Government emphasises landscape protection in planning decisions

The Government has issued new planning guidance emphasising the need to protect the landscape and respect emerging neighbourhood plans.

The announcement came after Nick Herbert raised concerns about speculative developments and decisions by the Planning Inspectorate which he said were damaging local villages and their proposed neighbourhood plans.

Ministers have also restated that solar farms should not be built on high quality agricultural land, and emphasised that the police and councils should use their powers to deal with invasions of private property.

The Government promised new planning guidance to "defend the interests of local authorities" after Nick Herbert, supported by senior Conservatives including Sir Nicholas Soames, moved an amendment in the Commons in January to abolish the Planning Inspectorate.

A senior minister said that Mr Herbert made "a powerful and persuasive case" after he criticised the Inspectorate for undermining localism by allowing planning appeals which run contrary to emerging neighbourhood or local plans.

The Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, issued the planning update on 26 March.  He said: "In response to our commitment made during the passage of the Infrastructure Bill (26 January 2015, Official Report, Column 644) [to Nick Herbert], the Government is also updating planning guidance to make clear that up to date assessments of housing need should not normally need to be updated for a full twelve months, and that untested assessments of housing need are inevitably less robust than those which have been subject to examination."

Mr Pickles also reiterated that solar farms should not be located on high quality agricultural land.  The Government has emphasised the importance of focusing solar energy growth on domestic and commercial roof space and previously developed land.

He said: "Meeting our energy goals should not be used to justify the wrong development in the wrong location and this includes the unnecessary use of high quality agricultural land.  Protecting the global environment is not an excuse to trash the local environment."

The Planning Minister, Brandon Lewis, also wrote to the Chief Executive of the Planning Inspectorate on 27 March to emphasise that local plans should "recognise the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside – to ensure that development is suitable for the local context".

Mr Lewis said that even outside protected areas such as national parks, "the impact of development on the landscape can be an important material consideration" and "landscape character can be taken into account by local planning authorities in their decisions".

The Minister pointed out that "sustainable outcomes" were at the heart of the National Planning Policy Framework, which meant "taking full account of the environmental as well as the economic and social dimensions of development proposals".

In his letter Mr Lewis also reiterated that weight can be given to relevant policies in emerging local and neighbourhood plans, and the particular factors that need to be considered when doing so.  In the Commons earlier this year Mr Herbert raised concerns that insufficient weight was being given to neighbourhood plans which were in the process of being drawn up, and that this undermined localism.

Mr Lewis said that ministers "will continue to consider whether this careful balance is best serving local communities."  Mr Herbert said that this referred to his ongoing discussions with the Government about whether more weight could be given to neighbourhood plans which are at an earlier stage of being drawn up, a change he called for at the Government's neighbourhood planning summit in March.

Responding to the Government's announcements, Nick Herbert said: "I welcome this new guidance.  The emphasis on protecting landscape, on respecting neighbourhood plans while they are being drawn up, and on a more sensible approach to assessments of housing need should all help to prevent unwanted speculative developments.

"Unfortunately decisions which have already been taken by the Planning Inspectorate cannot be undone as they have legal effect, unless they are successfully judicially reviewed, but the new guidance is intended to make a difference to future decisions.

"Neighbourhood planning is a good policy which enables local people to decide democratically where development should go and where green spaces should be protected.  It's encouraging that a growing number of plans have been voted through in our villages, and more are being drawn up.  I will continue to support local communities which want to oppose speculative development applications which are outside their proposed plans."

Sir Nicholas Soames said:  "The Government promised us new guidance and I am pleased that it has been issued following much lobbying by Nick and me.  We look to them to see that the Planning Inspectorate respects the new guidance and brings it to bear immediately."

Mr Herbert also welcomed a new ministerial letter to council leaders, police and crime commissioners and chief constables about how they should respond to unauthorised encampments.

The joint letter of 27 March from the Planning Minister and the Policing and Criminal Justice Minister makes it clear that "councils and the police have been given strong powers to deal with unauthorised encampments" and that they should act swiftly to use them when land is invaded.

Ministers have been concerned that the police and councils have been too reticent to deal with unauthorised encampments, and that spurious human rights objections have been raised against moving unauthorised travellers, protestors or squatters.  In their letter the ministers warn that "public bodies should not gold-plate human rights and equalities legislation".

Nick Herbert said: "We have faced problems on the South Downs in the past from invasions on private land, for instance when travellers broke onto Nepcote Green at Findon.  It is helpful that, before the summer when these issues can arise, ministers have reminded the authorities that they have sufficient powers available to deal with unauthorised encampments, and that these should be used". 






  1.   Eric Pickles' Planning Update - Written Statement of 25 March:

  2.   Brandon Lewis' letter of 27 March to the Chief Executive of the Planning Inspectorate:

  3.   Joint ministerial letter of 27 March to council leaders, police and crime commissioners and chief constables about unauthorised encampments:

  4.   Nick Herbert's news release about the Government's commitment in the Commons to issue new guidance following his amendment to the Infrastructure Bill in January:

  5.   Nick Herbert's news release about his speech to the neighbourhood planning summit in March in which he warned that speculative developments were undermining public support for localism:

Michelle Taylor