The new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). After almost six months of consultation and debate, the new policy document is out, which was published on the 27th March 2012 alongside the technical guidance and and policy guidance for traveller sites (on the 23rd March 2012). And as I didn’t predict in my last blog, the NPPF is to be applied immediately, i.e. there is no transitional period; and as I did predict, Planning Policy Statement 9 (PPS 9): Biodiversity and Geological Conservation has been cancelled (or has it?…I’ll come back to this later in this blog).
As there are many elements to read and review, I will be taking a few points that I consider to be relevant and discussing them in more detail over several blogs, rather than trying to consolidate all in a single, long and cumbersome entry. This will, I hope make it easier to digest my views and opinions. Of course, the real test will be when real decisions are made based on the NPPF and if they are then challenged in the Courts. So I am putting these points across, more as an opportunity to stimulate discussion, either as comments on the blog, or with colleagues in your office. It will then be interesting to follow the NPPF and the decisions it generates and discover if any of the points raised are valid or not. I’d be interested in your views.
So, what is the final version of the NPPF like?
In short, it would be reasonable to state that it is, in general terms, an improvement on the draft; certainly from the perspective of planners and nature conservation professionals. The details as to why this is considered to be so can be found by following the links contained in a very useful summary by a favourite blogger of mine, Mark Avery but I will return to this area of discussion in a subsequent blog entry.
Anyway, back to the NPPF. It can be divided in to two sections: paragraphs 1 to 17 can be described as the introduction and intentions; and 18 to 219 are the policies. This may be significant when applying the NPPF or interpreting decisions. For example, the Brundtland definition of sustainable development, which is now included in the NPPF (“Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs“) is included in boxed text within the ‘intentions’ section; not policy. Importantly, paragraph 6 of the NPPF explicity 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"
So a decision based on Government policy need not take the Brundtland definition; it only has to (presumably) apply the policy definition which is introduced in paragraph 17 (Core Planning Principles) as a bullet-point list of 12 principles which should “…underpin both plan-making and decision-taking.“. These 12 principles are expanded upon between paragraphs 18 and 149 under 13 headings. Notably, economic principles head the list (Principles 1 to 3) but Sustainable Transport (Principle 4), Communication Infrastructure (Principle 5), Housing (Principle 6) and Design (Principle 7) are in the first half. As this blog is aimed at nature conservation, I’ll focus on this principle, which is 11th in the list and is covered between paragraphs 109 and 125.
Principle 11: Conserving and Enhancing the Natural Environment
It is worth pointing out that this does not cover the concept of green belt which is covered in a separate principle elsewhere in the NPPF. However, it covers more than just nature conservation (i.e. habitats and species) in that it also deals with landscapes, ecosystem services, pollution and remediation (paragraph 109). The NPPF states in paragraph 11o that “plans [e.g. the Local Plan] should allocate land with the least environmental and amenity value where consistent with other policies in this Framework.”. This a broad statement to make; for example, what constitutes ‘least’ value for amenity? Amenity value will be different, to different people/ organisations. This is (within this section), the first point where there is ambiguity and open to interpretation (and abuse?). Until there is guidance (which the Government wishes to avoid), different local authorities could well assign different thresholds. All land has some environmental and amenity value and for inner cities or residential areas, the lower threshold will be lower then say, for more suburban or rural communities. Consequently, it could be expected that developers will experience different approaches in different communities. Will this be beneficial or create layers of confusion and inconsistency?
Paragraph 111 will be of interest to organisations such as Buglife, entomologists and ecologists in general, as it deals with brownfield sites. In the draft NPPF, the presumption for building on previously developed land (brownfield) was omitted, to the consternation of the general media and public. This was interpreted as greenfield sites, including the greenbelt, could be preferentially identified for development, threatening the countryside. Ironically, many brownfield sites are of significant importance for rare and declining invertebrate species (e.g. shrill carder bee) so the omission was potentially in these sites’ favour. The new NPPF has reinserted the brownfield ‘first’ policy (i.e. the brownfield test) which states in its entirety:
Planning policies and decisions should encourage the effective use of land by re-using land that has been previously developed (brownfield land), provided that it is not of high environmental value. Local planning authorities may continue to consider the case for setting a locally appropriate target for the use of brownfield land.
This policy is arguably ambiguous as what constitutes ‘not of high environmental value‘ in this context? Does it mean a site that is of low nature conservation value, low biodiversity? If so, why not implicitly state this? A brownfield site which has minimal contamination would arguably be of ‘high environmental value’ as it would not be as ‘dangerous’. So will policies be developed that make such sites more difficult to develop? It seems confusing to me, as if the author knew what they meant as they were writing it but has failed to express it coherently and unambiguously.
Potentially concerning to Buglife and others is the policy on travellers sites published concurrently with the NPPF and which has wording that is even more ambiguous:
When considering applications, local planning authorities should attach weight to the following matters…effective use of previously developed (brownfield), untidy or derelict land…
Whilst the policy applies to travellers sites; (a) what is the definition of ‘untidy’; and (b) could this be applied to other developments? For example, could a housing developer argue that this policy discriminates against them providing social housing? Furthermore, does this policy have external conflict with the UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Habitat, Open Mosaic Habitats on Previously Developed Land and its definition, and therefore internal conflict within the NPPF (see paragraph 117 which deals with promoting the preservation, restoration and recreation of priority habitats)?
And here inlies another potential conflict. At the start of this blog, I queried whether PPS 9 had been cancelled. This may at first reading be a silly thing to state as Annexe 3 of the NPPF clearly lists this document as having been cancelled as of the 27th March 2012. However, the guidance document that supported PPS 9 has not been included in this list and nor has Government Circular 06/05: Biodiversity and Geological Conservation, so given that other Government Circulars are expressly stated as being cancelled and letters to Chief Planning officers, there is at least some confusion as to the status of these two documents, especially the guidance document to PPS 9. It should also be pointed out that Government Circular 06/05 is referenced in footnote 24 of the NPPF in the context of setting criteria based policies against which proposals for any development on or affecting protected wildlife or geodiversity sites or landscape areas will be judged on designated sites (paragraph 113).
The relevance of this point to brownfield sites is twofold:if the guidance document is still ‘live’, then in paragraphs 4.41 and 4.42 which deal with ‘Previously Developed Land’, it is stated that “…where these sites have significant biodiversity and geological interest of recognised local importance, the aim should be to retain and incorporate it into the site…they [Local Planning Authorities] should consider the presence of such ‘brownfield biodiversity’ when developing the evidence base…or when considering allocating sites for development and the content of criteria-based policies. It would be advantageous if any biodiversity value of previously developed sites was identified early in the process…Its protection could then be addressed through appropriate [plan] policies and site allocations and by producing design guidance and development briefs…Good practice in incorporating biodiversity/geodiversity into the design of development on previously developed sites…advocating wider good practice in sustainable design.“; andwithin the Government Circular, paragraph 84 states that “The potential effects of a development, on habitats or species listed as priorities in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP), and by Local Biodiversity Partnerships, together with policies in the England Biodiversity Strategy, are capable of being a material consideration in the preparation of regional spatial strategies [now or shortly to be defunct] and [the local plan] and the making of planning decisions“.
Clearly, these statements conflict with the NPPF and there is at the very least, potential to challenge the validity of the NPPF in this area if either or both these documents remain a material consideration. However, I accept that in the case of the PPS 9 guidance document, this argument could be considered tenuous.
There are plenty of other points to discuss, including ancient woodlands and other organisations views but I’ll leave these (and more) to a second and perhaps a third entry.
Richard Wilson Ecology