Quote of the Day:
"There is no gambling like politics" - Benjamin Disraeli
The excitement this morning was palpable – radios all over the country were switched on to hear the NPPF leading, yes that's right, leading the news at 6:30am on Today. For the geeks in planning and politics (and remember, geek is chic) this morning has been like Christmas Eve and finally, the Day has arrived.
It was trailed as being unashamedly pro-growth but with safeguards, so, we were all expecting the final NPPF, which comes into effect immediately, to be pretty much identical to the draft NPPF although written in a different order. In the event, there are a number of significant changes – in emphasis more than anything else – which certainly strengthens protections for the greenbelt and the conservation of heritage assets and will provide some comfort to opponents. The wording of elements of the document is more reminiscent of earlier PPSs, clarifying where safeguards sit.
What many of us missed was the publication on Sunday of planning guidance on traveller sites, which needs to be read in conjunction with the new NPPF. This specifically seeks to prevent travellers from occupying greenbelt and applying for retrospective planning permission – of more concern to Tory voters than any other group perhaps, but still, an important issue.
As the appointed hour came, Greg Clark stood up and, in his best Parish Vicar's voice gallantly delivered a very calming Sunday Sermon, announcing the plan to put 'unprecedented power in the hands of communities' - a few disbelieving guffaws behind him didn't put him off his stride as he continued to deliver his words to the gathered flock of believers, non-believers and some downright heathens. Sitting in the background was the visiting Bishop, Eric Pickles, who had come to oversee the delivery of the Sermon to make sure it was all done correctly.
Addressing the need for planning to deliver both economic growth and protection of the countryside, Clark set out the case for reform and the need to enable development, whilst slamming development which denigrates local areas and degrades the environment – certainly setting the framework designed to reassure the CPRE, National Trust and other countryside lobbies. Throughout the Ministerial Statement, Clark was at pains to stress that there would be intrinsic and explicit protections for the countryside – indeed, most of his speech was spent promising protections (presumably the economic growth bit had already been done to death).
So, how does this actually translate in the document itself?
Well, it was a while before we found out – it took the IT Crowd at CLG a while to get the document on line. In the interim, the Twittersphere made up for the vacuum, making up its own assumption and achieving the remarkable task of getting NPPF 'trending' on twitter. For those of you who don't know – or indeed care – how Twitter works and whether something trends or does whatever the opposite is. Then just ignore that previous statement, it is totally irrelevant guff created by lots of people who don't want to miss out on being first with the news…
Eventually it was published – 72 pages, not 50, by the way, which makes a difference when you haven't managed to get out for lunch in your excitement and haste…
There is a change in emphasis – certainly protecting local environment and heritage. The intrinsic value of the countryside has been included in the NPPF following its removal from the first draft. The document opens with the reiteration – and clarification – of the definition of the presumption in favour of sustainable development. In terms of the presumption in favour of sustainable development, this should be seen as the golden goose – whoops, I meant golden thread – through both plan-making and decision-making… All plans need to reflect this, setting out a positive approach to meeting the development needs of a local area.
The Twelve Step Fellowship…
In line with any good organisation which is trying to change behaviours of its followers, the NPPF sets out the 12-Principles of planning (not to be confused with the 12-Steps to sobriety, but potentially just as didactic and evangelical)… These are: To be genuinely plan-led, empowering local people to shape their surroundings and kept up to date;To be a creative exercise in enhancing an improving the places in which people live their lives (government may want to be careful with any potentially cavalier use of the word 'creative' at the moment);To proactively drive and support sustainable economic development to deliver homes, businesses and infrastructure and taking account of market signals (the inclusion of the need to consider market signals is important as it builds flexibility into policy which may make it a much less crude tool);To seek secure high quality design (this is regarded as central both to successful economic growth and to generating the support of local communities. Probably important to remember that the definition of 'quality' is 'fitness for purpose'. One person's castle is another persons cheap plastic wendy house);To take account of the different roles and character of different areas, promoting viability of urban areas and protecting the green belt;To support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate;To contribute to conserving and enhancing the natural environment and reducing pollution;To encourage the effective use of land by reusing previously developed land;To promote mixed-use developments;To conserve heritage assets in a manner appropriate to their significance;To actively manage patterns of growth;To take account of and support local strategies to improve health, social and cultural well being
The document emphasises that Local Plans must be prepared with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development, achieving net gains across social, economic and environmental development. This focuses on planning positively for development over an appropriate time scale. The duty to cooperate is emphasised along with the need for substantiated evidence bases focusing on housing, business, infrastructure and environment needs. Within this, it is clear that the duty to cooperate extends not just to other local authorities but also to the private sector. The need to understand the market dynamics within their local area and the requirements of business as well as housing need is stressed heavily.
