Opinion: How to change everything forever in six months

A little-noticed policy of the Coalition is that of throwing out the entire planning system and replacing it with about fifty pages of pro-development planning policies. This is called the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and is intended to be the entire amount of national planning policy governing development. When implemented it will change your community forever.

Given what it seeks to do, fifty pages is a tiny amount – by contrast, the current Planning Policy Statement (PPS) 1, which deals merely with Sustainable Development, is itself twenty-five pages long. And there are twenty-five of these PPS’s, reaching about 800 pages of guidance on everything from coastal planning to telecommunications, transport, housing and waste management. The Conservative wing of the Coalition wants to replace all of this mindless bureaucracy/pettifogging nonsense/waste of trees (choose your negative image) with a slimmed down/simplified/light touch (choose your selling point) framework.

Simplicity and brevity sound great, though, so why worry? Well, Planning Minister Greg Clark gave the task of re-drafting the voluminous PPSs to the innocuously-named ‘Practitioners Advisory Group’. The four people on this august body are a Director at Taylor Wimpey, a Conservative Councillor on the LGA Board, a representative of ‘Major Developers’ to DCLG, and the Acting Head of Sustainable Development at the RSPB. What did a group 75% made up of Tories and Developers come up with? Unsurprisingly, a draft planning system that directs planning decisions towards automatically saying ‘yes’ to any application that brings economic growth, and which puts people and the environment firmly in second and third places in the process.

The NPPF defines ‘sustainable development’ according to a slightly outdated 1987 definition: ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. This sounds fine in theory, but it then goes on to say that in practice this means that local plans should meet areas’ development needs, approvals should be promptly given, and where plans are silent or out of date on an issue, approval should be granted. It further demands that ‘planning authorities should be proactive in driving and supporting the development this country needs…they should respond positively to wider opportunities for growth’. Although it also states that there should be ‘account taken’ of environmental quality of land and environmental and heritage assets of ‘real importance’, the emphasis is clear – pro-development approaches should put business and jobs first, and while environmental factors should be considered, only really important things should be protected.

Having a planning system that requires councils to make economic growth a priority, rather than requiring them to balance all considerations amounts to giving business legal priority over everyone else when making any planning decisions. This isn’t a localist agenda – worse it’s an agenda that puts corporate interests at the front of the queue.

Why is this important? Well, although the mere mention of the words ‘town planner’ conjures up images of grey, bearded men with mild halitosis and fusty jackets, planning affects everything. It sets out what can be built where, how, when, why and by whom. It’s not too hyperbolic to say that, though little seen, the planning system dictates pretty much everything in our lives at some point, and the results of decisions taken under the proposed new regime will last several lifetimes.

The Government published the draft planning framework in May and hopes to have a consultation this summer, with a final version by January 2012. This is fast to the point of insanity. Ask most people to read fifty pages of planning guidance and that’ll be enough for life. Ask a nation to base its entire planning system on a framework drawn up, consulted on and re-written in a mere six months, and we’ll pay for it for decades. So get in touch with your MPs, councillors and your contacts in Government (I’m still getting used to that concept) and lobby them furiously to get the NPPF changed from it’s pro-business agenda. Otherwise the corporate takeover of our planning system will be one step closer in six months’ time, changing everything forever.

London Liberal is a local government officer with experience of housing and planning issues.

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20 Comments

  • Billy Pilgrim 23rd Jun '11 - 1:50pm

    Good article. You can start to see the direction this will be leading us with the recent comments by Alan Melton (leader of Fenland District Council), who has decided to ignore PPS5 and sweep away any archaeological requirements from July 1st:

    As published in the Eastern Daily Press: http://bit.ly/khbiG7

    As I’ve seen someone else point out, it’s a fallacy to suggest that the money saved by the construction company would have somehow found its way to teachers, just populist playing to the gallery. Our historic, built and natural environments are going to take a considerable turn for the worse if untrammelled development is allowed by changing planning conditions to suit developers rather than communities.

