John Rhodes Breaks Silence on #NPPF Controversy ‘the right to build’ objectors ‘Silly’ ‘havent read’ document – Oh yes we have


The strange campaign against the national planning policy framework

Those who spread fear about ‘uncontrolled development’ can’t have read this independent and localist draft framework

As one of four members of the government’s advisory group who prepared the draft on which the government’s new planning reforms are closely based, I have followed the debate in the press closely. Consultation, scrutiny and debate are important in getting policy right. However, the campaign against the national planning policy framework(NPPF) appears to be based on some serious misunderstandings.

First, nobody told us what to write – either from industry or from government. We were a mixed (and I believe deliberately balanced) group: one from local government, one a house builder, one from the RSPB and one – myself – a planning consultant. It was emphasised that we should prepare our own document, a framework for what we thought the planning policy system should be. We all wanted to achieve a clear, concise planning framework which could be understood and used by all, and which set out what was really important in order to regulate responsible development. The draft was agreed between us, not forced upon us by others.

Second, it is silly to assert that the draft NPPF will provide developers a licence to build “anything wherever they wanted to”. The National Trust is saying the reforms will lead to “unchecked and damaging development” spoiling the countryside, backed by the Telegraph’s campaigns against “the threat of uncontrolled development”.

Those making that assertion have not read the document. The reforms retain planning authorities’ local plans at the heart of the system. Authorities that produce an up-to-date local plan will find that the law not only allows them, but requires them to refuse proposals for development which are contrary to a local plan. The draft NPPF directly invites authorities to identify the circumstances in which planning consent should be refused.

Yes, in the absence of an up-to-date local plan, the presumption in favour of sustainable development applies. However, most campaigners omit an important qualification contained in the draft: that the presumption does not apply where the adverse impacts of development would “significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits”. In other words, if objectors and authorities can show that a development would cause significant harm, the presumption would not apply. If the harm is insignificant, cannot be demonstrated or does not outweigh the benefits, it seems to me relatively uncontroversial that the right to build should apply.

Third, it is correct that the draft NPPF does not set a target for the development of brownfield land, although it does encourage the planning of development in sustainable locations. The important point, however, is that it is for planning authorities (not the government) to decide in their local plans whether brownfield land should be preferred in their area. Localism simply means that the government is allowing authorities to judge the best solution for their area. Increased “town cramming” or the loss of urban open space is not always the most sustainable solution.

Lastly, the NPPF does encourage a positive approach to development, but this isn’t a sudden change of direction. The open source planning green paper published before the election explains that local plans would be expected to meet “objectively assessed requirements” of their local communities. Asking authorities to meet the needs of their population and businesses, where this can be done without significant harm, does not feel like an extreme policy approach.

Objectors assert that there is no shortage of planning permissions. But does anyone really think there is no shortage of housing in Britain, particularly in the south-east where house prices are eight, 10 or 12 times the average income? Many authorities in the south-east do not even try to meet the requirements of their own population with the result that chronic housing shortages, unaffordable house prices and constraints on growth are compounded. The planning system, in its current state, is not providing enough development permissions where people actually want to work or live. To me, that sounds like a luxury which a modern economy and a just society cannot afford.

What a silly piece to attack people with genuine concerns as silly or poorly read.  Ourselves at the Campaign against Sprawl and most other serious campaigners do not deny the need for positive ‘front foot’ planning, or the need to build more homes, or meet objectively assessed requirements (a requirement of planning since 1947 not 2010 as he implies).

Don’t confuse Daily Telegraph headlines with our position.  The real negativity and controversy in this debate arises from the ugly prose, clumsy wording, negative anti-planning rhetoric and chaotic organisation of the ‘practitioners’ draft.  The thing is we have read it, and it is hardly bedtime reading, and we don’t like the detail, the nuts and bolts of what we see.  This whole article is spectacular evasion of responsibility from the political tsunami John Rhodes is responsible for.

