The National Trust and planning. Part Two: Why we’re worried

On Wednesday I blogged about how the history of the National Trust was entwined with that of the planning system over the hundred years to 2012. Today’s post takes the story up to date with our current concerns about changes to the planning system.

Firstly, there is increasing evidence that there are problems with the current system  resulting from the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in 2012 and with the loss of skills and expertise in planning authorities:

  • Though there were positive changes with the final NPPF, it remains problematic and this has been exacerbated by slow progress by councils in finalising Local Plans and the lack of coordination between local authorities that used to take place with regional planning. Some of the problems have been hidden as house building slumped after the 2008 recession. It is now back up to pre-2008 levels and we are likely to see more controversial housing development going ahead. London is already seeing development proposals which worry Historic England and many other heritage organisations.
  • Linked to this, Green Belts are coming under pressure. Our own research in 2013 indicated that a majority of local planning authorities were planning to allocate Green Belt land for housing. The most recent DCLG statistics from March 2015 showed that 11 local planning authorities reduced their Green Belt in the previous year (not more than four a year had changed their Green Belts in previous years) with Christchurch reducing theirs by 6% and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne by 9%. Coventry are now planning to significantly reduce theirs.
  • Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBS) are also coming under pressure from what seems like incorrect application of policies designed to protect them (eg see our research on this), and we’ve also seen the decision to grant permission for the huge potash mine in the North York Moors national park, which seems to go against the protections that are supposed to protect National Parks as our most important landscapes.
  • And local planning departments have had the biggest percentage cuts in budget within local councils, and have lost skilled and experienced staff. It’s hard to see how they can deal with further big reforms without additional resources or it affecting their performance.

And on top of these existing problems, we’re seeing a new raft of measures which could stretch and fragment the planning system still further:

  •  The Housing and Planning Bill further fragments the planning system with a new Permission in Principle system for pre-approval of development in some areas and the piloting of competition to process planning applications between commercial companies and councils. The Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects process is to be expanded to cover housing alongside infrastructure. (The Bill is currently reaching the end of its Lords stage)
  • Many of the clauses in the Housing and Planning Bill are permissive and lack detail, and DCLG has been consulting on the proposals in more detail. The regulations on piloting competition to process planning applications would allow developers to choose who processes the application. This would include undertaking consultation with statutory consultees like Historic England, negotiating s106 agreements and undertaking environmental impact assessment screening. Councillors would have at most “a week or two” to approve or reject the recommendations from the provider. We would not necessarily oppose this in principle but this is a more fundamental change compared to outsourcing building control or specialist archaeological or heritage advice. Other policies covered in the consultation include Permission in Principle and the brownfield register. You can read our consultation response on this below.
  • The consultation on changes to the NPPF ended on 22 February. Unless amended, the proposals could mean the unplanned expansion of village settlement boundaries ever outward through small development and push local authorities into releasing further land for development if housing developers do not build on what has already been released. The Government has indicated they plan to respond to the consultation with their final proposals in the summer.
  • A further DCLG/Defra consultation is underway on rural planning which could see a further expansion of what can be developed without the need for planning permission, even in protected areas like National Parks and AONBs.
  • Finally, there are likely to be further reforms from the Local Plan Expert Group’s work on speeding up Local Plans, which could see the public being less able to influence Local Plans and also the downgrading of “saved policies” from older plans so leaving decisions to be decided on the basis of the problematic National Planning Policy Framework.

The country needs more homes and there’s no reason why the planning system shouldn’t change to help deliver those homes. But fiddling with the system without a coherent approach threatens more sprawl rather than ensuring delivery of new communities where they are needed. The result is the careless loss of countryside and of the distinctiveness of England’s towns and villages.

We need a planning system for that delivers the homes we need, and works for the economy, society and our environment. Instead, we’re in danger of ending up with a service for big developers to get housing past local communities. No one is ever going to love planning but there are good reasons why it was invented over a hundred years ago, and those reasons haven’t fundamentally changed.

Richard Hebditch, External Affairs Director

DCLG Technical consultation on planning – NT response

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