back

71   Woodland Trust (NPP 222), para 3 Back

72   NPPF, para 118 Back

73   Woodland Trust (NPP 222), para 7 Back

74   Q201. Paragraph 132 of the NPPF states: "Substantial harm to or loss of designated heritage assets of the highest significance, notably scheduled monuments, protected wreck sites, battlefields, grade I and II* listed buildings, grade I and II* registered parks and gardens, and World Heritage Sites, should be wholly exceptional". Back

75   Q201 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 16 December 2014