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The National Trust calls on the government to give councils an extra year to consult local communities on local plans.

New research has revealed that meeting a 12 month deadline for adopting a Local Plan has been unfeasible for potentially more than half of local authorities.

And with the March 27 deadline fast approaching there is a growing fear that many areas across England without a robust planning scheme in place will become vulnerable to developers looking to cash in on planning loopholes.

When the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was published last spring, a successful National Trust campaign helped ensure that local communities were given a voice on land use and protecting treasured areas through their council’s Local Plan.

However, research completed earlier this month by the National Trust and the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) found that 51 per cent of local planning authorities will not meet the March deadline. And around 27 per cent said it would take them more than a year from now for their local plan to be adopted. This reflects official information from the Planning Inspectorate that just under half (48 per cent) of local councils in England have had their local plan adopted already.

Without an adopted plan in place, local councils run the risk of being subject to “presumption in favour of sustainable development” as part of the NPPF – or in the more direct and colourful words of the planning minister, Nick Boles, that they will “expose themselves to speculative development”. This means that developers could gain an easy “yes” on the 55 per cent of England without national protection – such as land outside of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and designated green belts.

This is why the National Trust today has called on the government to extend the deadline by one year, to March 27 2014, to give all local communities an opportunity to shape their Local Plan and their area for future generations.

“Speculative development is the polar opposite of good planning,” said Peter Nixon, the National Trust’s Director of Conservation.

“The success of the National Planning Policy Framework depends entirely on local plans being adopted. This is why we suggested that councils should be given a further year to adopt their plans.

“A perfect storm of ever tighter council budgets, the loss of regional strategies and just 12 months to adopt new plans has been too much for many councils to bear.”

The message is one supported by planning minister Nick Boles himself. In his own speeches, Mr Boles has referred to planning “…through which villages, parishes and other neighbourhoods can take control of their future and decide for themselves how and where development should take place” as a revolutionary step forward.

Malcolm Sharp, president of the Planning Officers Society agreed that the original one year’s transition period was not long enough to complete the local plan process.

“Planning authorities are being asked to do local plans, support neighbourhoods, put the community infrastructure levy in place and negotiate infrastructure delivery,” he said. “It’s a big ask on them to keep all the balls in the air.”


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Eric Pickles makes housing and planning statement

Following the cabinet reshuffle and the return of MPs to parliament, the summers talk of further change to the planning system has bubbled to the surface. This afternoon, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles made a housing and planning statement to the House of Commons.

He announced a series of investments, including £200 million for new high-quality rented homes and £300 million to bring 5,000 empty homes back into use and increase affordable housing. There will be the opportunity for developers to renegotiate the affordable housing element of Section 106 agreements, where they can prove it would make a development commercially unviable. There will also be a relaxation of permitted development rights, which will allow householders and businesses to build extensions with fewer restrictions.

A distinction should be made between planning decisions made for individual properties, and the business of planning for whole areas and communities. It was the latter that was of most interest to us and the 230,000 people who joined our campaign on the National Planning Policy Framework last year.

We’re just six months into the Government’s new planning framework and local authorities are busy updating their local plans. We’re glad that the Government has recognised the NPPF as the guiding framework, and that it needs time to take effect, and note that there are 400,000 homes with planning permission waiting to be built and permissions are up since the new planning framework was introduced earlier this year. We also welcome the confirmation that Green Belt policy remains unchanged. The renewed focus on brownfield land marks a great opportunity for smart growth to deliver benefits for people, the economy and the environment.  

We’ll be looking closely at what has been proposed today, and will be keeping a close eye on the details as they develop.


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Much-needed nuance in the NPPF debate

We’ve starting the week with a helping of healthy debate on the government’s draft planning reforms (NPPF). This time, it comes in the form of a Redbrick blog post by Steve Hilditch, the self-proclaimed “place for progressive housing policy debate”.

In ‘Octavia Hill cries wolf? Steve gives his take on Ben Cowell‘s blog (our Assistant Director of External Affairs) in response to a searing critique of our Planning for People campaign by Inside Housing blogger Colin Wiles.

So here’s Ben’s thinking on Steve Hilditch’s blog:

“This is a really important debate, and we welcome it. There is a great deal in what you say that we in fact agree with. In particular, we agree with the broad argument that the #NPPF and Localism Act contains contradictory impulses that could cancel each other out.

