When the government published its final draft of the National Planning Policy Framework 2012, on 27 March, it came with a strange feeling of calm.

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When the government published its final draft of the National Planning Policy Framework 2012, on 27 March, it came with a strange feeling of calm.

The document has sparked a great deal of discussion, particularly among those who want to preserve Britain’s natural and built heritage. Initially, the heritage lobby — including the Daily Telegraph and the National Trust — felt the planning changes would give developers an easy ride to build whatever and wherever they want. However, the final draft has left this group feeling its views have been addressed.

We will see later the impact this new approach is likely to have on Britain’s countryside and historic buildings. But first, we should look at how we got to this point.

How we got here

Planning reform has been on the Conservative Party’s agenda since before the 2010 general election, and has since been adopted as coalition government policy.

The first big indication of the Conservatives’ desire for change came in its Open Source Planning policy document, published in late 2009, which said planning needs a “radical reboot”, as it is too slow and stops the country solving the housing shortage.

When the coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came to power in May 2010, they needed to make compromises on some policies.

But the coalition’s desire to push on with planning reform became clear in July 2010, when communities secretary Eric Pickles said he was scrapping Labour’s regional planning strategies, with immediate effect.

Cala Homes challenged this decision by Pickles in the High Court, and Pickles was found to have acted unlawfully. While this has caused much confusion about the status of the strategies, one thing was clear: this coalition government was serious about planning reform.

Planning reform: what are the policies?

The government has since introduced its main planned changes in two key documents:

Localism Act 2011: First unveiled in December 2010, its aim is to give local councils and people more powers over what happens in their communities, in areas such as planning. The act gained royal assent in November 2011 and contains specific planning-related policies, such as:

  • quick planning approval for schemes that achieve 50% support from local residents who vote in a local referendum, using neighbourhood development orders and community right-to-build orders
  • a duty for public bodies to co-operate across council boundaries, to solve regional issues such as inadequate infrastructure and housing needs
  • reform of the community infrastructure levy to give certainty over how much money developers would contribute to local improvements.

The National Planning Policy Framework 2012 (NPPF): This followed the Localism Act and is arguably the more significant — and controversial — document. It is intended to help to launch projects, especially where councils do not have up-to-date planning policies.

The draft, which was published for consultation in June 2011, went into detail about the government’s intention that planners should consider the economic benefits of schemes when making planning decisions. The final NPPF came out on 27 March.

Its other aim is to simplify planning, by replacing more than 1,000 pages of planning policy statements and guidance with a document of just more than 50 pages.

The NPPF’s main thrust is summed up in its “presumption in favour of sustainable development”. This is the “golden thread” that runs through the document, which states that councils “should plan positively for new development and approve all individual proposals wherever possible”.

Critics said this gave developers the right to build whatever they want, wherever.

What the NPPF means for the countryside

The highest-profile campaigners against the NPPF have been the Daily Telegraph and the National Trust. They argued that the draft document did not contain adequate protection for the countryside or wildlife. The final version has quelled most of these anxieties.

Their main concern was that the NPPF would force councils to give consent for schemes without delay if their planning policies were “absent, silent or indeterminate”. The Campaign to Protect Rural England reports that 48% of councils do not have up-to-date planning policies in place and, in these areas, critics feared that councils would be forced to give the go-ahead for damaging schemes without delay. The NPPF does include a one-year transition period until March 2013, so councils can get these local plans in place.

Campaigners’ were also concerned that the draft NPPF only protected the green belt and areas of special beauty or note, rather than presuming all countryside is worth protecting.

These concerns have been answered, as the final document puts an onus on planners to recognise the “intrinsic character and beauty” of the countryside when they make planning decisions. This revised wording has pleased those who seek to protect the countryside. Worries that the NPPF would provide weaker protection for wildlife, covered by Sites of Special Scientific Interest, have also been addressed.

What the NPPF means for historic buildings

The aspect of heritage less talked about in this debate has been historic buildings. This is an important area, as these play a key role in Britain’s tourist trade, and so failing to protect them adequately could damage the wider economy.

Some were concerned the NPPF would sweep away existing planning policy statements, such as the Planning Policy Statement 5, which dealt with conservation. In particular, this contained a presumption in favour of conservation, which put an onus on local planners to place great emphasis on protecting historic buildings.

The final NPPF has incorporated a similar aim. It contains policies that put “great weight” on the conservation of heritage assets, and says that planners must assess the significance of these assets when making proposals for change. Despite this change, two issues remain: whether planners will be able to effectively assess the importance of heritage assets; and whether some buildings could come to harm if protecting
them is not seen as economically viable.

The NPPF also has an updated policy on “enabling development”. This is a long-held policy that existed most recently in England in Planning Policy Statement 5, and enables planners to permit development that is not in accordance with the local plan if it can fund repairs to a historic building. There is likely to be more detail on this aspect of the document in a revised heritage planning policy guide.

The other change welcomed by the heritage lobby — those concerned with buildings and the countryside alike — is the use of the 2005 UK Sustainable Development Strategy’s definition of sustainable development. The first version of the NPPF had proposed using the weaker Brundtland definition of sustainable development, from 1987, which says it is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The 2005 definition is much stronger, as it says decisions must be made in accordance with five specific principles: living within the planet’s environmental limits; ensuring a strong, healthy and just society; achieving a sustainable economy; promoting good governance; and using sound science responsibly. This change has been broadly welcomed.

Historic buildings and the Localism Act

The NPPF has been the main source of angst among the heritage lobby, but there are also provisions in part 6 of the Localism Act that have ramifications for historic buildings.

For example, heritage bodies were concerned that the first version of the Localism Bill offered weak protection for the historic environment.

Following pressure from the heritage lobby, however, protection for the settings of listed buildings and conservation areas has been confirmed. The planning powers in the Localism Act are limited to the grant of planning permission. This means that owners and developers who want to change protected buildings will still need to obtain listed building consent and scheduled monument consent.

But there are still areas of the policies that the heritage lobby believes need to be addressed. For example, the Localism Act says that section 70 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 is to be amended to make “local finance considerations” a material consideration in granting planning permission. The fear here is that the financial benefits of giving planning permission — such as local contributions under the community infrastructure levy or the incentives from central government under the New Homes Bonus — would be given greater weight than protecting an area’s character.

The government has inserted a clarifying clause in the Localism Act that stresses that financial concerns will not be given undue weight when planners are making planning decisions, but there is still a feeling that planning decisions could be swayed by possible funding benefits.

One of the Localism Act policies that was welcomed by the heritage lobby is neighbourhood planning. It enables local people to have a greater say over planning in their area, as they have a vested interest in protecting its historic character. However, a big concern remains about whether local people will have the skills and resources to use these powers.

In 2011 it was announced that organisations such as the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Prince’s Foundation would have access to government money, to provide advice to community groups who want to get more involved in local planning. Even so, long-term funding is not secure, and these resources are needed if people want to make their voices heard. More clarity is needed.

Some of these concerns may be addressed in a further government consultation later this summer. It will review the system of non-planning consents — such as listed building consents — and address whether reform is needed. This follows a review by British Land head of planning Adrian Penfold, which was published in November 2010.

The NPPF came into immediate effect when it was published, with a transition period to allow councils to ensure their local plans are in place. The final document has made the heritage lobby feel confident that its views are being taken into account. Although the government is still showing zeal for its planning reforms, it has also proven it is willing to adapt its policies.

But it will only become clear how the new system balances the interests of developers and the heritage lobby when these plans move from paper into practice.

By Henry Russell OBE, course leader for the MSc in conservation of the historic environment at the College of Estate Management


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