• Chief planner:  “NPPF an extraordinary experiment”

    19th March 2012 | News | Claire
  • Hugh Ellis, Chief Planner of the Town and Country Planning Association stole the show, at a conference I attended last week in London.

    Delegates attending ‘Securing the Future of our Natural Environment’ listened to a variety of speakers from Government Departments, non-government organisations, academics, an MP, Natural England, a wildlife trust and two London authorities.

    Many made excellent presentations and carried thought-provoking messages, but Mr Ellis stole the show for me by launching a very justified attack on the highly controversial National Planning Policy Framework.  The press and broadcast media are rife with rumours that the NPPF will become legislation on Wednesday, alongside the Budget.

    Mr Ellis described the NPPF as an ‘extraordinary experiment’ adding that the ‘uncertainties were very high indeed.’

    He said that all the signs received from central Government indicated that the NPPF would hardly change from its draft version.  And predicted that morale within the planning industry would hit rock bottom as a result of the scale of the challenge facing officers.

    Localist planning does not work, Mr Ellis stated firmly.  England cannot be organised in this way from a planning perspective.  He explained that for practical reasons there are clear policies that covered the entire country.  Unfortunately they are being scrapped for ideological reasons.

    “54 pages are NOT better than 4000 pages of detailed guidance”, he added, which will be gone forever.  There is a very good reason for detail in policy.  Shorter is not clearer.

    There is also no cross-referencing with the work of DEFRA, he said, particularly the environmental White Paper, published last year – Securing the Value of Nature.

    Mr Ellis also took a swipe at Neighbourhood Plans, saying that they are the most complex planning process he had ever seen.

    He told delegates that he would “jump off a cliff” if environmental limits were not imposed in the final version of the NPPF.

    The Town and Country Planning Association’s website states:  “The TCPA occupies a unique position, overlapping with those involved in the development industry, the environmental movement and those concerned with social justice. The Association prides itself on leading-edge, radical thinking and problem-solving.”

    Other matters
    The Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is promoting its Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs).  There was a presentation on these from the director of Sussex Wildlife Trust, Dr Tony Whitbread.  The trust was establishing an LNP for its own area. 

    There are challenges for the trust, particularly as there is no funding, except to prepare the bid to DEFRA (How silly is this?)

    I asked a question at the end of his presentation about whether he thought his LNP would have any clout, as many of the current biodiversity partnerships feel unable to influence policy.

    Dr Whitbread replied that because the LNPs would be backed by DEFRA, as well as having wide representation from non-governmental and statutory bodies, that they would have influence.

    Jim Smyllie, communities director with Natural England spoke very carefully of the work of his organisation.  It seemed that amid the bonfire of quangos (which may engulf NE also) there remained lots to be positive about.

    I asked him whether he thought that the Chancellor might be successful in his attempts to weaken the only legal lever against development – the EU Habitats Regulations.

    His cautious answer revealed that NE and other environmental groups had been circulating in Government helping to dispel ‘mythologies’ that existed among ministers and civil servants relating to the EU legislation.

    Mr Smyllie added that the thought that the ‘product’ (the Habitats Regulations) was ‘mature’, however, Govt was entitled to challenge it at EU level.  I took from this answer (rightly or wrongly), that he didn’t fancy Mr Osborne’s chances!  This was reassuring.

    For most of the day the ‘elephant in the room’ was the NPPF.  My sense was that it was such a huge can of worms, no speaker quite had the nerve to open it up – until Hugh Ellis gave his presentation after lunch.

    Several speakers raised the importance of protecting trees and how important they are to counter the effects of global warming, as well as absorbing pollution and counteracting flooding risks. 

    I will be pursuing several issues from the day, including an idea for helping to protect trees. 

    I would also like to get involved with Devon’s Local Nature Partnership.  Devon County Council is leading this work and is in the process of preparing its bid to DEFRA.

    It was a fascinating day and I thoroughly enjoyed it.