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CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1480-i
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
Environmental Audit Committee
Sustainable development in the national planning policy framework
Wednesday 12 October 2011
Neil Sinden, Peter Nixon, Dr Hugh Ellis and Naomi Luhde-Thompson
John Slaughter and Liz Peace
RT HON Greg Clark MP and RICHARD BENYON mp
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 83
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.
Taken before the Environmental Audit Committee
on Wednesday 12 October 2011
Joan Walley (Chair)
Mr Mark Spencer
Dr Alan Whitehead
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Neil Sinden, Director of Policy and Campaigns, Campaign to Protect Rural England, Peter Nixon, Director of Conservation, National Trust, Dr Hugh Ellis, Chief Planner, Town & Country Planning Association, and Naomi Luhde-Thompson, Planning and Policy Advisor, Friends of the Earth, gave evidence
Q1 Chair: A very warm welcome on behalf of the Environmental Audit Select Committee to all of you this afternoon. We believe that this is an important inquiry. We have a marathon session ahead of us because we are interviewing a series of different witnesses. We are working on the basis that we will be making a report to the DCLG Select Committee, and we are also absolutely committed to seeing through our witness evidence sessions this afternoon, and how our proceedings today through Parliament can influence this agenda. So we are grateful to you for coming along, and I think to get us going, it would be helpful if each of you could perhaps just briefly introduce yourselves and your organisation and in no more than two sentences, just put out your basic position so that we can perhaps understand where the land lies in terms of the concerns that you have. So perhaps if I can start with you, Mr Sinden.
Neil Sinden: Thank you very much. I am Neil Sinden. I am Policy and Campaigns Director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and very briefly, we are seriously concerned that, as currently drafted, the National Planning Policy Framework will reduce our ability to make best and most effective use of our precious land resource, with negative consequences for the countryside, but also urban areas in terms of reducing investment in urban regeneration.
Chair: Thank you. Mr Nixon.
Peter Nixon: Peter Nixon, National Trust, and our principal concern is the lack of clarity about sustainable development and the interpretation in the document, the presumption that flows from that and the very worrying impact that that will have, particularly on the two-thirds of England that is not designated.
Chair: Thank you.
Dr Ellis: I am Hugh Ellis, Chief Planner at TCPA, and the TCPA has a 110-year history of trying to build high-quality sustainable places in England. Our concerns I think I share with the previous two speakers. There is a lack of vision for England, which is critical, a lack of a clear definition of sustainable development and a lack of proper planning principles that are workable and deliverable.
Chair: Thank you, and Ms Luhde-Thompson.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: Hello. My name is Naomi Luhde-Thompson. I am a planning and policy advisor at Friends of the Earth. Friends of the Earth has always supported the planning system in the UK and we work with a lot of community groups on planning issues. Our big concerns about the National Planning Policy Framework are that it fails to recognise environmental limits as a key principle of sustainable development, that the document itself is very confusing, that it contradicts itself and it does not, as a whole, set out a clear path for development in order for it to be sustainable.
Q2 Chair: Thank you very much for that. I think that takes us straight on to our first question, which is how well you think the draft planning framework does measure up in delivering sustainable development.
Peter Nixon: Not very well at all, because sustainable development within the document throughout is so ill-defined and confused and conflated, confused with economic development and growth, and given that the document describes it as the golden thread that runs throughout, that leaves us in a very, very serious position, that lack of clarity. It does not relate to the need to look at the five principles of sustainable development that are embodied in the sustainable development strategy of 2005. It quotes Brundtland, but then goes on to deny the spirit and principles of Brundtland throughout the document, using the green wash of sustainable development frequently, but then making it quite clear that the dice are extremely heavily loaded with regard to economic development.
It doesn’t cover spatial land use and recognise the environmental limits position, one of the key principles of sustainable development, that land in this country, where we have the densest population in Europe by a long way, has been managed through the planning system to both protect the quality of land and provide for economic growth and social needs. In the future, if we have this proposed system, what will the country look like? Either it could look like Greece, the West Coast of Ireland, Spain or Portugal, and we could debate how their economy is doing, if you are saying it is an impediment to economic growth, or there could be stasis because it is so complicated, full of so much legal uncertainty that we end up with planning by appeal and by court rather than any delegation to a local level, which is what is intended.
Neil Sinden: Could I just say, I agree with all of that, and the only thing I would add is that it takes us backwards. We have had sustainable development within the planning system for almost 20 years now. The way in which it has been interpreted as a concept, and the way in which it has been applied on the ground has evolved, as Peter has indicated. In the 2004 Act, we saw statutory recognition for the role of planning and contributing towards sustainable development, and in the 2005 Government strategy, we saw the five principles which Peter referred to set out. Our reading of the draft NPPF is that it takes us back to a situation pre-1991 and will fail to meet the challenges that we face in terms of delivering the development the nation needs in the best locations and in ways which deliver not just economic, but also social and environmental benefit.
Chair: Do you wish to add to that?
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: Yes, I just wanted to make a quick point on the clarity of the definition. The reason that this is so important is, that unless you have clarity and consistency in the definition, there is going to be a lot of argument about how to interpret it. One of the things that the National Planning Policy Framework does is it talks about a sustainable economy, sustainable growth as if this is sustainable development and it is just incredibly confusing. What this will result in is in every local plan, in policy development and in the approval of development applications, people will take different interpretations of sustainable development, and this is just going to lead to delay and confusion. So what you want is a very, very clear legal definition that does two things, it recognises environmental limits-
Q3 Chair: Sorry, can I just interrupt? You think that clear definition should be on the face of legislation?
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: Yes. This afternoon I think it is in front of the Lords and a clear definition in legislation has the advantage that it is a very clear position and it is not one that can be changed by another document that comes out or, for instance, as is happening at the moment, some applications are referring to the Plan for Growth. So if you had a clear legal definition, I think that would give the clarity that everybody needs in order to move forward and to approve sustainable development.
Dr Ellis: Could I just add quickly, I fully support the need for a legal definition on the face of the Bill. In fact, planning legislation when it began did have such a legal duty and purpose and New Zealand legislation for planning has a similar purpose. But I did want to say something very positive about sustainable development. If this nation goes forward in a positive way, in a low-carbon way, it needs a profoundly powerful definition of sustainable development to shape that, and we can deliver it on the ground, we are delivering it on the ground and planning is moving in that direction. But if we weaken that definition, all sorts of industries related to low carbon, the need to build housing at very high environmental standards for those in social housing need will be lost, because the principle is not clearly reflected in the policy.
Q4 Chair: What would you say to those people who would say if you have a definition on the face of the Bill, it is not the right thing to do because things change, times change and it will be out of date very quickly. Seeking the clarity that you say is needed, how would you perhaps make the case that you can have clarity in that way?
Dr Ellis: Because, like any other duty that is in statutory legislation, there is a big picture principle established and then plenty of operational interpretation through policy into how it is delivered on the ground, and that is always the case-whether we like it or not actually, as practitioners-but without that key loadstone at the very heart of the planning system, there will be a confusion about what we are trying to achieve in spatial planning in England. We cannot afford, particularly in relation to climate change and demographics, confusion about what the purpose and direction of planning is.
Neil Sinden: I was going to say CPRE actually supports statutory recognition, but I think if the Government is unprepared to accept that on the face of the Bill, it is absolutely critical that the National Planning Policy Framework in its revised form sets out very clearly the five key principles that underpin the 2005 strategy. It should at the same time allow for the interpretation of those principles to be adapted by local planning authorities in the light of local circumstances on the ground, because one thing is very clear, one cannot point to sustainable development and say, "There it is, go and get it", but one can actually drive towards it, taking account of local circumstances and ensuring that we are, as I say, getting the right development in the right places.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: Just a quick point on environmental limits, I don’t think it is a policy concept that is only around for the next three years. It is a fundamental concept to living within our limits and accepting that the island of Great Britain is a certain size. That is a limit, and I think that we must understand that, it is not a policy that is going to change, it is a fundamental principle.
Q5 Chair: You have all stressed the importance of having clarity in terms of definition. Could you just perhaps give some idea of problems which might result from a woolly definition in practical terms?
Dr Ellis: Well, there is a range. The planning process has been through pieces of history before where there has been lack of definition. One clear example of that was in the late 1980s, where there was significant deregulation around Circular 1485 and the purpose of planning became less clear, the plan-led system was devalued and you had almost complete stasis as a result of a lack of an idea about what the spatial planning system was for. But the potential for legal challenge and the potential for appeal, an appeal is really the critical issue, about what sustainable development might mean in any particular situation is absolutely critical. Now, you will always get some of that, but the more you leave open and unclarified about the purpose, the more room for challenge there will be, and it is absolutely critical that nobody benefits from a system which is mired in legal challenge and appeal, least of all communities.
Q6 Chair: The policy framework says that its guidance should be taken as a whole and I just wondered what your views are about the consistency of the message that is there in the draft proposal and what the implications of that are.
Neil Sinden: Can I say, absolutely we recognise that that is what the draft framework says from time to time throughout the document. Unfortunately, as a whole, it does not add up to a very coherent statement about the way in which we should be prioritising the use of land in this country. As Naomi said, land is a crucial environmental limit. Environmental qualities attached to land, whether it is developed or undeveloped, are crucial to our quality of life and to the concept of sustainable development. But I would say that the definition of sustainable development, and getting that right, learning from the history of the last 20 or so years of actually defining what that means and how it should be operationalised through decision-making processes from national through to local level, is simply a starting point. It needs to be reinforced by a whole host of other amendments and changes throughout the draft framework which point to how local planning authorities should be putting that core definition, that sets of principles into practice on the ground. At the moment, the document is unacceptably weighted towards economic growth; it seems at almost any cost.
Q7 Chair: Do you think that is because someone somewhere in Government does not get the sustainable development agenda, or do you think it is because there is a genuine belief that this is the right way of delivering sustainable development?
Neil Sinden: I think it is more the former. This document bears all the hallmarks of one that was rushed out, even though it wasn’t issued before the summer recess. It seems not enough time was given to it in terms of the detailed wording within CLG. I would argue that you can read the document and you can almost identify very starkly which departments have contributed which sections to which paragraphs as you read through the document. The idea of significant weight being attached to economic growth is like a mantra, a neurotic mantra that appears throughout the document. I think it demonstrates that the Government as a whole has not been clear about how it wants the planning system to define sustainable development and how that concept should be pursued through the planning system.
Peter Nixon: In practice, with regard to the five principles as from 2005, or however they choose to be determined, we shouldn’t strive for perfection in terms of having something that will give complete clarity to absolutely every decision. They have to be translated in practice on the ground and through the planning process. That is perfectly possible, I would argue, from our own experience in the National Trust. We are in the process of developing around 1,000 houses, either in process or with planning consent, where we have applied those broad principles to practical application, gone through the different processes and come up with something that we think is perfectly right and appropriate. So it is capable of being done.
Q8 Zac Goldsmith: Just very briefly, I know that you have been having discussions with the CLG; I know at least the CPRE and the National Trust have. Can you tell us whether or not, in your view, the Government seems to be moving towards a position of compromising on this issue of defining sustainability? Is that an area do you think that-
Peter Nixon: We have had a letter from the Prime Minister to our Director General confirming his commitment to the conservation of the countryside, and beyond that, critically important, that the purpose of the planning system is to apply a balanced approach. If that is delivered-and that is a big if-to changes to the NPPF, then my answer to you would be yes, we are being listened to, but there is still some way to go.
Q9 Zac Goldsmith: Can I follow that up briefly? If that were to happen then, if sustainable development were to be clearly defined, perhaps not on the face of the Bill, but in the planning framework, how far will that go towards alleviating or addressing the concerns of your members? How big an issue is it?
Peter Nixon: Yes, it is a very big issue. It is the start point, but it is not the only point. Then the way in which sustainable development, once defined, is applied, is critical. There are a whole series of issues relating to the presumption with regard to saying yes, and in terms of economic growth being stimulated which we don’t believe is right. We believe the presumption should be to follow a plan-led process which gives genuine power to local people, and there are a number of other key aspects as well. But it is a very, very important plank and the first one.
Neil Sinden: Just to add to that, in terms of various discussions with CLG and Ministers, we are reassured that there seems to be more of an appetite to listen to the concerns that we are raising, not just in relation to the definition of sustainability, but also in relation to the four or five other key points that we are making about the way in which the framework does not give enough of a steer towards the way in which land should be used. But there are high stakes here. We have been calling for the Government to publish a revised draft for public consultation before a final version is issued. We have such a poor document in our estimation at the moment that it is very difficult to see how the Government is going to move from where we are now to a final version that is going to be acceptable, not just to National Trust members but to CPRE and a whole host of other organisations, without there being further scrutiny in public of the way in which the drafting is evolving.
Q10 Zac Goldsmith: I am just going to add one more question to that. Is it your view, just speaking very crudely, that the document as it stands can be edited to such an extent that it becomes a force for good rather than bad, or is it fundamentally flawed, in your view?
Chair: I will ask each of you to answer that, yes or no.
Neil Sinden: I think it is possible. I think it is a job that CPRE has started and we have been working in partnership with the National Trust and others on redrafting sections of the document. We are also reaching out to other organisations, perhaps on the other side of the debate, those representing the development industry. I know you are seeing representatives of the British Property Federation later on, and we are quite encouraged at how much common ground there is with some players in the development sector about how the document can be improved. My sense is that it is a big redrafting job, and that is why I come back to my comment that we need to see a revised draft for consultation before a final document is issued.
Peter Nixon: Yes, I do believe so, because the aspirations as expressed in terms of what it is trying to achieve we would support. It is actually the detail, really important detail within the document that then denies the ability to achieve this-not just denies the ability, but makes matters worse.
