- Written evidence from the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI)
- Introduction and Summary
1. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has over 23,000 members who work in the public, private, voluntary and education sectors. It is a charity whose purpose is to develop the art and science of town planning for the benefit of the public. The RTPI develops and shapes policy affecting the built environment, works to raise professional standards and supports members through continuous education, practice advice, training and development.
2. We run Planning Aid for England – supporting communities and individuals through a locally‐based network of 1,200 RTPI members who give their time and expertise free of charge – a service at the heart of localism.
3. We support many of the objectives underlying proposals for planning reform, including the principle of a single National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) that helps to reduce conflict and duplication, separates the presentation of policy from evidence and practice advice, and renews the drive to ensure that objectively assessed development needs are provided for in a sustainable manner through the planning system.
4. We welcome proposals that reaffirm the importance of planning in enabling communities to develop their own vision for the future of their area, provide the means to decide on priorities for investment, and tackle the challenges of climate change, sustainable economic growth and social inequity. The role of planning is to successfully balance these factors.
5. Within this overall position, we have five main areas of concern with the NPPF:
i. Status: The status of and procedures for producing and reviewing the NPPF need to be embodied in statute to ensure proper public debate of issues and restore democratic accountability, as is the case for National Policy Statements (NPSs) for infrastructure;
ii. Language: Large parts of the NPPF policies are ambiguous, as is evidenced by the different interpretations put on policies by government, conservation bodies and others;
iii. Change management: The changes proposed in the NPPF are significant and cannot practicably be assimilated by councils, developers or communities in the intended timetable without unintended consequences – as with the implementation of the proposals of the Localism Bill, there is a need for careful change management including a transition phase;
Spatial content: The NPPF misses an opportunity to express a vision for the development of the country as a whole, recognising the different impacts policies will have in different parts of the country, which runs counter to government commitments, such as that “prosperity must be shared across all parts of the UK” (Plan for Growth, p.3)
Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development: In principle, this is an evolution of the existing presumption in favour of development that accords with a development plan, but contains weaknesses that may result in unintended consequences.
6. These points and other key areas of concern will be addressed in more detail below, in responses to the Inquiry questions or in the commentary that follows. The RTPI also has concerns on matters of detail which cannot be addressed through this evidence, but will be submitted in response to the consultation, and can be provided to the Committee if this would assist.
Does the NPPF give sufficient guidance to local planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and others, including investors and developers, while at the same time giving local communities sufficient power over planning decisions?
7. The draft NPPF does not give sufficient guidance as the language used is ambiguous (especially when read in the context of the rhetoric surrounding its publication) and there are internal inconsistencies, particularly with regard to the use of certain terms.
8. This may have arisen in part from the NPPF being drafted to meet two objectives, i.e. (a) being a plain English guide to planning policy in England, and (b) being a precise technical policy document.
9. The ambiguity of policy wording is highlighted by the public debate between conservation/environment groups and government in the national press. If intelligent and informed actors in the system, advised by planning and legal experts, can arrive at such wildly differing interpretations of policy, then there is clearly something wrong, and this will hardly result in the clearer and more effective planning that all parties seek. Particular effort must be given to ensuring that the wording of policies is technically precise to avoid misinterpretation. If the resulting policy is then found to be inaccessible to “lay” readers, then the NPPF should be supported with a non‐technical summary, similar to the “Easier To Read Summary” (although this has weaknesses of its own).
10. One example of inconsistent and unclear language in the NPPF relates to the weight to be accorded to different factors in planning decisions, as follows:
- “significant weight” applied to supporting economic growth
- “great weight” to be given to protecting landscape and scenic quality
- “substantial weight” to apply to green belt harm
- “considerable importance and weight” to apply to conserving heritage assets.
11. The NPPF gives no indication as to how different investors or decision makers will be expected to balance these different weights in individual cases. However, the rhetoric surrounding the NPPF (e.g. that the alleged default “no” response to applications should become “yes”) is interpreted by some to imply that the “significant weight” to be applied to supporting economic growth is expected to outweigh the weights to be applied the other factors.
12. The government asserts that this is not intended to be the case, but the policy does not give a clear direction in favour of conservation should the “presumption in favour of sustainable development” apply as a result of the lack of an up‐to‐date policy, even if there are alternative sites that could deliver the same benefits with less or no harm. Such circumstances are the root of the environment/conservation lobby’s concerns.
13. Concerns relating to interpretation are intensified by the different emphasis given in the main body of the framework and the foreword and introduction. The main part of the draft is, on the whole, more balanced than the introductory parts. It may be argued that the foreword and introduction are not part of the policy framework, and should not be taken into account in decision‐making. However, they do form part of the context for the NPPF, and where the framework is ambiguous, they will be used to justify certain positions.
14. Another example relates to the section in the foreword which talks about improvements to natural and historic aspects of the environment, but does not mention their conservation at all. This creates a context within which development of part of an asset is considered desirable – and even preferable to conservation – in order to allow the “improvement” of another part. While “enabling development” can be desirable to secure conservation objectives, improvements are not always either necessary or wanted.
