The draft National Planning Policy Framework: sustainable development “where practical”

The draft National Planning Policy Framework: sustainable development “where practical”

nppf-draft-375x280The draft National Planning Policy Framework was published for consultation on 25th July.  It purports to replace around a thousand pages of planning policy statements and guidance (PPSs and PPGs) with a single document of fewer than sixty pages; itself an achievement of sorts, even if the notion – which the government has hardly discouraged – that the rest was all unnecessary waffle or pernickety detail dreamed up by over-zealous bureaucrats is a bit fanciful (in democracies, you usually get the regulation you vote for).

Ministers heralded a “simpler, swifter system that is easier to understand”, but the document immediately provoked strong views from lobby groups.  The National Trust assailed what it saw as a prospectus for “unchecked and damaging development”, whilst the Chair of the Major Developers Group, Sir Stuart Lipton, professed himself “delighted with the results”.  The RTPI, seldom on the side of less planning, complained that the Framework “fails to set out a vision” and is focused on a “response to market demands rather than… truly sustainable development”.  It also pointed to the apparent contradictions between a nationally-mandated presumption in favour of sustainable development and the primacy of locally-led development plans.  The government admitted that a likely consequence of the NPPF is more planning applications ending up at appeal.

As sustainable developers, Beyond Green rejects both the brute ‘development as growth’ view advocated by the house- and shed-builders and the ‘sustainability as conversationism’ position of the Trust, CPRE and others.  We acknowledge the ineluctable need for millions of new homes and workplaces, most of them in the economic orbit of London and the Greater South East and many of them on greenfield sites.  But we also take seriously the law (not policy, not target: law) which says the UK must cut its carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 and now, says Mr Secretary Huhne, by 50 per cent by 2025.  Since only the most simplistic response to this challenge holds that the scale of change necessary can be achieved through energy engineering solutions that purport to ‘decarbonise’ existing human behaviour, we have to change how we live. And how we live is substantially governed by where we live: for example how, and how much, we move about; our propensity to have active communitarian or passive dormitory lifestyles; how much of our income gets recycled locally to sustain interesting, prosperous mixed-use places; and where our food comes from.  Planning has dire track record in this regard: PPS1 said in 2005 that “[s]ustainable development is the core principle underpinning planning”, but a reduction in the rate of car-bound, poorly-integrated, land-use- and resource-inefficient housing estates and business and retail parks springing up around the country has not been noticeable; nor, as yet, is there a single ringing example of the kind of compact, fine-grained, mixed-use sustainable urbanism that must form the basic framework for truly sustainable lives. Will the NPPF make a difference, and, if so, for better or worse?

First, it’s not a revolution.  There is no national spatial vision, or sense that there is a role for planning in leading or even supporting efforts to tackle the disparity across Britain, within and across regions, between where people live and where the work and industry is.  Was anyone expecting one? No, us neither. For all the renewed emphasis on planning positively and determining priorities locally, planning in England is to remain an essentially regulatory, bean-counting activity.  There will now, generally, be one keystone local plan in each area rather than endless plan documents – a sound move, surely, even if a little platoon of neighbourhood plans reduces the net bureaucratic saving – but the job of the local plan will essentially be to referee privately-advanced development proposals.  Planners will still not really plan.

There is a new focus on viability and deliverability, mainly through ensuring that “development identified in the plan should not be subject to such a scale of obligations and policy burdens that their ability to be developed viably is threatened”.   Although recognition of the existence of viability as an issue for the planning system is welcome, there is a risk that this policy serves to transfer to the general public the burden of developers’ bad land deals: most developments that are unviable, especially on greenfield sites where the need for new infrastructure to be delivered through planning obligations is typically greatest, involve the developer having paid too much for the land.  For sustainable development, landowners need to learn to take their return out slowly and allow decent upfront investment in a place that will generate value: the risk is that this policy gives succour to shallow speculators.

The document sets out ten “core principles” which constitute a succinct statement of how planning ought to work.  There are flaws – “in considering the future use of land, planning policies and decisions should take account of its environmental quality or potential quality regardless of its previous or existing use” sounds like it has been written to create work for lawyers – but on the whole they make very good sense.  Planning should undoubtedly be plan-led; planning that takes account of “market signals such as land prices, commercial rents and housing affordability” – i.e. meeting demand, not some fuzzy, lesser notion of ‘need’ – is long overdue; and who could argue that “planning policies and decisions should always seek to secure a good standard of amenity for existing and future occupants of land and buildings”? And, from a sustainable development point of view, all the key hooks are here: planning should“make effective use of land [and] promote mixed use developments”; should “actively manage patterns of growth to make the fullest use of public transport, walking and cycling”; should “enable the reuse of existing resources”; and should “improve health and wellbeing for all”.

One is inclined to ask, why go on? Given the element of never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width implicitly attached to the NPPF’s performance metric, could one not say that these ten principles over three pages alone might be sufficient to ensure an end both to scattered piecemeal housing developments in stupid places and silly rules preventing development in sensible places just because the locals find the landscape agreeably bucolic and the astronomical value of their homes congenial? With a few tweaks isn’t more development, in proper places almost what is captured, simply and clearly, in those principles? And isn’t it what sensible people want?