Dr Ellis: Yes, indeed we have submitted a tracked change version to CLG which hopefully forensically puts a proper definition of SD, provides legal clarity and objective around the presumption. In that sense, the document can be made to be workable, but it is important, particularly from our point of view, that there is a huge missing agenda in the NPPF that can’t be fixed, and that it offers no vision for England and does not recognise or have spatial awareness that England is a different place with different spatial needs and it doesn’t reflect, for example, the work of two Royal Commissions and the Foresight Report on the demands of food security, energy security or demographics or climate change. How is it possible for us to be considering a document for the next 40 years for England that does not take on board those critical environmental and social challenges?
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: I would agree with Dr Ellis entirely, and I think that the other issue is that you can rewrite the document, but the way the document was drafted, it was not just a condensation of the best parts and the most effective parts of the existing planning policy, it was a rewrite, so there are lots of new policies in here which will have to be tried and tested through the system. So that is an issue if you are trying to go through tracked changes: do you put back in existing policies that worked very well, and how do you do that? There has also been a lot of detail loss, which is really, really important detail, really important safeguards, and you would want to put that detail back in. You would have to probably extend it slightly; I think the 50 pages is a slightly artificial construct, to try and reduce it from 1,000 to 50. I think you need to talk about the quality of the policy, the detail that you need, and I think there is also a very valid argument for having technical advice notes specifically for developers and local authority planners so that they have that extra information that they need, and that sits alongside. At this point, I would probably recommend that something similar to Wales, where there is a system of the Wales Spatial Plan, Planning Policy Wales and then you have technical advice notes, and that system might provide a few pointers for something that might work better.
Q11 Chair: It occurs to me that there is something of a precedent with the way in which the Climate Change Committee provides its advice to Parliament and then the Government decides whether or not recommendations should be accepted or not, and if so, then put into legislation or into regulation. Might that be, given the shortcomings that you talk about in the way in which the whole thing is being envisioned, designed and then produced, some parallel way of bringing something which meets the objectives that you have?
Neil Sinden: I think the Climate Committee has a particularly focused job to do which isn’t quite comparable to the job that the National Planning Policy Framework has to do, but I do think there is merit in your suggestion in a couple of directions. One is clearly that we want Parliament, Members of Parliament to be debating and voting on a draft NPPF, and I think, beyond that, the idea of having some kind of standing committee which is monitoring and overseeing the implementation of the framework, flagging up issues and problems that have emerged in terms of local interpretation, unforeseen consequences and so on is something worth looking at.
Dr Ellis: Can I just add, I think it is absolutely critical because there were two bodies that more than anything else were the intellectual head of spatial planning. One was the Royal Commission on Environment Pollution that published three critically important reports on spatial planning, none of which were fully implemented-
Q12 Chair: Which is now no longer here?
Dr Ellis: Which is abolished, and the other one is the Sustainable Development Commission.
Chair: Which is now no longer here.
Dr Ellis: I urge everyone to consider how much easier this debate would be if you could bring before you the Sustainable Development Commission to give you evidence about the definition of sustainable development.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: I think the evidence point is crucial, because you need a lot more time to gather the evidence of good outcomes from a planning system in order to inform your policy development.
Chair: I am about to move on, but I know that Neil Carmichael, Peter Aldous and Sheryll Murray want to come in with quick questions. Neil.
Q13 Neil Carmichael: Can I just direct my question to Mr Nixon, because I read your written submission to this Committee, and I noted that you recognised that things have moved on in the definition of sustainable development and you hint that the 2005 definition would be better than what is in the NPPF. So could you tell us what you think is a robust definition of sustainable development which would meet the requirements of clarity and help us in terms of legality as well?
Peter Nixon: Well, I think the principles expressed in 2005 are absolutely right. There are five principles. The first three relate, if you like, to the what, and those are what we all understand in terms of the three pillars, the three legs in terms of social, economic and environmental, and respecting those, and then the second two-the last two, rather-are how that should be achieved in terms of social justice and means of governance, and I think the key issue here is having defined it, and I think 2005 provides an absolutely reasonable framework for that. It is the approach in terms of saying, "When you are approaching a planning decision, you deal with it on an even-handed basis going into the consideration" not on the basis of giving any one of those three legs primacy.
Q14 Neil Carmichael: So you believe that the NPPF as it now currently stands does give one of those three legs primacy?
Peter Nixon: Absolutely; to the economic leg, absolutely unquestionably.
Q15 Peter Aldous: My question picks up from that. You say that, yet in paragraph 10 it sets out those three legs, and then in paragraph 11 it goes on to say, "These three component parts should be pursued in an integrated way."
Peter Nixon: If only the rest of the document followed through on that. It simply denies what it says at the beginning. It is simply an oxymoron.
Q16 Chair: The consistency is not there?
Peter Nixon: The consistency is not there, absolutely, so paragraph 14 and paragraph 19, which clearly gives preference to economic development, is a tool principally to stimulate economic growth and it conflates that with sustainable development.
Chair: Sheryll now.
Sheryll Murray: My question has been answered.
Q17 Caroline Lucas: Thank you very much. Just a reflection really about one of the difficulties of when you define sustainable development as three pillars, there is always that risk that you are going to have a trade off between them. I would much prefer a definition that had ecology as the complete circle and then the economy as a subset, because we are talking about something that is finite, land, and so I just wanted to register-
Peter Nixon: I would be very happy to give you-and we have previously submitted it-our vision for land, and I think the point that Hugh makes is so important, that there is a framework within which to consider this, given that land is such a hugely valuable resource for this nation and the pressures upon it because of population and so on, and our vision is simply, "The UK will manage its land for the benefit of future generations, seeking to ensure that they can build strong, resilient communities that can make a living, safeguard their natural resources and enhance their environment" and if you do not start from that point and then flow from it, I think you have a real problem, because you are dealing with segments and not the whole.
Neil Sinden: To follow on from that, where we have seen, if you like, win/win solutions emerging from the concept of sustainable development in relation to land use over the past 15 or so years, is in relation to the policies of encouraging the reuse of previously developed land before greenfield sites are allocated. This policy was introduced in 1995 and has been, I think, remarkably successful in seeing increasing proportions of new housing being built on brownfield land, and safeguarding, we estimate, something like-well, since 1995, something like 117 square miles of countryside from unnecessary development, and at the same time it has actually encouraged investment in many poor areas, urban areas which required reinvestment, where housing was desperately needed and where the infrastructure needed to be enhanced and increased. So one can get through the planning process by applying the concept of sustainability; win/win situations that are based on the idea that land is a finite resource and that we need to make best possible use of it.
Now, CPRE would not say that there were no problems at all with what we call the "brownfield first" approach to housing. They can be addressed through slight revisions to policy, to recognise, for example, that not all brownfield sites are in appropriate locations, to recognise also in some circumstances that policy has led to inappropriately high-density development on back gardens, and to recognise that in some areas, such brownfield land has acquired a wildlife value, a biodiversity value that needs to be safeguarded. But those are not problems that need to be dealt with by simply removing the "brownfield first" emphasis. They can be addressed by local planning authorities in the context of their particular local circumstances.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: On the trade-off point on three pillars, my sense of it is that our economy and our society should operate within environmental limits.
Caroline Lucas: Exactly. I want a Venn diagram and so forth. That is not quite the right term, but anyway, I can see it graphically.
Q18 Mr Spencer: On some of those comments, it appears to me those decisions are best made at a local level, because the local knowledge is at that level, and there seems to be a conflict in what you are saying, in that you want to control things from Whitehall, but some of these decisions seem to be better made by local councils.
Neil Sinden: Can I come back on that? Absolutely, CPRE supports the localist agenda that the Government is pursuing in relation to planning reforms, but that should not mean that the national framework should abrogate any responsibility for directing local decisions in ways that safeguard one of our most important environmental assets. That is where we are at at the moment. The national framework is far too loose in terms of ensuring that the decisions that need to be taken in terms of land use on the ground are taken within the context of local circumstances. So, you know, we are not arguing that the national target for brownfield use for new housing should be reinstated. We are arguing that the "brownfield first" policy emphasis and prioritisation should be retained and that local authorities themselves should be encouraged to adopt their own local brownfield targets, reflecting their own local circumstances.
Chair: I think we might move on to brownfield perhaps shortly, but can I just go back to Caroline Lucas, please?
Q19 Caroline Lucas: Yes, that is on back of my reflection on the three pillars, but the question I wanted to ask you to go back to first principles. The Government appears to be saying that the reason that we have to have this wholesale reform of the planning system is because it is acting as a brake to economic growth. Irrespective of what one thinks about the desirability or otherwise of economic growth, can you say to what extent you think that analysis is right or wrong in the first place?
Neil Sinden: I think the evidence that supposedly supports that contention that planning is a barrier to economic growth is pretty limited and frankly quite flaky, we would say. It doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. The actual evidence is plain to see, that 90% of all business and industrial applications are approved through the planning system, that is CLG data, and 86% of all applications of all kinds are approved. There is already, if you like, to use a phrase that we want to get struck out of the framework, a default "yes" to development. So the idea that planning is a break on economic growth is one that needs to be subject to closer scrutiny.
The other point I would make before handing on is that that argument actually says nothing about the economic benefits that the planning system brings to the nation in terms of promoting regeneration, the so-called agglomeration benefits of compact citizen towns, the way in which relatively dense urban development minimises demands on the public purse for infrastructure provision and so on. All of these benefits, economic benefits, tend to be left out of the equation when discussion is taking place about the impact of planning on the economy.
Peter Nixon: Good planning absolutely doesn’t constrain economic growth, to the contrary, as Neil has said, and I don’t think any of us would be arguing that changes are not needed to the planning system to simplify it and make it less bureaucratic, but that is not what is now being achieved. In term of the benefits of good planning and good environmental integration and understanding the need for resilience and to build that into the equation, all the evidence is, in the long run, good sustainable practice and good commercial practice coincide. If you take a very short-term view, you can of course mine or rape a landscape. You can’t harvest it. Sustainable development in very simple terms is about harvesting, and if we take a very short-term view, driven by a perceived economic imperative based on a fundamentally wrong assumption about the planning system, we are not going to only be addressing the wrong problem, we are going to be creating other problems alongside it.
Dr Ellis: I must say, very quickly, that planning I think has made by far the biggest contribution to environmental sustainability in the post-war era almost than any other system of environmental and social regulation. It is an extraordinary system when it is well-used, but there is one very concrete example-because the evidence about why planning is anti-competitive comes from three sources, and is often presented as being overwhelming, but in our view is extremely partial, but leaving that on one side-I would just ask people to consider: what happens to Liverpool if you undermine town centre first policy? Now, the critical issue about regeneration is planning is not a perfect system that can do everything, but Liverpool 1 does not happen if investors are not certain that you believe in town centres and want to focus development there. What is terrifying about the analysis that planning is anti-competitive is it leads in the NPPF to a weakening of town centre first policy, and that is only one example. There are other examples as well, and you end up then with the ultimate nightmare. You know, we are not a nation that can plan like the United States of America. You cannot have a Detroit in Liverpool, and that is partly because we do not have the land for it, and the social consequences are just extraordinary.
I think planning makes a very, very significant contribution. It is on its knees though, bearing in mind planning is 60% deregulated at development plan level already. Regional plans were more than half of the framework, and although it is heresy, it has to be said you cannot run England without strategic planning. It has to be democratic, but it can’t be done: you cannot deliver on climate change and energy without a level of strategic planning, so all of that will have to be put back in place to deal with the shocks to the system resulting from climate change going forward and other issues as well. But the planning system I would say had one major issue and that was cultural. That was what we should have addressed. People like me should have done better, planners should have been better, but the system itself is very valid.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: I just want to quickly add to that. There are a lot of community representatives here listening to us today and I think a lot of them would say that what they are experiencing is lots of development happening but there is absolutely no way that they feel they can influence or stop it, and it is not necessarily doing their high streets in their communities any good at all in terms of jobs or places to shop. So I think that is a really important point and I would agree with the points that were made by the others. I think the thing about this economic driver is it is so short term and it is so laden with risk. If you don’t plan properly, if you don’t put your development in the right place, you are just storing up massive risks for yourself – for example if you are building on a flood plain, the costs of that will grow in the future. I think it is astonishing that in considering economic development the inherent risks are not recognised.
Q20 Caroline Lucas: On something you said earlier about the Welsh example, just talking about the numbers, we have 1,000 pages or whatever the Government says now of planning policy. They want to make it down to 50. As I understand it, Wales and Scotland have something nearer around 200. I know we can’t judge the quality on the basis of the quantity, but do you think there is more to be learnt about Wales and Scotland in terms of that?
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: Yes, I think Wales has some pretty good policies in there. Wales is obviously different to England and there are different needs, but I think that if you have clarity alongside brevity and if you have detail where it is required and you have safeguards-so you need a detailed town centre first policy in order for it to work, for example -it needs to be quite specific about limits and about what happens and about tipping points. It is the same with climate change, it is the same with affordable housing. You can’t be vague about it. You have to say, "It is a proportion". It is the same with sustainable homes, you have to say, "There is a standard. This is what this standard looks like" and that is detail. So I think that you can definitely make it work, and I think, yes, looking at Wales would be a good idea.
Q21 Sheryll Murray: I haven’t heard you mention an awful lot about giving power back to the local people to make the decisions. You have all said you want that to happen, but we already have the AONBs, we already have the SSSIs, and do we really need to have a national policy that is prescriptive? I understood that the reason for this framework is so that we will see detail in the local development plans and the neighbourhood plans, and you don’t seem to have taken account of that. Could I just have your views on whether you believe that it is the local people themselves who are best placed to make the rules about their local area and, following on from that, whether you think therefore we don’t need to be quite as prescriptive on a one size fits all basis through a national framework?
