National Planning Policy Framework – pass or fail?

Year 11 at The Whinings Technology College filed nervously into the room.  As the last students took their seats the invigilator started to speak.  “Welcome to this GCSE English Language examination.  As you know, after complaints that papers have become progressively easier, there are some changes to the syllabus this year.  Good luck everybody – you may turn over your papers and begin.”

Gasps were heard above the rustling of papers and scraping of chairs as the pupils read the instructions:

Question 1.  Read the following 1000 pages of Government planning guidance carefully.  When you have finished, précis it into no more than 50 pages, keeping all the salient points and providing a definition of sustainable development.  Time allowed:  21 months – including a period of public consultation.

In fact the Examination Board had considered several other versions of the question before settling on this one.  Professor Stackum-Hyer had proposed adding “expunging all reference to protecting heritage, the environment and the countryside without anybody noticing”.  Lady Juste-Tooksilk suggested including “ensuring that all significant phrases are open to a myriad different legal interpretations”.  But ultimately the Board decided these would be far too difficult for less able candidates and “keeping all the salient points” won the day.

Almost two years later, and once all the papers were marked, the moderating team met to ensure consistency of grades.  The paper submitted by Clark, one of The Whinings’ brightest prospects, caused them particular concern.  The first problem was obvious.  “Why oh why didn’t we require the definition of sustainable development to be concise?” asked Miss Beane-Counta.  “His runs to 212 paragraphs.”

Then there was the fact that some parts of his answer appeared to be more suited to the earlier, rejected, versions of the question.  Had the school perhaps got hold of a leaked copy of these drafts, not knowing they had been superseded, and coached the pupils in how to answer them?

Overall though it wasn’t a bad effort at all.  He had assiduously précised the text, and apart from a rather far-fetched section requiring local authorities to “diligently co-operate for mutual benefit” had managed to avoid introducing any new material at all.  In the end they settled on a Grade B, and fired off a warning letter to every school Principal, asking them to make sure that teaching staff have a common understanding of the new syllabus in future.

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But were the moderating panel right?  Is there anything new in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which will help meet the Government’s aspirations?  And what might it bring for conservationists or planning lawyers?  I’ve looked back at the projects covered in this blog to see what I think.

The largest wind farms will be beyond the reach of the NPPF.  Little Cheyne Court, the one I walked through, and the largest in southern England, would today be considered by the Infrastructure Planning Commission.  The Renewable Energy Infrastructure National Policy Statement (NPS) is their main guide, not the NPPF.  And for offshore installations it is the Marine Policy Statement.  However the NPPF can be “relevant and important” (para 3) in such decisions.  Heaven only knows if any of the 12 National Policy Statements are in conflict with the NPPF.  That is one of the things which will no doubt help keep up the mortgage repayments on our learned friends’ weekend retreats in the Dordogne.

But the NPPF will apply to smaller installations, of up to around 20 turbines.  In para 97 it repeats the phrase in existing policy about “addressing cumulative landscape and visual impacts” virtually verbatim.  And now that the reference to “recognising the intrinsic beauty of the countryside” is included (para 17), you could even argue that policy is more restrictive than before.

The decision on High Speed 2 will be made wholly outside the planning system, through a Hybrid Parliamentary Bill.  If we have the much delayed Transport Networks NPS by then (and it has been promised since HS2 was little more than a glint in Lord Adonis’s eye), it might get a mention in debate, but the NPPF will be one stage further removed from influence.  So references to protecting tranquillity (para 123) and recognising the beauty of the countryside may not be the weapons objectors are seeking.  After all the Chiltern AONB designation doesn’t seem to have made a whole pile of difference so far.

So if major infrastructure will be largely unaffected, what about the bread and butter of planning – retail, housing and business development.  George Osborne says it will speed things up and get more built.

The amount of material which applicants need to submit is completely unchanged.  The attempted vilification of the Habitat Regulations is proving a dead-end.  The NPPF specifically excludes from its “presumption in favour of sustainable development” any site where they apply (para 119).  And Transport Assessments, Environmental Impact Assessments, Design and Access Statements and Sustainability Appraisals will all still need to be done, and subsequently crawled over.

Down in Margate the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regime is causing more trouble to Tesco that the in-town or out of town question, which after all the debate the NPPF appears to have left unchanged.  But if you fail to do an EIA beware.  Fifteen months after the application for a superstore on the seafront was submitted, and one day before the public inquiry was due to start, the Inspectorate took fright at some legal advice and postponed the proceedings.  The Council had agreed that an EIA was not required and eventually got round to supporting the proposal despite furious local opposition.  By then the developer had lost patience and appealed.  Not much the NPPF can do about any of that.

In Godalming the application for an 8 storey block of flats has been a battle between sustainability and local distinctiveness from the start.  At the previous appeal local distinctiveness won by a short head, and the NPPF still keeps both considerations on the agenda.  Five years and counting for this site.

So what about business development?  Here the use of Local Development Orders is the government’s big idea, particularly in Enterprise Zones.  And of course they get a paragraph (199), but it is hardly a ringing endorsement of a brave new world.  And down in Gosport the planning application for the Enterprise Zone site at HMS Daedalus still hasn’t been determined nine months after it was submitted.

So – as an effective bit of précis the National Planning Policy Framework is a good effort.  But a blueprint for faster decisions and more development – I don’t think so.