The end of the consultation on the NPPF

Posted by Rod Ellison on 22/11/2011

The draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) of the various changes proposed to planning and energy sector regulation it seems to have most polarised opinion and best attracted media attention. The debate is becoming increasingly politicised with the National Trust and the Council for the Protection of Rural England voicing concern over the use of planning as a tool to stimulate economic growth. On the other side of the fence bodies such of the British Property Federation largely welcome the direction of travel and “support the document and the way it will streamline the planning process”. Organisations critical are denigrated by the ‘pro growth lobby’ as ‘countryside groups’, the ‘protectionist (and smartly housed) lobby’ and recently by tautologous MPs as demonstrating ‘nihilistic selfishness’; ironic when the spirit of the NPPF is frugality of text. What has not been so well published are technically robust consultation responses from professional organisations such as the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and the Town and Country Planning Institute. In summary these bodies are not glowing in their praise for the NPPF.

The Direction of Travel

The NPPF will replace all the existing planning policy statements (PPSs), planning policy guidance (PPGs) and some circulars. It is the Government's overarching statement on the purpose of the planning system. The NPPF will apply to the preparation of local and neighbourhood plans and to development control decisions. Government suggests that by ‘replacing over a thousand pages of national policy with around fifty, written simply and clearly, we are allowing people and communities back into planning’; localism in action? The reality might not quite be that simple especially if one reflects back to commitments dropped made in the Conservatives 2010 document Open Source Planning. The conflict between Localism and the deregulation of the planning system has previously been identified as conflicting and some suggest the reality is that is only giving local communities the option to approve development, not question it.

Before considering some the implications it is interesting to undertake a simple word count of the document; the list below summarise how often terms are repeated within the 52 pages.

Development 327

Housing 94

Sustainable Development 44

Renewable 17

Biodiversity 17

Regeneration  & brownfield 5

Wind 1

My thoughts on the document are similar to those of CIWEM, the RTPI and TCPA. The NPPF aims to simplify planning but should planning be simple? As CIEWN observes ‘it needs to consider a range of factors, the sum of which equate to people quality of life. The present system may seem like a lumbering leviathan but that is much to do with the resourcing of local authorities, the Government has confused clarity with brevity, and communities and the environment will suffer as a result’. My opinion is that the simplicity of the document misses a lot nuances of associated infrastructure development, the importance of decarbonising our economy and wider land management functions; it reads as a series of growth and housing sound bites.

Some might suggest environmental and planning professionals have a vested interest in a complex system to feather their nests. The truth is more complex. The vast majority of professionals are advocates of appropriate development and as the RTPI correctly points out most applications do obtain planning permission (for instance 90% of major commercial applications). Furthermore for types of development typically difficult to consent it is questionable whether the NPPF provides an easier less risky system. Planning is important and should steer development so that the approved design represents the best practicable sustainable solution; the reality of this process is that it is complex and needs professional training and years of experience in its application. What is the purpose of the planning system?

In the ministerial foreword to the NPPF it is correctly stated that ‘the purpose of planning is to enable sustainable development’ this right but the devil does lie in the detail. The spirit of the NPPF is not really about sustainable development but about development which the word count succinctly demonstrates.

Environmental and planning professionals work hard to balance social, environmental and economic factors; in our crowded country with a vocal NIMBY opposing every form of development this is far from easy. As much as one strives to be analytical and scientific the subjective often tries to hijack the process. My experience is that well designed developments do receive consent although at times the process can be protracted. Renewables Energy Renewables undoubtedly receives a rough ride through the current system especially onshore wind. Yet in this area the NPPF does not provide enough solace. The NPPF replaces PPS 22 with two paragraphs; naive for what is typically one of the most complex forms of development to consent. Some highlights include:

•Paragraph 146 states renewable in the green belt ‘will need to demonstrate very special circumstances if projects are to proceed’ – what are special circumstances? One might whether question whether this clause is a red light.

•Paragraph 152 – LPAs to identify suitable areas for renewable – strangely familiar from the defunct Regional Spatial Strategies and from experience it is developers who are better qualified to identify suitable locations based on energy yield, grid connection and landowner interest.

•Paragraph 153 – ‘not require for applicants for energy development to demonstrate the overall need for renewable or low carbon energy’ – this is a commonsensical change.

As Gemma Grimes, head of onshore renewable for renewable UK commented the NPPF ‘doesn’t have any of the detail of the existing guidance’ ‘they’ve removed so much there’s not clarity at all’. She goes on to comment how councils are asked to protect valued landscapes yet the NPPF makes no references to how renewable are to be integrated within these landscapes. With landscape and visual impact assessment being such a critical area for wind application, and one of the most common causes for applications being rejected, one must question the less is more philosophy.

Housing, Mixed use and Commercial Development

Broadly speaking the NPPF is positive news for housing developers and states a key objective is to significantly increase the delivery of new homes. The NPPF goes onto stress that ‘not only will the requirement for a five year supply be maintained, but supply should include an additional 20% allowance for choice and competition in the market’. In terms of freeing up land for development with the clause that when a Local Plan is absent, silent, indeterminate the NPPF states that planning permission should be granted. All good news for housing and the economy? This is the case if one assumes the complexity of the planning system has been the cause of reduced new builds and increased house prices; assumptions some may question as robust. It might be more appropriately suggested that the current slump in house building is the result of a lack of finance, both for homebuyers and housebuilders, and that the slowdown in planning permissions is the result of the lack of planning applications.

It seems likely the NPPF will stimulate more applications for housing/mixed use but whether this is a suitable response to the downturn and high house prices is another matter entirely. Conclusion Conservationists are concerned by the lack of detail opening the door to poorly conceived development in the wrong place. On the other side of the fence the lack of detail raises concerns that we are going back to a planning system which more frequently results in public inquiries. As the RTPI President Richard Summers correctly states the draft NPPF is a missed opportunity. The connection between a strong economy and developing more land is continually suggested throughout the NPPF. For a sustainable economy planning is critical in enabling and designing the right development, in the right place aligned with demand.

The certainty provided by the planning system is essential in supporting business investments decisions. Such certainties include, in particular, the knowledge that there will be customers and a workforce, that infrastructure will be provided, and that other development will not be allowed which would prejudice a business’s investment.

My thoughts on how best respond to the direction of travel is to be mindfull that the NPPF may well increase local resistance to development and that proponents need to be more aware than ever of the risk of protracted inquiries. The NPPF may create new opportunities but the developments most likely to succeed remains those who’s design is robust and defensible.

In terms of renewable it is a welcome change that we will no longer be required to demonstrate need. On the flip side as for waiting for the LPA to identify suitable renewable energy sites; this is unlikely to be tenable.