Peter Nixon: I think the local planning authority is an absolutely essential layer, with democratically elected people at that level. I think the idea of a smaller geographical community-led basis of local input is right, but as any of you who have actually dealt on the ground with these situations will know, there is no one homogenous community or one homogenous voice. Those various voices need to be heard within a process to ensure that they are properly considered in the context of whatever the national framework is setting. So I agree wholly with Neil, the principle that you have to have a framework to actually give guidance about the things that need to be taken into account and then at a local level, taking account of local circumstances, you will implement that. But I would say the local planning authority level is absolutely critical in terms of the process of democratic representation.
Neil Sinden: I think we would be much more comfortable with the Government’s emphasis on localism if the system were structurally more designed to enable the communities genuinely to have a say over the development that takes place in their areas. I think we need a few years before we can see whether or not neighbourhood planning, as it is being proposed by the Government, will help deliver that. But one of the things we are very concerned about that we do not have in the shape of a Localism Bill is an effectively rebalanced appeals process, which gives local communities limited rights to appeal against development that goes against an agreed local plan. That was a commitment made pre-election by both coalition parties which is not in the Bill. Also we would want to see restrictions on developers’ rights of appeal so that local planning authorities really are, on behalf of their communities, in the driving seat. When they say no, it means no, and only in exceptional circumstances should it be possible for developers to appeal to a higher authority when those decisions are taken.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: Yes, I just wanted to add quickly to that. A classic example of that, developers just continuing appealing, is for example Sheringham’s 10 years fighting a Tesco supermarket development that they didn’t want and then constantly getting knocked back. Another point about neighbourhood planning, there is no right to be heard in person in neighbourhood planning and neighbourhood development orders, and the forums that are set up are not democratically accountable, and it could end up being fairly exclusive bodies if people don’t have the time and resources to engage in them properly. So the Localism Bill is mooted as something that provides more power to people to have an influence, but I think it fails to do that. I think also in terms of getting involved in the local development framework, there is a right to be heard, but it is complicated and there could have been other ways of promoting community involvement - For instance, you could have had a method whereby communities could bring forward supplementary planning guidance for areas, for communities to initiate more visions for their area. So I think that there could have been more scope, and the National Planning Policy Framework says very, very little about community involvement, very little, and it does not talk at all about equality impact or the need to involve those who are most vulnerable. It has got nothing on that, really. So I think there is a big gap there.
Dr Ellis: It is a very brief comment and it is not going to be, again, a very popular one. First of all, planning does not have community participation right in the governance of planning, and I still don’t think it has. I cannot see the narrative about how people are meant to involve themselves in national and local. But one thing really worries me. Let’s imagine that we have planning in England run solely at local government level. If 10 rural districts are confronted by one major out of town retail development that comes to one district that they want because of the incentives regime, those nine districts can do nothing about that impact now, because there is no way that there is any mechanism for regional or sub-regional planning to take place. You can’t run England-because space plays out at different spatial scales. If we want sustainable development, some decisions have to be taken at a big scale, and also, I would say there are flaws, aren’t there? There are some levels we do not want local government to sink below, particularly on social provision and inclusion, social housing and particularly on carbon.
Sheryll Murray: I should have pointed out that I spent four years as the Vice-Chairman of a local planning committee, so I was speaking with a little bit of experience.
Chair: I think everyone has a lot of expertise around the whole room. Neil Carmichael.
Q22 Neil Carmichael: I think we should be testing more our understanding of what we think framework is, giving guidance to local authorities, and what powers we think those authorities have, because we are in danger of just talking about the NPPF and not remembering that actually the Localism Bill gives local authorities, for example, powers of general competence, which turns us away from "There is a statutory responsibility local authorities have and therefore you must do this, that or the other within that framework," towards a local authority being able to do virtually anything it wants to do. I think that we have to bear that in mind when we are talking about the NPPF, because that is a real injection of localism and of course what we want to see are communities taking responsibility for their environment, and that is really one of the key objectives of the localism agenda. So what I would like to know is not what you think about the NPPF in relation to local government as it is now but as it is going to be. I think that is an important direction of travel for this Committee to go in.
Chair: If you would like to just align it to the Localism Bill.
Neil Sinden: If I could have a go at that one. I entirely agree the localism agenda is broader than just planning and we welcome many elements of the broader canvas of localism but I think it has to be recognised that planning is a particularly important means by which local communities ought to be able to have a greater say over what happens in their local areas. For better or worse, it is a highly legalised system and at the moment, my assessment is that local communities do not have the powers and the ability to determine as much about the future of their local environment as they should be able to. So, I would simply say, yes, localism is wider than planning but planning is a critical element.
Peter Nixon: I would not disagree with that at all. If you are talking about going local and giving people choice, one of the problems is, there is an element of the Localism Bill, I think it is clause 130, with regard to giving primacy effectively to the position where there is the financial payment available to local authorities, which reinforces the economic presumption, which, in turn, erodes the decision-making capacity of a local people because they are operating within that very much constraining presumption. Then beyond that you do not just have a localism Bill but you have the actual Environment White Paper. Going back to Caroline Lucas’ point with regard to wider environmental constraints, that actually says that we should be aiming to welcome the principles of nature net gain; that we should leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it and if that is not taken into account in the interpretation of the NPPF and its delivery, we obviously have a conflict.
Chair: Right, I know Dr Whitehead wants to come in briefly and then we have some very specific questions that we must move on to.
Q23 Dr Whitehead: Is it possible to test out those thoughts in the context of, perhaps, one or two examples, some of which the NPPF has decided, some of which it is a little unclear on: an out of town shopping centre which may be placed within one local authority’s area and has a number of local authorities around, particularly some local authorities with town and city centres that may have a view on that; and a new planned settlement that again a local authority may consider that they wish to pursue, perhaps because of the incentives, as has been mentioned, but again other authorities may have a view on that. I believe the NPPF is silent, effectively, on both of those issues. How do you think those sort of processes would come out were we to have an NPPF regime in the way that is suggested here? Would they simply not happen, would they happen in a different way or would they happen without the sort of safeguards and concerns that are expressed at present?
Dr Ellis: I think there are definitely two visions. We have voluntary strategic planning now, no more than that. So where several authorities wanted to plan together to do that, then there is a possibility those developments might take place, but it is quite extraordinary that the NPPF at no time makes any reference to the kind of future development that England might want to focus on. Should that be urban extension, should that be urban concentration, should that be rural dispersal, or should that be new settlements? Particularly there is no recognition, for example, of the sustainable development value of very high quality new settlements that it can bring.
So I think that leaves that completely open and then that takes us straight to the duty to co-operate and whether that works. I think the interesting thing about the duty is that it only applies to public sector bodies, so it does not apply to Railtrack or National Grid or any of the key partners you need to build an extraordinary, visionary place. They are not bound legally by the duty to co-operate.
Now whether the outcome of that is poorly co-ordinated development or whether the outcome of that is no development, I have to say my professional judgement is it is much more likely to be no development in some places because the arguments between authorities will result in a great deal of delay. Now that is not the outcome anybody wants because what we want is very high quality development in the right place.
Chair: Right, I am going to ask Mr Spencer now to move us on to a more focused look at specific issues arising from our inquiries.
Q24 Mr Spencer: I will try and be brief, Chairman. I know we are short of time. On key policy changes, particularly the removal of several targets, I wonder if you could identify which of those targets being removed has the biggest impact on sustainable development, and I am talking about brownfield v greenfield, housing density, parking requirements, the out of town/town centre conflict, even affordable housing/social housing. Which of those has the biggest impact?
Neil Sinden: I touched on that in earlier responses. I do not think we are necessarily arguing that there should be targets, numerical targets, reintroduced into the National Planning Policy Framework as they have been in relation to brownfield land in recent times. Or, indeed, rigid residential parking standards, for example, or, indeed, rigid density standards for new housing developments. What we do want is a much clearer steer in national policy about how local authorities, taking account of their local circumstances, should be devising targets and getting the right kind of development at the right density and the right locations on the right kind of brownfield land through their local planning policies. So those are the areas that we want to see addressed. We fear that the removal of the prioritisation given to brownfield land that we have seen over the past 15 or so years will actually lead to much more low density greenfield urban sprawl and will deprive urban areas that still need regenerating of that desperately needed investment. We would like to see focus on that.
Q25 Mr Spencer: Dr Ellis specifically said there was a threshold which he did not want to drop below and that seems to contradict what was being said there.
Dr Ellis: I think that our position certainly is that there are minimum standards which we should not drop. I will give you an example of another one, although all the things that you list I think are absolutely important and particularly the social aspect, social housing provision which is, again, an aspect that the NPPF underplays. For example, it is curious there is no mention in the NPPF of the Code for Sustainable Homes. Now, in the last 10 years we have driven a revolution in sustainable construction materials to the immense economic benefit of this country and prices of those materials have come down as economies of scale kicked in. The experience from European nations is where you set clear standards for materials and sustainability standards, you drive economies of scale and you drive economic growth. What this document does is create huge uncertainty now around all those issues. Some of those issues require there to be national standards and the clearest one is in relation to carbon and climate emissions and the Climate Act. We have those standards. We have a committee giving advice. That has to be translated through the spatial planning process. That is not a matter of choice because Government has made clear through Parliament that that is a national objective. That is not reflected in the NPPF.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: I would agree with Dr Ellis entirely. We are very worried about the lack of the Code for Sustainable Homes and I think in terms of targets, the whole point is that it puts you on a trajectory where you have a minimum level and you hopefully move on from that. That is very important because you need to set out a direction of travel. Even though you may interpret those things differently locally-and I think that is obviously very important, every local authority has a different spatial expression, it might be low lying or it might be upland farming-the economy is going to be different, but you do have to say, "Okay, we’re building these new affordable homes. They have to be sustainable as well and there are certain things that we’ve learned about what being sustainable means and we need to implement those across the board".
Q26 Mr Spencer: I disagree, to be honest, and I tell you why, I will give you two examples. If there is a village in a rural location with local transport links that are frankly shockingly poor and you impose social housing in that development or you restrict the number of parking spaces, then what happens is residents buy those properties with more cars than there are parking spaces and fire engines or ambulances cannot reach those properties. Now a local authority is in a position to make that decision much better than someone in Whitehall who is frankly putting in targets. Another example, if you have a location where there a number of elderly residents living in large properties where they want to stay within their village but they can’t because there isn’t elderly people’s accommodation within that village, a developer cannot put forward a development with elderly people’s accommodation without having to include social housing in the middle of the elderly resident’s accommodation.
Dr Ellis: I would say in response to that that all the targets I have talked about are district-wide targets and you would hope that planners were slightly more intelligent in relation to individual villages than that, or you may want to argue they haven’t been and you probably will. But the important thing is that those benchmarks are there as a critical kind of minimum standard and on most of these issues I think they are justified.
But what we want to come out of this is that, if local authorities can innovate-and they have. The Merton Rule on energy was an example of local authorities innovating and delivering something that then became nationally significant. The sorts of standards that we are talking about are broad-brush key minimum standards and particularly in relation to climate change, I think they are logical.
In relation to some of the issues you have portrayed, perhaps there can be more flexibility about them, but without them, and without there being any regional planning now, the whole weight of responsibility of European directives and national legislation falls on your district authority. Now my district authority has three planners and no resources left and that is why guidance, I think, at the national level is important. Bear in mind the NPPF is guidance, not law, so in that sense everything we are talking about here, if you come up with a better solution, well great.
Chair: I just wanted Simon Kirby to come in on that particular point.
Q27 Simon Kirby: Yes, I think I was just going to agree with Mark really. I think you should have faith in local communities and local authorities and I can say from a Brighton and Hove perspective, which has the sea to one side and beautiful countryside to the other side, it is a very different operating environment to perhaps rural villages in Nottinghamshire but, at the end of the day, the local people know best. The targets that are appropriate in some places are fairly inappropriate in other places and the decision, whether it be to build on brownfield sites or greenfield sites or to have social housing or to have a minimum or maximum number of car parking places, is surely a decision that should not be dictated from the centre and is surely a matter for the local people to decide what is best for them.
Dr Ellis: I am going to have one more go.
Chair: Time is running out, so-
Dr Ellis: Okay, very quickly. It goes like this and I am just going to share with you my own personal theory because if you cut me in half it would say community planner right through me. That is where I come from. But the issues I have confronted in relation to demographic change is there is a desperate need for about 230,000 new units, demographic units. That is what the challenge is. Now, how is it that we are going to know, because I cannot work this out, how the sum total of all your local authority decisions are going to add up to what the nation needs on carbon and housing? I am not saying it is easy, but we have to have a mechanism where that gets put in to the local responsibility debate and that means that Brighton and Hove might have to take more homes than it wants. What do we do? Now if you displace your demand to another authority and we do not have strategic planning, you cannot say, as is happening in Stevenage at the moment, "We’ve got more-we want to grow but our neighbouring authorities don’t want us to grow". How do you resolve that issue? That is the problem that we have to solve, I think, for England.
Chair: I think this is at the heart. I know that Neil Carmichael wants to come in, and I will give you the chance, and then we will go back to Mark Spencer.
Q28 Neil Carmichael: I think it is really important to try to have it both ways. You talk about the NPPF not being capable of proper definition and so forth but two of you have already said it is just guidance and I do think that is an important characteristic of this document. I think the point that Mark and Simon have really been driving at is an important point, again because Dr Ellis was referring to the departure of regional and spatial planning. In my own constituency we were told how many houses we should be building and off we went, basically, to find some greenfields to put them on.
Now I do not really think that is sustainable but that was the system that we have been effectively using for the last few years and I do think that that is something we should be challenging and we should be looking, instead, at local authorities. So I am going to repeat the point that I made before about the power of general confidence because I just do not think that we are taking into account the new roles local authorities are going to have and the new powers that they are going to be given, but something else is not being taken account of and that is that we are asking local authorities to co-operate with each other. I think there is a point raised on this side about shopping centres and things being close to boundaries and so on. That is a really good point because what we want to see are local communities understanding what they want for themselves and actually using their own powers, their own responsibilities and their own knowledge to bring about sustainable development and I am not convinced that we are giving appropriate focus on that particular developed role of local authority. Your point about not having enough planners is absolutely right but local authorities should make themselves skilled up to do what needs to be done.
