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Planning — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:48 pm on 13th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 12:48 pm, 13th October 2011

My Lords, the Draft National Planning Policy Framework is well on the way to becoming a sensible and civilised policy document.

It secures a strong role for planning within the new localism. In the future that it envisages-provided local planning authorities have plans, local development frameworks, and provided those plans are up to date-communities will be strongly placed to shape development in their areas.

The document seeks to remove unnecessary barriers within the planning system to the creation of badly needed new homes and jobs, which are needed in rural areas as elsewhere. In doing so, the draft NPPF puts forward a planning regime that would balance economic with social and environmental objectives. It commits the planning system to sustainable development-development which, in the Brundtland definition, meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

It requires that housing development should be planned so as to satisfy the variety of needs for different tenures in mixed communities. It is alert to the needs of disabled people. It proposes an inclusive planning process which would, more than in the past, offer opportunities for people in their neighbourhoods to have their voices heard and indeed to have power to shape the places where they live.

The NPPF is admirable in the importance that it attaches to good design, which is essential to integrating economic, social and environmental objectives, building public confidence and delivering sustainable development. Echoing the Labour Government's document Better Public Buildings, the Minister says in his foreword:

"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".

The document wisely gives much weight to design review at the pre-application stage, which provides a more positive approach than reliance on development control post-application. I applaud the insistence that,

"planning policies and decisions should not attempt to impose architectural styles or particular tastes", the adjuration that,

"significant weight should be given to truly outstanding or innovative designs", and the clear authorisation to planning authorities to refuse permission for development of poor design. Equally, I applaud the document's ambitions for the historic environment.

So why is there such a row? The policy has been grotesquely misrepresented by the National Trust. On 28 July in the Guardian, Sir Simon Jenkins accused the Government of having,

"sneaked out the most astonishing change to the face of England in half a century".

He alleged that the national planning policy framework,

"encourages building wherever the market takes it".

Of the Localism Bill, he said that it is

"a straight developers' ramp ... Pickles and Cable are mere purveyors of building plots to the capitalist classes ... This Bill is philistine, an abuse of local democracy and an invitation to corruption".

As a columnist Sir Simon is free to put forward his personal views, however extreme, although that intemperate tone seems inappropriate. His devotion to the heritage is not in doubt, but in his capacity as chairman of the National Trust a balanced and fair exposition of the issues is expected.

The National Trust, unlike the CPRE, does not provide on its website a link to the draft NPPF; far from assisting its members to become correctly informed about the Government's proposals, it is polemical and misleading. The National Trust's daily planning blog purveys, without correction or criticism, slurs from elsewhere: the RAC pointing to,

"the traffic chaos that would occur"; and the Association of British Insurers emphasising,

"the increased dangers of flooding from the concreting of Britain."

They must have been reading a different document from the one that I have read.

The National Trust does not report alternative views. For example, Colin Wiles, writing in Inside Housing, has observed that,

"if we built 250,000 homes a year for the next ten years only around a third of one percent of countryside would be affected", and that,

"the voices of the homeless and badly housed are not being heard in this debate".

The National Trust's operation is a case study of the mischief that can be created by unscrupulous digital campaigning. It is aided and abetted by irresponsible media-not just columnists indulging themselves but reporters who think that they have done their job by reporting what people are saying rather than what, on the basis of careful investigation, they believe to be a fair account. Members of the National Trust, who are almost by definition responsible citizens with a deep commitment to the well-being of our country, must be embarrassed by the antics of their normally revered organisation.

The campaign by the CPRE has been altogether more balanced and responsible, but we need, I suggest, less campaigning and more debate. In that spirit, I have criticisms to make of the draft NPPF, which, for all its merits, has serious weaknesses.

The most crucial problem with the policy is that, according to the invaluable analysis by the CPRE, 48 per cent of local planning authorities do not yet have a local development framework. The NPPF states that planning authorities should,

"grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date".

This could indeed lead to inappropriate development if the framework becomes operational too soon.

The department is already urging planning authorities to proceed on the basis of the NPPF even before it has become formalised. The Government should not be so impatient. A great deal of anger and grief, and some damaging development, could be averted if the Government would allow planning authorities reasonable time-I think two years are needed-to draw up or update, consult upon and establish local plans. It is not as if in current economic conditions there is a great logjam of viable development proposals, and there are plenty of extant planning permissions. By delaying implementation of the new planning regime we would not be blocking economic activity that would lead us to the growth we so badly need.

The Government should also be realistic about the resources needed to enable planning authorities and the Planning Inspectorate to fulfil all the demanding requirements set out in the NPPF. Even before the Government imposed cuts of approaching 30 per cent on local authority expenditure, many planning departments were weak. The Government's policy should mean a rehabilitation, indeed a renaissance, of planning. But as things are, more qualified planners, so I am told, are employed by developers than by planning authorities. Local authorities are cutting historic environment services-13.5 per cent of conservation officers and 9 per cent of archaeological officers in the past year. It will take time to rebuild planning authorities. A hasty implementation of the new planning policy risks creating new disillusion.

Will the Minister explain how parishes and neighbourhood forums are to have the skills needed for the role that the NPPF proposes for them? How are they to avoid capture by developer interests?

The Government's approach abandons strategic vision transcending local planning areas. The duty to co-operate is a poor substitute for regional spatial strategies. Policy on transport, other infrastructure and economic development cannot be made satisfactorily by individual local authorities. The willingness to co-operate may not be there. The interests of different communities may be antagonistic. Regional development agencies were able to take a wider and objective view of the public interest, promote co-operation, mediate and reconcile differences.

Why could the Government not bring themselves to reaffirm explicitly the principle of brownfield first? They suggest that that is what they still want, but nowhere in the draft does the word brownfield occur. If they would just reinstate that doctrine, which is universally accepted other than by the volume housebuilders, there would be a huge national sigh of relief.

I have no objection to slimming down the volume of planning regulation. But to reduce 1,300 pages to 60 is inevitably to replace the specific with the general, sometimes the stratospherically general. Why junk the planning policy statements? These were the product of a huge amount of work in recent years by expert and committed people. They represented arduously achieved and invaluable concordats. By all means have a simple overriding statement of planning philosophy as in the NPPF, but support it with more detailed guidance in planning policy statements.

Unless there is greater substance, more specificity, in the NPPF, I fear that the new planning regime will be vulnerable to endless litigation. How are these decent generalities to be interpreted in practice? Feelings run very high over planning issues, where not only investment is at stake but quality of life. The planning framework needs to be clear and robust. The wording on advertising is dangerously vague. How will the concept of sustainable development itself fare in the courts? How much investment will there be if the legal framework is too uncertain? Is there a risk that legal delays will be a greater impediment to development than the so-called bureaucracy of the planning policy statements?

I acquit the Government of barbaric intentions. There is, however, some unrealism in the draft NPPF; a tightening of definitions is needed; and there are important omissions to be repaired. The document should unequivocally and unmistakeably make clear that the purpose of planning is equally to conserve and improve the quality of the environment as it is to promote development. The planning system should not be distorted in legislation to deliver short-term financial gains. If the Government pay heed to sensible representations-there are indications that they will-we could reach a consensus which will serve us well.