Broad welcome for revised framework which favours ‘sustainable development’ and protection of green belt countryside
Planning minister Greg Clarke has said there should be a presumption against the building of more out-of-town shopping centres, and insisted the green belt would continue to be protected, as he announced the biggest shakeup of the planning system for more than half a century.
The National Planning Policy Framework replaces more than 1,000 pages of planning rules put in place by successive governments with a single, 50-page document intended to simplify the system and kickstart more housebuilding and other development to create jobs.
The new guidelines, which came into force immediately, are built around a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, which planners are told should balance the needs of the environment, economic sustainability, social needs, good governance and sound science.
In concessions to opponents of last year’s draft document, the new framework stipulates that brownfield sites should usually be developed before greenfield sites, and town centres before out-of-town sites. It recognises the “intrinsic value and beauty” of the wider countryside, specifically protects playing fields, and bars “garden grabbing” for development.
But answering MPs’ questions after his statement, Clark went further in defining “sustainable” when he said: “It’s not sustainable to have a shopping centre outside the town centre, it’s not sustainable to build on green belt” – the protected land around urban centres intended to prevent suburban sprawl. Officials later said such developments should only go ahead in exceptional circumstances.
The document was welcomed by businesses and house-building organisations, while many environment and conservation groups which previously opposed the new policy welcomed what they said were important concessions.
In perhaps the most important declaration of support for the new framework, the National Trust, which organised a petition of nearly a quarter of a million people against the draft, welcomed the improvements. “All these changes improve the document and give it a better tone and balance,” said Dame Fiona Reynolds, the charity’s director-general.
There remain significant concerns about the new system. In particular, there was concern about how strong the definition of “sustainable development” would be in protecting the environment against pressure for investment and jobs.
Eleanor Besley of sustainable transport group Sustrans said the government’s claim that the framework indicated what sustainable should mean “in practice” left a self-reinforcing situation, where “the presumption in favour of sustainable development actually means a presumption in favour of development”.
Joan Walley, the Labour chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said the new definition “will now have to be tested in the courts”.
The Woodland Trust said the new guidelines were not strong enough to protect ancient woodland.
Under the framework, local councils have a year to prepare local plans setting out where development can and cannot take place. Proposals in line with plans should be approved without delay; where plans are “absent, silent or … out of date” developments would be approved unless the damage done would “significantly and demonstrably” outweigh the benefits; and proposals which conflict with the plans should be thrown out.
The Countryside Alliance, which broadly welcomed the revised document, also warned it was not clear how communities could object to developments that were not covered by local plans. “If something comes up which falls outside that framework then it goes to consultation: if they don’t have the guidance in place then there’s the potential for their concerns to not be taken into account,” said Dylan Sharpe, the organisation’s spokesman.
Caroline Lucas, the Green party leader, questioned whether councils could prepare robust enough plans: “At a time of deep cuts to council budgets, we also need to ensure that local authorities have the resources and capacity they need to put in place adequate protection measures throughout the transition period and beyond.”
Clark said the plans would “put unprecedented power in the hands of communities to shape the places in which they live … giving the next generation the chance that our generation has had to have a decent home, and to allow the jobs to be created on which our prosperity depends; and to ensure that the places we cherish – the countryside, towns and cities – are bequeathed to the next generation in a better condition than they are now.”
The coalition has said it wants 200,000 new homes built every year to help bring down prices of buying and renting properties, and to meet predicted future housing need. Local councils now have a duty to specify enough land to build housing for the forecast local growth in housing needs, with a 5-20% extra “buffer”, depending on how good they have been in the past at making land available for new homes.
“I don’t think anything has got quite the same protection it had before,” said Ian Trehearne, of law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner. “When they are all set together in the context of the overall decision-making process… the decision-maker is being urged to think of the thing in the round, and is not allowed to come to the conclusion ‘here’s an absolute constraint’ [on development]. Immediately you are into a balance, which you didn’t have before.”
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