A Damp Squib Except on Design – Final #NPPF flatters to deceive as countryside protections are very weak on close examination

Cross Post

The Campaign Against Sprawl welcomes the improvements made to the final National Planning Policy Framework launched today, especially the sections of Design, Transport and Plan Making where its suggested alternative draft wording has in many parts been accepted by the government.  However in many areas the policy framework is deeply disappointing.  The supposed changes on the countryside and brownfield first, though clearly concessions to campaigners, turn out to be weak and rather meaningless ones.  The policy is particularly weak on the definition of sustainable development and lack of clarity in many sections are likely to lead to more appeals and no guarantee of more housing satisfying few.  It bears many signs of crude Treasury red pens & it is likely to require clarification and amendment within months. Many have responded in haste, they will repent at leisure.

The Campaign Against Sprawl is a campaign group formed to campaign on the NPPF .  We believe it is possible to achieve both sustainable development with economic growth and more housing we badly need, but only if we go for Smart Growth and not Dumb Growth.  That is growth around public transport, in walkable communities making efficient use of land.

We have been working very closely with groups such as the National Trust, the CPRE and the Campaign for Better Transport.  We have prepared an alternative draft of the framework and have discussed this extensively with the Department for Communities and Local Government.  Indeed around 15-20% of the paragraphs of the final version seem to owe their genesis to our draft, especially the section on design where it follows our draft in parts almost word for word.  Greg Clark the Planning Minister is right to say that it now raises the bar on design quality to the highest ever level.  We also like the TCPA welcome the enabling policy on Garden Cities.

Other positives are sections on Heritage and Biodiversity that are so much better than the draft rightly and largely satisfying campaigners.  Some unusable sections, such as on flooding, have also been recast with helpful technical guidance. We also welcome the policy framework for localism and its acknowledgement of the housebuilding crisis we face.  It is a better document than the draft but you would have to try hard for it to be worse.

The headline concerns though are:

Not what was Spun or Promised

The prime minister in a speech last week promised that policy would prevent sprawl, but there is no reference to preventing sprawl in the framework except with reference to Green Belt, not the vast majority of the countryside outside Green Belt.  The Prime Minster and Greg Clark the Planning Minister have spoken of protecting landscapes and the beauty of the countryside, not just in nationally protected areas such as National Parks.  But in terms of policy (as opposed to objectives) landscape and beauty are only mentioned with reference to nationally protected areas.  We urge the government to introduce the policy they describe in news broadcasts but refuse to put on the page.

What Definition of Sustainability?

The document has no definition of sustainable development – which is astonishing.  It simply has a back reference as history to previous UN resolutions and the policy of the previous government. It does not say clearly they are the policy and definition of the present government.   But even here it gets them wrong referring to a UN resolution on troops in Cyprus not sustainable development and the principles of the UK sustainable development strategy are inaccurately transcribed  (instead of living within environmental limits it says ‘The planets environmental limits’ ( implying local limits are not relevent.)  Greg Clark also promised a more radical definition, indeed even enthusiastically mentioning the ‘Three Rings’ model which we had urged to the DCLG Select Committee.  There is no trace of that in the final NPPF.  There is no trace of the much promised ‘balanced’ approach to economic, environmental and social issues.  It mentions that these should be pursued ‘jointly and simultaneously’ but not in a balanced way in the definition section.   Clearly economic concerns still trump all else.

The main way though is the cunning Treasury way the final version sidelines sustainable development concerns.  Not only does it lack a definition but the principles of sustainable development, which are out of sync with the policy of DEFRA through not referring to the modern concept of sustainable development held by them of expanding ecosystem services (this is mentioned later but not as part of fundamental sustainable development principles),  Indeed para 6. seems to define sustainable development is what selected paragraphs of NPPF says it is – and the principles of sustainable development are outside these.  What it means is that  in applying the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ it will not be possible to assess schemes in terms of environmental limits or contribution to a strong, healthy and just society.  Indeed in many ways the treatment of sustainable development is a huge leap backwards from the draft.

The Protection of the Countryside & Brownfield First are Paper Thin

We welcome the objective, retained from previous national policy, of ‘recognising the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside and supporting thriving rural communities within it’ but this is one of the objectives of the NPPF not a policy, and therefore not one of the operational tests to determine if development is sustainable. The final NPPF has deleted the ‘strictly control’ policy from previous national policy.  This is a disgrace.  The NPPF has no policy to protect the countryside outside nationally designations such as Green Belt and National Parks, AONB.  Its ‘protection’ of the countryside is therefore paper thin.

Similarly with Brownfield first.  Thankfully also in the policy  section but worded in a way that makes in difficult to ensure that Brownfield sites in developed in a local area before greenfield ones (if suitable, available and viable).  It is worded as ‘encourage’ – previous policy was to ‘prioritise’ which meant you had the ability to refuse unsuitable greenfield schemes.  ‘Encourage’ implies you cant.  Indeed ‘encourage’ was used in national policy prior to 2000 and was found to be ineffective, only when the Brownfield First was policy was introduced in 2000 did it become possible to refuse schemes when there was a brownfield alternative.  Indeed ‘Planning policies and decisions should encourage the effective use of land by re-using land that has been previously developed (brownfield land),’ implies through its syntax and logic that you should approve schemes on brownfield sites, not refuse than on greenfield ones (if brownfield sites are available). It reads ‘decisions should… reuse… brownfield land’ in logical précis not  ‘decisions should… limit loss of… greenfield land’ .   It is worded as guidance not control, otherwise ‘encourage’ would not be used, it would be ‘require’ or ‘prioritise’.  This sentence is a lawyers charter.  It it is not meant as suggested here minister should issue a note of clarification.  Also the policy is badly worded, unlike what an alliance of environmental groups has suggested it does not have an exception when land is best used for open space, and it does not have an exception for inaccessible brownfield sites in the countryside.  The newspaper report that this was deliberate, an act of spite, seems to be true or else why not make this amendment.

