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Government must make significant changes to improve draft NPPF say MPs

21 December 2011

A default answer of ‘yes’ to development should be removed from the National Planning Policy Framework says the Communities and Local Government Committee in its review of the draft framework.

The phrase ‘significantly and demonstrably’ must also be removed from the presumption that all planning applications should be approved unless the adverse effects ‘significantly and demonstrably’ outweigh the benefits, say the MPs because it adds a further barrier to the achievement of truly sustainable development.

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Launching the report of an inquiry that examines the draft NPPF, Clive Betts, Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee said:

“The way the framework is drafted currently gives the impression that greater emphasis should be given in planning decisions to economic growth. This undermines the equally important environmental and social elements of the planning system. As currently drafted the ‘default yes’ to development also carries the risk of the planning system being used to implement unsustainable development.

“The document omits any reference to ‘brownfield development first’. We welcome the Government’s openness to reinstating the familiar and well understood term ‘brownfield development’ in the NPPF. For similar reasons the NPPF should be revised to reflect the ‘Town Centre First’ policy.”

The Committee warns that, as currently drafted, the NPPF defines the phrase ‘sustainable development’ inadequately and often conflates it with ‘sustainable economic growth’. “We take reassurance from the fact that Ministers have accepted that a cogent case has been made for expanding and strengthening the definition of sustainable development within the NPPF. To assist the minister we offer a more inclusive definition of sustainable development” adds Clive Betts.  (The text is at paragraph 67 of the report.)

“The Prime Minister has been clear that he believes ‘that sustainable development has environmental and social dimensions as well as an economic dimension, and that the Government fully recognises the need for a balance between the three’*. We also believe that a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ should be a golden thread running through the planning system. We therefore welcome the planning minister Greg Clarke’s reassurance that he is minded to make changes to address this risk.

The Committee also concludes the NPPF should unambiguously reflect the statutory supremacy of Local Plans, in accordance with the 2004 Act. MPs therefore call for the NPPF to require local planning decisions to be taken in accordance with the presumption in favour of of sustainable development consistent with the Local Plan.

In its review of the draft NPPF, MPs make clear recommendations about how to resolve potential conflict between the framework and Local Plans. The Committee also shares the Government’s view that it is unacceptable that so many parts of England have yet to develop and adopt a new Local Plan.

MPs also warn that clarity within the NPPF has suffered in the pursuit of brevity. Left unchanged, inconsistent drafting could create gaps in planning policy or guidance that MPs predict will lead to a huge expansion in the size of Local Plans - as local authorities attempt to plug those gaps.

“The Government wants to simplify the planning system, make it more receptive to all forms of sustainable development, and is keen to ensure effective decisions are reached more quickly. Yet as currently worded the framework would introduce several ambiguities that are more likely to slow down the planning process. Gaps or contradictions in the document are likely to fuel a system of ‘planning decision by appeal’ instead of the local decision making that ministers advocate,” adds Clive Betts.

The Committee queries the test for ‘viability’ to be applied under the NPPF. As currently worded, this risks allowing unsustainable developments to go ahead if measures to make them sustainable are, at the same time, deemed to make them unviable for the developer.

MPs also call for a sensible transition period with a clear and realistic timetable. This should give local authorities time to put Local Plans in place where they have not already done so. Transition arrangements must also reassure local authorities, communities and developers on the status of Local Plans that are in place, close to adoption, or have recently been completed. 

“The published, final NPPF will be a significant document, with far-reaching consequences. It must be balanced, comprehensive and adequately linked to other relevant central and local Government policy documents. Now is the opportunity to take on board the suggested changes we are recommending, based on the evidence we have received, to produce a well crafted, effective document, used to inform planning decisions made locally across England that will address social, environmental and economic demands on land supply on an equal basis.” says Clive Betts.


* stated in a letter to the National Trust, set out at paragraph 63 of the report.