Chair: I do want your quick responses. I am conscious of time as well.
Neil Sinden: Two quick points. One is that it is absolutely right that the framework is guidance but it is important guidance. It will be, and already is, a material consideration in planning decisions and, therefore, one cannot simply disregard its relevance quite so simply. The second point I would make in relation to localism is, that at the moment the draft NPPF actually reduces local choice. It reduces the ability of local communities to get the right outcomes for them, particularly in the way in which it attaches primacy to economic development at almost any cost.
Peter Nixon: I would make that point. Yes, it is guidance but it will be a material consideration so do not underestimate the impact that it will have in reality. It is at the heart of the debate, as the Chairman has said. On the one hand, I think we all want the idea of localism and can see the attraction of that and allowing creativity at a local level where people know best how to flourish but within a framework, and a framework is necessary in order to achieve the bigger picture points that Hugh has articulated so clearly. So it is at what spatial level that framework should apply. In the context of targets, I do believe there should be some targets to set that direction of travel but they should be capable of being implemented with real discretion and flexibility at a local level so that you avoid the problems that you were describing, which we all recognised, I think.
Dr Ellis: The duty to co-operate works well where people want to co-operate but there is no legal bite in the duty to co-operate; it only applies to public sector bodies and it is a duty to consider co-operation-consider-and the sanction is at the end of your planning-making process with an inspector agreeing or not agreeing to your plan. It will work in Manchester because they have a body set up. It will work where people set up cross-border planning, formal arrangements, but where people disagree the duty to co-operate is not a strong mechanism for resolution.
Naomi Luhde-Thompson: Just a quick point about national policy. I think it should be seen as enabling and positive and it gives local authorities support. It gives them the safeguards, it gives them the teeth that they can then demand better development and I think that is really key in terms of having some very clear policies in the NPPF because it is support for them.
Caroline Nokes: I think a number of you have mentioned-I was expecting a question on giving local people and communities the ability to identify green areas.
Chair: I thought that we had partly covered that.
Caroline Nokes: Okay.
Chair: I have one eye on time because we have other witnesses coming after this.
Q29 Caroline Nokes: Can I ask a quick follow-up on that then? While I can see that the National Planning Policy Framework might give local communities the ability to identify green areas of particular importance, Dr Ellis made reference to food sustainability. Do you see any mechanism via the framework without a spatial strategy, without a national strategy to ensure that there are green areas that I might recognise as prime agricultural land preserved?
Dr Ellis: Planning needs to deal comprehensively with food security and the NPPF is silent on that issue. I would just very quickly say the Foresight Report pointed out that 40% of our most productive agricultural land is at or below sea level around the Wash. We need to deal with that urgently. The NPPF is silent on that challenge.
Neil Sinden: I have two points to add to that. The so-called best and most versatile land policy that has been in existence almost since the beginning of the post-war period is only tangentially referred to in the draft NPPF in paragraph 167. Local authorities are asked merely to take account of the existence of best and most versatile agricultural land; this is totally hopeless in terms of ensuring that we are attaching significance and weight to the importance of protecting our capacity to produce food domestically in future.
Secondly, the exhortation that local authorities should consider, first of all, land of least or lesser environmental value as being land that should be allocated for development first, could actually place some of our most precious agricultural land at even greater risk than it currently is. This is because, as many people say, high quality agricultural land is not of particularly high environmental value, at least in biodiversity terms-although it may actually contribute to landscape quality and the sense of openness.
So there are some real risks, I think, in the draft NPPF in terms of our ability to meet our food needs in future.
Caroline Nokes: Thank you for that.
Peter Nixon: Can I just respond? Sorry if I am going beyond the scope of the question, but I think we all too easily think about land providing a service in the context of development or agriculture. Certainly for our own land in the National Trust, we absolutely understand, and we are talking about well over a quarter of a million hectares, what its capability is. It is important to stand back-this is the fifth principle of sustainable development, which is actually using an evidence base-and understand what land can best be used for. It has a variety of functions. Of course it is production, whether it is food or whether it is fibre or whether it is energy, but it is also water recycling, it is also carbon, it is also culture, it is also landscape, it is also recreation and spiritual refreshment.
It is perfectly possible. We have developed a land capability tool which we apply, which we would be very happy to share with you separately as a means of making practical decisions that come from an objective basis and then allow people to apply their own subjective analysis to it.
Chair: Thank you.
Q30 Neil Carmichael: We have heard an awful lot about what the NPPF does not say, but it does say some things and one thing it says quite clearly is that our local authorities can select green areas for preservation. It gives huge protection to green belts. It defends areas of outstanding natural beauty-and I don’t suppose anything in a national park would be at risk either-and, of course, it does empower local authorities, as I have repeatedly said, to make their own plans, which would presumably include the protection of greenfields around villages and so forth. Do you recognise what I have just said and do you accept that at least those are some significant steps in the right direction?
Neil Sinden: Yes, can I just make a few very brief points on that? Absolutely we understand that the Government has made a commitment to a new local green space designation, the details of which are being consulted on at the moment. Our initial assessment is that it is not going to be strong enough to ensure that genuinely valuable local green spaces are protected from development pressures, given the wider context of the draft NPPF.
Secondly, in relation to green belts, we are very conscious that Ministers-and, indeed, the Prime Minister himself in his letter to the Trust-emphasise the retention of the protection that the Government wants to give green belts, AONBs and national parks. Unfortunately detailed scrutiny of the draft NPPF proves that that is not the case. The absence of a presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt, which is a current policy tool and perhaps one of the most powerful green belt policy tools that we have, is not in the draft NPPF. We have a Legal Opinion that says that is likely to present huge challenges to local authorities wanting to protect the green belts in the ways that they have been able to do in recent years. We also think the effect of the rather loosely drawn presumption in favour of sustainable development, without a clear definition of sustainable development, as we were talking about earlier, will potentially undermine the protections available to land, valuable land in AONBs and national parks.
The final point is that there is an important policy in existing planning guidance that protects the settings of those designated areas, which is not in the draft NPPF. So the risk is that we will see increased development pressure right up to the boundaries of our national parks and AONBs. That, inevitably, will have an impact on the quality of the experience and the character of those areas.
So even the safeguards that the Government has given on special areas of countryside if you like, are not strong enough. That leaves aside the point that Peter was making at the beginning about the fact that something like two-thirds of our countryside is unprotected by these national designations. There is very little in the draft NPPF that will safeguard those areas of wider countryside from inappropriate development pressures.
Peter Nixon: I would say certainly there are good points in the NPPF and we should not seek to undermine those. For example, reference to peat and peat extraction, which is something we have been extremely concerned about. So there is good stuff in there and our focus has been on the things we are worried about inevitably.
Specifically answering your question about designated land, I would agree with Neil’s analysis with regard to green belt and that is our analysis too. I would also say if you asked people who work within AONBs and national parks, they would regard what the NPPF says in paragraph 163 onwards as less protective and less good in terms of providing their conservation of AONBs and national parks than old PPS7 or current PPS7, so it is a diminution.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed. I am just looking to see whether or not there are any outstanding points.
Q31 Caroline Nokes: Can I just ask a specific question on appeals and the threats to countryside, among other places, before local authorities have their local plans in place and how dangerous you think that is? I know many of us in this room have previously or even still currently sit on local authorities. There is evidence that already developers at appeal are using the emergence of the NPPF as evidence in favour of whatever they are seeking to achieve.
Dr Ellis: I can say a quick word on it. There has never been a planning reform process without clear transitional arrangements set out on the face of the Bill. That happened in 2004. There are not any transitional arrangements currently for us to look at or examine, which means that, in theory, unless the CLG were to move on it, when the NPPF is produced and published, every single existing adopted LDF, which is about 30% to 40%, will instantly be out of date along with the London Plan, and the risk of that is a huge amount of uncertainty and there must be transitional arrangements. It is vital, not just from the environmental and community point of view, it is vital for business because the ending of regional planning, the way that regional planning resulted in judicial challenge, has resulted in a great deal of uncertainty.
But I will just pose this question, which is that of course the existing third or 40% of LDFs that are currently adopted, or about to be adopted, are all based on regional strategies. When the regional strategies are revoked, all of that group of plans will be subject to challenge because they are based on an evidence base at regional level and they were asked explicitly not to repeat policy that was contained in regional plans.
So when I say that more than 60% of the English planning system has been deregulated because regional strategies disappear, that is what I mean. You need strong transitional arrangements and I would plead with CLG to put transitional arrangements in place right now to avoid that uncertainty.
Peter Nixon: I will support that - a critical situation.
Q32 Chair: It has been a very far-ranging discussion. Just one final point from me. Mr Sinden, you mentioned that you had had legal advice. I am just wondering whether or not that legal advice is or is not in the public domain and whether or not it could perhaps be made available to this Committee and, if so, on what basis.
Neil Sinden: Certainly. It is not currently in the public domain, but it will be shortly and we will let you have a copy as soon as we can in the next few days.
Chair: Right. My thanks to all of you as witnesses and to my colleagues as well and we shall move on to the next part of this marathon session. Thank you.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: John Slaughter, Director of External Affairs, Home Builders Federation, Liz Peace, CEO, British Property Federation, gave evidence.
Chair: I would like to welcome Mr Slaughter and Ms Peace to our session this afternoon. I know that Mr Slaughter has sat in for some of the previous session that we have just had.
John Slaughter: Yes.
Chair: I think that what we want to do in this session is really try and make sure that we are exploring with all the different stakeholders and all the people who have an interest in this in order to be able to get a very wide range of views. That really is the perspective that we are coming from in respect to this particular inquiry. So I am going to turn straight away to Sheryll Murray.
Q33 Sheryll Murray: What real practical difference do you think that the draft NPPF will make for your members?
John Slaughter: Well, I think in practice, for us it is all about positive plan making. I think we have to say we have had significant concerns over many years that the so-called plan-led system introduced in 1991 has not really delivered. The statistic was already referred to in the previous session: despite the fact that the previous Planning Act, the 2004 Act, required core strategies to be in place by 2007, only some 30% of local authorities have those plans in place and that lack of local plans is a problem for everybody. It is a problem for the members of the local authorities, it is a problem for communities and it is certainly a problem for us as developers. So I think the most single most important thing when you boil down the NPPF for us is that it will actually create the right focus for positive plan making.
Liz Peace: I did listen to most of the previous session and I think some of the comments about there being a lack of evidence as to how planning is a barrier to development, I would not necessarily hold with. Yes, in the end, planning applications that are of a decent quality do get through, but at a considerable time and, therefore, at a considerable cost. There is a huge waste of resource that could actually be put into more beneficial things, community benefit for instance, rather than paying lots of lawyers, consultants and all the rest to fight things for three or four years. So I think, generally speaking, the planning system does need a shake-up. The fundamental principles are fine. It is how it is actually executed. Dr Ellis, an old sparring partner of mine, said, "Perhaps planners haven’t done their job properly" and people like him have not actually implemented it quickly enough.
So I think what have now is a breath of fresh air, a, "Let’s start by looking at the sort of planning framework that you can read," all of it in the space of a sensible time, while you are waiting for a plane or something like that; members of the public can actually read it and understand it so it will give the right framework. But it does, as John said, absolutely reinforce the primacy of having a plan and a plan-led system, and in the nicest possible way I think it gives a kick up the backside to local authorities that do not have a plan and tells them to get on with it. I think that is hugely important because that is the responsibility of a local authority: to do that for its constituents.
John Slaughter: Just to add to that briefly, that is all the more important now. As was said at the end of the previous session, we are in the process of abolishing the regional plans which previously provided a structure and a discipline. There needs to be a similar structure and discipline under localism and I think our view of this is that there is a genuine devolution of powers to local authorities and communities under the Government’s reforms but with that must come responsibility and responsibility is first and foremost to adopt a suitable local plan.
Q34 Sheryll Murray: Do you think it will change the environmental safeguards built into developments or the social dimension of local developments through, for example, affordable housing, and to what extent?
Liz Peace: Well, in terms of the whole issue of environmental, social, economic and the balance, which I know you spent some time discussing, unfortunately the way in which this has been drafted, it is slightly schizophrenic. This is just a fault of the speed of the drafting process, but this is a draft and that is why everybody is pouring over it to put forward sensible suggestions.
I do not think it is the intention of the document to diminish in any way environmental or social protection. I think, frankly, if I actually asked most of my members, they would say that matters have tilted in favour of social and environmental over the past 10 or 20 years and actually economic issues have rather dropped by the wayside.
I think what the NPPF is trying to do is to bring a balanced approach. You start with all three pillars of sustainable development broadly equal but then you leave it to a local area to decide which needs perhaps to take precedence. If, for example, you have unemployment of, you know, sky high proportions in your area then you may wish to designate certain land to employment use. One would sincerely hope that the-well I am absolutely sure the system would not allow you to designate for employment use something which already had a statutory or other type of policy environmental protection.
John Slaughter: If I can pick up, I think you were perhaps referring to some relatively specific aspects and certainly in terms of affordable housing. There the important thing-there are actually some very strong provisions in the NPPF about a proper independent evidence-based assessment of housing requirements, which would cover all forms of housing requirements for social rented housing, through private rented to open market sale. It is important you have an objective evidence base, we fully support that. But you cannot actually pre-empt what that will come up with. It will not necessarily look the same in each area and the breakdown of affordable housing might be different in different areas. It is not just about social rented.
