Friday, 23 September 2011

The planning debate

I am becoming increasingly bemused by the storm of protest over the government’s proposed National Planning Policy Framework. A number of other planning professionals with whom I work regularly have also expressed puzzlement over the brouhaha.

My mother used to tell me as a small boy – “Don’t cry until you’re hurt”, but bodies such as the National Trust, the CPRE and RSPB, not to mention the Daily Torygraph (who seem to be stirring up the controversy for their own purposes, no doubt in an effort to boost circulation) don’t seem to have heard of this old saying. They are screaming the place down, and seem to be under the impression, whether genuine or simulated, that the NPPF will lead to the whole of England’s green and pleasant land being covered in bricks and concrete, not to mention the entire destruction of the country’s wildlife and habitats and the loss of the country’s historic buildings, ancient towns and archaeological sites. This is an extreme and frankly absurd reading of the NPPF, and those who are so loudly banging the drum about these alleged evils are in considerable danger of destroying their own credibility, with the result that they may be listened to with less respect in the future on an occasion when they do actually have a valid point to make.

On the other hand, the government has to a large extent brought this trouble on themselves. Their attempt to abridge ministerial policy guidance so drastically was bound to be fraught with difficulty, and I have previously pointed out in this blog that the absence of much useful guidance contained in the existing policy documents could be a source of considerable doubt and uncertainty for users of the planning system in the future. It was an entirely unnecessary exercise, designed solely to demonstrate the political machismo of Fatty Arbuckle (or ‘Uncle Eric’, as we have learned to call him in this blog).

Even without the pro-development agenda which the government has been pursuing since late March, the removal of numerous detailed points in the existing guidance was bound to cause anxiety in some quarters that the silence of the NPPF on points of detail which had been clearly spelt out in previous ministerial policy guidance would in practice be interpreted as a deliberate policy change. This fear has been greatly exacerbated by the additional spin in favour of ‘sustainable development’ which has been stirred into the cauldron.

It may be too late for the government to extricate themselves from the mess in which they now find themselves, but it is abundantly clear that the pro-development agenda which the government wishes to pursue could have been introduced without the need to scrap existing ministerial policy guidance and to attempt to squeeze it into a single abbreviated document. Some revision of individual PPGs/PPSs would have been required in order to change the emphasis of certain ministerial policies, but such an exercise would never have caused such a furore as has been stirred up by the draft NPPF.

Even a forthright statement of principle, such as those set out in various circulars in the early 1980s (for example - 9/80, 22/80, 15/84 and 14/85), is unlikely to have courted such controversy. That earlier drive for growth, led by Michael Heseltine as Secretary of State under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, did not engender any such outcry as the draft NPPF has caused. Admittedly, its results did in time lead to increasing unease in Middle England; and the growing weight of protest against ‘greenfield’ development in Tory MPs’ postbags did eventually persuade the Iron Lady to reverse the policy in 1987, and to develop instead the concept of ‘plan-led development’, which was enshrined in 1991 in what then became Section 54A of the 1990 Act. But by that time, property development had played its part in promoting economic growth, as the Thatcher government had intended.

So what can the government do now to get itself off this very uncomfortable hook of its own making? One obvious ploy would be to make ‘concessions’ to critics of the NPPF, by adding back into the text passages from previous policy guidance which were omitted from the original draft, but which would not significantly alter the general thrust of ministerial policy. As I mentioned earlier, there are quite a few points of detail whose omission does not betoken any significant change of policy, but whose absence has nevertheless caused anxiety in various quarters. Such text could readily be restored without diluting the government’s overriding aim of promoting development.

An even more significant concession could be made by removing from the NPPF those words and phrases which appear to be calculated to promote an unduly relaxed approach to development management, and replacing them in an entirely separate document, perhaps a circular similar to those issued in the early ’80s which would spell out the government’s determination to promote development as an instrument of economic policy.

The other steps which the government could take, as I mentioned in my last post [“Whose fault is it?”], would be to amend subordinate legislation to make it much easier and simpler to apply for planning permission, followed as soon as practicable by amendment of the primary legislation to introduce a much simplified development plan system. Repeal of Section 38(6) of the 2004 Act would be another very helpful step in the same direction. Section 70(2) of the 1990 Act is a perfectly adequate basis on which to base the development control process.

The government has already embarked on consultation in connection with the first part of this exercise, and so we can genuinely hope that there will shortly be some simplification of the development control system. Primary legislation to amend the development plan regime would have to await the next available slot in the parliamentary timetable, bearing in mind that De-CLoG have had their ‘turn’ with the Localism Bill and so may now have to go to the back of the queue behind other government departments anxious to introduce their own bills.

How this all pans out will gradually become a little clearer towards the end of the year, when the Localism Bill reaches the statute book, and when the consultation exercise on the simplification of the development control process is completed and is (we hope) turned into revised subordinate legislation. The hysterical campaign against the NPPF will eventually abate, and a more measured discussion of planning policy may then be possible. In the meantime, planners who want to avoid raised blood pressure should refrain from reading the Daily Torygraph, and turn a deaf ear to all the yelling coming from the National Trust, the CPRE and the other usual suspects.



  1. At the time I wrote this piece it had not been possible to ascertain the precise scope of the current High Court proceedings, so I had to rely on a measure of guesswork. The nature of the legal challenge which the occupiers of Dale Farm are currently pursuing is slightly more complex than I indicated. However, further comment at this stage would not shed much further light on the legal position, so we shall have to await the judgment in order to understand the precise issues which are now before the court.

  2. The comment above has been misplaced. It belongs to the item below, dealing with Dale Farm.

  3. The comment above has been misplaced. It belongs to the item below, dealing with Dale Farm.