Urban Forum's response to the National Planning Policy Framework
Urban Forum has submitted it's response to the Draft National Planning Policy Framework 2011
- The Framework risks making local planning that is less responsive to local needs - including for affordable homes, renewable energy, and local economic development.
- The Framework implies that economic growth and arguments about economic viability should trump every time local community interests, including meeting social needs and environmental considerations.
- This could weaken not just local planning, but neighbourhood planning and de-motivate active community members from engaging with planning.
Presumption in favour of sustainable development
There is a serious danger that the presumption in favour of development, taken with the rest of the Framework, will weaken the ability of local plan makers to be responsive to local needs - social, environmental and for local economic development, placing restrictions on the Government's localism objectives.
We recognise the need for development to be economically viable. However, the implication of the Framework is that there needs to be a shift away from consideration of social and environmental need, with the message throughout the Framework that local authorities must keep to a minimum expectations of development that relate to social and environmental needs (i.e. in the Local Plan, in planning obligations and conditions, and supplementary planning). This appears to be based on an assumption that this shift is necessary to make development more economically viable.
We don't agree with this assumption. We suggest that the Framework needs to introduce a more balanced approach, which would inform how the presumption in favour of sustainable development is defined. This means giving greater weight to social and environmental benefit. The recently published Best Value Guidance contains a strong affirmation of the need to consider social value in public service commissioning decisions. We welcome the government's support for Chris White MP's Public Services (Social Enterprise and Social Value) Private Members Bill. The Framework would greatly benefit from adopting a similar approach to ensure better balance between the economic, social and environmental needs of a locality.
Local authorities will need to play a leading role in proactively working with local communities to decide what development takes place, and what the needs are that development must meet. The Framework has to articulate this expectation of local government far more clearly. The Framework currently lacks clarity and sends contradictory and confused messages to local authorities, with the strongest message being that less is better in terms of determining what is developed so that it meets community needs.
This is not an issue of being ‘for' or ‘against' development or developers. Clearly we need both. More important is the need to strike the right balance between different considerations and interests, so that development supports stronger and more sustainable communities. As it stands, the Presumption places economic growth above all other considerations. These concerns could be alleviated if sufficient weight throughout were given to social and environmental considerations in the Framework, and if the role of local authorities in being responsive to local need was strengthened.
As currently formulated there is a risk that the Framework could weaken both local and newly developing neighbourhood plan making and neighbourhood governance. At a local authority level, the most proactive local authorities have used Supplementary Planning Guidance as a way to ensure plans are locally responsive - for example in levels of affordable housing, larger homes or Lifetime Homes Standards. The Framework says supplementary planning documents must not be used to add to the financial burdens on development, and should only be used to bring forward sustainable development at an accelerated rate. Whether or not guidance on key issues of community wellbeing should be contained in supplementary planning documents or in the Local Plan itself is not the issue. The Framework is peppered with unambiguous warnings to local authorities against over stipulating how development should meet community needs. The section relating to viability and deliverability significantly favours developers and landowners over the local community. For example paragraphs 39 and 41 unduly prioritise financial returns to a landowner and developer. This could significantly limit the ability for any specific development to contribute to sustainable development of an area. Local authorities, having to manage with diminished planning and legal capacity, are likely to minimise as much as possible the risk of challenges to the Local Plan on the grounds of viability. This may restrict their ability to be ‘visionary' in their approach or to reflect properly local needs and circumstances. The primacy given to economic growth, taken with the Presumption, means that in practice local government could have less freedom and less flexibility to address local needs through effective planning. This undermines a key objective of the Localism Bill, and the aspiration of the Framework for local planning to be ‘genuinely plan led'.
Given the Presumption and the absence of detailed national guidance, it is also of concern that local communities will be left in a vulnerable position if their local authority is not able to develop a robust Local Plan in time. The Framework needs to afford greater protection to local communities in areas where there is no Local Plan.
Neighbourhood plans contain enormous potential to ensure that Local Plans are informed by community needs, and that local people are involved in shaping their area for them and generations to come. It is at the neighbourhood level where social and environmental concerns are most likely to be expressed by local people.
The interests of big business are not by definition at odds with the interests of communities, and in many important respects will often align. However they can be at odds and an important litmus test of the Framework will be in how this is dealt with.
Active citizens will quickly become de-motivated if community opinion is perceived to be rejected in favour of corporation interests. Research which Urban Forum conducted with Ipsos Mori and Manchester University has highlighted that one of the biggest factors in people not feeling they can influence policy in their area, is the belief that their involvement makes no difference, that important decisions are all made elsewhere, and that vested interests will always win out. These perceptions are particularly common in planning. (Citizens and Local Decision Making: What drives feelings of influence, Newton et al 2010). The National Framework currently poses a considerable challenge to the development of Neighbourhood Planning and ought to be rebalanced so that community needs can be properly reflected in both plans and planning decisions.
