29 Sept 2011

The National Trust plays its hand

Following on from last week's blogger's briefing, The National Trust has now published its promised Planning for People manifesto which sets out an alternative vision for NPPF. I wish I had had this to hand before attending their meeting because they all knew what was in it and I was shooting in the dark.

First of all it's short. Even shorter than the NPPF (which if nothing else is winning plaudits for its brevity.) In fact its only 4 pages long and the only page you need read is page 4, which sets out its 10-point list.

Let's look at the juicy ones:

Planning should promote genuinely sustainable development. In particular, the presumption in favour of sustainable development should only apply when plans or proposals can be shown to deliver multiple positive outcomes for people and the environment as well as economic growth.

Essentially this a moan about there being no definition of what sustainable means in NPPF. It's a fair point, but I think the idea is that local authorities are the best judge of this and what may be sustainable in Norfolk may not be in Merseyside, so a blanket national definition would be counterproductive. Although many have criticised the inclusion of the s-word here, it's worth pointing out that previously presumption had always been in favour of plain old vanilla development and you could therefore argue that the inclusion of the word sustainable is a move towards environmental protection - i.e. NPPF is more weighted to the environment than the old system. I'm not altogether convinced this is true, it's hard to pin anything down in NPPF, but my hunch is that adding the word sustainable to the palette is a very powerful tool and would enable, for instance, small towns to resist encroachment by supermarkets on the grounds that it is unsustainable for other local businesses.

So all in all, I think it's probably a good thing that there is no definition of what sustainable means at a national level.

Clause 130 of the Localism Bill should be removed. We are opposed in principle to a provision that privileges financial inducements within the decision making process.

Having sorted out my confusion about where Clause 130 resides (actually clause 130 of the NPPF just happens to be relevant to all this, but that appears to be a coincidence), I think this is alluding to the cash for sprawl option, which obviously the Trust don't like. Now I've read and re-read this Clause and it's very hard to see exactly what it's on about and how it differs from the shenanigans that all developers now face over S106 payments and Community Infrastructure Levies. If the locals get to decide where and how the developer's bribe is spent, then methinks this is a move for the better, because developer's bribes are nothing new and the old system has now institutionalised them. I guess what they are worried about is that under the new system, a developer will be able to simply buy planning permissions, or at least overrule the local planning authority by throwing goblets of dosh at everyone.

It sounds like the very worst of big business nightmares, where rich industrialist can ride roughshod over the wishes of the local population in order to build something horrible (think Donald Trump in Aberdeenshire). But the truth is this is pretty much what happens at the moment. Methinks the localism approach may be no worse and may even be better.

The NPPF should act in everyone’s interest to safeguard the things we value. There should be no weakening of protection for the designated natural and the historic environment. The countryside has value for its own sake. Development of the best and most versatile agricultural land should be strongly resisted on grounds of food security and landscape protection.

This is all code for "hand's off non-greenbelt farmland." Or "don't touch the village envelope boundaries." Again it's not clear that NPPF does ditch the village envelope boundaries - it asks local authorities to prepare a five-year plan which indicates which land should and shouldn't be built on, which is exactly what happens now. There does seems to be some sort of gap where a plan isn't current or in operation, but there's nothing to stop a local authority re-introducing much the same plan as it has now. The best and most productive land has always been protected: it seems most unlikley that that is going to change.

The NPPF should adopt an explicit ‘brownfield first’ approach. It should be clear that developers should seek to use previously developed land before green field sites are considered. There should be exemptions for brownfield sites of the highest public interest, including for nature and heritage.

Why? We've had nearly twenty years of brownfield development and it hasn't been a great success. Well, it has in some parts, but in others it's led to an over-supply of flats in areas where there is now very little demand. In London, for instance, there is really only brownfield development, but in Cambridge, where I live, there is very little brownfield to be developed and so the planners are now using greenfield sites with abandon. Surely, the principle should be that development should take place where it is best suited — and most sustainable. The previous use of the land is an irrellevance.

The default ‘yes’ and requirement to grant permission where a plan is out-of-date, indeterminate or silent is irresponsible and must be removed. Local authorities should have the ability to refuse development proposals where they would cause harm.

Well, surely the addition of the word sustainable provides local authorities with the power to do exactly this, in a way that they can't now. I.E. the out-of-town supermarket debate. If a local authority says it's unsustainable, then can say no to anything.

Localism should be real: communities should be given genuine power to shape their area for the better. It should be clear that neighbourhoods can opt for less development as well as more than in the local plan, and that local authorities who wish to set high standards for development are free to do so through the use of supplementary guidance.

