The Very Late HOC Debate #NPPF (part one) and Greg Clarke’s ‘localist’ message to Inspectorate #planorak

The promised HoC debate on the NPPF started but did not finish yesterday – it was at the end of the Agenda and did not start until 9.35, leaving only 25 minutes before adjournment motions and only time for the Ministers much interrupted opening speech, it will conclude on another day.

Here is the Hansard Record

The only things of note are firstly s definition localism that will be much repeated because it verges on self parody.

 the essence of localism is that local decisions are taken locally in accordance with a plan that reflects all the views of local people.

Errr all the views, however incompatible,  Fantasy world.  Of course when decisions are taken by a planning inspector and the issue is that local views are in conflict with a national framework it is no longer a ‘local decision’, even less so when an appeal is recovered or called-in.

Which begs a question for several MPs – shouldnt inspectors be reigned in, two examples of this at last nights debate:

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): I am completely with my right hon. Friend on the consistent application of the plans, on the local plans themselves and on local people being involved, but what then of the final piece of the jigsaw, the reform of the Planning Inspectorate, which in many rulings completely contradicts all local input?

Greg Clark: Part of the problem with the Planning Inspectorate is that, in the regime to date, it has been required to interpret voluminous national planning regulations—many times in a state of inconsistency—and to apply regional spatial strategies. The conflict between those things, caused by successive Governments and, in particular, by the previous Government’s imposition of regional strategies, often leads in the planning system to a real tension and often antagonism, which is a disaster for the future prosperity of our country.

By putting power into the hands of local people so they see that decisions are going to be taken locally and respected locally, part of the purpose of our reforms is to move away from the situation in which decisions taken locally are overturned by the Planning Inspectorate. I have made that very clear to the inspectorate. I went to speak to the inspectorate the morning after we published the NPPF, and I made it very clear that the framework is a localist document which it is to respect.


Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I congratulate the Minister on all his congratulations, which are well deserved. When it comes to local democracy, the framework compares very favourably with the regional spatial strategies, which wasted tens of millions of pounds and generated tens of thousands of objections. Does he accept that there is a slight risk that when local plans come to be examined in public, we will again see the influence of the Planning Inspectorate and elements of the local plans may be overturned? Does he agree that when it comes to local plans, the default answer from the Planning Inspectorate ought to be yes?

Greg Clark: I met the Planning Inspectorate and almost all the planning inspectors who were in conference in Bristol the day after the NPPF was launched. I made it crystal clear that it provided for a localist approach and provided a framework for local decisions, and that I expected decisions to be taken in that vein. I will also expect to see a sample of the decisions that are being taken, including after the examination of plans, to ensure that that is happening. On the basis of my direct discussions with the Planning Inspectorate, I am very confident that that is understood.

Note how the answers appear to support the MPs but did not at all.  The NPPF may be a localist document, in that it promotes neighbourhood plans and has much less national policy etc.  But it still is a statement of national policy.  In a 100% localist world it would not exist.  It contains national policy which very clearly it states that local authorities should follow and this national policy is required to be considered by inspectors.

In law there is no doctrine that because a decision is locally supported that it automatically should be supported in the final decision – of course if this were so we would have no appeals system which parliament has specifically mandated in the 1990 Act.  Nor in law in their any principal that the views of  local people carry any greater weight than any other material planning consideration, if that is those views are material planning considerations.  Indeed The Planning System General Principles  is still extant and states in line with planning law at para 27.

local opposition or support for a proposal is not in itself a ground for refusing or granting planning permission, unless it is founded upon valid planning reasons.

Indeed planning lawyers will always tell you that one good planning argument will outweigh thousends, indeed any number of non-planning or weak planning arguments.

What then does ‘localist document which [the planning inspectorate] is to respect’ mean?   First decision making [I refuse to use the mandarin old fashioned form decision taking] .  If a planning appeal is made then occasionally it may be an unwinnable appeal as it is contrary to an adopted local plan.  In line with the law that appeal has since 2001 and under the NPPF that appeal will stand little success – no change.  In that sense that principal of localism is retained and is not changed by the localism act.  If the decision made locally but the appellenat belives it breaches national policy and or other material planning considerations they can appeal.  The Inspector cannot then overside a clear conflict with the Ministers own policy without giving good reason.  Greag Clark did not and could not without nullifying the NPPF inststruct inspectors to ignore or give little weight to the NPPF.  Indeed if this was the intent either a change in the law is required, and no changes were made in the Localism Act, or on the face of the NPPF.

There then is no principal of a localist bias on appeal decisions.  Indeed that very day Grant Shapps at an HBF lunch said that the effect of the NPPF would be to force LPAs to allocate and approve more land for housing.  This underlines an important point, once you strip away those areas national policy doesn’t cover and those policies in the NPPF that say the final decision is a local one on all other issues a statement of national policy is a centralist document.  There is no getting around this. Indeed it is logically impossible to talk of localism without also talking of all those other areas where centralism remains, otherwise parliament would have voted to abolish itself.  As far as I can the NPPF has not been published by those Clapham High Street stalwarts the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

On the Cheltenham Question.  Of course when the 2004 Act was debated then ministers stated in parliament in answer to similar questions that the act did introduce a presumption in favour that a plan was sound on entering the examination process.  It did not take 5 minutes for planning lawyers to argue that was nowhere on the face of the bill and would make a nonsense of national policy.  Indeed at the Ashford Core Strategy the promoters of the Chimington Green Urban Extension – not favoured by the LPA but included in a previous local plan, produced a great fat counsels opinion on this point which was accepted by the Inspector and subsequently as a precedent (sadly the examination webpage is no longer online).   The argument was that the plan had to be supported by evidence, and here it was not.  Indeed it was found by the inspector that the LPA had distorted the traffic evidence.  The Inspector found in favour of Chilmington Green because it was needed to meet housing targets and because the promoters has met the legal tests of having SEAd the scheme and conducted public consultation.  Indeed if any inspector disregarded national policy – on key matters such as meeting objectively identified need, their would be JR and further delay in the system, particularly for housebuilding.

Indeed I can’t think of a case where a planning inspector acting in the ‘quasi judicial’ sense that the DCMS seems to have forgotten has been remiss in overriding local opinion on a plan – some I might have disagreed with but one of the reassuring aspects is that the quality of local plan inspectors with very few exceptions is very good and all such decisions have been justified by national policy, sometimes perhaps a little too much by the book.    There is general agreement in the planning world, apart from CLLRS and MPs running on nimby manifestos, that binding inspectors report are the aspect of the 2004 Act that works most well.  That principle remains the Localism Act (with procedural variation – the changes must be agreed by LPAs but if not a plan could be found unsound).


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