We all like to make plans…

Cogs in the system
Does the planning system need reform, and if so, how?

The Government’s proposals to reform the planning system (the National Planning Policy Framework or NPPF, in tandem with the Localism Bill) could have far-reaching effects on the local environment – indeed that is the intention. Quite how it will play out in practice is another matter. The cross-party Communities and Local Government Select Committee (CLG) published its review of the NPPF yesterday – and its response was not entirely supportive. Interestingly, the CLG review picked up on a number of issues that have been worrying landscape architects and local activists. Two things in particular have been a common thread amongst commentators. The first of these was the haziness around the term ‘sustainability’ in the NPPF. Exactly what the government means by sustainability in this context is unclear, detractors would say deliberately so.

"Sustainability can mean whatever you want it to..."
To paraphrase Humpty Dumpty, "Sustainability can mean whatever you want it to..."

It is important, because one of the other key planks of the framework is its much vaunted ‘presumption in favour of [sustainable] development’. I put the word in brackets because many campaigners point out that without a clear definition of sustainability, the framework becomes a developers’ charter – the second important issue picked up by the CLG review. In fact, the CLG review went further than this, suggesting that the default answer of ‘yes’ to development should be removed, to create a balance between economic development and protecting the environment and communities. Perhaps the importance of this point is best viewed from a regional perspective, for it is in the most densely occupied parts of the UK that the questions come into sharpest focus. In the over-developed south-east, the potential financial returns are greatest. This means that if a developer can get planning consent on a previously agricultural plot of land, the value will rise something like a hundred-fold.

Lots of this?
With a significant under-supply in housing, many would argue that a review of the planning system is long overdue. The question is: how to loosen up the process without weakening the protections already in place?

In addition to this, the most densely developed areas are also those where demand is strongest for houses and other development pressures (transport, offices etc). These are very real pressures which ultimately affect house prices and therefore the ability of those on low or middle incomes to find somewhere to live.

In addition to the NPPF, there is the Localism Bill (now law). One of the key strands of this legislation is to allow communities to directly drive the local planning agenda. At the moment, this is essentially either done through the ballot box – some would argue unsuccessfully, through consultation (non-binding in legal terms), or through local community and special interest groups. This latter is expected to continue, but the intention is that local communities will be able to directly influence the planning agenda and indeed the local framework. The drawback that I see with this is that on the whole, people only campaign on negative issues – to stop development – rather than on positive issues. There is no denying that there is a strong thread of ‘nimbyism’ running through community involvement in planning. The danger is that this could become embedded in local framework plans. This could actually work against the ‘presumption in favour of development’. However, far from being a check to this as intended by the Government, it is likely that it would be resolved in challenges by developers to the planning policies and framework plans of planning authorities.

So the question remains, will the changes to the planning system result in more or less democracy? In addition will it increase appeals by developers, thus lengthening and complicating the process – the exact opposite of what is intended?

John Wyer

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