Now, here I agree entirely with the Trust. If this isn't explicit in NPPF, then it should be.

It is fundamentally wrong that neighbourhood plans should be led and funded by business. It should be a core principle of the reforms that any plans whether at neighbourhood or local authority level should be genuinely community led.

Are they? This is news to me. Where does it say this?

There should be a limited right of appeal for communities, in circumstances where consent is granted for development that is inconsistent with the plan. This should be guaranteed by the Localism Bill.

Maybe. In an ideal world. But I am opposed to 3rd party right to appeal (as it gets called) because I can see it means that nothing would ever get built anywhere and the whole planning process would tend to grind to a halt. It's often forgotten that there are only really ever two parties involved in planning decisions in any event. One is the land owner/scheme proposer, who is always looking for a positive outcome. The other is the community/local authority/state who have, via the planning system, the right to say Yes or No to the proposals. It's only when the authorities say No that the whole appeal process winds into action, and then an independent bod is called in to examine the reasons why the scheme was refused, and decides whether the authority was acting fairly. It's pretty tortuous as it is, and another round of appeals, which would presumably contest a decision overturned by the appeal, would add what? More confusion? More protection? Certainly, loads more red tape.

It seems to me that once again, the addition of that word sustainable is critical to all this because a local authority will be able to use this to turn down applications it doesn't like without reference to any wider local plan or to the NPPF. I can see all hell breaking loose as the arguments rage over what is meant by sustainable, and I can see appeals inspectors getting into a right tizz about it.

26 Sept 2011

Is NPPF really a "developer's charter?"

On Thursday, I was invited to a blogger's briefing the offices of the National Trust in London, from where they are masterminding the campaign against the government's planning reforms. I'd never been to a blogger's briefing before and I was curious enough to take the bait.

"It's Day 57 of our campaign and we've only failed to get on the front page of a national daily twice" announced Andrew Lainton, who I was seated next to. He doesn't work for the National Trust but seems to be an embedded blogger working on "the campaign." Hell, I hadn't even realised there was a campaign before this briefing so I felt I was beginning to get up to speed. Lainton and the National Trust bods were quietly purring away because their campaign is being so successful and they had even elicited a letter from David Cameron earlier in the week, saying some soothing words.

I think the purpose of the meeting was whip up even more disquiet on the blogoshere (how I hate that word!) which is why I was there. But soon I found myself getting antagonised by the whole tone of the meeting, and started questioning them on what they were trying to achieve. I wasn't a lone dissenting voice: I was joined by the eloquent observations of David Brock, a planning lawyer, who pointed out that a presumption in favour of development (whether sustainable or not) was not new and had, in fact, has always been at the heart of the planning system. He produced evidence that it had been in place as far back as 1923. Cripes, I was getting a history lesson now.

Together, David Brock and I started chipping away at the National Trust attack dogs. "What are you hoping to achieve in your campaign. You've frightened the horses in the shires, but to what purpose. Do you want the goverment to abandon NPPF?"

NT: "Oh no, we are not against development and we like the idea of reforming the planning system. But we think it's now swung too far in favour of developers and that we want to reign it in a little."

"Isn't that down to finessing a few clauses then? Why the need for such a fear-inducing campaign?"

NT: "Because NPPF as it stands is fundamentally flawed."

"But you just said you are happy with the idea of NPPF and think just a few clauses need amending."

NT: "That's right. And it's fundamentally flawed, it's a developer's charter, and England will disappear under concrete from Stonehenge to Flatford Mill."

And so it went around in circles. 90 minutes into the blogger's briefing and I was by now feeling sorry for the government, because this lot are like a pack of well-heeled wolves, and it seems to me they have now got the Coalition on the run. Some of them (Wolfson, Pickles, Osborne) are trying to tough it out, defending the pro-development aspects of NPPF, saying its high-time Britain got building again as if a planning document is going to start a housebuilding boom (fat chance), whilst others (Cameron, Clark) are coming on like soft cops, being all reasonable and placatory. But it's the National Trust-led campaign against NPPF which is definitely setting the agenda. Planning isn't exactly the natural territory of the National Trust and some question what on earth the Trust is doing organising such a campaign, the stamping ground of the likes of the CPRE (who have been left miles behind in all this), especially as the Trust gets involved in a small way with housing developments of its own (but then they will be sensitive middle-class ones, the kind that don't count in this debate).

