HM Govt. is consulting on a radical reform of the Planning system to make it ‘fit for purpose’, the aims being to streamline and modernise its process, increase focus on design and sustainability, improve the system of developer contributions, and ensure that more land is available for development where it is needed.

These are broad aspirations that we can all support in principle. But what is likely to emerge from this renewal of a well established, if not well respected, system? Might the solutions be worse than the the problems? And most importantly, how might it impact on the Neighbourhood Planning Process?

Much of the media reaction, in both popular and professional press, has been to fear that the underlying aim is to de-regulate extensively, reduce controls and therby reduce enforceability, and support the building industry. It is suggested that this would be at the expense of the environment and the local aspirations of local people for the quality of their surroundings. In short: a developers charter. This begs the question, why bother with NDPs? Are they going to become redundant?

Well I think that is unduly pessimistic. There are many good things in the proposals, some are less convincing, and some just bad. The usual ‘curates egg’ situation in fact. But there are clear implications for the future of NDPs.

The good things in the White Paper are the aims of reducing the sheer weight of paperwork required and simplifying processes, the adoption of IT systems to improve understanding, the commitment to high quality design, community engagement, and stronger enforcement. The proposed review of NPPF to make it stronger on tackling the causes and impacts of the climate emergency is particularly welcome. I also like the proposal for LPAs to have new Design and Place Making chief officers [we used to call them Chief Planning Officers].

However, whilst I can see the sense of the proposed zoning approach to Local Plans (which isn’t actually very far from the approach adopted in the Cornwall Local Plan Site Allocations DPD), the White paper says that the ‘Renewal’ zone might include ‘small sites within or on the edge of villages’. This would involve Planning Authorities diving down to a very local level that really ought to be the exclusive territory of NDPs.

More frightening is the provision that in the Renewal zones ‘there would be a general presumption in favour of development established in legislation (achieved by strengthening the emphasis on taking a plan-led approach, with plans reflecting the general appropriateness of these areas for development)’. So to avoid inappropriately located and badly designed housing, Local Plans must be of the highest quality with really effective community involvement, as local people will have little chance to influence development over the subsequent 10-year period. Rather than creating more democracy the effect of the proposals is to reduce it. There is a role for NDPs to assist in this process.

The explanation of ‘Protected’ zones quotes only the usual list (AONB etc) and gives no reference to the cherished areas that a local community might value, simply saying that ‘others’ would be defined ‘locally on the basis of national policy, but all would be annotated in Local Plan maps and clearly signpost the relevant development restrictions defined in the NPPF’. Surely, as with the current NPPF Paras 99 and 100, this is something for NDPs to deal with?

The streamlined development management proposal that where a local planning authority has identified land for development it confers ‘outline planning permission’ may sound dangerously loose, but I think that if the initial identification is rigorous and that Local Plan zoning can include clear condition-like criteria then this may work. Is there a possible role for NDPs to provide the input to this process for market towns and villages?

The clearly bad things are the intention to have nationally defined housing targets for local areas (when ministers have tea with developers one becomes cynical that such a process will not favour big business), and the emphasis on directing significant new housebuilding to places ‘where people want to live’ and where affordability is worst, which I think means a big housing target for Cornwall. I also dislike the concept of intelligent systems dealing with planning applications, which cannot possibly make sensible decisions on design matters, but I suppose thats because I’m an old Planner with a healthy distrust of technology!

Another concern is the abolition of S106 agreements and the measure to exempt developers of smaller sites from payments to local infrastructure, temporarily lifting a “small sites threshold”, below which developers will not need to contribute to affordable housing, to up to 40 or 50 units, well above the current provisions, and potentially wiping out smaller scale affordable housing delivery in Cornwall.

The proposals include a strong commitment to improving community consultation and engagement, which to make the new system work would be absolutely fundamental, or it will very quickly fall into disrepute. The depth, quality and reach of community engagement in Local Plans will need to be closer to that achieved with NDPs. Previous experience in Cornwall with the Local Plan Allocations DPD demonstrates how hard it is to involve local people in these processes.

In Proposal 9 the White Paper says that NDPs should be retained as an important means of community input, but that they might become ‘more focused’ to reflect the proposals for Local Plans. However, other than comment elsewhere that NDPs can have a role in design guidance and codes (Proposal 11) and setting criteria for ‘fast track for beauty’ local PD rights (Proposal 14), it says little else as to what the role of NDPs might be.

Overall the White Paper aims and broad proposals actually seem fairly sensible to me, subject to some glaringly problematic issues in detail. It is good to see NDPs retained in the system, but other than design matters there is no clear explanation of what their role could be . Whilst many NDPs have been created to provide design guidance, others have also been justified as the means of bringing local control over the location of development, and if that goes I can see many NDP groups loosing interest. 

In my view Govt should explore how NDPs could also have a delegated role in local plan zoning especially for ‘Renewal’ and ‘Protected’ areas, and how they can play a formal role in deciding local priorities for the new infrastructure levy, as well as the focused design role. This would help carry though the commitment to getting communities involved in Planning in a 21st Century way, and help legitimise the new system.

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