So I think it picks up on the themes of the previous evidence session. One of the important opportunities of the National Planning Policy Framework is actually to give local authorities more scope for imaginative policy making in these areas rather than not trusting them by setting down more prescriptive national guidelines. I would like to make a point, which again arises from the previous session, and I say this with five years of having worked on the Zero Carbon Homes Objective. There are some aspects of environmental policy that really, if you wanted to deliver them efficiently nationally, are not a matter for planning policy; they are a matter for national building regulations and I think that point was missed in the previous evidence session because if you want an effective national standard, it is actually not necessarily a planning matter.
Sheryll Murray: Thank you very much.
Q35 Mr Spencer: When it comes to land use, I just wonder if you could just talk us through the thinking of your members as to whether they genuinely gave thought to what was required by local communities, to what might be easier to get through a planning application because of local acceptance, or, frankly, whether your members are just interested in extracting the maximum amount of profit per acre.
John Slaughter: I think that those are not unrelated at all of course because, if you are looking to develop a site and promote it through a planning system, one of our concerns about the system has been just how long it takes. It is not just the length of the formal application process, which can still be quite lengthy, but you may spend several years beforehand promoting a site, talking to the council, talking to other groups locally in order to get it to the application stage and you simply would not do that with a site if you had no chance of getting it through the planning system. So I think the system largely takes care of that itself. Companies would have no interest in committing-if you are looking at a large strategic site, you would be talking about millions of pounds of expenditure before you get to the application stage. Why would you waste that investment if you did not think it was a sensible site to promote?
Liz Peace: Generally speaking, I think the companies that I represent are going to put their efforts into trying to build things which will make them a profit, because they are not going to last very long if they do not, where there is a plan that says it can go there. They are not trying to push water uphill, very much as John said. They are also very keen to take the community with them because if they do not, that just means more angst, more trouble and more expense. So every good developer, every developer who is worth his salt, will put effort into community consultation.
Now, some of them would admit that perhaps they have not done it as well as they might in the past. There is a difference between coming along with a pre-prepared plan, putting it in front of the community and saying, "Do you like it?" as opposed to coming along to the community and saying, "Well, we have an idea for this, what do you want to do with this area?" I think some do it better than others and some will learn and I think the strong emphasis on community and neighbourhood in the Localism Bill will cause those who have not got the message to do it rather better.
John Slaughter: I think, again, just very briefly, we already know that some of our larger members are investing and naturally upping their game on those issues because they have recognised that is a concomitant of the Government’s proposed reforms.
Chair: Thank you.
Q36 Peter Aldous: I would like to explore something that was previously raised about the NPPF giving local planning authorities a kick up the backside as far as producing local plans. From the experience of your members, is this lethargy, is it down to local planning authorities dragging their feet, or may it be that they do not have the capacity in terms of planners and financial resources or perhaps the system is asking them too much?
Liz Peace: I think it is a combination of a number of things. Bear in mind that the requirement for the suite of development planners that is called the Local Development Framework came about through the 2004 Act. I would say that that was a needlessly complicated piece of legislation and the complexity of the plans that the local authorities have to produce actually probably defies even good planners. Some have managed it, but it is a complex process. I think during the period they were meant to be doing it, frankly they had plenty of resource. Those were the years of plenty and when there was a huge amount of money in the system. But I think it is also for some areas an inherently complex process. I think a lot of this comes down to local authorities having confidence, ability, skills among both the officers and members to face up to taking very difficult allocation decisions. If you have an issue about, "Are we going to designate that area for residential and that area for industrial or employment use?" and you have various local groups who are all hopping up and down saying, "No, no, no we don’t want this, we don’t want that", reconciling those local aspirations is very difficult. I do not think any of us would dispute that and frankly I think a lot of these local authorities have just let that drag on because they have not actually wanted to face up to some of the real inherent difficulties in the system. But we have local authorities to make those difficult choices and those difficult decisions. So I do not think you can get away from the fact that it is their responsibility to come to a conclusion that leads to an agreed plan against which mine and John’s members can make planning applications.
Q37 Caroline Nokes: Just a quick follow up, you said right at the beginning one of the frustrations you had was the time it took to get planning permission granted. Would you agree that that is more of a frustration of procedure than policy?
Liz Peace: Well, to some extent yes, I think it is, but if you have 1,000 pages of policy that a local authority planning officer feels he needs to work through and he needs to demand every conceivable sort of study and safeguard so that he is not subject to judicial review, then the policy is actually lengthening the process unnecessarily. A number of my members and, indeed, John’s as well, will tell you they deliver planning applications by sack barrow rather than post. Do not tell me somebody in a local authority is actually sitting there and reading all that stuff, but they are asking for it because that is what the rules say or that is what the policy says and they are very, very nervous that if they do not tick off every little bit of policy they are subjecting themselves to judicial review.
John Slaughter: Yes, and I think there is another sort of very important philosophical point about where, as we understand it, the National Planning Policy Framework is trying to go because that sort of tick box, checklist approach to policy has become very bureaucratic, as Liz said. It has become very much about development control rather than development management and development enablement and the consequence ultimately is delivering less.
The opportunity of the National Planning Policy Framework is to allow a more pragmatic discussion about how you achieve desirable objectives. Precisely the fact that it does not try and actually write down prescriptively how to do everything is actually an opportunity, it creates a space, and of course we have to make sure that we define that space in the right way but I think that is also very central to the Government’s thinking. We support that because of our experience of the frustrations of the existing system.
Q38 Dr Whitehead: Could I explore the distinction between a space and a hole?
John Slaughter: A space and-
Dr Whitehead: A space and hole. You mentioned, Mr Slaughter, about the space that NPPF may give and you mentioned the question of, "This is the draft and it may need rewriting" but there do appear to be, in addition to spaces, a number of holes in the document. So, for example, the target on brownfield land building has just gone. I presume a number of your members will go, "Yippee, we can now build on greenfield sites" or would you think that-
Liz Peace: Well, I think you will find that my colleague and I here have a slightly different opinion on this, so we can have an interesting debate among ourselves now. The people I represent are doing primarily commercial development. Most of it is urban or it is semi, what we would call, industrial nature, you know, around motorway junctions where you are building warehousing and that sort of thing. Generally speaking, the commercial property industry is using previously developed land and it is not that frequently that we are looking at greenfield.
We, as a matter of policy, as a federation fully support the reinstatement of some form of brownfield first concept. I do not think brownfield first targets are particularly useful because of the huge variation of types of development, types of land availability, but I believe-or, we, as a federation, believe-that it is entirely morally right that you should seek to use land that has been previously used, where it can meet your needs, before you start to look at a greenfield site. That is, of course, accepting that in some circumstances a previously developed site may have become environmentally valuable. There are some very interesting nature reserves on old quarries and the like, so you have to carve out some exceptions but, generally speaking, the commercial property industry is pretty keen to redevelop brownfield land first. However, I had better let my colleague give you his opinion.
John Slaughter: Well, yes, I think we differ on the sort of headline concept of brownfield first. In our case that is because we think it is a flawed concept. But before I go into that I should be clear that the homebuilding industry has built a high proportion of homes in recent years on brownfield sites, so there is no in principle objection to doing that.
The problem is there simply is not enough brownfield land available and, from our perspective, the previous brownfield first policy, with its sequential test, did not work. It did not increase the volume of land coming through the planning system for housing development and as I think everyone knows, probably from the National Trust debate, there is a massive shortage of housing in this country. We do need to address that and the primary cause of it, which has built up over 20 years or so: the plan-led system has not brought enough developable land through the planning system. So the brownfield first policy did not solve that problem.
Our concern would be if we went back to what we had before, it would still not work. We would be entrenching the housing problem that we already have, making it worse. So we have to look at a concept that will deliver the right sites in the right way. Actually we think the emphasis in the NPPF on prioritising sites of least environmental and amenity value is probably a more sensible approach. It gives you a more rounded opportunity to balance what works best in particular areas, whereas if you go down the brownfield first route, you are not doing that. It is about prescribing something nationally rather than allowing local discretion even though local circumstances vary enormously.
I think we have to face the reality that there are quite large parts of the country that do not necessarily have a lot of brownfield land or where brownfield development in the past would have been on what people commonly called back garden development, which has proved to be a problem. So that is another reason why the previous brownfield first policy did not work.
So I think we need a more sophisticated approach but we do not have a problem with the aspiration to site development in the most sustainable way possible. That is not necessarily the same thing as a brownfield first policy.
Q39 Dr Whitehead: If you did, on the basis of the NPPF as it stands, decide as a local authority on the basis of localism that you wished to promote brownfield sites first, how would you do it under the proposed arrangements?
Liz Peace: I don’t see why a local authority, in drawing up its plan, would not actually put that in, if that was the decision it was going to come to. What the NPPF does, if I have read it correctly-I was not its author, contrary to what some members of the press think-it appears to allow a local authority to do pretty much anything it likes as long as it has evidence for it, which seems to me quite a sensible thing to do. I think it was you who discussed the general duty of competence-sorry, Mr Carmichael. A local authority can decide what it wants its policy to be as long as it is in accordance with the law. The problem, of course, comes where a local authority has not got round to finalising its plan. That is when the NPPF becomes the default position and that is when the NPPF, as drafted, would cause a problem in the situation that you have outlined. But the remedy is simple: get a plan.
John Slaughter: I do not think it necessarily would cause a problem because it is all subject to the wider framework. The reality is, as I say, there is not necessarily enough brownfield land.
Liz Peace: Yes, and I accept that in some places.
John Slaughter: The key criterion for us is that the sites have to be viable and deliverable. You cannot have a planning system that provides for notional land allocation that is not deliverable, otherwise you will not have a solution to the housing crisis. So you start from that premise and that is what the NPPF does. I think you have to have some flexibility about how that is actually going to fit sensibly locally.
Q40 Dr Whitehead: What I had in mind was that, bearing in mind what the guidance and presumptions state within the NPPF at present, how would that relate to the ability of local authorities, on the one hand, to do substantially what they like and perhaps put within a local plan that they wished to prioritise brownfield land development first, and specify how that might be done, only potentially to be trumped by those provisions that might, therefore, not protect the greenfield land in that area as a secondary or third consideration, because there is no sequential test? Would, in your view, the provisions that are there for the assumption of development trump the arrangements that a local authority, in the absence of any guidance on brownfield land, might make about their own considerations?
John Slaughter: I do not think so because, if the local authority-and this comes back to responsibility. If a local authority’s responsibility is to plan positively, that includes planning for housing provision and specifically to identify a deliverable land supply for that housing requirement.
If the local authority has done its job properly and is aware that there is a supply of brownfield land that can deliver that housing, all they have to do in the local plan is identify that as the five-year land supply and that is what the industry will work with. It is not a problem. There is nothing in the NPPF that will prevent that outcome. The responsibility, though, is to plan positively and not to plan on a, if you like, kind of imaginary basis.
Liz Peace: To pick up one point, which I think also emerged in your previous session, a lot of this depends on local circumstances. This is why I think putting so much power and duty back to the local authority to plan according to local need and according to local parameters for supplying that need-so, as John has said rightly, there may be some areas that have very little brownfield land, very little previously developed land but they have an extremely large waiting list. Now it seems to me that the only function-
Dr Whitehead: South of Southampton, for example.
Liz Peace: Okay. The NPPF places a duty on that local authority to plan to meet the housing needs of its constituents. It will have to move-it can prioritise the use of brownfield land where it is suitable, and there may be some that is not suitable for a large housing development, but then it would have to identify sites that were not brownfield. It all sounds terrible, but it all depends on what the local circumstances are.
Q41 Sheryll Murray: Going back to the Local Development Frameworks that some local authorities have not adopted or drawn up, do you think that neighbourhood and community plans actually having weight now, as opposed to the previous parish plans that really meant nothing, will assist local authorities? They have perhaps had contentious areas. If the local community dropped their own plans to put into the development framework, it might speed it up and they might get them in place.
Liz Peace: I think what you described is what Ministers have described to us as their ideal; that indeed you would have a local community or a neighbourhood that would maybe resolve some of the conflicting issues. They would decide that the houses they have all accepted their area needs should go here rather than here, they should be a different shape, they should be of a different mix, whatever. Where that can happen, that is brilliant, but it is early days yet.
Q42 Sheryll Murray: We have had a lot of parish plans, haven’t we, that are already in place but they do not carry any weight, so the job for local communities surely is halfway done?
Liz Peace: It could be.
John Slaughter: It could be. I think the concept that the Ministers have put forward is that neighbourhood plans, community plans should not conflict with a properly adopted local plan but, beyond that, it would give a lot of flexibility as to exactly what took place in that particular area and I do think that is very positive. On a sort of anecdotal basis, I have to say that having spent time at party conferences recently, I was quite struck by how positively a number of local councillors talked about the opportunities that they saw in this new system and that was actually genuinely quite encouraging.
Sheryll Murray: Thank you very much.
Q43 Chair: You just mentioned about the discussions that you have had with Ministers. Could you just give us some kind of indication of what meetings you have had in terms of putting forward the vision that you have for the planning framework?
Liz Peace: Yes. We start-well, we talk to Ministers on a regular basis, sometimes as part of larger groups, there are a number of planning sounding boards that are run by CLG, and we have obviously been talking to Ministers in the context of the Localism Bill as well as the National Planning Policy Framework. So, difficult to describe every one but Ministers are-
Q44 Chair: I suppose the point I want to make is that you would define what has come forward, in the way that it has with the proposals that we have, as being very much in line with the proposals that you have been putting forward to Ministers?
Liz Peace: No, actually not. I don’t think-it was not our idea or our pushing for a condensation of 1,000 pages of planning policy into a National Planning Policy Framework, nor indeed had anybody in the development industry mentioned the presumption in favour of sustainable development. That came from Government and from Ministers and we were not involved in the drafting of the National Planning Policy Framework at all-
Chair: Okay, that is helpful.
Liz Peace: And we did not really talk about the principles that it would enshrine. It was quite an interesting surprise when it emerged in its first draft.