  • LondonLiberal 23rd Jun '11 - 2:32pm

    @ Adam – i don’t think you’ll find me arguing to make it harder to build things. i’m objecting to the plans to remove a balanced set of safeguards that, while imperfect and worthy of reform, are a darn sight better than fifty pages of guidance essentially telling councils to prioritise jobs over all else. I’m sure you’ve seen badly designed and poorly built developments all over the country. The proposed change shifts the balance away from councils being able to say ‘no, that’s a poorly designed development that will ruin our area for decades to come’ to ‘we will say yes to your bad development because there are some shop units in it’. As a good liberal, you should know that jobs are crucial to economic recovery, but a well designed, environmentally sustainable community is crucial to decent living afterwards.
    @Andrew – you’re a litlte paranoid! i have no interest, economic or otherwise, in making planning laws more complex. My only interest in writing this is is try to ensure that we have a plannig system that genuinely promotes sustainable development, by which i mean has appropriate safeguards for existing communities and places. I don’t belive the current proposals do that. Churchill said that: ‘we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us’ , and i quite agree. Bad decisions made under a bad planning system will resonate for years to come, so I’m afraid that i don’t think i’m being too hyperbolic.
    @ Neil – this isn’t a defence of centralised planning per se, rather a defence of ‘good’ centralised planning, i.e. one which doesn’t put the interests of developers front of the queue before the environment, people etc. As for ‘infrastrucure doesn’t matter – just build the units’ – i’m afraid that that is largely the message of the NPPF. Your concern about Labour’s approach to planning should apply equally, if not more so, to the current Government’s.

  • LondonLiberal 23rd Jun '11 - 3:39pm

    @ Adam – Your sarcasm doesn’t suit you. Some of the most beautiful things built pre-1947, such as the great estates of central London, were built according to strict design codes imposed by the families (eg Portman, Walden, Duke of Westminster) who owned the land. they imposed the codes because they had a long-term interest in the liveability of what was built. It was design codes and land ownership that equally gave us Edinburgh’s New Town and Bath, two of the UK’s most beautiful and enduring urban spaces. I am not arging that a centralised planing system wil always deliver wonderful things, as it depends on the content of planning guidance. However, ensuring that jobs come before all else will ensure even more ugly box developments and rubbish housing estates than we have at the moment. I think you and i agree on the fact that we don’t want any more poor design. My article points out that the the proposed changes will make more poor design more likely, not less.

  • Adam, it sounds like one of “London Liberal”s bones of contention is that local people will have no say at all in the process. Corporate interests will get everything their way at the expense of local people and communities.

    Simplifying is a good thing but the new system needs to give local people control over their communities. Perhaps we could put in some amendments to balance it out and provide the best of both worlds – simplification AND power for local communities.

    In my local ward, the local community has often protested about the imbalances of too much student residence. The councillors sympathise but are usually powerless themselves to stop new developments. If we could both simplify the system AND give power back to locals then that would definitely be a fine achievement for us.

  • LondonLiberal 23rd Jun '11 - 3:55pm

    ps i have just re-read your comment adam, and can’t let your widly erroneous claim that the planning system has resulted in an undersupply of new homes go un-challenged. it hasn’t. The undersupply of new homes is a direct result of the state (more or less) stopping building them. The planning system is not to blame. For example, there are 170k homes with planning permission in London that have not been built. Why? The reasons are varied, but will mostly relate to a mixture of land-banking by developers and a lack of access to finance due to bank retrenchment. In fact an oversupply of credit, rather than shortages caused by the planning system, was partly why prices shot up so rapidly in the last ten years. We built three times as many homes per year under a broadly similar planning system not so long ago becuase the political will was there to fund housebuilding. The disappearance of that will, and those funds, is a large part of why we do not build them now. It is not the planning system.

  • @Andrew

    Wow, you’re getting more and more defensive of your strict Mont Pelerinist view of the world.

    I thought we were supposed to be advocates of localism or is it that local people are just to receive scraps the Corporates have left?

    Don’t tell me, you prefer the Tories when it comes to this sort of thing????

  • David Allen 23rd Jun '11 - 7:12pm

    “Corporate interests will get everything their way at the expense of local people and communities. ….the new system needs to give local people control over their communities.”

    Giving greater planning powers to local councillors may or may not prevent the triumph of the buildign development lobby that London Liberal fears. Some local councillors will seize the opportunity to restrain the industry or indeed take nimbyism to unacceptable lengths. Others will be captured by local developers with big budgets for political donations or for “gifts” to councils. Retaining the civilised planning legislation we have developed over many years would be a much stronger safeguard.

    “The undersupply of new homes is a direct result of…”

    Hang on, who said there was an undersupply? If there was a real undersupply, why has there been such a boom recently in renting out houses instead of selling them, and why are house prices not spiralling rapidly upward as too many people chase furiously after the few available houses in this under-supplied market? The reality is that there are enough houses but the prices are too high. We don’t need a vast building programme. We just need prices to fall to affordable levels.