What really troubles me, and I didn't really express this coherently at the briefing, is that I think the existing planning regime is already a developer's charter and not a very good one at that. It's delivered millions of tiny, crap homes, designed by morons, built by penny-pinching spec housebuilders, and located on dreadful sites next to motorways and by-passes. And I feel almost any attempt at shaking up our present diabolical system has to be welcomed.

The problem is that the NPPF is a leap in the dark. With its emphasis on localism, and neighbourhood plans (hardly anyone knows what these are), not to mention "sustainable development", it asks more questions than it answers. But just to assume, as the Trust have done, that its very looseness will be an excuse to build anything everywhere strikes me as highly unlikely. It might have been, twenty or thirty years ago, but now we are in a very different era. Barratt's are not going to pitch up, all of a sudden, and build a 50-home estate in every village between Somerset and Suffolk just because NPPF calls the existing village envelope boundary system into question. There's no demand, and there's no money.

The clause that really freaks out the National Trust is 130. It states:

130. Local communities through local and neighbourhood plans should be able to identify for special protection green areas of particular importance to them. By designating land as Local Green Space local communities will be able to rule out new development other than in very special circumstances. Identifying land as Local Green Space should therefore be consistent with the local planning of sustainable development and complement investment in sufficient homes, jobs and other essential services. Local Green Spaces should only be designated when a plan is prepared or reviewed, and planned so that they are capable of enduring beyond the end of the plan period.

If I read this right, it means that the old village boundaries will be consigned to the dustbin and, in their place, villages will be able to have their own mini-green belts, decided locally. I see this as a really interesting development, and one that is of great potential interest to selfbuilders. For those of us who support good, appropriate building and not just the current craze for town cramming, I see this as a really positive step. And I feel an urge to criticise the National Trust for being so ideologically hidebound that they can't or won't see this. A return to the status quo (which seems to be what they want) is to ignore the damage that has been done by our planning system which encourages big land deals between developers and planners, and shuts out the little people. At least NPPF is making a stab at turning this on its head.

If their campaign to neutralise NPPF turns out to be as successful as they hope, it will set back the cause of sustainable building in this country for decades to come.

Calm down, Brinkley. No need to rant. It was only a blogger's briefing.

9 Sept 2011

The Portuguese Approach to Planning

I've just returned from a week in Portugal, staying with friends in a piece of the Western Algarve which has seen a lot of haphazard development over the past twenty years. It's pertinent to our ongoing debate about NPPF because the Algarve is a good example of what the National Trust/CPRE fear might happen to England if the new planning regime comes into force.

It's not that there is no planning permission in Portugal. I was hearing stories of people being evicted from land they owned on which they thought they had a right to build and didn't, so manifestly there are planning controls. But it's also obviously not a zoned system like we have in the UK, because there a lots of examples of new houses being built in isolated spots in the countryside. Quite why some houses should gain permission whilst others don't looks, to the casual observer (me) to be unfathomable.

As you travel around the highways and byways between Lagos and Sagres, at the very south-western tip of the European continent, what strikes you isn't the fact that the countryside has been "ruined" by haphazard development, but that some of the building is awful whilst other bits look just fine. Maybe I'm biased, but to me the catalogue homes which seemed to have been speculatively built for profit looked mostly dreadful, whilst the owner built houses sit quite comfortably in the landscape and don't blight it in any way. It's not black and white, not by any means, but there are some stunning new homes built in this area which really add to the landscape. And generally, the people who build them live there all year round and don't just use them as a holiday homes.

This area is interesting in other ways. Parts of it (the West Coast) are protected by National Park status and there is no new building allowed at all. It's a semi wilderness for horseriding, cycling, beachcombing and surfing. Just inland, there are a series of windfarms covering all the higher windy ground. Disfiguring? Possibly. But to me it just looks like pieces of machinery in working countryside, little different to power lines, telegraph poles and tractors. There are quarries too, the odd piece of woodland, and sheep grazing. Some very small towns and villages, and a scattering of small farms. It doesn't look like it's ever been particularly pristine, and so the addition of new houses or wind turbines (the sort of thing to give the CPRE kittens) doesn't stand out at all. The countryside doesn't look ordered like it does in England, but that's not a failure of the planning system - it's more like the way it's always been.

To suggest that Portugal is in trouble because of lax planning, as George Monbiot has done recently, seems just a tad bizarre. After all, we are not exactly rolling in it as the moment, are we? And one of the countries we aspire to in terms of economic well being — Germany — has a much more relaxed planning system than we do. Building in the countryside is something the Germans specialise in - last year they built 92,000 mostly rural selfbuilds — yet somehow I don't think the Germans are complaining about urban sprawl or mickey mouse planning.