An irreverent look at some of the hot topics in planning. All commentary is given in good faith but does not constitute advice! For specific help on planning matters, please contact us.

NPPF – A culture of “yes”?

March 30th, 2012

This week saw the release of the much hyped (and imaginatively entitled) National Planning Policy Framework – and it seems that just about everyone who got a bit hysterical about the draft and its implications for building on the countryside seemed happy about it. The CPRE was “reassured”, the Telegraph considered the publication “a good day for those who care about the countryside”.

The brownfield issue was an unwelcome distraction from the essential objective of the new guidance – a re-assertion of the role of planning in proactively delivering economic development.

In recent years, planning policy and its application seems to have had an underlying objective of resisting all change that would take England into the modern era.

Merchant bankers (not cockney rhyming slang) moving from the city into the countryside, buying up the homes and then resenting new housing for the locals; Eco-mentalists in Europe affording levels of protection to bugs, bunnies, bats and dormice that human beings can only dream of; Middle class activists teaming up with the unions and green pressure groups to undermine the supermarkets that provide cheap and convenient groceries for busy, working class families; And my favourite – eco-mentalists trying to stop the very wind turbines that a few years ago they were screaming at us to turn to.

It seems that everyone wants development, but just not near them. Not an easy issue to address in an overcrowded island such as ours.

With some exceptions, we appear to have developed a ‘culture of no’.

This ‘culture of no’ sits well with some local authorities. It is much easier for an officer to reject a proposal that has local objections than to face the wrath of the public and the members defending a perfectly acceptable, but unpopular proposal.

Localism just adds another tier to this. Empowering local members is fine from a democratic point of view, but all too often the ‘popular’ decision is a short term one. Some local planning authorities prefer the politically sensitive decisions to be made by an Inspector so they can say to their electorate that “it wasn’t us that allowed it”.

The development sector ought to be able to rely on development plans. Section 38(6) of the 2004 Act says they should. Yet more and more often in recent times we have seen the development plan being set aside. Often this is because the plans just aren’t up to date or the policies are drafted by boffins with a poor understanding of the commercial property world. However, even when we have brand spanking new plans with sensible policies – and there are a few out there – they get ignored on a regular basis.

The “culture of no” means that the relationship between developers and local authorities is, in far too many cases, confrontational rather than constructive and practical. Instead of working together to achieve a better scheme for all concerned, we end up with an appeal Inspector considering a scheme to which the local authority has not provided any meaningful input.

The NPPF is a damp squib in a number of respects, with many of the more pro-development elements of the draft unceremoniously left on the shelf to appease the bearded and sandaled. What it keeps however is an unambiguous message to all decision makers that the presumption should be in favour of sustainable economic development.

The best bit however is that in a decision making context, it makes it absolutely clear that if the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out of date, permission should be granted unless adverse impacts would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits of the development. Moreover, such decisions should be made without delay.

Many local planning authorities either have no adopted development plan or one that is out of date – and almost all are out of kilter with the changes of the NPPF – , so this presumption ought to be quite a blow to the “culture of no”.

The force of this change is however tempered in a number of ways. For example, local planning authorities have been given a twelve-month period of grace within which to continue to rely on their old plans. Additionally, the NPPF has not abolished “The Planning System – General Principles” which sets out the circumstances where authorities can properly refuse proposals on grounds of prematurity.

It would appear therefore that the “culture of no”, while under threat, still has wiggle room.