Of course within communities there are also competing interests that need to be balanced. Whilst Urban Forum supports the idea of neighbourhood planning we are concerned that poor implementation and inequitable take up could risk exacerbating inequality. Citizens in poorer and more marginalised communities in urban areas are far less likely for a variety of reasons to get actively involved in civil and civic activity (Spatial Analysis Unit ASD 2008 and Citizenship Survey 2008-9), and those more organised, with louder voices being in a better position to lobby in their own interests. A recent survey of community groups conducted by Urban Forum confirmed this is a concern in the sector about neighbourhood planning (and community rights in general) (Community Rights and Neighbourhood Planning: What community activists are saying, 2011). How far neighbourhood plans are inclusive and meet needs, including minority needs, needs to be part of the assessment of neighbourhood plans and in determining whether or not they can incorporated into the Local Plan.
Decision taking and development management
The approach to development management taken in the Framework is to encourage early engagement between developers and the local authority, and with the community. This is extremely welcome. However, again the Framework in this section focuses heavily on the role of local authorities to ‘foster the delivery of sustainable development, not to hinder or prevent development.' For local authorities to be explicitly ‘on the side of development' does not bode well for local communities who may not regard development as being in the long term interests of sustainability, or the relationship between neighbourhood activists and local authorities.
Every Local Authority having a robust Local Plan that properly addresses community needs must be a priority for all communities. Given this additional burden at a time of reduced resources, Government needs to provide guidance that supports local authorities to develop the plans needed for their areas. This could include: a standard template for sustainability appraisals and housing needs assessments, supporting information on affordability, standards (including space), and accessibility (Lifetime Homes), and clear guidance on setting local renewable energy targets.
Guidance should be produced that draws on expertise from outside and inside Government (national and local). For reasons of both accountability and transparency overall responsibility for the guidance needs to rest with Government.
Business and economic development
Local economic activity is essential in providing people with the local shops and services they want, and retaining wealth in localities. Local plan making to support this could be undermined by focus on economic growth over and above all other considerations.
The ability of local authorities to ensure delivery of a wide choice of high quality homes, in the right location, to meet local need could in practice be hampered by the approach to economic growth, and the returns expected by developers and land owners over and above all other considerations. In particular we are concerned about the impact this will have on the supply of affordable housing. If the Framework were rebalanced it could support local authorities and communities to ensure a greater supply of affordable housing delivery on site.
Whilst Urban Forum has no objection to home ownership per se we are concerned that the objective of increasing the levels of home ownership has the potential to incentivise unaffordable debt and sub-prime lending - in the absence of alternatives for low income households.
"Renewable energy" needs to be added to the forms of development that are not inappropriate to Green Belt provided they are able to be assessed under the general policy for green belts, they preserve the openness of the green belt and don't conflict with the purposes of including land in Green Belt.
Climate change, flooding and coastal change
All references to both climate change mitigation and the development of energy infrastructure must be tied to local and national carbon reduction as set out under the Government's carbon reduction targets. Climate change mitigation needs to be much more of a core part and priority of the new planning framework through ongoing de-carbonisation of the national energy supply. We believe that a much more sophisticated energy planning policy within the framework which links to monitored de-carbonisation of the energy supply is required in order to achieve our climate change targets. The current Framework lacks the necessary clarity required to meaningfully measure progress on carbon dioxide reduction or renewable energy obligations set at national, EU and international levels.
Whilst there are several commitments stated throughout the Framework which show support for the delivery of renewable energy, the Presumption places the burden of disproof on the Local Planning Authority. This could significantly delay planning applications for renewable energy schemes.
The Framework does little to actively support the growth needed to achieve the EU target of 30% of electricity generation coming from renewable sources by 2020. There is a real danger that placing the onus on developers to rely on the "duty to co-operate" to provide a strategic element to planning for renewable will mean that this just doesn't happen.
There is also an absence within the Framework of local incentives for renewable energy schemes There needs to be some form of incentive scheme so local communities will benefit from local renewable projects in a similar manner to them being developed as local community projects and receiving feed-in-tariffs for example. Much opposition to schemes would be avoided if local communities either had some form of stake in a local project or received a discount on their electricity bills.
There is also no reference to the required infrastructure to enable a surge in new connections to the grid. The development of a ‘green' grid will be essential in enabling the potential of renewable energy over the next few decades.
Rachel Newton and Kate Hathway, Urban Forum, October 2011