The Local Plan needs to be 'aspirational but realistic' - it is all very well aspiring to an equivalent of Silicon Valley in every outpost of the UK, but it is highly unlikely to be delivered and simply sets up an unobtainable and problematic approach to planning and development.
The document reiterates that Neighbourhood Plans cannot propose less development than is set out in the Local Plan, or undermine its strategic policies. However, outside of strategic elements, Neighbourhood Plans will be able to 'shape and direct sustainable development in their area'. At this point, local communities – or at least the Neighbourhood Forum – will be expected to be very much engaged in the planning process from the outset.
The cynical part of me wants to comment that this is likely to mean planting flowers and painting fences rather than anything more substantive. However, it is likely to be entirely dependent on the local area – in some places it may well be that the Community Right to Build and some substantive changes are effected by Neighbourhood Planning. Furthermore, in areas where there are large strategic landholders with a 10-15 year timeframe for bringing forward development, there is a strong argument to say that getting involved in – or potentially leading – a Neighbourhood Plan process could result in a much more cohesive and positive development than would otherwise be the case.
The Key Points:
The changes which had been anticipated are included. However, it is worth reviewing the document as a whole – given that it comes into effect today, it has huge implications for all existing and future planning applications. Perhaps more importantly, will be the way in which this is interpreted and implemented across local authorities – and by councillors at subsequent planning committees. The document places much greater weight on greenbelt and heritage issues, which will go some way to assuaging the original anti-lobby.Development will not be held up unless approval will be against interests – however, the default 'yes' to sustainable development has been withdrawn. This is likely to leave much more open to interpretation and local discretion – and, moreover, local politics. This is quite a significant change in emphasis;The NPPF now directly refers back to the five principles of the UK environmental strategy, including the Bruntland definition (much to the delight of Mr (Hillary) Benn, who claimed credit);Presumption in favour of sustainable development works through, and not against Local Plans. It cannot over-ride other environmental principles and protected areas;As expected, the principle of preferring brownfield sites has been specifically re-included – although, not specifically brownfield first – however, it is very clear that the re-use of land is to be prioritised;Transitional arrangements will give weight to plans according to advanced stage and will give 12 months to allow existing plans to accord with policy. For local authorities with no up to date plan, the NPPF will come into force today. This is quite a significant statement and has the potential for quite an impact in some areas where local authorities have been delaying bringing in a Local Plan;Town centre first has been strengthened and office development re-included, with an exemption for rural business. This effectively puts PPS4 back into the NPPF;Investment in business should not be over-burdened by the combined requirements of planning policy expectations;Planning policies should avoid the long-term protection of sites allocated for employment use where there is no reasonable prospect of a site being used for that purpose. This is likely to be well-received by many who find applications, particularly in urban areas, held-up due to local authorities hanging on to designated employment land which is unlikely to ever be redeveloped as such;Policy on identifying housing land is reiterated, with the need for local authorities to ensure that Local Plans meet a full and objectively assessed needs criteria with a specific, deliverable 5-year housing supply. This will also allow for windfall sites to be considered;The potential for a change of use from commercial to residential remains, however, with greater flexibility which enables this to be refused should there be strong economic reasons why it would be inappropriate – effectively allowing an opt-out for the City of London;Planning positively for mixed-communities and supporting Right to Build, schools building programmes etc;Enabling a Local Green Space designation – this is rather like a village green designation but seeks to reduce how this can be applied. However, it is open to interpretation and it will be interesting to see how this plays out;Front-loading community engagement – obviously, we at Snapdragon think that this is incredibly important…
Following some very balanced coverage on Today this morning, Eric Pickles wandered into the Radio 4 studios in an uncharacteristically conciliatory and pleasant mode to have a chat on the World at One. He basically reiterated what had been said before and only had a small retort when the spectre of financial incentives (that is alleged incentives from property people to the government) was waved at him. Back in the House of Commons, speaker after speaker stood up to comment on the positive nature of the changes, possibly express some residual concerns but, more importantly, look to clarify how they could use the policy to prevent a development in their own patch. Obviously, hastening to make it clear that they are not anti-development, no, it's just that this particular development is inappropriate – really, it is. Which brings us back to the very basic question of – will the NPPF actually make any difference anyway? Will the amendments to the national policy really change the nature of decision-making at the local level where elected councillors have local constituents and voters to answer to? The answer to that won't be clear for some time to come – but I wouldn't be going to Ladbrokes to bet on a dramatic rise in housebuilding anytime soon… Or maybe I'm just getting even more cynical…
Founder/Director, Snapdragon Consulting