As you put it:

“At its heart there is a core contradiction, trying to combine a national policy – generally in favour of development – with a localist approach – which at best will be highly variable as local councils and communities respond to developers’ proposals.” 

“It ought to be possible to combine promotion of growth with promotion of localism, but so far the new planning policy reads too much like a licence to reintroduce the sort of ‘planning by appeal’ that characterised earlier eras. So we agree that more should be done to strengthen the ‘duty to cooperate’ and to promote wider-than-local planning.

“We also agree with you on the need for a brownfield first approach. Where I take issue is where you claim that the National Trust claims ‘to speak on behalf of its millions of members’. Could you point me to an example of where we have done that? We have been very careful not to claim to speak on behalf of our 4 million members. We in fact set up a separate petition for people to sign if they agreed with our campaign (over 220,000 did so).

We are a completely apolitical charity (the Charity Commission would have something to say if we were not so), and our membership reflects a broad span of views and opinions that we would never try to second guess. We share many of the same concerns as the CPRE, but the main difference between the two organisations is that we own a significant amount of land, and therefore have a huge role to play in local economies (particularly in rural areas).

We are directly engaged in rural economic issues (see our blog about rural growth), and do so in ways that demonstrate how we can combine economic prosperity at the same time as enhancing and protecting special places for ever and for everyone. We look forward to the debate continuing and – more importantly – to a new planning system that is fit for purpose, that helps deliver the jobs and houses that are now needed, but does so in the right way and in the right places.

Ben Cowell, Assistant Director, External Affairs, National Trust

Want to add your voice to the debate? Tweet us @nationaltrust with the #planning4ppl hashtag or find us on Facebook.

Blog by Kate Joynes-Burgess, Social Media & Communities Manager


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Housing, Octavia Hill and the NPPF

One of the National Trust’s fiercest critics in the debate over the NPPF has been Colin Wiles, a housing consultant based in Cambridge. His latest blog, ‘Crying Wolf in the Countryside’ is the latest in a series of attacks on our work on the planning reforms.

Since the blog seeks to undermine the National Trust’s entire Planning For People campaign, it merits a reply. We are happy to provide one.

Economic contradiction?

Colin was reacting to the new report, ‘Inexpensive Progress?’, commissioned from Vivid Economics by the National Trust, CPRE and RSPB. He thinks the report is contradictory, since it maintains that planning reform will not lead to growth in the short term, whereas the Trust has been arguing all along that the NPPF will lead to ‘sprawl’ and overdevelopment.

It’s worth pointing out that the report is entirely independently produced, has been peer reviewed by an academic of considerable standing, and raises questions about green belt and other aspects that do not necessarily chime perfectly with everything the Trust thinks.

That aside, we feel strongly that the Trust’s position need not in fact be a contradiction. We maintain that the NPPF as drafted is more likely than the present system to lead to bad developments in the wrong places. Our argument has therefore been one about the distribution of new development, rather than one about the overall amount of development. Growth is good – but not at the expense of the environments we value the most.

Anyway I won’t cover every aspect of Colin’s argument against us. But one aspect stood out particularly for me. He declares that the National Trust is ‘clueless’ when it comes to housing pressures.

Octavia Hill’s legacy

This surprised me. As Colin well knows, we were founded by Octavia Hill, one of the earliest champions of social housing. (We were delighted indeed to note that Colin’s own website features a photograph of a plaque commemorating Octavia’s birth and her role as ‘one of the founders of the National Trust’).

Like Colin, we celebrate Octavia’s life and achievements – particularly in this, the centenary year of her death in 1912. Octavia was a passionate campaigner for decent homes, and much else besides. She was also a champion of open spaces, at a time when rampant urbanisation in the absence of any planning restrictions whatsoever was threatening green lungs such as Hampstead Heath, Wimbledon Common and Epping Forest.

We’ll be doing plenty of things in 2012 to celebrate Octavia’s life and work, not least our Octavia Hill awards for environmental and community campaigners, and a partnership with Demos to explore the public policy issues that Octavia was most concerned about from a 21st century perspective.

Our own houses

The National Trust, it is true, was established more as an open spaces organisation than as defender of buildings. Yet our 1907 Act makes explicit reference to our role in protecting ‘tenements (including buildings)’. We are not a social housing charity – but housing is nevertheless a hugely important part of what we do.

