Environmental planning, sustainable development and community projects
The new National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF, was released today, accompanied with a great deal of fanfare about the removal of red tape and the empowerment of communities in the planning process. Promising unrestricted (and newly defined) sustainable development, relieving England from the bureaucratic forces holding it back from economic prosperity. The new NPPF supersedes all the previous topic specific national statements and guidance notes – replacing over 1300 pages of national planning guidance with a mere 50. The Government claim that this takes planning out of the hands of experts, simplifies it and makes it accessible to all
But what does this really mean for local communities? Firstly the framework is completely directed at interpretation at the local level. And, by local level, this means interpretation by the Local Planning Authority through the production of a Local Plan. If this sounds familiar, that’s because Local Authorities produced Local Plans – until they were replaced the Local Development Framework system in 2004.
The NPPF does not place any additional requirement for Local Authorities to engage with communities in the development of their Local Plans. It just states,
“early and meaningful engagement and collaboration with neighbourhoods, local organisations and businesses is essential. A wide section of the community should be proactively engaged, so that Local Plans, as far as possible, reflect a collective vision and a set of agreed priorities for the sustainable development of the area.”
What constitutes meaningful engagement or being proactively engaged is unclear and, presumably, also up to interpretation by each Local Authority.
The framework also introduces the option for Neighbourhood Plans. The Neighbourhood Plan has been introduced to allow communities to devise planning policies for their area and determine a certain scale of planning application. So does this give local communities carte blanche to direct development that meets their needs and, indeed, to refuse development in their local areas? Unfortunately not. The framework states,
“the ambition of the neighbourhood should be aligned with the strategic needs and priorities of the wider local area”.
Crucially it states that,
“neighbourhood plans must be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan”.
And even more significantly, any planning decision made by these new neighbourhood powers has to be subject to a local referendum. Huge onus is placed on Local Authorities to facilitate empowering all neighbourhoods and all members of the community to make these Neighbourhood Plans anything more than a lip service exercise, or a bastion of the privileged and vocal minority.
But what must be of primary concern, in terms of community involvement in the planning process, is the ambiguity that is left in the planning system in the immediate future. The NPPF is certainly brief compared to its predecessors, but it could also be criticised for being unclear. The instantaneous replacement of all the reams of national guidance with this short document, combined with only 12 months of local policies (adopted since 2004) continuing to be given their full weight when considering applications could result in a policy gulf. A gulf that may only be filled with applications being determined through appeal and possibly through the courts. Until there is clarity, the much maligned bureaucracy has been replaced with a void that can only be filled by legal processes. Whoever has the best planning lawyer will undoubtedly win. And that’s not a scenario that will empower many communities.
The National Planning Policy Framework was published today by the Department of Communities and Local Government and is available to read on the DCLG’s website