The Imperative of Local Plans and Quality Research

Below is reprinted a good round up of the issues and likely outcomes of the new NPPF from John Redwood this morning. It highlights the fact that local plans, and by implication neighbourhood plans, are the centre of the new planning system. Without them, communities will face the rocky road of appeals, based on a, still, less than clear definition of sustainability.

However, a local plan will not guarantee a peaceful life: neighbourhood plans need to be based on evidence, which really means the local plans will have to be based on the same evidence.   WARD has found that one of the big questions in appeals is whose evidence is right !! There has never been a greater need for good quality research and data.

It’s good news that most of the old planning framework has been dumped. It was complex, unwieldy, and suited few. I had hoped to enjoy its replacement more than I did on first read through. It 65 pages and 207 clauses is a great improvement on what went before, but it’s not a clear and snappy read.

The five principles of sustainable development that overarch the whole are far from precise. As others have pointed out, this is a hand me down from the last government. It’s not clear how important they might be in any individual case, or how they will be interpreted.  The three aims are unexceptional. The economic aim is to allow all the building we need for a growing economy. The social aim is to make sure we have enough homes and other facilities. The environmental aims are various, including  protecting and enhancing the natural and built environment. The large question is how the possible conflict between protecting the countryside and finding enough land for new homes, offices and factories is to be resolved in case after case.

The government has listened to criticisms of its first draft. Brownfield sites are now usually to  be preferred.  Green belt protection is reaffirmed. Local communities can designate  land as local green space, giving it Green Belt like status within their communities for important smaller areas, as long as they do this through an approved plan.  There are new tighter  rules on traveller sites in another document, following recent controversies.  Car parking ratios are relaxed so new developments in areas where people need to use cars can reflect the reality of car ownership after years of artificial restriction on car parking. Town Centre lovers now learn that new shop development should occur in the centre, or on its edge, with out of town only if all else fails.

The big issue at the heart is how many homes should be built? This  still has  a plan led answer, where Councils have to assess demand for many years ahead, state a figure for the annual need for new homes, and then ensure five years supply of land plus a reserve is continuously available.  Planners find this notoriously difficult. Recent years have seen huge disruption to the plans on the downside, as mortgage money dried up in the Credit Crunch and as housebuilders reined in their activities. England will divide into those places which already have local plans, where the local plan will guide and restrict development as long as the five year supply of land is available, and the rest where the presumption in favour of sustainable development will dominate in decisions.

Exisitng local plans were of course often drawn up under the past government’s guidance, requiring higher housing targets.  I do not buy into the criticism of the document that it will restrict new planning permissions., The aim is clearly to expand provision in places where there is demand by appealing to the presumpiton in favur of sustainabkle development in the absence of a plan. In the areas with plans, they anyway have quite high housing targets in them reflecting the past demands.

I do not think housebuilding need to  be held up by s shoirtage of land under this regime.  Local communities will need well crafted local plans in order to assert their own views on development, and in order to restrict development to acceptable locations. The issue for the housing makret, at least temporarily, is not land but is prices and mortgages.”