Is it just me or is every single occasion the government rips up the planning system (approximately every 5-6 years) described as the biggest overhaul of planning since the second world war?
Well, we have had another of those all-too regular historic revolutions this week, with the publication of the draft National Planning Policy Framework, which condenses 1,000 pages of planning policy into just 52 (58 if you include the glossary). And, cynicism aside, this latest epochal moment doesn’t disappoint.
If implemented by Local Authorities in the way it seems to intend, it could be a radically more pro-development planning system we have in future. Indeed the widely trailed presumption in favour of sustainable development is about as pro-development as the housebuilders could have hoped for – focusing a lot more time on the development side and much less on the sustainable.
And it’s not a fine balance in favour of development. It’s a significant leg up. The draft say that where there is no plan in place, a development needs to show that its adverse affects will “significantly and demonstrably” outweigh its benefits for councils to be allowed to turn it down. This puts the burden of proof full-square on the anti-development lobby.
There’s no wonder that alongside the expected howls of protest from the conservation lobby, architecture advisor Design Council Cabe has also expressed some reservations: it’s difficult to imagine anyone being able to turn any application down on the basis it’s simply a pig-ugly building the way it’s currently drafted.
But how much of this will come through in the final version? One of the skills of politicians steering through potentially controversial policy, is to wind in a couple of points you’re happy to make concessions on, offers you can make in negotiation, in order to appear to have listened to the other side. However, it leaves you still able to get through the policy you want.
The question here will be where ministers red lines really are. Will they accept a toughening of the definition of sustainable development? Will the burden of proof in favour of development be weakened? Will they insist councils take account of development viability when making their local plans? All that is yet to be determined.
One of the most interesting elements will be to watch the response of developers to the policy changes. Theoretically all planning authorities without up-to-date plans will be subject to the presumption in favour from April next year, giving developers an opportunity to put in speculative applications before new-style local plans are approved.
One planning consultant I talked to this week said he had spoken to four separate developers in the last week about the possibility of taking advantage of the changeover period.
Except, that nowhere is it defined what an out-of-date plan is. Decentralisation minister Greg Clark told me on Monday that, from April councils will be able to write to the communities department to be given a “certificate of conformity” on whether their plans need updating or not. Which will be vital, as an out-of-date plan could be a trigger for a development free-for-all.
It’s not clear yet whether these will be public documents – and Greg Clark refused to say if the department has any estimates of what proportion of plans might need updating. They will be vital knowledge for councils, and of huge importance to developers looking to take advantage of the situation. This will be one area to watch very closely.
Overall, when taken in conjunction with the changes in the Localism Bill there is undoubtedly a balance being struck between pro and anti-development measures by the coalition government’s reforms. (Or a contradiction, if you’re in a less charitable mood). Much of what’s in the Localism Bill, particularly the abolition of housing targets, has been profoundly worrying for developers because it gives more powers to what they see as “nimby” councils; much of what’s in the NPPF is profoundly worrying for the conservation lobby.
Either way, you can’t say the coalition hasn’t done, in this area at least, what it’s promised: Made decision making more local and thus more structurally susceptible to anti-development pressures, but revised the policy to tilt the whole playing back in favour of developers.
Just because there’s a balance, that doesn’t mean it’ll work. It could easily end up with still less development in those staunchly anti-development parts of the country who don’t need the New Homes Bonus cash, and lots more lower quality development, in potentially unsustainable places, everywhere else.
One thing’s for certain, the development lobby will be a lot happier now than they were before the NPPF was published.