Changes to the planning system – a National Trust view

As the Government continues its review of the planning process, we explore what the proposals could mean for the places we care for, for places of natural beauty and historic interest, and for the wider countryside.

View north over the Palladian Bridge at Prior Park Landscape Garden, Bath, Somerset. ©National Trust Images/Charlie Waite.

View north over the Palladian Bridge at Prior Park Landscape Garden, Bath, Somerset. ©National Trust Images/Charlie Waite.

Less than four years after the Government adopted the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) – the central set of rules for how the planning system works in England – Ministers are proposing to make changes to it.

At the same time a set of major reforms to the planning system are being made through the Housing and Planning Bill – which has been considered by MPs and is currently in the House of Lords, where peers have started going through it line-by-line and are proposing changes. A consultation setting out the detail that sits under the Bill was launched last week.

If that wasn’t enough, a Government review of rural planning rules has also been launched, which closes in April.

This blog explores what the proposals could mean for the places we care for, for places of natural beauty and historic interest, and for the wider countryside.

We are asking the Government to ensure that, in the drive to find more small sites for development and other land for housing, the views of the local community as expressed in local plans are given more weight, and that local heritage, wildlife and our special countryside has the right level of protection.

We are also requesting that Government make a small change to their reforms to free up urban regeneration, which could – perhaps unintentionally – undermine National Trust conservation covenants (more on this below).

‘The only thing that is constant is change’ – Heraclitus of Ephesos (c. 500 BCE)

 

The NPPF is delivering

The final version of the NPPF, adopted in March 2012, was the product of lots of careful consideration, so we think any changes made to it should be equally well-considered and tested to ensure that these do not result in unintended consequences.

We’re worried that this latest round of planning reforms could promote further destabilising and unnecessary change, and weaken rather than strengthen the capacity of local authorities to achieve plan-led, sustainable development. This is regrettable. We’ve made it clear to the Government that we think it would be sensible, after the major reform of the NPPF and Localism Bill, to let changes bed down.

We support the Government’s aim of delivering more houses – and early signs are that the planning system is doing its bit to achieve this.  Since the adoption of the NPPF the number of planning permissions granted has increased significantly, from 129,000 in 2010/11 to 212,000 in 2014/15.

Although the number of homes built has also increased over this period, research shows that last year there were almost half a million housing units which had been granted planning permission but remain unimplemented in full. These figures suggest that councils are delivering the consents needed to meet housing need, and that the Government’s focus should instead be on addressing skills deficiencies and other market factors, rather than an unsettling round of further policy reforms.

The proposals to change the NPPF that most concern us are:

  • Changes to encourage small site development – The Government’s proposals would appear to create a ‘presumption in favour of development’ on sites of up to 10 houses adjacent to existing towns and villages, even if the site is not allocated in a local, community-led plan, where these are in place. We want to see the proposal altered to ensure that local communities have more of a say through local plans. We are particularly worried that no exclusions are proposed for special areas like Green Belt, AONBs or National Parks, or for historic towns and villages.
  • Placing a new housing ‘delivery test’ on local authorities – Local councils’ powers are limited. They can allocate land for new housing, but can do very little to require developers to build on it. Where communities have accepted their responsibility to plan for development, and have made difficult choices about where new housing should go, it does not seem appropriate to us for government to require these plans to be revisited and for additional land to be allocated – as is proposed – when developers don’t build on land already allocated for new housing.
  • Freeing up development on brownfield sites and small sites in the Green Belt to deliver starter homes – the National Trust supports the redevelopment of brownfield sites, when these are suitable for new housing. However, planning practice shows that some previously developed sites in the Green Belt can be predominantly open in character, for instance animal training facilities, garden centres or other recreational uses, with a few low profile, single storey buildings. It might not always be appropriate to build houses in these places, so we would prefer each case to be judged on its merits rather than making a blanket presumption that these sites can always be redeveloped, despite possible harm to open character of Green Belts.
A tree silhouetted by the rising sun, looking east at Rodborough Common, near Stroud in Gloucestershire.

Looking east at Rodborough Common, near Stroud in Gloucestershire.

 Legislation in the Lords

Some of the measures in the Housing and Planning Bill also concern us. We are asking Ministers for assurances on several aspects of the Bill, including that proposals to introduce a planning ‘permission in principle’ will not undermine protections for heritage and the environment, and the plan-led system more widely.

Changes made in the House of Commons mean the Bill will now also allow for planning applications to be processed by alternative providers to local authority planning officers. Allowing private sector planning consultants to process planning applications could compromise the neutrality of the local planning process. We are concerned it could undermine the principle enshrined in the NPPF that planning judgements should seek economic, social and environmental gains ‘jointly and simultaneously’, risks losing the expertise and understanding of the community built up by local planning officers, and could further weaken the financial sustainability and ability of planning authorities to develop local plans if the income from fees is lost.

National Trust Covenants

Finally – and perhaps most importantly for the Trust, Clause 179 and connected clauses in the Housing and Planning Bill would give a wide group of ‘specified authorities’ (as yet unspecified) the ability to override important rights and covenants held by the National Trust.

These help to protect the setting and to provide access to National Trust places. Our ability to take free-standing conservation covenants is also instrumental in protecting the beautiful and historic village of Hambleden in Buckinghamshire, the Bath skyline, Glastonbury Tor in Somerset, Golden Cap in West Dorset, Minchinhampton and Rodborough Commons in the Cotswolds and many other iconic and special places.

Unless amended, we believe that these clauses could allow development to take place that would compromise the places the National Trust cares for, without the safeguard of compulsory purchase, as is currently required.

Government has explained that the sensible reason for this clause is to help speed up regeneration projects, however it would also have what we think is the unintended consequence of significantly compromising the public benefit that rights and covenants held by the Trust deliver.

We have raised this concern with Ministers and we hope the Government will act to exclude the National Trust from the scope of these provisions.

We’re also in discussions with Government about all of the changes outlined above. Watch this space for further developments.

 

See the full National Trust response here: DCLG consultation on proposed changes to national planning policy NT response Feb 2016

 

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