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.


  1. Mark,

    I generally agree with your reaction, except on two fairly central points.

    Sustainability definition - I think a degree of localism is good because, as you say, the factors determining the sustainability of local businesses, community amenities, etc. may vary. But there absolutely have to be some red lines - we only have one planet with limited natural resources and ecosystems, and we are getting better every year at working out how to apply that to planning policy. It needs to spell out that sustainable means living within one planet, and it should require an assessment of how development might contribute to reductions in CO2 emissions, ecological footprint, water footprint, etc. Without metrics it's all too easy to greenwash. Imagine building regs just saying "make sure the building is sustainable"! Unless the NPPF clearly requires, for example, every council to reduce car journeys, meet aspirations in the CSH that aren't to be merged into building regs, and protect land used for growing food, then it leaves councils who don't really understand sustainability (which is sadly the majority) to permit a great deal of unsustainable development.

    Don't you think you're being a little naieve about the likelihood of a council using the "sustainable development" term so successfully against supermarkets? They throw huge wads of money at overcoming appeals, and I would think they'd have an easy time arguing their new superstore is sustainable and more importantly will contribute to local economic growth (even though on both counts I would argue they are wrong).

    Brownfield land - if Cambridge has used all of its available brownfield then its greenfield spree is in line with "brownfield first". I think you need a big more evidence to back up the charge about flats, it's often bandied around but they are often quite successful schemes and there are other factors to consider such as high land values and poor planning controls on room size/density. Brownfield first has been a huge success in terms of preventing suburban sprawl and promoting the revitalisation of urban areas. I most like the Campaign Against Urban Sprawl's modified brownfield first policy, allowing for example for the fact that brownfield land is often more biodiverse than greenfield.

  2. Tom,

    Thanks for your comments.

    A) Using sustainability as a tool to say no or to re design isn't perfect, but it's not in the toolbox now, so it has to represent an improvement.

    B) My point about brownfield isn't that it always results in cramped, gardenless flats, but that the very logic behind "brownfield first" is flawed. Widely accepted - yes, but illogical. The best place to build new is where ever that happens to be and is not related to what has gone on there before.

  3. Excellent. I agree with your word

  4. Hi Mark,

    a colleague pointed me to your earlier posting on multifoils:


    I'm wondering if you would be doing the community a service by updating it to reflect the nature of the dirty game that Kingspan
    are playing to discredit multifoils, as you don't provide this balance in your criticism. The Ashurst letter is only one of many summaries available on the court findings against Kingspan and you could choose another if you prefer. It's unfortunate that the court results were published after you posted your criticism.


    I understand the court finding doesn't resolve the technical issues over comparing the products, but it does provide better balance as to who might eventually turn out to be the good and the just. Even though your posting is 4 years old, it's still influencing people with out-of-date info !

    I'm sure you don't wish to be erroneously deflecting house builders from using an effective and legally acceptable alternative to PUR.

    George Robinson
    Advance Heating.