Ministers have stated that their clear priority is economic growth. The measures on planning in the Bill, however, are not likely to deliver sustainable growth. Rather, CPRE believes that without significant change they will lead to lasting damage to the attractiveness of the countryside, less affordable housing and more delays as a result of legal and direct action.
Among the proposals are clauses allowing the Secretary of State wide powers to take planning decisions out of the hands of local authorities; to override the key purposes of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in order to erect new telecommunications lines; to undermine common law protection for village greens; and to allow developers more scope to renege on affordable housing agreements. CPRE’s priority now will be to work with Parliamentarians and others to improve the Bill to make it an effective instrument for achieving the Government’s declared ambitions for sustainable development.
Shaun Spiers, CPRE’s Chief Executive, says:
“This Bill is a depressing attack on the protection of the countryside, just months after the damaging and distracting debate on the National Planning Policy Framework. It is also a centralising measure, a serious departure from the Government’s welcome commitment to localism.
“These proposals will now be scrutinised by Parliament, and we hope MPs and Peers will ensure that the final legislation contributes to sustainable development, rather than undermining it. CPRE will work both with Parliamentarians and the Government to try to make this happen.”
• Allowing applications for development to be made directly to the Secretary of State, is a significant move to centralisation, and away from the Government’s much trumpeted localist agenda. Most planning applications are currently made to local authorities and in the debates around the Localism Act 2011, the then Planning Minister Greg Clark MP stated in Parliament that “we should move away from a system of planning by development control, where recourse is made to the Planning Inspectorate rather than local decision makers, which is how the future of our communities has been developed. I want fewer appeals to the Planning Inspectorate and more decided locally.” (Greg Clark, Localism Bill Report Stage, House of Commons 17 May 2011, c.273.).
Ministers have not yet been clear under what circumstances developers will be allowed to bypass local decision-makers. Decision quality will suffer, and the recruitment of more planning inspectors and an increased number of Public Inquiries will add to the bill for the taxpayer. Aside from the obvious ‘take over’ of decisions by the Secretary of State, the underlying message sent to local authorities is worrying. If large planning applications are taken out of the hands of local authorities, a perverse incentive could be created for particularly cash-strapped local authorities to shirk their responsibilities for deciding large planning applications. Either there will be more quick refusals (where the council is still brave enough), or very poor decisions will result.
• The Bill undermines the power of local authorities to require information to be submitted with planning applications, and this will also reduce the quality of planning control. Developers will seek permissions on limited or poor quality information and will find it easier to avoid meaningful local consultation. It will be more difficult for local authorities to set the right conditions on development and the vague generalised wording of the clause will be an open invitation for developers to contest local authority requests for information in the courts.
• There is a pressing need for affordable housing, and it can only be developed where land values are reduced or subsidised. The Bill proposes to make it easier to appeal against local authority attempts to deliver land for affordable housing through planning agreements. A number of existing housing schemes have agreements attached to them to deliver affordable housing, and many of these are currently being renegotiated due to the wider economic climate. The existence of these clauses threaten in CPRE’s view to undermine local authorities in negotiation on these agreements, and will be an incentive for developers to drag out negotiations that might otherwise have been concluded, thus adding to delay rather than removing it as the Government intends.
The longer term effect is likely to be to increase landowner and developer profits and concentrate more market housing in the areas with the highest house prices. The Government proposes additional funding to replace the affordable homes lost, but without land provided through planning agreements delivery will suffer. The basis on which a developer could appeal against a requirement to develop affordable homes is their impact on the viability of the development more widely, but that is a very difficult thing to define, especially in terms of the value of land. The viability position can change very quickly, but once the appeal is upheld the opportunity for affordable housing development in the area is gone.
• Worrying powers are being proposed for the Secretary of State to give the go-ahead to electronic communications infrastructure that could cause serious damage to designated landscapes. The proposal that the key purpose of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – to conserve beauty - could be overridden in order to provide infrastructure is alarming. It also undermines the Government’s categoric assurance in a November 2011 consultation on overhead telecommunications deployment that it would would not relax protections for designated landscapes. It is right that the Government is prioritising broadband access in rural areas, but it is entirely possible to roll out superfast broadband in these areas and conserve beauty at the same time. Ill thought-through decisions in protected landscapes risk causing irreversible damage to some of our most prized national assets.
• Town and village greens: The proposals to make it more difficult to register new town and village greens, on the basis that some applications have delayed or stopped development, are a sledgehammer to crack a very small nut. Tens of thousands of planning applications for housing development are granted each year, but in 2009 there were only 185 village green applications. There may be legitimate concerns about a small number of these applications, but it is worrying that the Government chooses to portray town and village greens as a barrier to growth, rather than a key protection for spaces that are highly valued by communities across the country. The tests for registering village greens are already onerous. We fear that this proposal will lead to an inequality of arms between local communities and housebuilders who are banking more and more land and want to steamroller councils into developing land that should be protected.
• The idea of including big housing schemes in the scope of the 2008 Planning Act major infrastructure procedures has been dropped, and we welcome this move by the Government. However, inclusion of major business or commercial projects as ‘major infrastructure’ is another blow to local decision-making. It could mean that big office, warehousing and retail schemes bypass local scrutiny and are decided by planning inspectors. The message given is that these schemes will get an easier ride from Government. Will Ministers commit to protect town centres and regeneration projects from competition from road and motorway based schemes, or will there be a flood of greenfield approvals that undermine urban areas? There is no guarantee that the schemes involved will reflect locally agreed plans. Will there be a new national policy statement to guide the planning inspectorate?