John Slaughter: I would agree with that. We obviously have regular meetings with Ministers. Sorry, I slightly misunderstood your question because I had not specifically referred to meetings with Ministers - rather our understanding of what Ministers were trying to do, but we certainly obviously do have meetings with Ministers; it is a normal part of what any trade body would do.
I think it is worth remembering that if you rolled the clock back a year plus, we were extremely concerned about the impact of localism. Our comfort zone would have been to retain the old regional system because we got-it may have been imperfect but we got to know it and work with it and we were prepared to do that, so this is actually also a very big change for us in the industry to come to terms with. So it is entirely natural that we would want to engage about that, so we fed in our ideas, our concerns but, as Liz says, that is a normal part of the process.
Chair: Okay, thank you.
Q45 Peter Aldous: Some of the organisations that have put in feedback to this inquiry have said that the NPPF is unclear about what it expects from developers. Would you agree with that and do you think it might potentially reduce the amount of house building?
John Slaughter: I sincerely hope not. Of course it is untested and building on what I just said, we would not necessarily have asked to be where we are in the process because it has-it is a process of significant change for the industry as well as for local authorities and others. But I think, having got our heads around this, we believe it could actually be a positive forward development because it does provide for a proper evidence-based approach to policy, including looking into what the housing requirements are in particular areas.
It does, we think, provide a suitable balance in terms of the guiding principles of planning policy. Beyond that, I come back to what I touched on earlier: in not being so prescriptive, I think it actually opens the door to a more constructive, less adversarial type of conversation at local level when we know-we understand that housing and other development can be controversial, but I think it does enable us to have a framework and a set of principles where we can work those issues through more effectively.
Liz Peace: What the companies that I represent want is a degree of certainty and clarity about where they should be able to develop. You made the point earlier that the NPPF, in reinforcing the importance of having a good plan at the centre and at the heart of the system, should give a clear indication of where developers should aim to put what they want to build and more fool them if they come forward with something that is way out of kilter with what is actually set out in the plan. Then, frankly, they deserve to get dealt with in the way they will.
Q46 Peter Aldous: Do you think it gives developers a clear signal and guidance as to the way they should engage in the whole development process? Perhaps in the past, some developers have seen it as just a tick box exercise. Does this take us a step further forward?
Liz Peace: I do not think the NPPF sets that out in any detail and I would not expect it to. I think the philosophy and the principles underpinning the Localism Bill and the primacy that has put on neighbourhoods has made it quite clear that if you do not deal sympathetically, sensibly and comprehensively with the feelings of communities and neighbourhoods in the areas where you want to develop, then you are in for a long haul.
John Slaughter: I think yes and I will add to that just briefly. There are some provisions in there, including the ones on design, for example, where I think it does specifically encourage community engagement, community consultation but, as Liz says, there are also key provisions in the Localism Bill which will push in the same direction. So, it is certainly the case, as I mentioned previously, that a number of major companies have already seen the fact that this is what they need to do based on what we have.
Chair: Mr Slaughter and Ms Peace, I am afraid we have had a fairly extensive session and we do have a further session and our next two witnesses are here. I thank you most sincerely for coming along this afternoon and obviously this is a continuing discussion, so we shall see where we get to with it. Thank you very much indeed.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, and Richard Benyon MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, gave evidence.
Q47 Chair: Colleagues, this is the third session in our marathon session that we have had this afternoon. Just while our two witnesses are preparing themselves, I would just like to welcome both of you to the Committee this afternoon. I think we are blessed with two Ministers, and I am very much hoping that we are going to have an opportunity for joined-up government across DCLG and across Defra. Just for the interest of the Committee we are very grateful particularly to have Richard Benyon with us, who obviously sits as a member of this Committee ex officio in terms of the scope of the Environmental Audit Select Committee. By way of that introduction, we are really grateful to you for coming along. We felt as a Committee that it was important to do a very quick, urgent inquiry in order that we could feed into the current inquiry that is being undertaken by the DCLG Select Committee. We are concentrating on the issues of sustainable development, and I think it would be helpful for everybody concerned if perhaps I invited you at the outset to make a brief presentation as to where you see the consultation and the legislation, where it is at. I do have regard to the fact I think one of you at least has to leave at 4.30pm.
Greg Clark: Can I say, Chair, I am very grateful to the whole Committee for taking the trouble to contribute to this inquiry? I was very keen that the Local Government Select Committee should conduct an inquiry as part of the consultation to be able to make some recommendations. I think it was absolutely right that the Chair has invited you to contribute as well. This is an important opportunity for us in Government, but I hope that your Committee will consider it as an important opportunity to shape and to influence the National Planning Policy Framework that we hope will endure for many generations and will achieve better development than we have had in the past through that.
Let me just say a couple of things by way of background to the intention of the reforms. First of all, it is about a plan. I believe in planning; I think we have had too little planning as part of the planning system, paradoxically. We have had, I think, too much development control where planning has in effect been achieved application by application, chased up through the various routes to the Planning Inspectorate. What we are determined to do is to put local people in charge. That means that every authority should have an uptodate plan for introducing through the Localism Bill the opportunity for neighbourhood plans at a more local level. It is very important we do that. You also know that through the Localism Bill we are getting rid of the regional strategies and advantaging local plan making.
In order to do that, it seems to me that if you want people to engage locally you need to have a framework in which local plans are put together that is comprehensible, that is something that people can engage with. It seems to me that if you have over 1,000 pages of guidance, as we have had accreted over the years-and I do not think it was anyone’s intention that should be the case-that literally excludes people. It is very difficult for anyone but specialists to engage with the process. Actually, I think one of the things we have seen through the summer is that when you have a distillation of planning policy that can be read and debated, you can have a pretty lively debate. It has been heated from time to time, but frankly I would rather have planning discussed than-as has been typical with previous planning policy statements and planning policy guidance I have noticed-debated only by the specialists. It is important that we should do that, and that is the basis for it.
From what we have heard so far, I think most people-not everyone, but most people-would accept that having a localist approach, putting local people in charge, is the right direction to go. I think again most people would accept that having a simpler distilled system is necessary to that.
Where has the discussion been, therefore, around that? On this question of the presumption in favour of sustainable development, first of all-and you will come on, I am sure, to ask me some questions about the definition of sustainability and I hope this is something the Committee will contribute some recommendations to-it is clear, and I want to tell the Committee that my view is the Prime Minister’s view, that the purpose of the planning system is to bring into balance and to decide planning applications and, indeed, the approval of plans on the basis not just of the economic but the social and the environmental aspect as well. It is absolutely crucial to the concept of sustainability. I think we should all be clear that this is subordinate to the presumption in favour of the plan. The main purpose of the reforms is to advantage plan making, but I think it is right to have a set of clear policies that determine applications in the absence of an uptodate plan, but it is important also to recognise that these policies are not designed and certainly will not be a kind of loophole to have things done in communities that would be unconscionable-quite the reverse. The policies are there to, in effect, replicate the kinds of policies that a good local authority would choose to adopt anyway.
I am sure you will want to ask us both about the "brownfield first" issue and some others issues, but that is the context, to be determined to put local people in the driving seat, which then solves I think one of the big problems of the planning system in the past, which is that, if people think that things are being done to them, rather than involving them from the outset-I think it is characteristic of the British people-they are more likely to resent and to resist that. Whereas we know from good practice here and indeed around the world that the more involvement people have, the better the outcomes are.
Q48 Chair: Thank you for that introduction. I would like to invite Mr Benyon to comment as well because I think this Committee of all the Select Committees is very much aware of the crosscutting nature of policy. I think that our concern-it has been mentioned in a couple of the previous comments that we have had in our inquiry-in the event of the Sustainable Development Commission and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution having been abolished, is the role that Defra has alongside the Cabinet Committee to make sure that sustainable development is integrated. We would very much welcome a similar introductory statement from Mr Benyon as well.
Richard Benyon: Thank you, Chair. It is a great pleasure to see this Committee at last, which I sit on, as you say, in an ex officio role.
Q49 Chair: Sorry, what I did not say is we have just been looking at our premeeting at our attendance and we did have a good reason that yours was as it was.
Richard Benyon: Well, I apologise if it appeared to people that I have been spurning you, but I think you know the arrangement.
Chair: Of course.
Richard Benyon: It is really important that Defra’s role as the guardians of sustainability across Government is clearly understood. As you say, Chair, the changes that have been debated-and you have had the Secretary of State in front of you-I believe you understand, even if not every member of the Committee agrees with how it was done, and they deal with what the Government is trying to achieve through mainstreaming sustainability across Government. It means that people like Greg and I worked very closely on this policy, but also a range of other ones. The Secretary of State sits on the economic affairs committee, the home affairs committee, and bangs the drum for sustainability through that mechanism. At official level key sustainability matters are looked at with the Cabinet Office, with Ministers such as the Minister for Policy, who checks where business plans are on a quarterly basis and how they are matching up to the sustainability role that we see key as part of that.
In the context of this document, Greg and I met at an early stage for a discussion about this and our officials have worked closely to ensure that, firstly, we understand where we are coming from on the definition of sustainability. It is defined very clearly based on the Brundtland Commission definition, but also working off documents that the last Government produced in 2005, their Sustainable Development Strategy. That underpinned various other pieces of legislation recently, including the Flood and Water Management Act, which in its guidance gave a very clear definition as to what sustainability meant and put flesh on the bones, if you like, on the Brundtland Commission’s definition. It is really important that we feed this through so actually local authorities in this case can see what Government is trying to achieve, recognise their duties and implement it through their local plans. It is a big shift in power down to local authorities, but we want to provide them with what we believe is clear guidance, and that is what I feel that this document achieves.
Q50 Chair: Thank you. I think one of the first things we wanted to try and get to the heart of, which you have just mentioned yourself, is that you used the later 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy definition. I think that, in the session that we have just had, everybody has stressed the importance of there being a clear definition and great clarity. It seems to us that the definition that you have used has almost gone back and you have reverted to the Brundtland definition. I just feel that what the Committee really needs to understand is what definition are you looking to? What scope is there for further clarification of that definition and should or should it not be on the face of the Bill? If there were a disagreement, given all the different public responses that are coming in, would that be something that would then be thrashed out at the Cabinet Committee? Because obviously the clarity about the definition is fundamental to the planning regime that we will have for the next 20 to 30 years.
Greg Clark: Let me address that, Chair, and also perhaps put into context the constraints that I am under here. We have a consultation that is open for a few more days and then we are under an obligation obviously to consider all of the responses to the consultation. What I cannot say in front of the Committee, if one of you has a brilliant idea, I cannot say, "That has hit the nail on the head. We will put that in" because that would be to pre-empt the consultation.
Q51 Chair: No, but we are part of the process.
Greg Clark: Indeed, precisely, so everything that you say will be considered as part of the process. Let me give you the background. We have followed the Brundtland definition, which as you know since the late 1980s has been the consistent definition that has been used internationally. It is a matter of primary legislation now through the 2004 Act that planning should help achieve sustainable development defined in Brundtland terms. That seems to us to have stood the test of time. As the years have passed, that notion of making sure that development is not at the expense of future generations I think is a fairly clear and resonant principle.
Now, I have heard through your previous evidence the suggestion as to whether you include, for example, the 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy. As part of the consultation people will make submissions. The notion there, the thought in our minds, was: does that have the enduring quality that the classic Brundtland definition has had, given that we want this framework to endure over time? You may advise me that you think it has reached that stage, but what we do know is that the original strategy was in 1999 and then was updated in 2005. In fact, in previous planning guidance, in PPS1, there is a reference to the 1999 strategy that was then very shortly out of date and was referenced as such that it was under review. That is the question: whether it is best to have on the face of the guidance the core definition or whether to refer to one of the more recent expansions of it, which exactly as Richard said has not been repealed. It continues to be there and available to us.
Q52 Chair: We really wondered why you did not use the text that was used in Planning Policy Statement 1. I think the other aspect of it is with the Localism Bill. The clause that was inserted, which basically has a presumption in favour of finance to make clear to decision makers that local finance considerations are material considerations, I think all of these things, if you like, lead to lack of confidence that sustainable development is really going to be at the heart of planning.
Greg Clark: Let me deal with that again, that 2005 definition. I have already seen some of the submissions and they have suggested that we do make reference to it. I think in PPS1 it is a fairly simple matter. Those who are familiar with PPS1, it has a paragraph, paragraph 3, that is an encapsulation of Brundtland and a single paragraph that summarises the Sustainable Development Strategy. It is a simple matter to include it.
Let me say why I think it is possible that thinking may have evolved. I think you have had some reference to it already, the idea of there being separate pillars that need to be balanced against each other. Some people think that actually it is more concentric circles, that the environment is something in which all activity takes place within and it is not a question of, as it were, balancing harm to the environment against benefit to the economy. They have to be integrated more than that. I think some of the recent thinking in the Natural Environment White Paper, which Richard might want to have a say about, goes beyond some of the thinking in 2005 to talk not just about a sort of defensive not breaching limits, but being more ambitious than that, saying we should have net gain, that development and other activities should result in net gain to the environment. We have many habitats in our country that have been despoiled over the years. My view is that we should take the opportunity to restore them. I would not want to set down a definition that was less ambitious than, for example, would have been in the Natural Environment White Paper.
Q53 Mr Spencer: I just wondered what confidence the Minister had in a local authority’s ability to defend their local plan if that local plan varied enormously in terms of numbers that were forced upon it under the Regional Spatial Strategy or they changed some of the targets like the brownfield/greenfield targets or parking limits or things like that.
