On a plain morning in September an event organised by the British Property Foundation on planning policy would rarely attract huge interest. Yet the recent debates over the National Planning Policy Framework ensured for a packed room, buzzing with anticipation over the discussion to come.
Present for the talk was our Director-General, Fiona Reynolds, Adam Marshall, Policy and External Affairs Director for the British Chamber of Commerce, and Planning Minister Greg Clark. The event was centred round the question: NPPF – Planning for Growth?
Greg Clark began the proceedings with an outline of where he stood on planning policy. He emphasised that the abolition of regional planning strategies had been essential to stop the top down, artificially imposed planning decisions of the past. He said that communities should be allowed to declare what they see as the vision for their local area; that everyone who wanted to participate in the process should be able to do so, and that they should do so with an understanding of how planning law works.
As he rightly stated the National Trust agrees with him here. We do want localism to be put into action. We want people to make the decisions concerning their local area. It is something we are already piloting with our own properties, and the ‘go local’ strategy they are employing. But we have problems with other parts of the NPPF, which Clark recognised and went on to explore. Most notable amongst these is the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.
Clarkstipulated that this presumption only determines planning applications if no local plan is in place. What he failed to mention was that at present 47% of local authorities do not have a local plan. He also failed to mention that those plans which are out of date will automatically be void. Currently, as the majority of local plans were designed prior to the NPPF being released they are out of date. This therefore would imply that this presumption would actually determine nearly all planning applications. Of course this wasn’t mentioned by Clark himself.
The focus of his speech was on balance. Balance between the economy, the environment, and the needs of local communities. And in many ways he echoed Cameron’s letter to us, sent Wednesday of this week. He spoke many times of the balance he perceives to be implicit within the NPPF. Of course, as our Director General Fiona Reynolds stated, policy can’t be designed off implicit assumptions and Ministerial speeches. At the end of the day we will have to go off what is in the actual document. And at present, this document doesn’t emphasise balance in the slightest. In reality it emphasises how planning can be used as a tool to save the plight of our economy.
One slightly encouraging point from Greg Clark (depending on which way you look at it) was his statement that ‘sites of lowest [social] value should be put into use first’. In most cases, he said, this will mean that brownfield land and town centres will be built upon before the countryside. This we welcome. Or at least, we welcome to an extent. It is a gradual shift towards a focus on brownfield land that is much needed in the NPPF. However, it is not far enough, as pointed out by Shaun Spires of the CPRE who was present at the event. He stated that before the brownfield first approach was put into planning policy only about 50% of land built on was brownfield, the rest being countryside developments. But following the actual writing of the brownfield first approach into regulation this figure jumped up dramatically, and by 2008 stood at 78%. This is where we want to be. And as most people in the room agreed, including both conservation groups and property developers alike, an explicit return to brownfield first approach must be present within the document.
Also speaking at the event was Adam Marshall from the British Chamber of Commerce. He discussed the economics of planning reform, arguing that at present the planning system held back our economic growth as a country, and especially the prospects of small and medium enterprises. He backed the presumption in favour of development, and stated his belief that this document was an only incremental reform of the planning system. He went on to argue that without these reforms we as a country would face four major problems in the future. Firstly, our housing needs would not be met. Secondly, jobs would be put at risk as the economic growth of the country was inhibited. Thirdly, foreign companies would be put off investing in the country. And finally national confidence amongst UK businesses would be knocked back if the NPPF was derailed.
As an organisation we would agree with certain aspects of Mr Marshall’s speech. Simplification of the planning system is necessary. As is the need to make it more accessible to both the general public and small and medium sized business that don’t have an army of lawyers to back them in planning disputes. But we can achieve these economic wins without selling off our countryside. We believe that we can simplify the planning system for businesses, and yet still retain caveats that protect our countryside and ensure genuine local participation.
Fiona Reynolds, our Director General was the last to speak. She referred everyone in the room to the history of both the National Trust, and the evolution of planning law. She reminded us why planning policy had initially been put in place – to serve the people and protect the places we love. It was not intended then, and should not be intended now, as merely a tool for economic growth. It doesn’t have this capability, and nor does it need it. Fiona argued that it should sit alongside economic policy, and assist it where possible, but it cannot be an integral part of it as Ministers are currently insisting.
Fiona also reminded everyone what the National Trust is asking for, principally, a more balanced document. She argued that to achieve this the whole tone of the NPPF must be re-addressed. Not just to promote the environmental needs of the country, but to ensure that the demands made on local communities can be met. The NPPF puts a huge strain on local authorities, local communities, and the people of this country. Resources are necessary to meet this, but these aren’t currently in place.
One phrase from the debate particularly stuck in our minds here at the National Trust. Clark stated that we are currently going through a ‘genuine consultation’ period with the NPPF. The correspondence in the Financial Times from Pickles and Osborne a few weeks ago definitely did not make it seem like this, with talk of fighting to the end. But here’s hoping Mr Clark sticks to his word.