On Monday the Government published its long-awaited draft National Planning Policy Framework. The document - a radical consolidation of over 1000 pages of policy into around 50 - is now the subject of public consultation until 17 October.
The document's publication was followed by a flurry of statements, quotes and commentary from across the industry, whilst the social media channels erupted in a storm of tweets, blogs and posts. Our Summer Bulletin - to be published in due course - will contain a detailed analysis of the document and its implications. For now we highlight some of the main points and consider the role of the Framework in the story of localism under the Coalition Government so far.
By the time its final draft was published, following publication of a leaked version and a draft prepared by the Practitioners Advisory Group, little of the Framework came as much of a surprise. Commentators have already drawn attention to the pro-development tenor of the document. The presumption in favour of sustainable development - the "golden thread" running through the document - the suggestion that the default answer to development should be "yes", and the invitation to councils to approve "all individual proposals where possible", among others, are all indicative of a real commitment to economic development on the part of Government. They are also a signal that councils, communities and developers will be expected to play their part in delivery.
At the same time, however, the draft Framework can be seen to contain effective checks and balances. For instance, it is worth noting that the presumption in favour of development applies only in relation to that which is "sustainable" - a concept open to wide interpretation and one that will undoubtedly be adopted by both proponents and opponents of the same proposals in due course. Equally, whilst the move from "development control" to "development management" is a key shift - instead of finding reasons to resist development, councils will need to focus on approving development so long as key sustainability principles are met - nevertheless the document acknowledges the need for an appropriate balance and requires development to be well designed appropriately located. This draft Framework is not, clearly, a green light to the blanket approval of planning applications.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the document, however, is its role in cementing a marked shift in focus by the Government over recent months. The move from localism - the empowerment of communities, the creation of a range of new local "rights", proposals to reform the appeal system, and so on - to an agenda based on economic growth, began in the spring when Chancellor George Osborne delivered his Budget and urged a reprioritisation in planning. There followed a flurry of pro-development initiatives - the "Build Now, Pay Later" scheme, public sector land auctions, the planning guarantee, and so on. Finally, on Monday, with the publication of the draft Framework, that change in direction was completed, leading to howls of protest from environmental groups such as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. This fundamental shift reflects, no doubt, Government's recognition that the implementation of a fiercely localist agenda has the potential to act as a serious constraint on the development essential to the UK's economic recovery, and thus, critics argue, reveals something of a tension at the heart of this Coalition Government's policy.
Finally, a practical point. The consolidation of policy is almost always to be welcomed. In this case the Government intends to cancel all existing PPSs, PPGs and MPGs, along with a long list of other guidance. It remains to be seen how much supporting advice will be produced in its place in due course, but few will be surprised if, in the end, this is substantial. For example, there is no reference, in the draft Framework, to the Coalition's policy on "garden grabbing", the subject of a letter to Chief Planning Officers in June 2010, included in the list of documents to be cancelled. This sort of detail will surely find its way back into policy in the end. Similarly, councils and developers rely heavily on the huge volume of technical advice in relation to matters such as flooding in PPS 25, the historic environment in PPS 5, major development sites in the green belt in PPG 2 and so on. The Impact Assessment accompanying the draft Framework indicates that in future much "good practice guidance would be developed and owned by relevant external bodies, rather than being specified centrally", suggesting that these matters will be left to others where possible. Whether in the event the Government remains willing to delegate such important policy to others remains to be seen, and it will be interesting in the years ahead to look back to this moment to examine just how much "consolidating" took place in practice.