Tuesday 27 March 2012

New National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF): A sustainable landscape?

Obligatory photo of bucolic countryside required when discussing planning

So, after much recent media debate, the Department for Communities and Local Government has finally announced the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for England, designed to simplify the existing complex planning regulations into a 50 (well 72!) page document.

 Key questions include:
  • Is there a presumption in favour of 'sustainable development' and, if so, does it provide clarity on what this means? Or is it potentially a developers charter?
  • What safeguards are there for heritage and the natural environment? 
  • Does it deliver on the Government's promise to put local communities at the heart of the system? 
  • Does it provide a coherent landscape strategy, that includes non-designated areas?

Twitter is a good starting point for comment on the NPPF.

Initial reaction seems to be that there has been a quite a lot of redrafting, with the much trailed bullish and controversial 'default yes' to development dropped in favour of the more measured 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' (the plan all along or a U-turn?).

The focus is on swift approval for sustainable development where it accords with the relevant local authority development plan or where a local plan is absent (which apparently is about 50% of authorities, so this could be a significant issue if these authorities dont get moving). However, there is an exclusion from this presumption for designated areas (eg Green Belt, National Parks, AONB's, SSSI's etc.) or where 'any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in the NPPF taken as a whole' (one for the lawyers to chew over!).

Although there is an emphasis on 'the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside' in the core planning principles, I do wonder whether the non-designated landscape is becoming the new 'squeezed middle', between the relatively gold-plated designated areas (the super rich and chattering classes if you will) and the underclass urban and motorway edgelands outside the Green Belt, long ago sacrificed to landscaped blandness, neglect or naked exploitation. This is the unspectacular landscape that we take for granted but is arguably more important to most people's day to day lives and well-being than a National Park or a Nature Reserve. We shall see. 

I also have reservations about where house-building will be going. Everyone seems to agree that we need more (affordable) homes in the system, but for all the talk of good design and local communities you do wonder whether this is little more than a green light for more of the generally unimaginative projects - lacking appropriate scale/ character/ local connectedness - that the large-scale housing companies tend to deliver. I am also highly dubious about the garden city (new town being out of fashion) concept. For instance the muted new Arden City proposed for the current gap (ie rural and semi-rural landscape) between Birmingham and Coventry: this makes sense on a spatial plan, but looks fairly horrible to me, knowing that area quite well; as does a proposed alternative nearby, between Kenilworth and Coventry. I roamed these fields and woods as a kid and this part of Warwickshire has a subtle mix of man-made and managed landscape features and settlements developed quite organically over the 'long game' of history - like much of England; I fear that a new mega-settlement, however well designed, would sweep this away. My preference is for a mixture of (real and enlightened) urban renewal, as exemplified by the redevelopment in the Kings Cross area and the enabling of small-scale, community-focused housing in the countryside (including, God-forbid, opening up the treasured protected countryside to local people building affordable housing for themselves).

A bit of an acid test for me will also be whether policy changes on a personal bug-bear, the proliferation of enormous distribution warehouses in recent years. There is a welcome section in the Framework on Ensuring the vitality of town centres but it remains to be seen whether this in any more then window-dressing in the face of the retail behemoths. 
I'm not sure that the Framework amounts to a fully-joined up vision for the landscape - I still sense the conceptual separation between, for instance, the natural and historic environment, and a lack of articulation that communities, jobs, livelihoods and the environment are all intrinsically linked. But this is probably asking for too much in the current economic and political climate. It does seem as if many of the concerns about the bias towards unhindered development at the expense of sustainability have been addressed, given the mood music from the likes of the CPRE, National Trust, RSPB and even the Green Party. Lets be thankful that the document wasn't drafted by George Osborne!


  1. Can't help thinking they just tossed the word 'sustainable' into the mix to keep the conservation lobby (often described by Tories as the 'bunny huggers') happy. If they really believe in this word, why are they also planning to abolish VAT relief on listed building alterations? You can't get more sustainable than re-using old buildings yet if this goes ahead it will become cheaper to demolish them and rebuild.

    1. Hi Phil

      The Government faced a pincer movement from the environmental lobby and the (probably more influential)Tory Shires, that led to the, quite significant, changes from the earlier draft; this is welcome but, as most people are saying, the devil will be in the detail.


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