England & Wales Housing and planning

Revisiting the Draft National Planning Policy Framework: A wolf in wolf’s clothing


The reaction to the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) speaks volumes about its content.

The Government is being severely criticised by the likes of the National Trust and Campaign to Protect Rural England, and congratulated by groups such as the Housing Federation and the British Chamber of Commerce. The Chair of the Major Developers’ Group, Sir Stuart Lipton, said he was “delighted” with the draft NPPF.

Negative reaction of conservation groups might be expected, though feeling is so strong the National Trust has taken the highly unusual step of setting up a petition on its website. However, given developers and the planning system are hardly happy bedfellows, Lipton’s open glee suggests significant changes are afoot.

There are two fundamental aspects of the NPPF that developers are savouring and that local authorities should be actively responding to:

  1. 1. The Government’s understanding of “sustainable development” means “economic development which can be sustained”

The draft NPPF formally introduces the presumption in favour of sustainable development. But sustainable development is so poorly defined it is of little use to practitioners.

The NPPF outlines no criteria by which sustainability should be measured. There is no mention of environmental limits, of not using resources up faster than they can be replenished, or of maintaining and restoring ecosystem services. It therefore does little to help local planning authorities and developers define where the public interest lies and where natural resources are being effectively protected or undermined.

Without these criteria, and instead only with vague wording that planning must be “responsible”, and pursue “economic, social and environmental goals”, it is hard to understand what an “unsustainable” development would look like. The exception is if it significantly harms sites protected by the EU Birds or Habitat Directive, but the UK committed to protecting these sites when it signed up to these Directivesa anyway.

Instead, the real focus is on development which brings growth:

“Planning must operate to encourage growth and not act as an impediment” (Para 13).

“Significant weight should be placed on the need to support economic growth through the planning system.” (Para 13)

Under these conditions, a development needs only to contribute to growth, and it is likely to be suitable and “sustainable”.

Don’t get me wrong, growth matters. It is important at the moment. But just as important is the quality of growth: we should be sending a signal of support to local authorities that they should aim for green growth, not business as usual growth. Widening a road or putting in a tramway may generate the same gross amount of GDP, but clearly they have different results on achieving climate emissions reductions, or reducing pollution.

  1. 2. In the delay between the adoption of the NPPF and local authorities’ statutory plans being “updated”, a potential development free-for-all is possible.

Green groups have been crying foul play over the potential for rapid, large scale development in the period when the NPPF is first adopted, or where Local Plans are outdated.

This comes from the important statement in para 14 of the draft NPPF that local authorities should grant permission where:

“the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date”.

The reference to “out of date” policies is crucial, given that local authorities will have to seek Certificates of Conformity for their existing plans to be in accordance with the new framework. Ultimately this will take time, during which:

“planning applications will be determined in accordance with the NPPF, including its presumption in favour of sustainable development” (Para 26)

Developers will be gifted a window of opportunity for planning consents, on the grounds that their developments are pro-growth. As highlighted in Section 1, arguing that a proposal is unsustainable using the NPPF would be an unenviable task for any barrister at a planning appeal.

That this “loophole” has made its way into policy is at best bad policymaking and at worst, deliberate to boost short-term growth. There’s a simple way to avoid it; through the addition of a clause that enables already adopted local plans to remain part of the statutory development plan, alongside the NPPF, in the period whilst Certificates of Conformity are being processed and granted. Local Planning Authorities are recommended to raise this while the draft NPPF is out for consultation (until 17th October 2011).

The most important word in the planning framework is DRAFT.

Steven Bland, LGiU Associate, working at ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability. Steven is writing in a personal capacity. Additional analysis from Rochelle Hamilton.