Slimmed-down national planning policy framework met with far more support than last year’s draft version
The biggest shakeup of the planning system for more than half a century was unveiled on Tuesday when the government published dramatically slimmed-down guidance in the hope of kickstarting more house-building and other development to create jobs.
The reforms take effect immediately, but councils have a year to prepare the local plans that will be the “keystone” of the new system by setting out where development can and should not take place in line with the government’s guidelines, said Greg Clark, the planning minister.
The national planning policy framework was met with far more support than the draft version, released last year, which provoked an almost united front of opposition across the conservation and environment movement due to fears it would lead to the loss of countryside.
The 50-page document retained a presumption in favour of “sustainable development” but addressed campaigners’ concerns by providing a definition of what sustainability should encompass.
Other changes included guidance that brownfield sites should usually be developed ahead of greenfield sites, a recognition of the “intrinsic value and beauty” of the wider countryside, specific protection for playing fields and a bar on “garden grabbing” for development.
However there remain criticisms of the framework. In particular there was concern about how effective the definitions of sustainable development would be in protecting areas with environmental or heritage importance.
The framework said the definition rested on that of the United Nations and on the UK government’s “five ‘guiding principles’ of sustainable development”, which encompass environmental limits, a “strong, healthy and just society”, a sustainable economy, good governance and good science. The remainder of the document should be taken as a view of what the government meant by sustainable development “in practice”, it said.
Eleanor Besley, policy adviser at the sustainable transport lobby group Sustrans, said the government’s reliance on the planning guidance itself to help define sustainable development created a self-reinforcing situation where “essentially, the document enforces its own assumptions. As such, the presumption in favour of sustainable development actually means a presumption in favour of development”.
Joan Walley, the Labour chair of the environmental audit committee, said: “The definition of sustainable development will now have to be tested in the courts and it remains to be seen whether the new planning rules will prevent developments that are unsustainable in the way they use water, encourage car use or impact on biodiversity.”
The Countryside Alliance, which broadly welcomed the revised document, warned there was no clear way for communities to object to developments that were not covered by their local plans.
“Local councils will say this is what we need and this is the way we want to do it, but if something comes up which falls outside that framework then it goes to consultation: if they don’t have the guidance in place then there’s the potential for their concerns to not be taken into account,” it said.
Caroline Lucas, the Green party leader, raised concerns about the ability of councils to prepare sufficiently robust local plans. “At a time of deep cuts to council budgets, we also need to ensure that local authorities have the resources and capacity they need to put in place adequate protection measures throughout the transition period and beyond,” she said.
In perhaps the most important declaration of support for the framework, the National Trust – which organised a petition with nearly a quarter of a million signatures against the draft – said it welcome the improvements.
“All these changes improve the document and give it a better tone and balance,” said Dame Fiona Reynolds, the charity’s director general. “Now the serious business of planning begins. The country needs huge effort at a local level to get plans in place that properly reflect the integration of social, economic and environmental goals, and protect places people value.”