We own property throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland including 57 villages. We are also a major landlord with over 2000 tenants. We sometimes act as a housing developer too. Over the last ten years we have built or obtained consent for over 900 homes to be sold on a commercial basis on our land. These contribute to the provision of housing and the delivery of high quality sustainable homes and the profit from these sales help support our broader conservation work. Stamford Brook is the most well-known example, and featured in a publication we co-produced called Volume – delivering sustainable housing (PDF/2MB).

Housing AND open spaces

Octavia Hill did not see a contradiction in championing decent housing as well as in protecting vital open spaces – and nor do we. Indeed, for Octavia open spaces were an essential complement to houses, providing ‘open air living rooms’ for ordinary working people. It is to Octavia indeed that we owe the term ‘Green Belt’ – it was used in her (thwarted) campaign to save Swiss Cottage Fields from development in 1875.

To dismiss the National Trust as ‘clueless’ on housing is therefore simply wrong. We are not a housing charity, it is true, but issues about the future of the landscape go to the heart of our cause. We fully accept that more homes are needed, and the job of local authorities is to plan for these. Good planning in a strategic sense takes time and energy. Given the scale of housing need that faces us, provision of new homes will involve new building on green field sites – we have never denied this. Local plans need to promote new housing schemes, but in ways that ensure the delivery of sustainable development and protect the ‘spirit of place’ that resides in our towns and villages. What is so unreasonable about that?

Urban footprint

One final point. Colin claims at the end of his article that building the three million homes that will be needed over and above the existing urban footprint is likely to consume ‘only’ 1.3 per cent of the unprotected countryside. We’d hardly notice, in other words. Funnily enough, the road network in this country takes up a similarly small proportion, 2.2 per cent of our land mass. So adding half as many roads again overnight would go largely unnoticed? If such a degree of development is now needed to prevent the crisis that Colin predicts, I hope we have a planning system that is strong enough to mitigate its worst excesses.

Ben Cowell, National Trust Assistant Director of External Affairs


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We need more houses – but in the right places

A national debate is raging over the coalition Government’s plans to cap housing benefit.  The dispute is bringing both Britain’s housing crisis, and deeply divided opinion over proposed planning reforms (NPPF), back into the spotlight.

In the thick of this row, we found ourselves accused in the The Guardian - by CentreForum’s  Tim Leunig - of opposing housebuilding in the south-east where the shortage of affordable homes is so keenly felt.

Our Ben Cowell, assistant director of external affairs, sets the record straight in today’s Guardian letters page:

Good planning for an urban renaissance

Tim Leunig is wrong to assert that the National Trust is opposed to housebuilding in the south-east. We need more houses, but we need them to be built in the right places. We also think more could be done to encourage the reuse of existing houses before we build on greenfield sites. After all, nearly 70,000 homes in London and the south-east have been empty for more than six months.

The government proposes to remove the national thresholds at which affordable housing must be delivered within development schemes. This will surely further damage the provision of housing for those who need it most.”

As we’ve said in our Planning for People manifesto, we believe the NPPF should promote the provision of affordable homes and give a five-year supply of land for housing.

Look out for further thoughts from us on the housing question soon. To join the debate, follow us on Twitter and tweet us using the #planning4ppl hashtag.

Blog by Kate Joynes-Burgess, our social media & communities manager


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Early Christmas present from the CLG committee

We’re delighted that the CLG Select Committee has published such a strong endorsement of the National Trust’s planning campaign today.

Their report, which is based on over 130 written submissions and four oral evidence sessions held in October and November (including one with the National Trust) calls unambiguously for the draft National Planning Policy Framework to be rewritten, if we’re to ensure that England has a planning system that’s balanced, effective and fit for purpose.

Recommendations

The MPs on the Select Committee have certainly been thorough: their report runs to 77 pages, and there are 35 recommendations in the conclusion. Chief among these is the need for the document to be made clearer and more precise, if necessary by lengthening it.

The Committee is also upfront about the need for a clearer definition of sustainable development, albeit one that is sufficiently flexible for local authorities to adapt to their particular circumstances. The recommendation for the inclusion of the five guiding principles from the 2005 sustainable development strategy (PDF 5.7mb) is particularly welcome.

We support the Committee’s reaffirmation of the importance of the local plan – and the need to drop the reference to a default ‘yes’ to (sustainable) development. The Committee calls too for the relationship between Local Plans and Neighbourhood Plans to be clarified – an essential requirement if the NPPF is to facilitate the sort of development that’s now needed.

