NPPF must do more to protect against ‘unsustainable development’ – MPs

The government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has to do more to protect against “unsustainable” development in England, an influential group of MPs have said.

In the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee’s ‘Operation of the National Planning Policy Framework’ report, the MPs found developers taking advantage of the NPFF to launch ‘speculative’ planning applications leading to unwanted developments contrary to the wishes of local communities.

Clive Betts MP, chair of the CLG Committee, said: “The NPPF has brought welcome simplification to the planning system but the government must strengthen the planning framework to tackle emerging concerns about inappropriate and unsustainable development.

“The same weight needs to be given to environmental and social factors as to the economic dimension to ensure the planning system delivers the sustainable development promised by the NPPF.”

But the housing and planning minister, Brandon Lewis, said that the reforms had meant that “240,000 badly needed new homes received planning permission in the last 12 months”.

Lewis added that the simple way  to send speculative developers packing “is to have an up-to-date local plan – 80% of councils now have a published Local Plan and slow-coach councils should be held to account by local voters for dragging their feet.”

A Local Government Association (LGA) spokesman told PSE that councils have long been calling for an end to government's permitted development policy, which has seen high streets and communities changed with no consultation of those living and working in them, as well as pressure on schools, roads and health services.

“The Committee is right to recognise that permitted development rights are not working and we urge government to listen to the Committee's call to end them,” she said.

“It is absolutely vital that planning decisions are made in line with the wishes of local communities. Councils work hard to engage with residents and consult on plans for development. Local plans provide a framework for development in communities but getting a local plan right can take time.”

Brownfield land

The Committee has also recommended that “clearer guidance” is needed about how housing need should be assessed and that local authorities should be encouraged to review their green belts as part of the local planning process.

In particular, the cross-party group of MPs agree that more homes should be built on brownfield land. However, they are “not convinced” George Osborne’s local development orders policy will stimulate enough activity and, instead, calls on the DCLG to “establish a remediation fund for brownfield sites”.

This recommendation has been backed by the British Property Federation (BPF), which says it would provide a boost to the property industry. 

BPF added that property developers are often find building on brownfield land challenging as bringing it back in to use can be prohibitively expensive. Government support would unlock a number of sites for much-needed development.

Liz Peace, chief executive of the BPF, said: “We are also pleased to see it encourage local authorities to review their green belt boundaries so as to ensure changes are properly considered, as this also has a part to play in solving the housing crisis.

"That local authorities should give proper consideration to the infrastructure needs of their area, and should plan appropriately and consider a timetable for delivery, is also very sensible.”

The MPs added that it is vital to the future sustainability of England’s villages, towns and cities, that councils ensure resources are channelled not only into development control but also into proactive plan making. In order to deliver this, they further encourage all councils to put in place strategies and policies to promote the development of planning skills and to retain experienced staff.

Betts said: “Planning needs to develop greater flexibility to adapt to changing trends and be sharp enough to offer our town centres greater protection.

“The government should scale back “permitted development” which allows shops and banks to become homes without planning permission. It is too random and is hollowing out the commercial heart of our town centres. Councils have to be able to plan strategically for the future of their communities."

‘Gaming’ the system

In addition to the CLG Committee’s report, the National Trust conducted its own research which concluded that developers are ‘gaming’ the planning system to get applications approved for lucrative new housing estates in the countryside.

The conservation charity’s report ‘Positive Planning’ looked at 27 local authorities with significant areas of countryside. All the authorities had followed the NPPF rules and had a ‘local plan’ in place which outlined how it would meet the area’s housing needs and where they would be built.

The research, however, found 16 local authorities had still seen their local plans challenged by house-builders. This led in some cases to developers getting consent to build new estates in areas of the countryside which had not been allocated for housing by the council.

Ingrid Samuel, historic environment director of the National Trust, said: “This new evidence shows that the government’s plan-led system is too open to challenge from streetwise developers.

“Whilst we support the principle of building on brownfield land first, we recognise the need to build some homes in the countryside. But homes should only be built where land has been allocated for development by the local council and is supported by the local community.”

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