NPPF brings out the “nutters”

This may not be politically correct but it has to be said. DCLG’s draft National Planning Policy Framework really has brought out the “nutters”. I am not talking about the National Trust or the Daily Telegraph. And I am certainly not talking about the Planning Officers Society. What I am talking about are the comments supposedly ordinary members of the public make in response to articles covering the draft NPPF in the website editions of serious newspapers.

Worst of all are the racists. These proclaim that new housing development would be totally unnecessary if we just sent back all immigrants. On the basis of this reasoning we don’t need an NPPF and preserving our green and pleasant land is easy.

Next come the conspiracy theorists. To them any development is evil and it’s all a plot by David Cameron to line the pockets of his rich friends.

Well behind this – but still quite dangerous – is misinterpretation of actual facts. For instance, planning permission exists for about 300,000 house plots and it is therefore suggested that there is no need for more land release. The press actually promulgated this one. The reporter in question ignored the fact that in the 1950s “Super Mac” delivered 300,000 new homes a year. This reporter and members of the public who jumped on the bandwagon also ignored the nature of the development process with the need for a pipeline to ensure that steady output can be achieved. Critics coming from this direction have attacked the draft NPPF’s requirement for 5 years supply of deliverable plots to be available in each local authority area. These commentators usually presume (inaccurately) that this is a totally new requirement which is being introduced to pacify development

On top of all this is a level of vitriol and political hatred which is usually reserved for arguments about Government economic policy and defence cuts.

While you may find these opinions laughable, it is worrying that so many people who probably regard themselves as being very well-informed actually know so little about the planning system. It is also quite worrying that people who should know better (like the National Trust and the Daily Telegraph) have encouraged such drivel by overstating their own arguments.

People obviously do not understand the existing planning system, how it works and what its achievements actually are. The respondents to NPPF press coverage either think that the existing system allows everything through or allows nothing through. They are generally united in thinking the NPPF will allow everything through.

Some Ministers have shown frustration at the public reaction to the NPPF. One has issued a “myth buster” and the RTPI has done something similar. There has clearly been a major communications failure over the years to bring us to this situation. The thousands of pages of Government guidance and multiplicity of local authority plans and supplementary planning documents, etc, etc do not provide transparency and understanding. In principle, I think a 52 page NPPF is to be welcomed.

Despite the furore and all the hype from special interest groups, the consultation draft is not bad. I don’t think it will lead to concreting over the entire country in the way some hysterics predict. Nor do I think it will ease things to the extent that some development lobbyists seem to expect. It would no doubt be a surprise to all the people who have commented without reading it, but the document is actually about balancing competing economic, social and environmental considerations. It would similarly surprise these people to see the extent to which it summarizes existing policy.

There could be some improvements and no doubt there will be – this is a consultation draft after all. Explicit priority for brownfield sites is an obvious one, although in future this should not promote the garden-cramming that has been an unwelcome by-product of such policies in the past. I would also recommend adding something about the economic value of agriculture and the importance of food security to an island nation.

The presumption in favour of sustainable development has been controversial but, as Professor Sir Peter Hall has pointed out, a presumption in favour of development (without the sustainability condition) has been a feature of the system since 1947, subject to the provisions of the development plan. The final NPPF should have more explanation of how the sustainability presumption will work and an indication of the factors to be taken into consideration.

We should not forget, though, that we are supposed to have a plan-led system. If, as the CPRE reports, 48% of councils won’t have up-to-date plans by next April then the public has a right to ask why this unacceptable state of affairs has come about. Very few of the supposedly well-informed respondents to press coverage of the NPPF are picking up this issue. Some councillors and their
planners may have valid reasons. But the LDF system was introduced in 2004 and you have to ask why have they taken so long? To a certain extent you can blame the tortuous bureaucratic processes involved in the LDF system but some councils have added to the delay by withdrawing draft documents following the Government’s decision to drop regional spatial strategies and
regional housing targets.

Ministers are promising to introduce transitional arrangements where local plans are still out of date. Without this, the pressure of applications to be determined on appeal against the sustainability presumption would probably be overwhelming in some areas. You cannot help thinking, though, that it is letting the recalcitrant councils off the hook!

Kim Penfold
10 October 2010