Alister ScottBy Professor Alister Scott at the School of Property, Construction and Planning at Birmingham City University

The Select Committee report on the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) released this week confirms that the NPPF is not fit for purpose. It also exonerated planners being labelled the ‘enemy of enterprise’ and challenged the simplistic and foolhardy approach to sustainable development as seen through a single economic lens.

While welcome and substantive – covering some 81 pages – the report exposed the lack of clarity in the NPPF which creates uncertainty, killing off long term investment plans and exposing a culture of quick fixes and ad-hoc planning. Furthermore, the reclaiming of town centre and brownfield first policies was seen as key mechanisms to restrict urban sprawl into the countryside.

However, there are three key areas that the report fell short on:

  1. The abolition of regional planning has created a vacuum in strategic planning. This means that the bigger picture is missed in many planning decisions and it is important to realise that local authority boundaries are not useful planning units – people’s work, leisure and retail patterns cross such boundaries, causing a disconnect as planners create policies within their own islands and elected member constituencies.  The current duty to co-operate is limited and does not address the complex and emotive political issue of new developments that cross local authority boundaries where the receiving authority has a strong conservation ethic. This can frustrate development but the regional planning layer takes such a picture and its absence is having a negative impact on effective spatial planning.
  2. The statutory mechanism for judging sustainable development in practice will be the local plan which can be tweaked to suit local circumstances.  The formalising of a plan led system does bring certainty to decision making, however, the resultant zoning and ordering creates a danger that the new or the innovative development will be refused simply because it does not fit in with existing policies. Given that developers are risk takers and entrepreneurs there is a potential mismatch with risk adverse strategies taken by planners. We therefore need to encourage the use of more flexible planning tools to enable more new developments to happen providing they offer, in theory, significant environmental, economic and social merits which can be tested in the field through experimental approaches.  A good example of this would be local food production on the edge of cities. Here farmers could let unproductive fields to communities for local food production.  However, this activity would require planning permission because it is not agriculture (change of use)and would not be an allotment. So it would be out of order and possibly refused.  Section 106 agreements are key here.
  3. The final challenge is the formal recognition that there are two planning systems in England.  One for the natural environment and one for the built environment.  The chart below shows graphically how the two systems are built on different foundations and use different philosophies, frameworks, government departments, theories, activities, tools, geographies, areas, and partnerships which collectively create disintegrated planning.  We need to connect these two areas through improved dialogue to maximise development and conservation opportunities.

Diagram

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Alister Scott

Alister Scott

School of Property, Construction and Planning at Birmingham City University