15. The popular concern that the presumption in favour of sustainable development is all about pushing unwanted schemes through the system is not helped by the government’s stated expectation of ‘a system where the default answer to development is “yes”.’ However, as the government has stated publicly that while good, sustainable development should be approved and harmful, unsustainable development should not, this sentiment should be clearly reflected in the NPPF, and with reference to local policy as well as to the national policies of the Framework.
16. A common thread that should run throughout the NPPF is that more positive planning will result from local authorities, communities and local authorities raising their game by working together to deliver shared objectives: creating and supporting good schemes and eschewing those that are bad.
Is the definition of ‘sustainable development’ contained in the document appropriate; and is the presumption in favour of sustainable development a balanced and workable approach?
17. The RTPI is pleased to see the retention of the Bruntland definition of sustainable development, and the three pillars of sustainability. Their translation into economic, social and environmental “roles” that subsequently structure the framework helps to make the document accessible.
18. The conflation of “sustainable development” with “sustainable economic growth” is unfortunate: “sustainable economic growth” relates to growth than can be maintained from an economic perspective, but it does not have the same values attached to it as “sustainable development”. Problems with this are emphasised by the assertion in the foreword that “development means growth”. The two words are not synonymous: a change of use is development and can have impacts both positive and negative, but does not necessarily lead to any growth; conversely, economic growth can result from using property more effectively even without physical development or a change of use.
19. The clarity of the Bruntland definition is, however, not assisted by reinterpretations such as that “Simply stated” at the end of paragraph 9 (especially with the use of the nebulous concept of “quality of life”) and in the “Easier to Read Summary”.
20. “The Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development” is an evolution of the existing presumption in favour of development that accords with a development plan. Along with aspects of the Localism Bill, this retains the general primacy of development plans in decision‐making, which is welcomed.
21. However, the application of the presumption is not fully thought through, and its implications – particularly in terms of the impact on the validity of local plans – will have unintended consequences without either a thorough re‐think or careful transitional arrangements.
22. We will in our main consultation response examine:
- how local plans can meet development needs when there is not the physical capacity to do so (recognising the “duty to co‐operate”);
- the need for policies to provide “sufficient flexibility”, when section 38(6) of the 2004 Act provides for this by default; and
- the meaning of “rapid shifts in demand or other economic changes”, and whether it is sustainable for evidence‐based, community‐supported, long‐term plans to be set aside to meet short‐term demands the consequences of which may be irreversible.
23. The key concerns with the presumption relate to the third bullet point and concluding subparagraph.
24. In particular the terms “absent”, “silent”, “indeterminate” and “out‐of‐date” require definition, as does the application of “plan” and “relevant policies” to these qualifications. The risk of a plan being set aside because it is “silent” may lead to unintended consequences:
- The revocation of regional strategies and the slimming down of national policy could put those councils who have diligently avoided repeating national/regional policy in their local plans in a more difficult situation than those who have either not produced modern‐style plans or disregarded advice and produced lengthy, cumbersome and repetitive plans.
- Councils may choose to revert to the practice of trying to address every eventuality through their development plans, thereby undoing a decade of work, slowing down plan production and increasing their volume.
25. We recognise that paragraph 26 of the Framework is intended to be helpful with regard to plans being “up‐to‐date” with its reference to councils seeking a “certificate of conformity” with the Framework. This concept, however, requires considerable clarification, not least with regard to its resourcing, but also whether such certificates will:
- apply to whole plans or individual policies;
- be required to prove validity, and will necessarily prove validity beyond doubt;
- need to be regularly reviewed.
26. The critical weakness with the presumption is the unintended consequences associated with the amount of change being proposed to national policy, and the likelihood that any local plans will be able to be defined as being in accordance with it upon its approval. A policy change that will have a particular impact in this regard is the requirement for plans to identify 20% more housing land than is indicated by their assessments of need. As few plans currently do this, and it will
27. Where there is not an up‐to‐date plan, this could mean that the policies of the NPPF cannot apply. For example, government statements have been very clear that the NPPF retains control of development in the Green Belt. However, there cannot be any defined Green Belt in an area without an up‐to‐date plan, since the boundaries of Green Belt are defined in local plans, and the general extent and location of Green Belt will no longer be defined in PPG2 (superseded by the NPPF) or the regional strategies (revoked).
28. The usefulness of the presumption is weakened by its failure to recognise that the approval of proposals that do not accord with statutory plans could undermine the delivery of those that do, thereby prejudicing well‐intentioned investments. It is not sufficient for presumption only to be positive about development that accords with plans: it needs to support such development by clearly giving councils the authority to block proposals that could prejudice the delivery of their strategies.
Are the ‘core planning principles’ clearly and appropriately expressed?
29. In general the core planning principles in paragraph 19 are expressed well, and these are supported by general statements of the purpose and function of planning elsewhere in the framework. The positive representation of the role of planning is particularly welcome.
30. The repetition of the insistence that the “default answer to development proposals [should be] ‘yes’” is unhelpful if the only exceptions to this are justified by reference to the principles of the NPPF: if local plan policies cannot be used to justify a negative response, there is little point in having them. See also paragraph 26 above.
