Welcome planning changes
The Government has just published some welcome changes to planning guidance which address a number of the concerns which I and other MPs have been putting to ministers about how reforms were being implemented. The Telegraph reports some of the changes this morning, but here is a more detailed take.
I raised the issue of inadequate local infrastructure when I tabled an amendment to the Growth & Infrastructure Bill in December 2012, supported by a significant number of MPs, to require councils to "identify that there is, or will be, sufficient infrastructure to support new development ... proposed in a development plan". The Planning Minister, Nick Boles, helpfully responded by agreeing to publish guidance that would be "very clear about the need to plan positively and specifically for infrastructure that is required to support development."
However, the draft (beta) guidance published in August last year merely stated that "the Local Plan should aim to meet the objectively assessed development and infrastructure needs of the area." I asked for this to be strengthened, and it has been. The new text now says that infrastructure constraints must be considered in assessing a site's suitability for development, and local plans should be realistic about what can be achieved and when "including in relation to infrastructure." This means identifying what infrastructure is required and how it can be funded "and brought on stream at the appropriate time."
There's a strong feeling in West Sussex that we are getting development without adequate infrastructure to support it. Local schools are increasingly oversubscribed, GP waiting lists are a growing problem, roads are congested and drainage and sewerage systems are inadequate, resulting in surface water flooding and worse in recent months. This new guidance makes clear that these issues must be addressed before development is allowed.
I'm a huge fan of neighbourhood planning, and many of the villages in my constituency have embraced it with enthusiasm. It's interesting that when local people are asked what they want, rather than what they don't want, and are put in control, attitudes to development change. The small village of Kirdford has proposed 50 new houses in its neighbourhood plan.
But this localism has been undermined when speculative developers have banged in planning applications, before neighbourhood and local plans are agreed, on land that the plans say will be protected. This has happened, for instance, in Hurstpierpoint, Angmering, Henfield and Hassocks. I've just taken the unusual step of objecting to one such proposed development in Hassocks for precisely these reasons - it runs against the desire of the proposed neighbourhood plan.
The problem comes when, even if the district council rejects the speculative application, the Planning Inspectorate upholds it, leaving the council with huge costs and the proposed neighbourhood plan totally undermined. We need planning authorities and the Inspectorate to give proper weight to emerging plans so that inappropriate speculative applications are rejected.
The draft planning guidance was unhelpful - as MPs told the Minister - because it said that arguments that an application is premature are unlikely to justify a refusal of planning permission other than in "exceptional circumstances". Those two words have now been dropped. Although the argument of prematurity is still "unlikely" to justify refusal of planning permission, it can do "where it is clear that the adverse impacts ... would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits." I fear that the odds are still stacked with the developers until plans take legal force, but at least now the guidance makes clear that the damage which a speculative development would do could justify turning it down.
3. Brownfield sites
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) does say that brownfield land should be re-developed, but as I and others have argued, too often the reality has been that a 'greenfield first' policy has resulted. There are a number of reasons for this, including claims by developers that brownfield sites aren't deliverable, so can't be counted in the five-year land supply. Of course it's in their interests to try and secure desirable virgin greenfield sites, and they've been gaming the new system as much as they can.
The new guidance helps to deal with this by re-stating the desirability of re-using brownfield land and urging planning authorities to reduce the costs of doing so, for instance when setting the Community Infrastructure Levy. It also says that planning authorities should work with "interested parties, for example Local Enterprise Partnerships" to promote the redevelopment of brownfield sites. All of this is a helpful push back towards a brownfield first policy.
4. Duty to co-operate
The NPPF says that planning authorities have a "duty to co-operate" with their neighbours in meeting housing need. That's fair enough, given that top-down housing targets have been abolished - some strategic co-ordination obviously makes sense. But in recent months, the Planning Inspectorate - doubtless under orders from ministers - has taken an uncompromising and over-prescriptive approach to the duty, inventing rules for how local authorities should apply it that simply aren't in the NPPF itself.
For instance, the Inspectorate recently rejected Mid-Sussex District Council's plan on the grounds that they had failed in the duty to co-operate. The Council has argued vehemently that this simply wasn't justified. It's obvious what was really going on. Urban councils which should be re-developing brownfield sites saw an easier route to shove housing away, and developers joined in because it gave them to chance to secure greenfield sites. But the effect of the Inspectorate's decision was simply to delay for months a good plan, which proposes more houses than the assessed level of housing need, and under which major schemes are waiting to go. It simply doesn't make sense to allow the duty to co-operate to be abused in this way.
The new guidance is very helpful in this respect. It reiterates that "the duty to co-operate is not a duty to agree", and "planning authorities are not obliged to accept the unmet needs of other planning authorities if they have robust evidence that this would be inconsistent ... for example [with] environmental constraints." It's in no-one's interests to delay plans unnecessarily or to allow developers and hostile neighbouring councils to play games, and the Inspectorate should now take a more pragmatic approach.
5. Identification of sites 11-15 years ahead
Another highly significant change in the guidance relates to the NPPF requirement that planning authorities should "where possible" identify specific sites for development for years 11-15 of their 15-year plans. This was forcing councils to earmark sites, with all the attendant controversy, political pain and property blight, that wouldn't be developed for a decade. Plans which would otherwise command public support were facing huge opposition because councils were having to identify major "strategic sites" for development unnecessarily. The new guidance says that "local plans can pass the test of soundness where local planning authorities have not been able to identify sites or broad locations for growth in years 11-15." Developers will complain that this will discourage councils from making tough choices such as identifying big "strategic sites" for development. But pragmatists will applaud a change that will enable plans to get through more easily and avoid unnecessary blight caused by identifying sites which would not be developed for years.
6. Barn conversions in national parks and AONBS
As expected, Ministers have also decided not to go ahead with a proposal to allow the conversion of barns in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or National Parks without planning permission. This, too, is welcome. I'm certainly not necessarily against barn conversions, but as I said in the Commons, I think these should be decided by the planning authority to ensure that they are appropriate in protected landscapes, and not allowed automatically.
Ministers have, however, said that national parks should
"... take a positive and proactive approach to sustainable development, balancing the protection of the landscape with the social and economic wellbeing of the area. National Parks and other protected areas are living communities whose young people and families need access to housing if their communities are to grow and prosper."
But as I said in the Commons, the whole point of national parks is that where they face a conflict between economic development and protecting the landscape, conservation wins (the so-called 'Sandford principle'). The Minister's desire for more barn conversions does not - and should not - overturn that basic legal position.
As I said this week in my local paper, the West Sussex County Times, Ministers have shown that they have been listening to our concerns about planning. Nick Boles' words in his statement are particularly welcome:
"We are also committed to ensuring that countryside and environmental protections continue to be safeguarded, and devolving power down not just to local councils, but also down to neighbourhoods and local residents."
It's been a huge concern to communities in my constituency that the Planning Inspectorate has been undermining both this localism and the environmental dimension of sustainable development (even though it is explicitly set out in the NPPF as one of the three roles of planning) by over-zealous demands on councils to maximise housing numbers. Overall, today's new planning guidance is an important steer from Ministers that the Inspectorate should take a more pragmatic approach.
Many of us will be watching carefully to ensure that the Inspectorate responds appropriately and that these changes are reflected on the ground. If they are not, there will be not only be renewed calls for reform, but questions over how this quango fits at all in the new landscape of localism which we promised.