  • Andrew and Adam seem to have bought into the Tory view that planning officers are some sort of sinister socialist bureaucrats intent on stifling enterprise. In fact, the vast majority of planning applications are approved and most local councils are only too keen to encourage jobs and growth. But what developers want sometimes isn’t in the interests of local communities or the environment. The coalition preaches about localism but this “reform” will actually remove power from local people and give it to corporate interests.

    With regard to Adam’s point about vast supermarkets, identikit housing estates and so on – yes, some environmentally-unfriendly eyesores HAVE been constructed under the present planning laws. But that sounds to me like an argument for tightening them up and seeking higher standards, not for relaxing the planning guidelines even more and tilting the balance more towards developers.

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Jun '11 - 8:50pm

    This discussion seems a bit barren and uninformed. The present planning system is a bureaucratic time-consuming mess but the new planning system that is proposed in Part 5 of the Localism Bill looks like a rather anarchic time-consuming mess with a huge clash between top-down instructions to develop and bottom-up power to neighbourhoods (which will often seek to stop development).

    We are discussing Part 5 (probably) the week after next.

    Tony Greaves

  • @ Tony Greaves

    Hmm, proposals for a massive change that haven’t been properly thought through. Where did I hear that one before? From a doctor? Or a professor? Or a forester? Or a pensions expert?

  • LondonLiberal 24th Jun '11 - 9:46am

    Thanks to everyone who’s commented.

    David Allen – my point isn’t that councillors are getting more power. The government is telling them that they are, but then tying up planning guidance so that they have to say ‘yes’ to any application that brings growth. They will actually have less freedom in the future becuase of this. The undersupply of homes is because we have a rate of household formation of approx. 223,000 per year, but have actually built below this rate for at least a decade if not more. Plus the homes that are empty or affordable aren’t anywhere near any jobs (crudely speaking).
    John – i quite agree.
    Tony – i agree, with the further comment that neighbourhoods won’t be allowed to develop plans that aren’t about more growth and that actually what such a limited guidance does is hand huge dollops of cash to planning lawyers as the gaps in the guidance are filled out by the courts.
    Adam – developers always blame communities for being maldministered or short-sighted. Councils always blame developers for being tight or producing dull projects. At the end of the day, if cllrs are looking to appease electors, that’s democracy (yes, imperfect, poorly informed, messy democracy). More freedom and flexibility for planners – yes. But taking away that freedom by giving little choice but to say ‘yes’ to everything – no.
    Here’s the reference for 170k homes in London having planning permission but not having been built: Craine T. London Land Report for residential development experts. Molior Residential Development Research, 2011 (i don’t know if it’s on the internet, though).

  • Tony Greaves is spot on. I attended the launch of the practioner report, and all four members of the group spoke. The RSPB man on the panel was clear that all the safeguards he wanted were there. There were a lot of questions from National Trust, Woodlands Trust, as well as groups such as Shelter and the Rail Freight Assoc. It was an extremely good event.

    But as Tony says, the proof will be in the eating. The report calls for all development to be sustainable, but also argues that the economy matters. The system is essentially what we have now – local plans must be in accordance with national guidance. The presumption in favour of development will apply when there is no local plan, but this means that all areas will have a local plan to avoid a free for all.

    It is not clear to me that we will know whether this increases or reduces development by the time of the next election. It does not create any more incentives for local areas to support development.

  • Sustainable has become the all-time weasal word to shove into almost any document to make it sound plausible. The Bruntland definition has been pushed on to the back burner since as it amounts to motherhood with no meaning. Planning is another aspect of economic growth. It’s this wider debate -living within the planet’s capacity to support its growing population without irretrievably damaging its life support systems-Lib Dems should be having. When I served on the planning committee the overwhelming driver for most objections was the impact of applications on local property values. A less property obessed society might think differently. The new Tory localism will simply encourage intra community conflict.

  • LondonLiberal 27th Jun '11 - 10:24am

    @ Tim – ‘the sysytem is essentially what we have now’ – yes and no. The process will be the same: as you say, local plans will still have to conform to national guidance. However, the content of that guidance is what is different, and it is changing the balance of judgement away from a rounded view of the benefits and costs of any particular development to a judgment that places extra weight on the economics of a proposals. This is what is so objectionable. It is anti-localist, potentially bad for communities, and potentially hugely expensive for local authorities as the guidance is so flimsy that a large number of cases will be decided on appeal in the courts.

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