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The NPPF defines ‘sustainable development’ according to a slightly outdated 1987 definition: ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.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local plans should meet areas’ development needs, approvals should be promptly given, and where plans are silent or out of date on an issue, approval should be granted.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.