Government to Publish National Planning Policy Framework

The Government will this afternoon publish the long-awaited National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which will simplify over 1,000 pages of planning guidance into just 50 pages and set out a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ that will apply across England.

Speaking to the BBC’s ‘Today’ programme this morning, planning Minister Greg Clark MP said that the NPPF would provide an opportunity to involve local communities in planning decisions ‘right from the start’. Instead of seeing developments challenged, by communities that have felt these have been imposed on them from outside, these same communities will now be given an opportunity to plan positively for the housing and infrastructure that they recognise they need, the Minister suggested.

But there are others who feel far less positively about the NPPF. Over the past few months environmental organisations have challenged the Government rigourously regarding its proposed planning reforms, with tension most obvious with regard to the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. Many, such as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, have argued that the defintion of ‘sustainable development’ used within the draft document, on which consultation closed last autumn, was inconsistent and confused. For example, in one instance the Brundtland Commission definition of sustainable development is used (essentially, meeting the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs) and the three pillars of sustainable development (social, economic and environmental) are mentioned. Yet in other instances the wording of the document suggests that economic growth will be given precedence over the other aspects that need to be considered for an approach to be truly ‘sustainable’.

An article (1) in the latest edition of the bulletin of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (In Practice), provides a useful analysis of the draft NPPF. The authors conclude that overall the draft NPPF promises weaker protection for the environment than Planning Policy Statement 9 (PPS 9), which it replaces. Although there already exists in planning policy a presumption in favour of development that meets sustainability principles, the authors suggest that the NPPF marks a shift away from this due to the precedence afforded to economic growth above the other pillars of sustainability and the non-precautionary approach adopted by the guidance. Development is to proceed in the case of doubt over the likely impacts, unless the ‘costs significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits’. The burden of proof will therefore rest with the objector to a proposal and, the authors suggest, ‘developers are likely to have a smoother path’.

Greg Clark rejected these suggestions in an interview with the BBC Breakfast programme this morning. He said that development should not be at the expense of the environment and that the reason for a planning system in England is to ensure that economic, social and environmental factors can be considered together and balanced. Again he reiterated the need to involve local communities in planning decisions, emphasising that the reforms have been motivated by a desire to ensure that local people and not only specialists can engage with the streamlined planning guidance.

Despite these assurances, and a report in the Guardian suggesting that National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty will receive additional protection from development in the NPPF, Whitehall sources have been quoted across the media as saying that the document is ‘unashamedly pro-growth’. When the Minister makes his statement to MPs at 12.30 GMT and the new regulations come into force immediately, those who have challenged the development of the NPPF over past months will have the opportunity to assess whether any concessions have been made following the consultation phase.

1. Wilson, R. and Simpson, P. A Cunning Plan…or a Plan too Far? In Practice (2012) 75: 7 – 11.