‘Presumption in favour’ proposals still controversial

Government officials are willing to negotiate concessions to planning reforms in order to placate opponents of the introduction of a planned presumption in favour of sustainable development, Building understands.

The admission comes as the battle between the government and an increasingly organised group of anti-development and conservation campaigners over the proposed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) intensified this week.

The NPPF proposes that a “presumption in favour of sustainable development” occurs on all applications where the relevant council’s local plan is out of date or non-specific.

A senior source close to the negotiations said: “On the National Planning Policy Framework ministers are up for interesting ideas to improve the safeguards [to protecting the natural environment] that are already in the document.”

The comment comes after decentralisation minister Greg Clark met opposition groups including the National Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) on Thursday in a bid to address their concerns.

However, separate sources said that while the government wanted to talk to opponents, it was absolutely determined not to back down over the principle of the reforms, despite growing public concern. The source said: “Ministers remain firmly convinced of the case for the policy.”

Chancellor George Osborne and communities secretary Eric Pickles this week reiterated the government’s determination to push through the proposed reforms at all costs in a letter to the Financial Times. The ministers argued that planning reforms were key to economic recovery and that the current system costs the UK economy £3bn a year.

A separate source said: “The government feels firm about the real need to develop model which allows development to happen.”

’Planning does not mean at all costs’

At the beginning of the week, the chancellor and the communities secretary set out clearly the government’s commitment to planning reform. In an article in the Financial Times they said: “No one should underestimate our determination to win this battle. We will fight for jobs, prosperity and the right protection for our countryside.”

They went on to say that sticking with the old failed system puts at risk young people’s future prosperity and quality of life, reminding us that the debate over planning is much more than a technical one: it is at the heart of delivering the prosperity the country needs. The notion that this represents growth at all costs is wrong. There is no contradiction between increased levels of development and protecting and enhancing the environment, as long as development is planned and undertaken responsibly. That is after all what planning is all about. The planning system must play an active role in guiding development to sustainable solutions.

Our approach to planning is straightforward. It is based squarely on giving local people a greater say over future development and putting sustainability at the heart of the planning system. Our reforms are neither a nimby charter nor a green light for all development.

This simple message has been well understood by those developers who have recognised that the old ways of taking forward a development project will need to be replaced by collaboration with local communities. Communities understand this message too as is shown by their enthusiasm for producing neighbourhood plans to help shape the areas in which they live.

We need to plan positively for the future and in a way which encourages growth.  At the same time we need to preserve our heritage and to protect areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks, sites of special scientific interest and the green belt.  That is what the proposed National Planning Policy Framework with its presumption in favour of sustainable development does.  

We will get nowhere by pretending that the current planning system is neither broken nor an impediment to enterprise.  It is self-evident to those who have recently tried to use the system. Reforming a slow, inefficient, costly and confrontational system is good news for us all and it is why the government remains committed to reform.

John Howell is parliamentary private secretary to decentralisation minister Greg Clark, and adviser for the government’s planning reforms