Neighbourhood Planning Bill

Written evidence submitted by Friends of the Earth (NPB 08)

Neighbourhood Planning Bill

1. Friends of the Earth campaigns for everyone to have a right to healthy places to live and for fair shares of our resources in order to safeguard future generations. Friends of the Earth has long advocated a participative, democratic and fair planning system that delivers sustainable development and safeguards the public interest. Friends of the Earth has a network of over 200 local groups in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, many of whom are engaged in local planning in order to deliver more sustainable places.

Summary

2. Friends of the Earth recognises that more homes are required in England, but is of the view that these should be built now to zero carbon standards, and fully address issues such as location, transport access, and adaptation to climate change. Most of these homes can be built in our existing towns and cities in the next few years, where we can use the opportunity of new development to create high quality places, where people want to live and work, and which include high quality natural environments and space for wildlife. The planning system is how we shape places in England, enabling people to consider the future and evaluate new developments and how they might fit within an existing area. Local representative accountability for planning at a local level is a cornerstone of democracy in England and should not be undermined. Ensuring people have a genuine say in the development that affects them is also essential in building or maintaining public trust and public support for new developments a community might need, and in the planning system as a whole. However, planning teams are seriously under-resourced, which is undermining the achievement of the best quality processes and outcomes. Therefore, although we support the need for more homes, particularly for the more vulnerable in society and those most in need, the proposed changes in this bill on pre-commencement conditions put too much leverage in the hands of developers to avoid mitigating the social, environmental and economic impacts of their developments. Yet proper consideration and protection of these aspects are essential for wider society and to maintain a fair balance in the planning system.

3. These proposals are made on the erroneous basis that pre-commencement conditions are bad for development (and what is good for development is best for everyone), whereas their use actually plays an important role that helps achieve high quality outcomes for local communities. Their perceived over-use, as suggested by developers and others, is more down to the under-resourcing of Local Authorities who are not able to deal with applications expeditiously and in line with best practice as a result.

Conditions

4. We fail to understand the benefit of allowing the Secretary of State broad powers to restrict conditions which were designed to ensure that there is both local discretion and the ability to mitigate according to the merits and circumstances of each planning application. We do not see any evidence that has been brought forward that demonstrates that centralising interference and essentially "pre-determining" on what is essentially a local issue will deliver better quality developments. As such the rationale for the proposed new powers is simply not there.

5. It is both the principle and the implementation which are problematic. If matters such as local drainage, archaeological interest, biodiversity presence, are legally prevented (or restricted) from being properly considered at an application stage under 7(1)(c) (for any development), then we query in whose interest this decision is made? It is both complex and confusing to try and prescribe nationally the type of conditions for the type of developments – consider the normal range of issues that must be considered for example under EIA – "fauna, flora, soil, water, air, climatic factors, material assets, including the architectural and archaeological heritage, landscape and the inter-relationship between the above factors" in addition to transport and energy matters. We recommend the deletion of this clause 7(1) (100ZA) as contrary to local public interest and democratic accountability. It also presents yet another unwelcome layer of complexity in a highly technical planning system without compelling justification.

6. In addition, the clauses bring into legislative force the policy tests set out in planning guidance on conditions (paragraph 206 from the National Planning Policy Framework 2012), however we fail to see how this legislative force does anything other than create the means for dissent by the developer to conditions that may be imposed by a local planning authority. As the timeframe for consideration of planning applications is much curtailed, and as the resources in planning departments have also fallen substantially – as reported by the Local Government Association, the British Property Federation amongst others – there is a very real and compounding issue. Less time to deal with applications and with less staff is a double blow when such departments are trying to ensure that developments are both properly considered and supported through the planning system. We recommend the deletion of this clause 7(2) (100ZA) and instead support the provision of increased ring-fenced funding for planning departments.

7. Further, we recommend the deletion of clause 7(5). This clause means that it will be impossible for local democratically elected members to impose conditions as they see fit in the process of planning committee deliberations. The public will not understand why developers have the ‘whip hand’ in terms of refusing to agree to conditions. This will undermine further public confidence in the system.

8. It is obvious to Friends of the Earth that much of the planning reform over the last few years has completely failed to consider public participation (apart from Neighbourhood Planning). We suggest the Government could make pre-application consultation mandatory for many more scales and types of developments to ensure that people are involved at the earliest stages of thinking and designing new development.

9. New development models with local planning authorities as leading partners should be the solution for delivering truly affordable homes for those on low and middle incomes, as well as social housing for those most in need. Access to land is key to making this sort of development possible. Greater measures should be considered to prevent "land-banking" by large commercial entities which militate against the urgent national interest for more housing in pursuit of private profit.

10. We suggest that the abandonment of standards such as the Code for Sustainable Homes, the failure to instigate requirements for sustainable urban drainage, the halt in development of onshore wind and other renewables, demonstrates that there is a need for a legal definition of sustainable development that provides certainty for developers and the public. We therefore support a new clause to create a legal definition of sustainable development. Sustainable development should be seen as a driver of new development rather than a potential obstacle or threat, and a clear legal definition would help achieve the best outcomes.

11. At present it is not generally accepted how the provisions the Climate Change Act 2008 and subsequent agreements such as the Paris Agreement relate to individual development decisions that are contributing to the emissions of greenhouse gases, although crucially important. Every decision matters when it comes to climate change mitigation – it cannot always be put off to another decision, somewhere else. One important result of a possible duty is that planning decision-makers would be required to understand the full carbon profile of the proposed development and ensure that measures to reduce carbon emissions are taken where possible. Decision-makers have not engaged sufficiently with a readily available scientific evidence-base for impacts. Secondly, each development will need to consider the particular climate change emissions impacts - and should not rely, for example, on blanket assumptions that a development's emissions are already considered / deemed acceptable. There is an important culture change to embed climate change considerations in decision-making. The issue remains novel to many professionals and its status as a material consideration remains uncertain. A duty to consider climate change signals the weight to be given to climate issues more effectively than any other measure. We support a new clause to ensure that decision-making considers the need to achieve the provisions of the Climate Change Act 2008.

October 2016

 

Prepared 26th October 2016