Greg Clark: On the point of the targets, one of the things that I think has brought the planning system into such controversy and contention is the imposition of topdown targets that have not had the confidence and the endorsement, indeed the provenance, of local communities. They have been resented because they have been seen to have sort of descended from a clear blue sky. An essential part of the new reforms is to say we are getting rid of those targets. You will not be handed down a national target, and the ability of the inspectorate to simply write that into your local plan, as they can at the moment, will be taken away. But there will be a responsibility for you to have a genuine plan, for you to think about the future of your community, not just in terms of housing but in terms of employment need as well, knowing that your plan will be the central part of the system. That is what will determine applications. If you can give to local people the power to set their plans without them being rewritten from above, often in ways that are seen as arbitrary, I think people will rise to the challenge of doing it properly and having a plan that is evidence based and is nonfiction.
Richard Benyon: Can I just come back to your key point, Chair? There is a simple way of looking at sustainable development; I always think John Gummer got it right when he said it is, "Don’t cheat on your children". That may be much too simplistic for the kind of level of conversation you are having, but it is a very good guiding principle and really is what the Brundtland definition says. I think that we do have to recognise, though, that it is an evolving concept. I think the guidance to the Flood and Water Management Act very clearly stated, "Sustainable development is an evolving concept that seeks to respond to these concerns-the concerns that it lists higher up-in the way we manage our society, economy and the environment. We cannot and should not try to pin it down too narrowly." That is in the context of flooding and I think we have to perhaps be more specific in terms of planning. What we are wrestling with in Defra at the moment, for example, is water. We are producing a Water White Paper. I think what local authorities want to know is, if they are going to allow houses to be built in a waterstressed area, what does it actually mean whether that development is sustainable, i.e. can water be provided to those houses without it causing damage to that catchment or not? That is why I think this is a bold step forward and one that actually sets very clearly an environmental standard that people should welcome.
Q54 Chair: We are going to have to move on from this issue about definition, but just before we do, I agree wholeheartedly about the definition that John Gummer used. I have seen him use it many times in this place as, indeed, many members here have. Just using that analogy, "Don’t cheat on your children", I think the concern is that if somebody can be trumped by a clause in the Localism Bill that says that the finance considerations are greater and have greater weight, where does that leave the principle of sustainable development? I think that it is that that needs to be resolved at some deep place within Government before the consultation is completed and before it is given for people to use this in order to be able to safeguard planning for the future and our communities for our future.
Greg Clark: I think you are absolutely right. Of course, if it were the case that financial considerations could be used to subvert the planning system that would be a huge change to the system and that is absolutely not our intention. I think you will find, when this is debated in the House of Lords, that it will be made absolutely clear that there is no change at all to the law on this. Only those matters that have always been considered material can be considered material and only the weight that was always given can be given in weight. There is absolutely no change to the law on that.
Q55 Chair: You feel that clause 130 of the Localism Bill does not sit contrary to that?
Greg Clark: No, absolutely not. There is no change to what can be taken into account in a planning application. It has always been the case that you can only legitimately take into account those aspects such as section 106 payments that are related to the application in question. Things that go beyond that you should not be able to change and we would make it absolutely clear that that is not going to change.
Q56 Dr Whitehead: I think the problem, looking at the text of the NPPF as it stands at the moment, is it does seem to fairly clearly state that development that gives a greater weighting to the economic benefits is to be put above considerations of environmental and social impact. Certainly, there has been already quite a lot of commentary on the apparent thread that runs through the NPPF to that effect. Was that a conscious policy decision writing the document or is that an appearance that is given by its writing but something that perhaps is not the case?
Greg Clark: I know it is an appearance that some people have detected, but it is not intentional. The Prime Minister made clear in his letter to a lot of the environmental organisations there is no change whatever in the purpose of the planning system. It has always been to consider, with no particular hierarchy attached, the environment, the social and the economic aspects of development. I know that some people have gained the impression that there has been some change and that was the reason why I think the National Trust and others wrote to the Prime Minister and asked for the reassurance that he has given and I think has been accepted, and no doubt these organisations and perhaps this Committee may want to point to the particular aspects of the drafting that have given that cause for concern. But there is absolutely no intention to change that. It is worth saying that, of course, the economy has always been part of the definition of sustainability and we do need homes and jobs, but they need to be in the right places and not at the detriment of future generations.
Q57 Dr Whitehead: Would you go a little further than that and confirm an understanding that developers and local authorities should put equal weight on economic, social and environmental impacts?
Greg Clark: Well, the framework needs to be considered as a whole and this was the point about the notion that it is not three pillars that need to be balanced against each other. I would say that, in actually having an economic development, one ought to take the opportunities to improve the environment, not simply not do any damage but positively improve. We have green spaces, for example, in this country that are ecologically degraded. Part of the positive aspect of planning is to think that if there is going to be some development, not only should it not do harm to the environment, it should take the opportunities positively to restore, whether it is for a particular place or to make connections or to establish corridors for wildlife to pass and to use. I think it should be more ambitious than that.
Q58 Dr Whitehead: That being the case, I imagine that you would want to ensure that there would be changes in the draft version, subject to consultation, which would underscore that intention and that, therefore, we would be able to expect some changes in the wording of the NPPF that would ensure that was the case.
Greg Clark: Dr Whitehead, the intention in the draft was to be clear about that and obviously I feel that it is clear. The policies are there that do that. Of course, we will listen to representations. I cannot pre-empt it, but if there are particular suggestions as to whether that message has not been as clearly received as was intended to have been transmitted, then this might be something that this Committee and other groups will want to make specific suggestions about.
Richard Benyon: It has to be seen in the thread that runs through the Natural Environment White Paper into this document, where we sought to emphasise the need for a net gain for biodiversity through our biodiversity offsetting scheme, and through the green areas policy that we have taken forward this week with the announcement of the green infrastructure partnerships. There is a very solid theme that I think gives very important weight to the environmental along with the economic and the social aspects of the definition.
Chair: Mr Benyon, I am very conscious that you need to leave at 4.30pm so I think we will understand if you have to leave before we get perhaps to the end of the session.
Richard Benyon: I will give it five more minutes and then I might sprint.
Q59 Peter Aldous: Can I ask a specific question of Mr Benyon? Before I ask it, I will just say that I am a farmer myself. Do you feel that sufficient consideration in the NPPF has had regard to food production and the issues of food security? I also say as a surveyor, many, many years ago the productivity of land was an important consideration on whether land came forward for planning. In particular, if land was grade 1 or grade 2 that was very much a negative against land being developed. I just wonder what consideration and input you had had on that point.
Richard Benyon: We take our food security responsibilities very seriously and they definitely were part of our consultation with Greg and his officials in terms of clause 167, where it sets out very clearly that where significant development of agricultural land is demonstrated to be necessary, local planning authorities should seek to use areas of poorer quality land in preference to that of higher quality land, except where this would be inconsistent with other sustainability considerations. I think that gives a very clear emphasis of the importance of quality land. I also think that the rather binary approach to brownfield/greenfield land has been rather more imaginatively set out in terms of the environmental quality of land. I think we have addressed that and that would mean that there would be a presumption that what we currently consider to be brownfield land should be developed first rather than quality agricultural land. I can assure you that this is a very important priority for us and that we have worked very hard, with very good relations with Greg’s officials, to make sure that we got this in this document.
Q60 Sheryll Murray: Just very quickly, could we go back to the three pillars: social, economic and environmental? If the national framework had a very prescriptive equal weight clause in it, would that not take away the flexibility of local authorities to perhaps put different weights on different sections throughout the country where there is perhaps a greater need for the social emphasis in one area or the environmental in another? It is probably more flexible and better for the environment to actually leave it as it is now.
Greg Clark: I think it is worth bearing in mind that this is guidance, this is to help principally local councils produce their plans, and part of the point of a localist approach is that I have always believed that the people who know their area best and know intimately their local environment in all its different aspects are local people. I think they need to have clear principles set out that the environmental, the social and the economic are important, that it should be positive and, as I was saying to Dr Whitehead, there should not just be a "miserablist" view as to what is the least damage that could be done. It should be positively seeking to enhance all of those things.
Let me give you an example on design. We have strengthened the design requirements because I think again one of the things that got development a bad name in this country is people’s perception that they have had imposed on them buildings of a poor quality that do not reflect local input. We are very clear that design developments that do not take advantage of the opportunity to improve the character of an area should be refused. There are some, I think correctly, strong steers to plan makers in this direction of it being about smart growth, about being improvement, but how it is expressed locally, that is why you have a local plan. That is why we want to advantage it.
Q61 Chair: Just before you leave, Mr Benyon, could I just go back to what you were saying earlier on about the Natural Environment White Paper and the Flood and Waste Management Act guidance? One of the other aspects is we have all these different Government statements and frameworks. How do you see them actually coming together within the National Planning Policy Framework in order that there is a coordinated way of being able to balance different aspects of decision making?
Greg Clark: That is the reason that Richard is here today, why we have worked together on both the Natural Environment White Paper and, indeed, the NPPF. Because obviously it would be ridiculous to employ different definitions of sustainability across different Government Departments, so it is essential that we worked closely on this. As I say, it is one of the reasons why we have not put too much of recent but not, as it were, timeless policy documents in the framework, lest they become quickly out of date and superseded by different documents, but that is always a judgement as to how many documents you reference versus how permanent it is.
Richard Benyon: I cannot add to that. That is exactly my feeling as well.
Q62 Caroline Nokes: I just wanted to ask about transition arrangements. Richard, you described it as a big shift, and you are probably going to run out the door by the time I am finished asking the question. I think a lot of us are concerned about the transition period for those local authorities that do not yet have their local plans in place or for those that have plans that were put in place under regional spatial strategies and as a result might find them no longer up to date. Are you planning to give any specific powers to local authorities to reject development that is considered to be unsustainable?
Greg Clark: If I could take that, again I cannot pre-empt the outcome of the consultation, to which people have made a number of different suggestions on this point. Let me say this. If you consider everything that I have said, that our reforms are about putting local communities in charge to have their plans locally developed, being the basis on which planning applications are determined, you could see that it would be completely against our purposes and our intention to step backwards from that and to put authorities in a position that they had less influence, even in the interim, over applications being determined, to have more things going to the Planning Inspectorate. It has always been our intention that we will make an announcement about transitional arrangements. Our target, our deadline, for publishing the final version is not until April next year. Well before then we will, reflecting on the suggestions that have been made in the consultation, set out our transition arrangements, but you can be sure that they will not be to the detriment of any authority that is doing the right thing in putting its plan together.
Richard Benyon: I am afraid this will have to be my last contribution, but can I say that as well as our commitment on sustainability we are also the ruralproofing conscience of Government, if you like. As Minister for Rural Affairs, I am also responsible for making sure that we are doing what we can in Government to make sure rural communities are viable, that there are houses for young people to live in that are affordable to young families, that there are businesses that are thriving in rural communities, that we are getting digital access that is providing the basis for growth in rural communities. That is a very important driver as well. Everything is a balance, and I just hope that through the fog of rhetoric that has been flying around this document we can keep our minds both on the need for people to understand, and local authorities through their plans to understand, what we mean by sustainable development. A key part of that is not only protecting the landscapes we all love but also providing jobs, homes and sustainable businesses so that the countryside does not just become some sort of chocolate box image, as if we keep it in aspic, rather than what we know it needs to be to survive in the future.
Q63 Caroline Nokes: Just to follow up on what Greg said, I am certainly conscious and I know other members of the Committee are, of incidents already where developers are citing the NPPF in their appeals process, seeking to use that to achieve development. What support are you planning to give to local authorities who do not have a plan in place to make sure that, in good time, after the end of the consultation and this being implemented, they do that?
Greg Clark: That will be part of the transition arrangements, but obviously again it goes without saying that if you are inviting authorities to have a plan that is going to be sovereign, then part of the bargain is that you are available to make sure it can be examined and they can have assistance in producing those plans, so that will be there.
When it comes to the NPPF being cited in particular cases at the moment, you will know that in any litigation, any area where something is for determination, people will always cite particular documents, a particular piece of evidence, but we have been very clear and the Planning Inspectorate has been very clear that this is a document for consultation. It is not Government policy. It is a consultation document.
Q64 Neil Carmichael: Greg, my constituency is obsessed with the thought that we are going to have 60% of rural England vulnerable to building developers and all the rest. We had a description before in this session of a situation where houses were literally built around the edge of a national park. What assurance can you give us that that is not going to be part of the outcome of the NPPF?
Greg Clark: It will not be the outcome because, first of all, you have strong national protections for where there are landscapes of national importance, but beyond that it is putting power into the hands of local people. I cannot imagine a council anywhere in the country, where you have people elected to be stewards of their precious countryside, that they would regard it as any part of their purpose to damage that. Part of the problem at the moment and one of the reasons for repealing the regional strategies is that in over 30 areas of the country there were required reviews of greenbelt boundaries. It was taking power out of the hands of local people. You had housing targets that often bore no relation to the assessments that people had made locally. By taking power out of the hands of people I think there was a sense of vulnerability, but people will see that by having a plan, having a plan that says where development should take place and where it should not take place, with new abilities to designate areas of green space to enjoy similar protection as if they were in the greenbelt or were areas of outstanding natural beauty, to have that available even if they do not have national importance, these are very powerful new tools that will be available to people, but the key thing is that the local plan will be what determines applications.
Q65 Neil Carmichael: Is the local plan going to have enough authority to stand up to pressures from developers in terms of any appeal processes or JR processes they might want to go through?
Greg Clark: Again, I did not mention this at the beginning but this is another aspect of the reason to get rid of the regional strategies and to simplify policy. Frankly, the more pages of policy you have and the more volumes of regional strategy you have, the greater the opportunity is to say, "The local plan is inconsistent with this particular line". One of the reasons why local plans I think have taken a long time to be adopted is just the sheer complexity of the requirement to demonstrate conformity with all of these different aspects. Having a simpler, more principlebased approach reduces the scope, in my view, for local plans to be set aside and decisions taken outside local communities by the Planning Inspectorate. The Planning Inspectorate does a professional job; its job is to be independent scrutineers, but I would much rather decisions were taken in communities by communities.
