Happy Birthday to the National Planning Policy Framework(NPPF)
Congratulations to the NPPF as it celebrates its one year birthday on the 27th March 2013. In what has been a challenging year for those dealing with shaping and implementing planning policy, it is opportune to examine its impact thus far. This blog post focusses on the Good, the Bad and the Nonsensical.
The key tool to implement the NPPF is the local plan. This plan-led philosophy helps build certainty and consistency, set within an inclusive dialogue and vision for development in particular areas. It also provides a unifying force for built and natural environment professions to unite to shape places for the long term. Thus the plan helps articulate sustainable development within a place-making focus.
The reduction of the 1000s of pages of guidance to fifty has empowered planners to use their professional judgement on matters, freeing them from the traditional straitjacket of national guidance which lagely dictated decisions. This freedom is both exciting and challenging and requires planners to be bold, creative and imaginative.
The lack of any spatial plan hinders a full understanding of the government vision for England and where investment priorities lie. The danger is that place inequalities will increase as stronger and better resourced authorities attract investment. The localism agenda exacerbates this through the way neighbourhood plans and new homes bonus favour the articulate and professional classes.
The abolition of regional planning has created a yawning chasm in strategic planning. The resultant policy vacuum, has led to many local authorities being reluctant to accommodate neighbouring authorities' housing requirements, particularly where green belt extensions are necessary. Thus, new housing proposals are significantly below what is required, with no strategic oversight to identify optimum sites or solutions for development. The new duty to co-operate within the NPPF attempts this role, but it generates ad-hoc activity predicated primarily on local authority to local authority interaction rather than any meaningful consideration of cross-boundary issues (employment, climate change, flooding, travel to work areas) involving all relevant stakeholders, and with little recognition of the legal status of co-operation. Authorities struggle to work with this arrangement, and planning inspectors are failing plans as the recent Coventry City Council decision shows.
The limited guidance for the NPPF on new issues of viability and locally determined assessments of housing need are leading to uncertainty which generates planning by appeal. This further delays decisions given cuts in planning budgets and staff and planning inspectors.
The arbitrary government target of one year (April 2013) for all local authorities to have a local plan in place was misguided and perverse with 52% failing to achieve this. Furthermore of those with development plans in place only 7% meet NPPF requirements. In the absence of a plan or conformity with a plan, planning will be determined on a case by case basis on the presumption of sustainable development. The vagaries of this term for an individual development are problematic and represent a political minefield. Hence developers will be queuing up to secure opportunistic and short term planning permissions which would not be tenable under a plan. In the West Midlands we have several authorities who will have no plan in place. Will a free for all help deliver the long term and planed growth we need?
Rather than let the NPPF bed in the government have embarked on a whole series of ad-hoc extensions. These perversely add to delay as uncertainty reigns supreme. Furthermore, these ad-ons signal considerable unease with the NPPF set with a desire to announce populist political headlines in the name of growth which seem to contradict key elements of the NPPF.
• The permitted development for extensions up to 8m will result in poor quality design fuelling neighbour disputes with negative cumulative impact. .
• The conversion of employment uses to residential could result in fragmented residential development isolated from services or in close proximity to noisy commercial ventures with environmental health implications. Loss of employment areas now is a serious problem for a diverse economy in the long term.
• The Growth and Infrastructure Bill is a mishmash of disintegrated provisions that challenge the localism ethic. For example the reduction of affordable housing quotas as part of Section 106 agreements; removal of planning powers from local authority determination, ability to have some planning decisions determined outside local authority control; locating telecommunications in protected landscapes. .
• Local Enterprise Partnerships are secretly being slipped into the back door as enablers of a new regional planning as the Heseltine Report recommended but this was never their intended role and raises the same questions over accountability that were raised over the Regional Spatial Strategies. .
Perhaps the most serious problem is the way decision-makers are corrupting the planning process by not using decision support tools properly. Here Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) stand out. In theory the process helps decision-makers think through the best option for a plan or project. However, as Eric Pickles exemplifies he abolishes Regional Spatial Strategies in 2010 and then uses the SEA process two years later to justify his previous decision. The HS2 route is publicised before the EIA is published which should show the best route through a systematic assessment of alternatives. This is 'arse-backwards' and leads to poor decision-making and legal challenge which ultimately slows down planning.
Uncertainty is the dominant theme one year on from the launch of the NPPF. Uncertainty is the enemy of good planning and long-term economic growth. The current policy direction is leading to uncertain, opportunistic and disintegrative planning predicated on growth alone. We urgently need to change course to more strategic, pro-active and inclusive planning to secure and maximise economic, environmental and community benefits.