Presumption in favour of sustainable development – is it a serious concern? – edited highlights
Hardly anything stirs up the emotions within a community more than issues concerning planning. More often than not, large scale developments will bring together a community like nothing else in order to oppose the development. But we have an expanding population and everyone needs somewhere to live and somewhere to work. That, of course, needs the input of controlled planning.
Part of that controlled planning is guidance from central government, which is issued to help local planning authorities write their local development plans. That guidance is principally in the form of Planning Policy Statements and Planning Policy Guidance, which guide on matters such as Delivering Sustainable Development (PPS1), Green Belts (PPG2), Housing (PPS3), Planning For Sustainable Economic Growth (PPS4) etc.
Each PPS and PPG will also be a material consideration for determining planning applications and appeals, particularly when the PPS or PPG concerned was brought into effect (usually as a revision of earlier guidance) after the applicable local development plan was adopted by the local planning authority.
But everything about guidance from central government will soon all change.
Central government has decided that the current planning system is too complicated and slows down development, and part of the change proposed is the replacement of the current system of guidance with a new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
According to the Minister for Planning (Greg Clark), the old system was “elaborate and forbidding” and the new NPPF will change that by “replacing over a thousand pages of national policy with around fifty, written simply and clearly”, and that this change will allow “people and communities back into planning”.
Now, the condensing down of over a thousand pages of current central government guidance to just fifty pages (no matter how simply and clearly written it is) has alarmed more than a few people.
In his introduction to the NPPF, the Planning Minister sets the scene for the justification for bringing in the new NPPF, when he says (amongst other things) that: “Our natural environment is essential to our wellbeing, and it can be better looked after than it has been. Habitats that have been degraded can be restored. Species that have been isolated can be reconnected. Green belt land that has been depleted of diversity can be refilled by nature – and opened to people to experience it, to the benefit of body and soul.
Our historic environment – buildings, landscapes, towns and villages – can better be cherished if their spirit of place thrives, rather than withers. Our standards of design can be so much higher. We are a nation renowned worldwide for creative excellence yet, at home, confidence in development itself has been eroded by the too frequent experience of mediocrity.”
And the Planning Minister further states that:
“sustainable development is about positive growth – making economic, environmental and social progress for this and future generations. The planning system is about helping to make this happen. Development that is sustainable should go ahead, without delay – a presumption in favour of sustainable development that is the basis for every plan, and every decision. This framework sets out clearly what could make a proposed plan or development unsustainable. In order to fulfil its purpose of helping achieve sustainable development, planning must not simply be about scrutiny. Planning must be a creative exercise in finding ways to enhance and improve the places in which we live our lives.”
Some bold claims are made in that introduction, although anyone unfamiliar with the planning system might be a little surprised to learn that much of what is claimed will be changed is not in fact already happening. After all, modern planning as we know it has been around now for a very long time.
Whilst I’m sure everyone is delighted that the government intends, via the NPPF, to make things better, many of those people and organisations (such as the National Trust) involved in planning have found it difficult to see how this desire to make things better squares with what appears to be the relaxation of planning rules in favour of sustainable development in certain circumstances. It’s this contradiction that has caused the most agitation.
The source of the agitation is to be found at paragraphs
14, 15, 26 and 110 of the NPPF, where it says:
14. At the heart of the planning system is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan making and decision taking. Local planning authorities should plan positively for new development, and approve all individual proposals wherever possible. Local planning authorities should:
• prepare Local Plans on the basis that objectively assessed development needs should be met, and with sufficient flexibility to respond to rapid shifts in demand or other economic changes
• approve development proposals that accord with statutory plans without delay; and
• grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date.
All of these policies should apply unless the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole.
15. All plans should be based upon and contain the presumption in favour of sustainable development as their starting point, with clear policies that will guide how the presumption will be applied locally.
26. Up-to-date Local Plans, i.e. Local Plans which are consistent with this Framework, should be in place as soon as practical. In the absence of an up-to-date and consistent plan, planning applications should be determined in accord with this Framework, including its presumption in favour of sustainable development. It will be open to local planning authorities to seek a certificate of conformity with the Framework.
110. Applications should be considered in accordance with the presumption. Planning permission should be granted where relevant policies are out of date, for example where a local authority cannot demonstrate an up-to-date five-year supply of deliverable housing sites.”
The combination of the final bullet point at paragraph 14, what’s said at paragraphs 26 & 110 (particularly the example of a local planning authority failing to identify enough housing sites) and the fear that many local planning authorities do not have in place up-to-date development plan policies is something that makes those charged with protecting the countryside very anxious indeed.
But do we need to be so anxious?
Certainly the government says that we do not (but then they would, wouldn’t they) and to calm our concerns on the matter the government has produced a handy little booklet (available online at www.communites.gov.uk) with the snappy title “National Planning Policy Framework: Myth-Buster”. In this booklet the government puts a cosy governmental arm around our collective shoulder and reminds us that the presumption in favour of development (i.e. that development should be allowed unless there are sound planning reasons for not allowing it) has been with us from the birth of modern planning in 1947, and that the “myth” that the presumption in favour of sustainable development will mean that every application has to be accepted is simply not true. Well that’s a relief then, although I do wonder why so many people and organisations got it so badly wrong when voicing their concerns about this presumption to the government!
The fact is, though, that until the NPPF is introduced in its final form (the draft form will inevitably be subject to a number of changes) and begun to be used in practice, it’s near impossible to predict what effect it will actually have. But as long as local planning authorities have up- to-date development plan policies that deal with areas of countryside within their respective boroughs, then most people will hardly notice any difference.
Tom McPhie is a solicitor with Ellisons. He is a specialist in Planning and Environmental matters. He read law at the University of Essex before joining Colchester Borough Council, moving to Ellisons in January 2007.