Q66 Neil Carmichael: Are you satisfied with the scope that the Localism Bill and subsequently Act will provide for authorities to cooperate with each other when it comes to planning and the location of new housing?
Greg Clark: Yes, this has been an important aspect and, as I have said to this Committee, my view of the Localism Bill when we introduced it and took it through the House of Commons-it is now with the House of Lords-is that I think it is always reasonable to listen to reasonable suggestions. I think the duty to cooperate has been a particular beneficiary of this and not just from our colleagues in Parliament. For example, Royal Town Planning Institute played an important role in making sure that the duty to cooperate between authorities and between public bodies is stronger than it was initially proposed to be. Now, I think that that is the right way to determine these, as it were, larger than local matters. There does need to be a means for addressing them. I think to have everything in a regional plan is one way of determining them. To take it out of the hands of authorities and say, "This has to be the solution. You have just got to get on with it", almost like a sort of benevolent dictator, I think that does not go with the grain of human nature. Actually, I think there has been a consensus established across parties that a more cooperative organic system, if you like, whereby you cooperate on joint issues is the best way to proceed. It will be a test of the soundness of any plan whether the duty to cooperate has been properly and fully discharged.
Q67 Neil Carmichael: Earlier in this session we heard from at least one witness that there might be a problem of capacity in planning departments for local authorities; two or three planners sitting there struggling with the need to produce a plan, wondering exactly how many houses are needed and so forth. What would be your answer to that criticism?
Greg Clark: I think I said right at the beginning that we want to advantage plan making. I am a great fan of the planning profession. I think that often they have been caught in the crossfire recently. They have been sometimes resented by communities because they have been thought to be imposing development in which local people have had no say, and from the other end they have been thought of as people holding up the process by applicants. I think it has been very unfair because actually people go into planning, in my experience with the planning profession, because they want to plan, they want to shape the places in which they live. By returning planning to planning for the future rather than simply development control, first of all it should be easier to determine applications if you have a clear plan in place, and you have a much reduced scope for legal challenge. That is the right way to do it.
Bear in mind also that some of the other reforms outside the planning process, the consultation that we are introducing on the reform of business rates, for example, means that local councils will be able to retain increases in their business rate uptake. Now, one of the things that we know, we have been told, is that a clear plan and an efficient planning department is very attractive for businesses seeking to locate perhaps from overseas. Councils will know that they have the benefit from businesses locating there, and it could be that some of them may want to invest in their planning department knowing that actually the benefits of that will be available to them rather than simply being sucked away to the Treasury. That may be a useful investment. We know that some local enterprise partnerships are placing a particular importance on plan making and being clear there because they know that this is going to be attractive to people considering whether to locate in an area.
Q68 Dr Whitehead: Just briefly on the question of no local authority would put the-and I am paraphrasing your comment a moment ago following Caroline’s question-environment at risk in terms of their local planning policy. It is the case, however, that a lot of local authorities do not have a congruence, say, between population and land, that you will have perhaps some of that local authority particularly keen to develop in certain areas and other parts of the local authority not keen to have a part of that local authority developed. That particular dispute would not actually spill outside the local authority boundary in terms of a duty to cooperate. How would the absence of any sort of proper constraint on that ambition play as far as that particular local authority might be concerned?
Greg Clark: First of all, bear in mind the national policy that guides plan making. For example, bringing forward land of the lowest environmental value first, is a requirement as part of plan making. To decide that we have a piece of environmentally valuable land here and less so here, it is not simply about, as it were, who shouts the loudest. There is a requirement to demonstrate that you are bringing forward land of the lowest environmental value first. That is an important aspect. Of course, there are lots of other tests there as well; some of the transport tests, the accessibility of developments in terms of public transport. The national safeguards that are there, in which plan making should take place, will guard against any consequences that would be damaging to the local environment.
Beyond that, when it comes to a choice of two places, if there is an allocation made, you have to decide where you are going to provide your new industrial zone, for example, if it is determined that you need some employment land. Providing you have satisfied those environmental and social tests, I would rather that decision was taken, however controversial it is, locally by locally elected people, who can be removed at the ballot box, rather than it simply being pushed on for determination by the Planning Inspectorate and everyone perhaps breathing a sigh of relief that they do not need to get to grips with the issue and they can all blame the inspector. I think that corrodes faith in the democratic process.
One of the reasons that I have been so passionate about this role is that I had a Private Member’s Bill-I think, Dr Whitehead, you might even have been a supporter of it-to allow councils not to build on back gardens if they wanted to. Now, it is a classic case in point. It was not to say that every garden should be under a preservation order and never built on, but it allows local councils to make that decision and to consider whether gardens make an important contribution to the sense of place of an area or not or whether they would be better used for housing. Now, in some cases that can lead to some quite controversial debates as to what the policy should be, but I would rather that was the case than that they were simply told that every back garden that comes up for development will be approved on appeal. You are never going to get away from that, but localism involves local debate and I would rather that happened than it was simply shoved away to somewhere outside the locality.
Q69 Zac Goldsmith: Planning is not a precise science, as we know, which is why the context is so important here, which is why the Prime Minister’s letter was, I think, widely appreciated by people who are concerned about what this framework stands for. The outcome that you think will result from this framework is diametrically opposed to the outcome that some of the campaign groups think will result from this very same document, despite the fact you are looking at the same document. How much testing have you done to ensure that this document will work in law in the way that you believe it will work in law?
Greg Clark: Partly the purpose of the consultation is to invite views from all groups, individuals, to make sure that the words that are used are watertight and do not have any unintended consequences and chinks there. I think we have had and are having a pretty exhaustive consideration of those matters. As I said, there is simply no point in having a consultation if you are not prepared to listen to reasonable points that are made, and that will be part of it.
Again, I cannot pre-empt the consultation, but when we have come to it, when we have had discussions with some of the groups, there are particular aspects where they have suggested phrases that could put beyond doubt the intended purpose. Again, without pre-empting brownfield sites, for example, one of the concerns that has been expressed is that there is no longer an intention by the Government to develop brownfield sites before greenfield sites. The opposite is the truth. It is clearly obviously desirable that you bring forward derelict land before you bring forward green space. Conditioned by my experience of the garden grabbing issue where gardens were considered to be brownfield land, we have felt in drafting the framework that brownfield, while it is a word that has become part of common currency, actually can be rather blunt. To say that you should bring forward land of the lowest environmental value first would have addressed the gardens, which we dealt with anyway, but would also address other aspects of valued green space that otherwise would have to have a clarification.
Now, some people I think in a perfectly wellintentioned way have read more into the absence of the word "brownfield" than has been intended. We have listened to all responses but there have been some suggestions that one could reference that in the document. I think as we go through it-and I look forward to the Committee’s response-I want this to be the kind of planning framework that achieves our objectives and does not have the unintended consequences. We have put a lot of time and effort into this and we will continue to do so.
Q70 Zac Goldsmith: Can I follow up if I could? It has also been said by a number of commentators that one of the effects of the framework is to shift the burden of proof on to the shoulders of the local authorities in relation to whether or not the upside is going to be significantly greater than the downside. Is it the case that there has been a shift in the burden of proof and is that something that you are-it would be interesting to hear you comment on that now.
Greg Clark: It is not so much the burden of proof. The key thing to bear in mind is that we are seeking to move to a situation in which you have plans that determine what will be approved or not. Too much at the moment, I think, you have had planning committees effectively determining application by application, then on appeal the inspectorate weighing up the pros and cons of particular applications. What I want to get to is a situation in which it is clear from the plan-because the plan has a sovereignty that it does not have at the moment or often is absent-it is clear to everyone where you can build, where you cannot build, what standards you have to build to, what aspects of design are going to be adhered to, so it is less of that. One of the things that we are changing-by getting rid of the regional strategies, which, for example, imposed a housing number for each authority, we are giving a responsibility to the local council to make a fair-minded assessment, a rigorous assessment, of their housing need and then to say where it should take place. That is a shift in power but also a shift in responsibility, but I think it is right to do that.
Q71 Zac Goldsmith: If there is a sort of default position that says that a local authority has to prove that an application is unreasonable for whatever reason, how would you avoid a situation where that pressure, that bombardment, will effectively require local authorities to develop such prescriptive plans to deal with any possible eventuality, that actually we might end up with a more, not less, bureaucratic system at the end of it?
Greg Clark: You answered the first part of your question in the second part, that section 38(6) of the 2004 Act suggests that the local plan is the key document in this. It is up to local councils to think about the foreseeable circumstances and to plan for that. More than that, through neighbourhood plans, we are saying, if you do want to go into greater detail because you know more intimately even than the local council can reasonably deal with, you do have the opportunity to do that. But I would rather that was clear on paper in advance, and more than on paper had been forged by the local community. I would rather that you had that there than have an application by application determination, without the degree of steer from the local community, so I can live with that.
Q72 Zac Goldsmith: I think a lot of people really are investing a lot of hope in the neighbourhood plan concept. Most people recognise there is real potential there, but equally it is lacking in real definition of what is a neighbourhood, how these things are formed, what powers will they have. Is it the case, and it seems to be the case from what you have just said, that a neighbourhood plan could go further than the local authority plan? It could be more prescriptive?
Greg Clark: Yes.
Q73 Zac Goldsmith: It can include ingredients that are not mentioned or referenced?
Greg Clark: Correct.
Q74 Zac Goldsmith: That would be sovereign?
Greg Clark: Yes, formally it would become part of the local plan once it had been adopted. It has to go through, as I think you know, a referendum to adopt it, but then it would become part of the local plan, also following an examination to make sure it is not inconsistent with the strategic aspect. For example, if a local authority is planning a road that crosses a number of different parishes or neighbourhoods, for a neighbourhood plan to say, "Well, actually, we have decided we are going to have three houses right in the middle of the path of this road" clearly would not be consistent with that. So that is part of the examination, but it may be examined and adopted as part of the local plan.
Q75 Zac Goldsmith: I know you cannot pre-empt the consultation and you cannot even hint as to what the likely impact is going to be, but the impression that I have both from talking to you now and also from some of the discussions with the organisations is that it will change, that the next document will have adapted quite considerably in terms of shifting the balance. If that is the case and given how defining this document is, you will be asked by some of the organisations whether or not you are willing to bring back that document for a second, shorter consultation so that people can fully take into account the changes that you have introduced on the back of the first consultation. Is that something that you have considered and are you likely to agree?
Greg Clark: On the first point, we are clear that we need to have a system. What we have set out in the document I think is a huge step forward. The presumption in favour of sustainable development has to be there, advantaging local plans has to be there. If there are particular points of expression such as have been raised today and have been raised by organisations, of course we will consider them and consider them in good faith with a positive volition, but I think we need to accept some of the evidence has been almost kind of nostalgic for the regional approach, and I heard that from some of the evidence that you took earlier today. We should be clear that we are not going back to that. We are going to have an approach that advantages local communities and we are going to do that. Of course, when we consider all of the responses to the consultation we will put together a proposed final version and publish that before it is adopted.
Chair: We must move to impact assessment.
Q76 Simon Wright: A number or organisations have questioned the evidence base that the Government has used in developing the NPPF. Friends of the Earth, for example, have highlighted that the NPPF has not been subject to strategic environmental assessments. Can you explain why that decision was taken?
Greg Clark: We have been consistent in this with previous policy. Do not forget this is guidance. This is our guidance to local authorities. It is a material consideration rather than anything more than that. I think some of the debate during the summer has implied that this is statute law. It is not. We have made a decision not to change the law in this respect. It is consolidation and really principally a distillation of existing policy.
Q77 Simon Wright: You do not see a contradiction then in the fact that national policy statements are subjected to that assessment?
Greg Clark: No, because the difference is that they make decisions directly or they require decisions to be taken in a particular way. For example, I think you probably scrutinise the energy segments. This is guidance to authorities. They make the decisions on the basis of the local plan and this is a material consideration.
Q78 Simon Wright: Do you have an idea of the costs and benefits of the environmental impacts of the proposed changes?
Greg Clark: Well, it is always very difficult in advance to be able to quantify it. The impact assessment gives our fairest assessment of the cost and benefits in different areas, but it depends on the response to the opportunities that are there.
Q79 Simon Wright: Has the Defra methodology for valuing ecosystem services been used in any way to develop the draft NPPF?
Greg Clark: As I think Richard made clear, throughout the preparation of the NPPF we have worked very closely together. The development of the Natural Environment White Paper was taking place simultaneously with this and our officials worked very closely to make sure-I think the Chair made the point that there should not be different approaches and different definitions taken across different parts of Government.
Q80 Simon Wright: The methodology has been applied in this?
Greg Clark: That is my understanding.
Q81 Chair: Sorry, you say it is your understanding. Could you provide the basis on which that has been done to the Committee?
Greg Clark: Of course, yes.
Chair: That would be helpful.
Q82 Simon Wright: Shouldn’t the NPPF require development proposals to be explicitly tested in terms of a quantified valuation of the environmental and ecosystem impacts?
Greg Clark: Well, actually, one of the parts of the drafting is that the benefits and the disbenefits should be demonstrable, and throughout the document you will see that there is a requirement to be evidence based in all of the various aspects. I think planning and the development of plans locally should not just be on the basis of assertion; it should be evidenced. That is a particular aspect of that, but I think it is consistent with the approach that we have taken to suggest that things should be evidence based.
Q83 Chair: I think that just about brings us to the end of a very long session with a series of three sets of witnesses. Can I thank you, Minister, for your patience and for making time available to come along today. I think there is a lot of interest, a lot of concern, a lot of controversy, a lot of issues that need to be addressed. We very much hope that the report that we will produce and that we will give to the DCLG Select Committee will actually contribute to sustainable development. I think you would recognise the concerns that there are about the definition so, once again, we hope this will have a constructive input at some stage.
Greg Clark: Thank you. May I say to the Committee how grateful I am that you are taking the trouble to look into this.
Chair: Thank you.