We strongly endorse the Committee’s call for the principle of brownfield land being considered first for development to be reflected in the new NPPF, and for an effective town centre first approach to be reintroduced. It’s good to hear them call for provision to be made explicitly for arts and culture in plans as well.

Finally the Committee makes some very welcome points about process. It calls for a clear transition period, with time allowed for local authorities to get their plans in place before the presumption in favour of sustainable development (in line with the plan) is allowed to apply. And the Committee calls for a further, brief round of consultation to ensure that the technical aspects of the NPPF are properly thought through before it starts to bite.

What next?

These are all welcome recommendations, and we look forward to hearing Government’s response. It will surely be hard for Ministers not to listen to such an important Committee, especially after the Inquiry was explicitly requested as part of the thinking on the new NPPF. We’ll be ready to test the new NPPF against these recommendations, and our own consultation response (PDF 112kb): we very much hope that MPs’ views, as well as those of the 228,000 who signed the National Trust’s petition, are taken properly into account.


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Hot Property Week debate

Ian Wilson, National Trust head of government affairs, was on the panel of Property Week’s online debate this morning: Localism Act 2011 – Planning for 2012.

He joined people from across the property industry:

Giles Barrie, Editor in Chief, Property Week, who chaired the debate
Killian Hurley, Chief Executive, Mount Anvil
Nigel Hughes, Director, Planning and Environment, Grosvenor
John Qualtrough, Partner, Bircham Dyson Bell LLP
Mike Straw, Director, CgMs Consulting
Dr Pauleen Lane, Deputy Chairman, Infrastructure Planning Commission

Up for discussion was:
•    Will the planning changes deliver more homes and jobs?
•    Neighbourhood Planning – what is it and will they work?
•    National Planning Policy  Framework (NPPF) update
•    Will the NPFF end the “town centre first” – “countryside last” planning policy?
•    Will Localism Act speed up the delivery of nationally significant infrastructure projects?
•    Banks’ role in lending under the new framework
•    Will the New Homes Bonus work? Is it sufficiently attractive to promote growth?
•    What will the development landscape look like in 10 years time?

Ian gave a summary of the National Trust’s position on proposed changes to planning policy. This was appreciated by property industry representatives who were keen to hear it from the ‘horse’s mouth’, rather than filtered via the media:

“We also feel planning needs some review – we are a developer and have our own frustrations with the system. Planning should be about delivering good quality places to live in.

“The principle of neighbourhood planning seems to be a really good one but it represents an enormous challenge for local authorities. It is absolutely right we see the Localism Bill alongside the NP, but it is unclear as to whether the NPPF will trump localism. We have huge concerns about transitional arrangements, for example.

“If we ask the question what the planning system is for, it’s not just about economic growth – there are other factors to consider. We want to see a system that values equally economic, social and environmental elements.

We’re all aware of the huge challenges we face in tackling the housing shortage. But that housing has to go in the right place with the infrastructure in place. We need to ensure that the costs – economic and environmental – are as low as possible. That’s what sustainability is all about.

“We’re going to have a new, completely untested system – and if the NPPF is altered in the right way, we could have a good system. The debate we now need to have is about what kind of communities we’d like to live in.”

The seminar also highlighted that whilst we do disagree on some points of detail there is much common ground between the National Trust and good quality developers. They do not necessarily see the planning system as bad in principle but understand the benefits of working with communities to deliver the kind of places we would want our children to live in, places to be proud of!


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All eyes on housing strategy – laying the foundations

Yesterday saw the publication of the much anticipated Government housing strategy. With the economy faltering and the debates over the planning reforms still at large, the report aims to set out a “radical new strategy to reignite the housing market and get the nation building again”.

It is good news for everyone that the Government is trying to sort out the country’s housing problems. And that they are doing so with a localist approach.

Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director-General of the National Trust, responded by stating that:

“Having identified keys to unlocking housing shortages, the question the Government must now answer is where best to invest to meet the needs of the nation. We see a golden opportunity to drive forward an urban renaissance alongside sensitive, locally-driven evolution of rural areas.”

The opportunity to build ‘complete communities’ is now before us. Places people want to live and work in, where facilities, green spaces and infrastructure are provided alongside housing. This is the smart growth the country needs.

Another step in the right direction is the Government’s commitment to improving the quality of development, particularly for large-scale housing schemes.

The Government’s intention to require local authorities to reconsider Section 106 agreements is an issue. As always, the Trust will be looking very carefully at the proposals to make sure this won’t lead to inappropriate, poor quality development.

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