It will lead to appeal-led planning especially on sites in the countryside

Contrary to impressions given there is no 1 year transition (implementation) period for the vast majority of the country without up to date adopted plans, only for those authorities needing to update existing plans.  There is an expansion of the current prematurity principle but that is not a proper transitional arrangement.  Whilst those with advanced plans will be protected those who have not yet published preferred locations for large scale development will be particularly vulnerable – especially because of the unwelcome return of a 20% buffer likley to apply in those cases.  Indeed appeal schemes refused only a few weeks ago by the Secretary of State, Such as in Cheshire East, would now likely to be approved by this policy.  It should be noted that the minister announced a policy – that the buffer would be locally determined – that did not appear in the document.  Perhaps the Treasury struck it out and he did not notice.  Greg Clark should apologise to the house for misleading them. It should also be noted that this appeal led approach is contrary to the law on Strategic Environmental Assessment as the Secretary of State himself agreed at a major appeal in Newmarket last week.  Where it was held that an appeal would preclude choices being made in a development plan in line with the European Directive on Strategic Environmental Assessment.  Pickles has signed a cheque for another Masarati.We do welcome however the widening of the prematurity principle so that it no longer has to be a subsidiary reason for refusal.

But Actually Policy on Housing Provision has Weakened

Previous policy contained a clear test that schemes that met a shortfall in the 5 year supply should be ‘considered favourably’.  This is now gone, it is treated like any other scheme – in terms of whether the balance of considerations is in its favour.  So apart from disappointing countryside groups it will equally disappoint house-builders. It could be argued that all schemes under the NPPF should now be considered favourably.  This will not wash as previous policy gave it an extra significance if there was a shortfall, and it had clear tests on how to consider schemes in this circumstance.  By abolishing the well tested ‘Plan, Monitor, Manage’ system it has replaced it with ‘Apply, Argue, Appeal’. We will get many more appeals as developers chance their arm but probably limited success and much legal challenge to appeals on interpretation of the NPPF.   Also a policy mentioned by Greg Clark in the Commons on empty homes being brought back into use counting as completions is not there.   The NPPF is less of a developers charter than it was but is now even more of a lawyers charter.

It still encourages schemes which create sprawl & congestion and in poor locations

It still allows schemes which create harm, indeed in terms of traffic congestion they can now cause major harm,  as long as it is not ‘severe’ harm.  This will encourage pursuit in favour of car orientated development.  The requirement to improve public transport on major schemes is also weak. All mention of integration of transport and land use has been dropped.  We welcome though a stricter policy on carbon emissions from levels of parking.

It tries to fit a quart into a pint pot

The Secretary of State  said he was not fixated on 50 pages and that 50 pages was not a policy objective.  Indeed the DCLG Select Committee he said this to quoted us in their report that the draft achieved ‘brevity not clarity’ and like Scottish and Welsh equivalents could benefit by being a few pages longer as our alternative draft was.  However the differences in font size, margins, line spacing and kerning in the document shows that heroic efforts were made to achieve an objective of 50 pages.   Many areas of policy bare threadbare and over condensed as a result. For example their is no longer a policy against large hoardings in the countryside.  It retains much criticised vague terms such as ‘significantly and demonstrably’ (which implies harmful schemes should be approved).  Indeed the NPPF in para 123. does not define significant as not inconsequential and recognises that ‘other adverse impacts’ should be mitigated.  This threshold implies that  harmful schemes with adverse impacts should be approved, just approved with conditions, even if it is in the wrong place.

No clarity on how Larger than Local Planning will work

The final version contains a paragraph on the process of cooperation on the lines we suggested.  However it contains no process or policy for resolving the all too often deadlock we see between Central Beds and Milton Keynes, Central Beds and Luton, North Herts and Stevenage etc.  The approach of the NPPF seems to be argue it out till the cows come home.  It fails to clarify the crucial point about whether the authority blocking cooperation can ‘win’ by saying as a result of failure to agree a joint approach is undeliverable.  The NPPF allows local authorities to game the duty to cooperate so it is unenforcable.

8 thoughts on “A Damp Squib Except on Design – Final #NPPF flatters to deceive as countryside protections are very weak on close examination

  1. Pingback: Guardian Comment – Final #NPPF ‘seems more inclusive, but is really just more muddy’ « Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

  2. Pingback: Response to Kirkwalls on the Humpty Dumpty #NPPF « Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

  3. Pingback: Call 0303 44 45500 MUDD for your #NPPF MUDDLINE questions « Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

  4. Does it? “Resolution 42/187 of the United Nations General Assembly
    defined sustainable development as meeting the needs of the present without
    compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” is how it reads on the pdf I have.

  5. Pingback: Is the #NPPF an #omnishambles ? « Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

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