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Restoring democratic planning

The Stonepath Meadow Residents Group in Hatfield Peverel The Stonepath Meadow Residents Group in Hatfield Peverel Meloney Dale

In launching the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) last month, the communities secretary Sajid Javid promised ‘a continued emphasis on development that’s sustainable and led locally’. Was he really talking about the same NPPF that, for the past five years, has forced wholly unsustainable development on communities already struggling with overstretched infrastructure and shrinking green spaces?

An earlier pledge to avoid ‘a return to Labour’s ineffective and unpopular top-down regional strategies’ also displayed signs of amnesia - the secretary of state seemingly oblivious to the fact that top-down tinkering returned with a vengeance after the NPPF’s introduction in 2012. Ever since, elected local authorities have found themselves overruled by unaccountable government planning inspectors, or hamstrung by housing targets that even Mr Javid concedes are ‘an opaque mish-mash of different figures that are consistent only in their complexity’.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE)’s initial analysis of the revisions reveals that there is still not enough emphasis on a plan-led system such as the one that has been a cornerstone of our local democracy since 1947. We are calling for the final version to give a cast-iron guarantee that locally agreed development plans (including neighbourhood plans) should be upheld when deciding planning applications. It is the only way to restore communities’ faith in neighbourhood planning – which could yet prove to be one of the most effective tools for reinvigorating England’s villages with truly affordable housing. 

Local decision-making

Local volunteers spend a great deal of time and effort in promoting good development - assessing housing needs and negotiating sites that respect settlement boundaries and preserve valued green spaces. So it is deeply disheartening that the revised NPPF could allow local authorities to overrule neighbourhood plans, either when local plans are reviewed (every five years) or if not enough homes are delivered elsewhere. These concerns must be addressed if Mr Javid is sincere in his desire that the new, improved NPPF will ensure that ‘development is dictated by what local people want and not by speculative applications’.

That certainly isn’t the case now. Communities across England are being targeted by parasitic ‘land promoters’ who speculate on their ability to shoehorn large, expensive homes on to greenfield sites. In many cases, the financial might of these companies allows them to steamroller councils in the appeals process, where the NPPF’s current ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ provides the necessary loophole. All this means that the scarce resources of local authorities and housebuilders are directed towards building unaffordable homes on unsustainable sites, against the wishes of local people.

What is most frustrating is that most communities are usually supportive of the right development in the right place. In my home county of Essex, CPRE has been supporting the village of Hatfield Peverel in their fight against 140 homes promoted by speculators on a beloved field known as Stonepath Meadow. Local people want to see a nearby brownfield site prioritised for affordable housing instead, and have gone to the trouble of producing a neighbourhood plan to show how this could be achieved. Strategically placed right next to the train station, their alternative site could accommodate even more homes without sacrificing an inch of countryside. The villagers await the outcome of a public inquiry that could demonstrate whether the government is really serious about fixing the short-sighted mess that planning has become.

The final NPPF must give much more weight to neighbourhood plans in decision making, and empower communities who have taken the time to prepare one to say ‘no’ to bad development. It could start by ensuring that the aspirations of neighbourhood plans are incorporated in wider local plans, and that brownfield sites identified by communities are promoted through local authority brownfield registers.

Fracking is undermining local democracy

If it’s hard to achieve democratic decisions with respect to housing, the situation threatens to become even worse as far as fracking is concerned. The majority of recent applications have been decisively rejected by local authorities, reflecting the fact that public support for fracking is at a record low. And yet, the revised NPPF forces local authorities not only to place great weight on the supposed benefits of fracking for the economy, but also to recognise the benefits for ‘energy security’ and ‘supporting a low-carbon transition’. This misguided emphasis can only lead to more travesties like January’s approval for oil exploration by West Sussex County Council, in the face of 2,739 letters of objection (and only 11 in support).

Strengthening the case for fracking in the revised NPPF at a time of heightened opposition will only convolute and delay the consultation process further, at a time when fracking companies continue to appeal for the fast-tracking of applications when they deem councils to be taking too long to decide. This was witnessed in two recent cases in Derbyshire where CPRE strongly criticised the developer for attempting to bypass local democracy. Interestingly, the revised NPPF’s wording on wind energy developments rightly states that they may only be approved if, following consultation, ‘the planning impacts identified by affected local communities have been fully addressed and therefore the proposal has their backing’. This principle must surely be applied to all energy infrastructure, and decisions over fracking must be not made ‘on-high’ simply because the government regards it as ‘nationally significant infrastructure’.

With local communities already making their concerns clear, it is now up to the Government to show leadership on climate change. The NPPF is the ideal platform to do this, by setting out new principles of genuinely ‘sustainable development’ – including that it must contribute to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change in line with the 2008 Act.

Planning for people

Raising the thresholds of ‘sustainable development’ won’t just protect communities from fracking; it will help restore the planning system’s intended balance between the needs of society, the economy and the environment. We must have new housing and infrastructure, but it remains vitally important that development must benefit those who will have to live with it. Now more than ever, we need to put people at the heart of the planning system.

Read more

How land promoters are eroding local democracy

Planning for people

Now more than ever, we need to put people at the heart of the planning system.

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