England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

The key voices in the NPPF debate


This article was first published in the June edition of c’llr mag.

So who are the players as the new planning policies unfold?

In the world of Whitehall they are not just an issue for the DCLG – removing planning restrictions is a key part of the growth agenda for many in the Treasury. “It’s Treasury, Treasury, Treasury, when you want to put the case for policy changes which will create wealth and jobs,” one commercial lobbyist said.

So when the policy was being shaped, the big supermarkets and the umbrella groups for house builders and commercial developers took their case to Treasury ministers. And if they are unhappy they will return there.

Advice to the Chancellor will come from a new kid on the block, economist Dieter Helm, who chairs the Natural Capital Committee which will report to the Government’s Economic Affairs Committee, chaired by George Osborne. Its remit is to safeguard England’s “natural capital” and nurture sustainable economic growth – and perhaps pin down that snark-like concept.

Titular top of the planning tree is the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, but he seems content to delegate most planning matters to his Minister of State, Greg Clark. Clark won respect for his adroit handling of the NPPF consultation, proving himself “a good listener,” prepared to respond to concerns, according to one environmental lobbyist.

Clark’s Parliamentary Private Secretary John Howell, is unusually influential. In Opposition, he volunteered to draft the Conservative’s policy paper Open Source Planning, which became to the founding text for the NPPF. 

Howell was the link to the Practitioner Group which the DCLG set up as a sounding board on planning policy – its members were Simon Marsh of the RSPB, one of the key pressure groups on planning issues which
touch on wildlife, Pete Andrew, of developers Taylor Wimpey UK, Councillor Gary Porter Leader of South Holland DC, Chairman of the LGA Environment and Housing Board, and John Rhodes of the planning consultancy Quod. The group has lapsed, but its members might prove influential as the policy evolves.

A key parliamentary player is Clive Betts, the former Leader of Sheffield who now chairs the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. In a recent Commons debate he pronounced the NPPF to be “an awful lot better than the draft,” but added that the real test would be whether it resulted in more house construction, more development and more
green energy projects.

And that final point may well attract the attention of Joan Walley, the Labour Chair of the Environmental Audit Select Committee – which has already taken a considerable interest in the sustainable development provisions. Now that the policy is mostly set, attention will switch to the slow accumulation of decisions and precedents.

One of the reasons for the slowness is the cuts in staffing in local planning departments, which may have implications for the quality of local plans and planning decisions, too.

Watching their output will be a whole range of lobbying organisations. The National Trust, mobilised furious opposition to the original incarnation of the NPPF, accusing the coalition of elevating “short term economic gain ahead of all other considerations.” It has been mollified by changes made since – in particular they welcomed what they described as “the removal of the incendiary default ‘yes’ to development, where there is no plan.”

Some believe the NT overplayed its hand, and has to rebuild relations with bruised ministers, which may make it more cautious – at least for a while. Other key voices are the Council for the Protection of Rural England, a close ally of the National Trust, which will weigh in on individual development proposals, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds which now acts as a general defender of nature and wildlife habitats. 

All of these groups can be expected to take to the pages of the Daily Telegraph to air their concerns. Conservative Ministers, in particular, found the Telegraph’s
vehement attacks on the original version of the NPPF a pretty painful experience. Their op-ed page may provide an early indication of how the new version is working out.

Mark D’Arcy is a Parliamentary Correspondent for BBC News.