Following a vibrant public debate and a consultation which attracted more than 10,000 responses, MPs gathered in Parliament yesterday to discuss the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
Greg Clark, the Minister for Planning and Decentralisation, opened the debate by reiterating his commitment to localism and community-led planning. There was a general consensus in the house that these are worthy aims, although disagreement occurred as to whether the current version of the NPPF could deliver them.
There were also a number of fundamental differences between MPs over the ability of the NPPF to ensure the provision of affordable housing and economic growth. Greg Clark repeated the government line that the planning system is a hindrance on these, but Hilary Benn, the new Shadow Secretary for Communities and Local Government rejected this argument, citing the Government’s own impact assessment. This states that in 2009-10 85% of all applications made were approved. Mr Benn concluded that planning is not limiting growth, but rather the state of the country’s economy and the lack of money available within the property system.
Greg Clark went on another tack then, defending the use of the 1987 Brundtland definition of sustainable development regarding the NPPF. He did this on the grounds that it was “timeless” in comparison to the 2005 definition, which requires the balancing of the economy, the environment and social needs in planning considerations. Mr Benn responded that to help the 2005 definition on its way to enduring timelessness would require only the Government’s “sticking with it”.
Mr Benn, quoting the Campaign to Protect Rural England, went on to argue that the vague nature of the document means “there is an ambiguity which permeates the NPPF, and which is likely to lead to uncertainty in its application, with a consequent increase in the number of appeals”. Using evidence provided by the RSPB, he also suggested that the NPPF will weaken protection for Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
Other MPs joined the debate, with many arguing that a shorter document did not necessarily make a clearer document. Heidi Alexander and George Hollingbery spoke particularly of the phrase “significantly and demonstrably”, both expressing concern about the use of such vague phrases. Neil Carmichael said that we must ensure that local planners have the capacity to produce good local plans – plans which have sovereignty. Whilst Jack Dromey argued for keeping and strengthening the existing brownfield first policy. Later on Annette Brooke argued that it is totally unacceptable to give a default yes to development where a local plan is not in place.
The general consensus appeared to be that the aims of the NPPF were in the whole quite laudable, putting people at the heart of decision making, but the actual contents of the document needed to be changed to achieve these and to ensure sustainability.