Is the Government’s Planning Framework delivering on the PM’s promises to the Trust?

In this series of blog posts Ellie Dewdney will be keeping you up to date with current issues that could affect Britain’s most special places and what the National Trust are doing to preserve these national treasures.

For those of you out there who haven’t come across it the National Planning Policy Framework (or the NPPF for short) sets out the Government’s current planning policies and how, ideally, these are supposed to be implemented.

At the Trust we have been involved with helping shape the NPPF from the beginning. We were concerned that the initial draft of the NPPF – by being weighted in the interest of economic development – might not develop the truly sustainable approach that it promised. Consequently, we pushed for improvements via our Planning for People campaign.

planning for people

We were pleased to see some of our suggestions taken on board in the final version of the Framework (and the more recent National Planning Practice Guidance on how to implement the policies within it) and continue to engage and monitor the NPPF.

Two years on from the Framework’s adoption in April 2012 a cross-party Parliamentary Select Committee are looking into the operation of the NPPF and have asked for written evidence to be submitted. Naturally, as custodians of land and conservationists planning is of upmost importance, so we have put forward our thoughts to this Communities and Local Government Committee Inquiry.

As this issue was so significant to so many of you (as the support for our Planning for People campaign demonstrated) we thought it was important to share a summary of our conclusions.

In October 2011, David Cameron wrote to the Trust claiming that the aim of the planning reforms established in the NPPF were, amongst other things, to ‘strengthen local participation’, ‘secure sustainable development’ and ‘maintain protections for our magnificent countryside’.

Although it is still quite early to assess the success of the new NPPF policies, we feel there is still room for improvement in these areas and that there is a risk that the NPPF is failing to deliver true sustainable development.

Below are some of the main areas of concern for the Trust.

Locally led planning

In its final form the NPPF championed people-led and locally-led planning. However, this might not be being delivered on the ground. Planning Inspectorates figures show that only 52% of LPA’s have a Local Plan in place.

Local Plan adoption might even have slowed – 55% of councils either have no Local Plan or adopted it pre-NPPF. This is particularly troubling because we feel there is mounting evidence that local planning authorities without Local Plans are at risk of speculative development proposals.

Perhaps most concerning is the indication that many local decisions are being overturned. Planning Inspectorate figures show that the number or appeals for major housing decisions that have been allowed has climbed by approximately 15% in 4 years.

Local Resources

Similarly we are worried that council planning department capacity and access to expert advice may be worsening. A Planning Magazine survey found that on average the number of professional planners employed by LPA’s fell by 13% between October 2010 and 2012 and that 37% of authorities felt that more planning staff cuts were likely.

Access to crucial expert advice on the natural and historic environment also appears to be more restricted for councils. With only 1/3 of planning authorities having regular access to an ecologist. Similarly, in the past 8 years there has been an 18% drop in archaeological advice, and a 33% fall in conservation advice.

Protected Landscapes

The Trust recognises the current need for more housing – but we are anxious that some of Britain’s most beautiful places and the land around our towns and cities that is protected to prevent urban sprawl (the Green Belt National Parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty) are coming under threat from development. This is despite the fact that the NPPF contains special protections for these areas.

Research commissioned by us in the summer of 2013 reinforced these concerns In a survey, 51% of local politicians and senior officials indicated that they were likely to use Green Belt for development in the near future.

Rather than developing the Green Belt the Trust wants to see a plan led-approach that brings forward the most appropriate land for development first and focuses on more promotion of brownfield sites as promised in the NPPF. Furthermore, the fact that some major developments have been approved in the Kent Downs and Cotswolds AONBs raise concerns that the current tests are not good enough at preventing development on some of our countries most spectacular places.

The stunning Kent Downs

The stunning Kent Downs

Overall, much that we have come across in our independent research, and the research of others, causes us to question if the NPPF is delivering genuinely sustainable development and operating as well as it could. The Government should keep the Framework under review to ensure our planning system delivers truly sustainable development.

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