I begin by stating that before I came to this place last May I was a chartered surveyor for 27 years, during which time I saw the planning process get slower and more bureaucratic, with an increasing complexity of planning regulations. There is a need for a faster and more flexible process that brings the plethora of guidance notes down to a manageable size. The publication of the draft NPPF is very much a move in the right direction, although some amendments and rewording may well be necessary.
Many have argued that by introducing the principle in favour of sustainable development the Government are undermining the whole planning process. That is not the case, as the presumption in favour of development was first enshrined in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. What the draft NPPF seeks to do is reiterate and reinforce that, and it introduces the 21st-( )century principle of sustainability.
There has been much debate as to whether sustainability should be defined and embedded in the Localism Bill, whether a fuller definition than the Brundtland one should be provided and whether the 2005 definition should be used. My own view, which is supported by the Local Government Association, is that a more detailed definition should be left to local planning authorities; it should be for them to decide on the definition that best suits them, taking into account local circumstances and concerns.
That may include consideration of whether adequate infrastructure can be provided to underpin a particular development so as to ensure that the development is properly sustainable.
I was going to say a bit about the housing crisis, but it has been said. I will say, however, that planning is not the principal cause of the housing crisis, but a streamlined and less bureaucratic process has a vital role to play in overcoming it.
Much concern has been expressed that the NPPF is a developers’ charter and that it will open up the countryside for development. I do not believe that that is the case, as the framework preserves the green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty and introduces a new designation of local green spaces as an additional tier of protection for valuable open space that local planning authorities can incorporate in their local plans. Moreover, the natural environment White Paper has an important role to play in delivering wider protection for the environment.
I am also conscious of the future of our town centres and the need to reinvigorate them. The “town centre first” policy that has been pursued since 1996 has an important role to play in achieving that, and although it is referred to in the framework, I ask the Minister of State to consider ways in which this part of the framework might be strengthened.
The Minister is to be commended for providing a strong focus on design. Towns and villages across Britain reflect a wide variety of local designs and architecture built up over many centuries, and that very much defines Britain and the built environment that we all cherish. We have lost that in recent decades. The sense of place has been replaced by a sense of “sameness”, with the same developments by the same developers across the country, with little regard to local traditions, styles and identities. We need to move away from that, and the incorporation of design in the framework provides the opportunity to do so.
Over the years, while I was practising, I came across many schemes that had obtained planning permission that would never be built because they were financially non-viable. I therefore welcome the conclusions on viability in the framework. However, it is important that if a scheme is non-viable in the first instance, the planners and developers consider redesigning or reshaping the scheme rather than straight away permitting a development that might be described as inadequate.
The Minister is introducing radical proposals for how planning works in this country and it is my view that they are for the better. What he is proposing is in fact a double devolution, not only empowering local authorities but also local neighbourhoods. It is important that transitional arrangements are put in place to ensure a smooth move to the new system.
The framework puts local people in the driving seat. Councils and local communities will be able to control what happens in their local areas as long as they have an up-to-date local plan in place. The framework will ensure that heritage is protected and local authorities will be able to decide where development should take place and which areas should be protected.
The Government are right to approach this matter with a sense of urgency, to have brought forward the framework in this form and to have this debate so that they can take full account of hon. Members’ opinions as well as the views of the many bodies that have made representations. There might well be a need for some revision, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister’s door is open and that he will listen to well-reasoned proposals. In places, the wording of the framework might need to be tightened and there might be a need to expand the document to, say, 80 or 90 pages, but this streamlined process is vital to ensure that the planning process works properly and efficiently and takes full account of local people’s concerns.
Many people have expressed the view that the framework is too development and growth-oriented. There is a need for growth, but it is a need for “good” growth that also ensures that environmental and social interests are not prejudiced. I believe the framework gives us the basis for achieving that.