Monday, 31 October 2011
Planning – the way forward?
Following the end of the consultation period on the draft National Planning Policy Framework earlier this month, it is becoming clear that numerous local planning authorities all round the country, and of all political hues, have sent a range of robust responses to the document to De-CLoG. The points they make are varied, but one message comes through loud and clear - they don’t like it.
Up to now the Secretary of State has seemed intent on impersonating Jabba the Hut in the way he has responded to any criticism or counter-argument to his stated intentions, not only about the NPPF but about almost anything and everything, including dustbin collections. However, it is going to be difficult for the government entirely to ignore the weight of opinion which has been brought to bear on this subject.
Although there are some LPAs whose views are indistinguishable from those of the Daily Torygraph, the National Trust and the CPRE, one theme which has emerged on all sides is the concern expressed about the loss of much very useful, even essential, policy guidance which is contained in the existing suite of Planning Policy Guidance Notes (and Statements) which the NPPF is intended to replace. The fear is that the NPPF will leave numerous lacunae in policy guidance which will lead to considerable uncertainty and the possibility of endless disputes as to the proper approach to those issues which were covered in the previous policy advice but about which the NPPF is silent.
This is precisely the objection I identified right at the outset of this exercise, when the government first announced their intention to produce a substantially abridged version of ministerial policy advice in the form of the NPPF, in place of all the PPGs and PPSs we have now. I predicted in this blog the difficulties and uncertainties which this would cause, and I made the point (as others have more recently) that the length of the existing policy advice, in terms of the number of pages it covers, is not an objection in itself to that policy guidance.
One option which the government might be well advised to consider (although it would involve considerable loss of face for ‘Jabba the Hut’ himself) would be to withdraw the proposed NPPF altogether. This is not so say that the government should abandon its determination to achieve economic growth through development, simply that they should go about it in a different way. If the government is prepared to admit that they made a huge mistake in seeking to scrap all the existing ministerial advice on planning policy, they could nevertheless publish a circular (very much on the lines of the pro-development circulars published by Michel Heseltine in the early 1980s, starting with Circular 9/80 and ending with 14/85) which makes the government’s more liberal approach towards development abundantly clear. Any necessary adjustment can then be made to individual PPGs and PPSs, although comparatively few changes to those documents are likely to be needed.
Such a revised approach would have the advantage that there is no legal or political obligation on the government to consult on a circular before it is published, and such consultation as might be required on amendments to PPGs and PPSs would relate solely to any minor changes that might be needed to bring a particular document into line with the over-arching policy set out in the new circular. Such an exercise would be much less likely to stir up controversy than the consultation exercise over the draft NPPF has done.
The question is – has the government got the guts to do this? It would involve what will almost certainly be seen as yet another U-turn, but that in itself could have its advantages. It would wrong-foot much of the rather over-heated and misguided opposition to the draft NPPF, while not in fact representing any retreat from the government’s intention to promote growth through development.
In practice, I rather expect that we shall still get a revised version of the NPPF, but perhaps fleshed out with some of the material which was inadvisably omitted from the original draft, and with some anodyne reference to the use of brownfield land as a sop to the critics. That would be a pity but politics, as they say, is the art of the possible, and David Cameron would never do anything to dent the pride and self-regard of ‘Jabba the Hut’, now would he?
© MARTIN H GOODALL