31. The requirement for policies to enable “a high degree of certainty” in decision‐making is an essential benefit of planning, but is not compatible with the requirement that policies include “sufficient flexibility” expressed in the presumption.
Is the relationship between the NPPF and other national statements of planning related policy sufficiently clear? Does the NPPF serve to integrate national planning policy across Government Departments?
32. The relationship is clear: that the NPPF is just one of many national policy documents, produced by a variety of departments, with no obvious coordination. The National Policy Statements for infrastructure would seem to carry more weight because of their statutory basis, and the fact that they have been subject to a defined consultation and parliamentary debate procedure, and to appraisals of their sustainability.
33. Because the NPPF does not have a geographic basis, it does not provide a context within which to integrate other national policies, particularly with regard to locating new infrastructure development in relation to new areas of growth. This also weakens the NPPF’s ability to
respond to and coordinate with the plans of the other UK nations and with the marine spatial planning programme.
Does the NPPF, together with the ‘duty to cooperate’, provide a sufficient basis for larger than local strategic planning?
34. It can reasonably be argued that the duty to cooperate, which the RTPI has supported in principle as a means to enable cross‐boundary planning in the absence of nationally imposed sub‐national planning structures, will not operate effectively without a geographical element to the NPPF.
35. There are aspects of both economic and housing development that require a nationally defined and agreed vision, and which cannot be fully achieved by the voluntary actions of individual authorities or tinkering with uncoordinated enterprise zones.
36. In particular, this relates to the interventions necessary to address disparities between different parts of the UK, including the planning of infrastructure to support this.
37. As currently drafted, the NPPF relies on councils responding to demand in their areas, with no interventions to influence that demand where meeting it would be unsustainable or impossible due to physical constraints or environmental capacity. In many cases, this may be achieved by authorities working together to enable needs arising in one area to be met in another, but it will be a challenge for cities as large as London or Birmingham to secure the cooperation of those outside their boundaries necessary to sustainably address need or demand without some form of higher‐level incentives or interventions.
Are the policies contained in the NPPF sufficiently evidence based?
38. It is difficult to assess fully the extent to which it is evidence‐based because the evidence cited, such as it is, is often not entirely accessible. However, the Impact Assessment would seem to indicate that a lot of policy is based on what the government believes, rather than what evidence necessarily shows to be the case.
39. An example relates to housing, in which several beliefs are expressed, such as the belief that the top‐down system had slowed housing development. This belief is “justified” by housebuilding figures that were affected by the recession, by surveys of opinion that people did not want housebuilding in their area, and by statistics relating to the production of local plans; but not by reference, for example, to the proportion of residential planning applications that are in fact approved by local authorities, which is consistently around 80%. Reference is not made to the fact that housebuilding rates under previous systems also failed to meet need, including under the Structure Plan system, where housing provision was determined more locally.
40. Policy changes are further justified by the belief that the New Homes Bonus will incentivise communities to be more receptive to development and that Neighbourhood Plans will help to deliver significant amounts of new development: there is no evidence that this will be the case (although it is recognised that there is no evidence to the contrary either).
The case for the status of and procedures for the NPPF to be defined in law
41. The RTPI recognises that legislation already gives the Secretary of State the power to issue guidance to which bodies shall have regard as material considerations. However, this general power does not give enough status and clarity to the NPPF, especially in comparison with the National Policy Statements (NPSs) for infrastructure, which are referenced in part 2 of the Planning Act 2008.
42. There are five reasons why the NPPF should be referenced in the Bill. It would:
- strengthen the NPPF’s effectiveness if a range of bodies and statutory plans were required to have regard to it specifically;
- establish its position in relation to other statutory national policies, notably NPSs;
- establish its position in relation to non‐statutory national plans such as the National Infrastructure Plan and Plan for Growth;
- commit Governments to seek the approval of Parliament for its production and review;
- give a statutory basis to fundamental policy changes such as the presumption in favour of sustainable development.
The NPPF: what should it contain?
43. The RTPI believes that the NPPF needs to have five characteristics in addition to simply introducing the presumption in favour of sustainable development and condensing existing policy documents. These are:
- bringing together all existing designations that inform decisions on major planning issues, including national designations such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, international designations such as Ramsar Sites, and national and international infrastructure networks;
- enabling more informed decisions by Ministers and Parliament by expressing specific national proposals such as HS2 and the locations of new nuclear power stations within a wider policy context;
- enabling more informed policy and decision making by setting out recognised geographic constraints on development, such as flood plains and areas of water stress;
- addressing those Government policies that are focused on different parts of the country, such as those on re‐balancing the economy and the development of economic clusters; and
- importantly, recognising that nearly all national policy decisions (such as investment in major research centres) have different impacts in different parts of the country and spelling these impacts out.
44. It should be noted that the procedures proposed to approve the NPPF do not require a sustainability appraisal or similar, although this was required for other national policy documents, such as the National Policy Statements for Energy Infrastructure.
45. Where in this submission we have identified an issue of concern, we are currently working on suggestions for ways in which the issue can be addressed.
Royal Town Planning Institute September 2011