From the hullabaloo in the press, and the litter of commentaries, you might think that the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is a radical change of direction. The National Trust has complained about a return to 1930s sprawl. Some have extolled it as "pro-growth" while others have characterized it as the death of localism, sacrificed on the altar of the economy. It is none of these things.
Most initial reviews ignore three key points.
First, the Government is committed to revoking Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) and top-down targets. In the past they were the vehicles for making sure that housing and commercial needs were met. In their absence, the multiple references to local plans' requirement to meet "objectively assessed" needs is, in effect, a substitute mechanism. All it does is re-state what the plans were always meant to deliver.
Second, there is real freedom about the future shape and content of plans – the process has been localized and made more accessible. Planning authorities and local communities can, provided that they identify how needs will be met, choose how to locate proposed development. The absence of a national policy on parking standards does not mean that parking standards cannot be set. The absence of a national policy on protecting the countryside does not mean that policies on the protection of the countryside cannot be included. Communities can choose to protect areas that are not required to meet needs. Plans can be far more local and, if they do not offend the broad principles lying behind the NPPF, can be far more imaginative. We are in a different era of plan making, and everyone will have to explore the freedoms that are now offered. There will be a proliferation of arguments, choices and options. The National Trust may well be able to make a good case to prevent suburban sprawl, but it will have to argue that case locally rather than relying on a national diktat. Rightly, it will not always win.
Third, the "interregnum" is not the same as the final plan-led system. Until proper updated local plans are in place, there will be a presumption in favor of development, unless it fails to meet the sustainable objectives of the NPPF. In reality this only puts at risk a few areas of the country; primarily those that have failed to progress their core strategies properly and have failed to ensure a five-year housing land supply. Given that seven years have already passed since the 2004 Act came into place no one should have great sympathy with these authorities. In any event, development that is not of good quality, in an accessible location and supported by local facilities will not be sustainable and can still be refused. There will be a period of pressure on authorities, and some successful appeals – but we will end up with a better, more local and more responsive planning process.
Because the battle lines have been drawn up on a misguided pro-growth/anti-growth basis, there are some interesting points in the NPPF that have, so far, been overlooked. For example:
- The impact assessment suggests that the NPPF will be in place by "end of 2011, if possible". Given that the consultation period closes on the 17 October this is a heroic assumption.
- The impact assessment indicates that all of the 6000 pages of supporting "guidance" will be consolidated using the same practitioner-led approach. This is to be welcomed.
- Local plans are asked to set out proposals for the future use of land "regardless of its present use". These will, hopefully, end the nonsensical planning process that allows previously developed sites in stupid locations to be redeveloped, even though they remain in stupid locations. It may prevent the argument that an inappropriately tall tower can be the site for a similarly mistakenly tall block. Perhaps we will start planning properly, rather than being inhibited by a poor historic legacy.
- The strategic priorities in local plans are set out quite clearly in terms of housing, economic, infrastructure and landscape needs. This does, however, leave real scope for neighborhoods and neighborhood plans to set out their own proposals.
- There is an emphasis on the need to consider alternative use of employment sites "on their merits". Hopefully, this is an indication that all allocations will now be treated as positive not negative injunctions. An allocation effectively dictates consent for the allocated use. It does not, however, automatically mean that proposals for another use should be refused. That should only be the case if the alternative use would genuinely prejudice the ability of the area to meet needs or to reflect the neighborhood vision.
- There is no real mention of how "financial considerations" should be taken into account. Given the debate on the Localism Bill about this issue in the House of Lords this is surprising. The opportunity should probably have been taken to say, very clearly, that financial considerations (New Homes Bonus, Community Infrastructure Levy, Business Rates Retention) are real considerations but should not be given determinative weight. It would be sensible if it were made clear that they are considerations at both the development plan and development management stages.
- Understandably, little mention is made of the elephant in the room. At the moment RSS still exist. Emerging development plans will have to be "in general conformity" with them. Since they are unlikely to disappear for a number of years this poses a problem to the Government. Perhaps there is a need to "fix" this in the Localism Bill, making it clear that while RSS still exist, other development plans need only "have regard" to them, rather than simply being in "general conformity".
In broad terms, the planning system that we had before remains intact. It was always meant to make provision for housing, economic and social growth. It will still do so, although local planning authorities and neighborhoods will have to take far more responsibility for ensuring that land is available.