Of course no one is saying you were told what to write.  But there was a very clear client brief, and a football club doesn’t hire Morino if it wants a manager to stay off the back pages does it.  The direction of travel was clear.  Similarly you dont put threee Rotweilers in a room with a kitten and expect the kitten to come off tops.  The policy delivered, is remarkably similar to the 2006 Policy Exchange paper ‘best laid plans’ as launched by Simon Wolfson and George Osborne, stripping away countryside protection and urban containment policy and introducing a presumption yes, surely not a coincidence.

His article like most of the SPAD talking points we have seen circulated is designed to avoid the real issues and close down debate rather than getting the framework right.  When will there be acknowledgement that 70% of England does not have up to date plans and largely because Caroline Spelman told them before the election to slow down plan making.  Is Rhodes one of those saying that such authorities should be punished at the ballot box like many do?  If so asking voters not to vote Tory?  Inappropriate for any advisor to state how people should vote and I doubt as a result he would get a good reception if he turned up at a conservative NPPF fringe.

In terms of the qualification.  The ‘harm’ here has to be interpreted against the NPPF as a whole as it says.  If it aint there the default yes applies.  This is why so many groups have raised concerns about things on which the NPPF is silent.  For example allotments, children’s play, emergency service access, priority species sites outside nationally protected areas  etc. etc.  Less sloppy drafting could have avoided such a wide ranging coalition forming.   It was the stripping away of such matters, such as protection of the countryside for its own sake, which again he studiously avoids, which caused the instant alarm.  Similarly the NPPF says that when you dont have a 5 year supply a housing application should be approved, no ifs and no buts, a double presumption not just the single one he mentions.  Even if the shortfall is 1 and the application is for 50,000 the NPPF, because of lack of rigour in its drafting says yes approve it.

Similarly the “significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits” test – he implies that only harm has to be demonstrated.  A presumption of course means in law you dont have to provide evidence.  Who has to provide evidence of benefits?  On this issue the NPPF is silent, indeterminate and very out of date, indeed 1980s out of date. This lack of balance is what is so concerning.  If demonstration applies on both sides why draft a decision test that only mentions the negative?  Similarly ‘significantly’.  To imply that everything else is ‘insifgnifant’ implies everything in planning is black and white, it isnt it is a series of grays.  This wording is a license to print invoices for maserati driving planning lawyers – just how ‘significant’ is the harm?  The weight to be given to a material consideration is a matter for the decision maker.  Rather than letting decision makers use their common sense in line with this principle this crude additional test is overlain, indeed because it conflicts with caselaw only parliament can change it.   Indeed it is contrary to the will of Parliament.  As the 2008 Planning act sets the decision test as where the benefits outweigh the risks say yes, if not no, for major infrastructure cases.  Very simple.  If there was a major infrastructure case, say a port, attched to an industrial esate as part of the same project a decision maker may be forced by the NPPF and the act to make two contradictory decisoins or split them, even though two European directives require such a single scheme to be assessed as a whole.  It is a farce.  Please try explaining to MPs john how your clause, which means that harmful developments should be approved, is defensible to them and their constituents.

The issue is not so much the national target as the ending of the priority for brownfield development.  Indeed the impact assessment is very clear and very specific on a number of occasions.  The priority is to end to make greenfield housing easier.  There can be no wriggling out of this.  Existing PPS3 already allowed local authorities not to allow development of brownfield sites – if say a site was inaccessible if brownfield, or had high biodiversity or was prioritised for new open space.  I fear John Rhodes may have pulled the wool over ministers eyes on this point to make greenfield life easier for his clients.  Existing PPS3 brownfield policy is not anti-localist.  What is more it applies in the 70% of plan-free England, elsewhere there is and wont be any prioritisation policy on appeal, except prioritisation for those proposing greenfield sites even though there are good and viable brownfield alternatives.

The NPPF is anti-growth becuase it is pro confusion and litigation.  It is anti-sustainable because it defines almost anything as sustainable, and it is anti-housing because it reinforces the policy shifts which have seen housing allocations falls by 20.6 % in emerging plans (source BNP paribas) it has failed.

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