Part of the strange genius of English town planning, however, is that principles are never quite what they seem when translated into policy detail. It turns out, for example, that a ‘core principle’ of “actively manag[ing] patterns of growth to make the fullest use of public transport, walking and cycling” entails, or is at least wholly consistent with, weakening controls on the level of car parking provision in new developments and dropping the ‘town centre first’ test for office developments, making it easier to build out-of-town-business parks.   At one level, this just seems deeply cynical: the appropriation of the language of sustainability to sugar-coat a new era of sprawl.  At another, though, it’s just classic planning fudge: why have a ‘town centre first policy’, from which people can then chisel out exceptions, in the first place? Why not let the principle speak literally, and for itself, since such active management of growth would obviously – wouldn’t it? – direct as much of it as possible to town centres where opportunities for walking and cycling are by definition at their fullest? Business parks are part of the landscape of 1980s-style cost- rather than value-driven competition and growth-as-displacement and are utterly at odds with the development of sustainable settlement patterns and of industries properly rooted in place, culture and society.  There is no compelling reason – other than laziness, stupidity or greed – why workplaces can’t be provided as an integrated part of walkable mixed-use places (or what might in the past have been called ‘towns’).  And if more people can walk or cycle to work then what’s the problem with parking restraint, given that it is widely understood as the backbone without which ‘softer’ programmes to encourage sustainable travel tend to wither?

A second interesting angle is the treatment of landscape and open space.  Reflecting its deep, uniquely anti-city heritage, town and country planning in England has always had a dysfunctional relationship with townscape, treating it as something that inherently ‘harms’ landscape and thus seeing humans and their habitat as creatures apart from, and ‘harmful’ to, nature.  By accident or design, the aesthetic poverty and built-in obsolescence of the vast majority of postwar development, which has coincided with the growth of the town and country planning industry, has deepened public prejudice against development and for the protection of the ‘natural’ landscape.  No wonder the National Trust and CPRE, whose interests have been served so well by planning’s self-perpetuating culture of kneejerk conservationism, are up in arms at the NPPF’s emphasis on a presumption in favour of sustainable development: it looks as though power in planning might, at last, be redistributed from property-market insiders, keen to protect their corner of Jerusalem from vulgar new-build, to outsiders, keen not to share a house with their parents until they are 37.  Another focus for ire is the abandonment of Labour’s target for building on previously-developed land.  We have sympathy with this concern, but pretending that housing shortages in the Greater South East can be tackled by building houses on former pit-heads is even more disastrous for the northern cities where a crudely-applied ‘brownfield-first’ policy has been an engine for sprawl and population decentralisation as it is in the south where it has been used to oppose sensible urban expansion of the most pressured towns and relieve the accumulated backlog of housing demand across the London megaregion.

But, on closer inspection, one wonders what the fuss is about: the NPPF seems highly unlikely to lead to the urbanisation of Britain’s greenest pastures.  It makes great play of the retention and protection of the green belt, and although greater local discretion is proposed over green belt reviews it does not take Machiavelli to conclude that the politics of the green belt are, in most places, going to go strongly against even the smallest incursions.  The “great weight” previously given to maintaining the landscape in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty is preserved, while there is a new designation of Local Green Space, which looks likely to enable locals to succeed in protecting favoured sites from development where they may, using the Village Green legislation, previously have failed. Indeed, there is an express invitation to planning authorities to “identify land which it is genuinely important to protect from development, for instance because of its environmental or historic value”.  And the core principle that“planning policies and decisions should take account of [land’s] environmental quality or potential quality regardless of its previous or existing use” sounds like an open invitation to oppose almost any development on landscape or amenity grounds.

And what of the sustainability vs growth debate? If there is an inherent conflict between sustainability and growth, there is little doubt on which side the NPPF sits.  The definition of sustainable development on which it is officially based is the widely-accepted 1987 Brundtland Commission version: “[s]ustainable development means development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Elsewhere, however, are hints of a more neoliberal worldview: “[a] positive planning system is essential because, without growth, a sustainable future cannot be achieved”.  The suggestion that sustainability is seen as a function of growth, rather than a precondition for long-term prosperity, is confirmed by the use throughout the document of a magic caveat. It appears eight times in the document, and in six cases applies to environmental matters.  So (my italics):

  • Where practical and consistent with other objectives, allocations of land for development should prefer land of lesser environmental value…”
  • “Local planning authorities should prefer applications for retail and leisure uses to be located in town centres where practical…”
  • Where practical, encouragement should be given to [transport] solutions which support reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and reduce congestion…”
  • “Planning strategies should protect and exploit opportunities for the use of sustainable transport modes for the movement of goods or people. Therefore, developments should be located and designed where practical to: accommodate the efficient delivery of goods and supplies; give priority to pedestrian and cycle movements, and have access to high quality public transport facilities; create safe and secure layouts which minimise conflicts between traffic and cyclists or pedestrians; incorporate facilities for charging plug-in and other ultra-low emission vehicles; and consider the needs of disabled people by all modes of transport.”
  • Where practical, particularly within large-scale developments, key facilities such as primary schools and local shops should be located within walking distance of most properties.”

Why “where practical”? Why, if essential to good planning, effectively optional? Why, if the site is a sensible one for the development proposed, would it not be practical? Is it unduly cynical to suggest that where practical are the magic words that will allow development under the NPPF to be just as unsustainably, carbon-generatingly crap as it is now?

So, in conclusion, here are the three questions the government needs to address:

  1. If the presumption is genuinely in favour of sustainable development, why the knowing and antediluvian omission from the policy acquis of sustainable policies on parking and office development – unless the aim is to create the impression of change while allowing the devil to lurk in the detail?
  2. How are you going to reconcile the admirable commitment to meeting demand with the deep deference to vested interests embodied in the multifarious landscape protections embodied within the plan? Is it growth only for the grimmer parts of the Home Counties and for places that don’t really need it?
  3. If short is good and you really mean your commitments to cutting carbon and presuming in favour of sustainable development, why not ten simple, uncaveated principles that capture its essence? You’ve done a reasonable first draft.