Call me a cynic, but when I read the highly controversial new planning legislation this afternoon – all 50 pages of it – replacing thousands of pages of detailed policy guidance, I was rather less enamoured.
The pre-announcement spin had hinted at a final document that was ‘unashamedly pro-growth,’ according to one minister’s interpretation.
And this was what I was expecting when I downloaded the document at lunchtime today.
But what an odd collection of words. It is as though the team of people writing it have gone out of their way to make it read like a document that takes account of the social and environmental considerations – to try and appease the loudest critics … but sadly, the small print quite clearly promotes economic growth above all else.
For this reason, not only is it a developer’s charter and a lawyer’s charter, it is a dishonest one, because it aims to pull the wool over the eyes of its critics.
The definition of sustainable development
My first thought was ‘oh good, they have balanced environment, social and economic considerations’ – a hotly debated issue, as the previous draft had prioritised economic growth above all else.
But then see paragraph six – the one underneath the proclamation of the balanced considerations. It states that the Government’s view of sustainable development is paragraphs 18 to 219 of this document! So they have included a well-respected definition of sustainable development on the one hand … and in the next breath they have rendered it meaningless.
Protection of the countryside
Another exercise in smoke and mirrors, to offer a crumb of comfort to the critics there has been the following meaningless little phrase inserted in paragraph 17, bullet point five.
“…. recognising the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside and supporting thriving rural communities within it.”
This little part of a sentence gave me hope initially that the policy section on the natural environment was stronger. Some hope. When you get to the relevant section later on in the plan, the policy on greenbelt is there, the policy on Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty is there (albeit weakened) and the policy on National Parks is there (also weakened).
But nowhere does it state in policy, that there is protection of any kind for the undesignated countryside. In East Devon, this means that one third of the district, including Ottery St Mary, its surrounding villages and all countryside west of Ottery towards J29 and along the A3052, is now scarily unprotected under national planning policy.
The remainder of East Devon is covered by an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) designation. This means that this area is more protected than the rest. But don’t be fooled.
The previous stronger protection for AONBs didn’t halt development and the new weakened protections for AONBs will see developers challenging again and again, the new policies, with a case for contributing to economic growth.
Compare this to the (now binned as of today) Planning Policy Statement seven, which states that development away from settlements should be ‘strictly controlled’. Note the nice tight loophole free language here?
Don’t expect any tight loophole free language in the NPPF, it is as open to interpretation as any lawyer or developer could possibly hope for. Almost every paragraph has a challengeable clause in it. This is despite Greg Clark’s risible claim in his foreword – that the document is ‘simply and clearly written.’
Industrial land into housing
Page 7 contains a real worry specific to East Devon. Paragraph 22 emphasises that policies should avoid the long-term protection of employment or industrial land. It hints that applications for housing on these sites should be supported if there is no reasonable prospect of a site being used for the ‘employment.’
In East Devon, there is a huge over-supply (not just according to me, but according to East Devon District Council’s own consultants) of so-called employment land (industrial estates).
Clearly, it won’t be too difficult to prove that all this land is not going to come forward for development – so Bob’s your Uncle for the developer who wants to build a far more lucrative housing project instead.
If you thought that the local proposal for hundreds of houses on the edge of town might be proved ‘unsustainable’ from a transport perspective, think again. Bullet point three on page 10 states: “Development should only be prevented or refused on transport grounds where the residual cumulative impacts of development are SEVERE.”
Another little meaningless half sentence is on page 13 where it states that planning authorities may make an allowance for ‘windfall’ sites (ad hoc planning applications) but they should not include residential gardens.
But before you imagine that the Government has outlawed garden grabbing, it hasn’t. Point 53 states: “Local planning authorities should consider the case for setting out policies to resist inappropriate development of residential gardens, for example where development would cause harm to the local area.”
This is flimsy wording and while I am sure many residents would want to argue this case, I seriously doubt that ‘causing harm’ is provable or refusable, taking into account the rest of the wretched document.
Point 55 – development in the open countryside is worded to mollify countryside campaigners, but look at the ‘special circumstances’. There are four holes in the policy – and given that there is now no protection for open countryside goodness only knows what will be the outcome. Consistent and repeated challenge is a certainty.
Design is one area that does appear to have been strengthened. But planners are reminded that they mustn’t insist on ‘unnecessary prescription or detail.’ Heaven forbid that developers are inconvenienced.
Green open space
This is a favourite subject for ministers to quote when they want to pretend they are going to allow communities to really designate their own green spaces and protect them from development. Here is the truth – see point 76.
It states: The Local Green Space designation will not be appropriate for most green areas or open space. The designation should only be used:
– where the green space is reasonably close proximity to the community it serves
– where the green area is demonstrably special to a local community and holds a particular significance, for example because of its beauty, historic significance, recreational value, tranquillity or richness of wildlife, AND
– where the green area concerned is local in character and is not an extensive tract of land
High quality agricultural land protection – WEAKENED
Local planning authorities are only asked to ‘take into account’ the economic and other benefits of the best and most versatile agricultural land.
Where is the strong presumption against development on high quality agricultural land, that we had in previous policy? It is our future food supply.
The desultory policies continue. Point 120 states: “The effects (including cumulative effects) of pollution on health, the natural environment or general amenity ……. should be ‘taken into account.’ Quite pathetic.
More contradictory nonsense in point 153. “Supplementary planning documents (village design statements and parish plans) should be used where they can help applicants make successful applications or aid infrastructure delivery, and should not be used to add unnecessarily to the financial burdens on development.’ What claptrap.
This was one of the key bones of contention in the draft NPPF. Campaigners hoped that the final version would clearly state that brownfield land must be used before greenfield land.
Sadly, the strongest word the Government can bear to inflict on developers is ‘encourage.’
What does the NPPF mean for East Devon?
I can speculate about what it means for East Devon but it is yet unclear how much damage this document will inflict on our lovely district. Here’s what I do know.
– the NPPF is now legislation. As of today, thousands of pages of detailed and safe planning policy have been scrapped.
– East Devon District Council’s adopted Local Plan became out-of-date in December 2011. The policies are saved and are currently (they were up until today in any case) being applied until the new Local Plan is finalised.
– the new Local Plan is not likely to be adopted until spring 2013.
– the NPPF states that there is a one year transitional period for councils to catch up. However, planning experts say this is spin and councils without an up to date (or adopted Local Plan) are at risk.
What is certain is that every developer and every lawyer across the country, and particularly in East Devon due to the status of its Local Plan, will now be poring over the NPPF highlighting loose language (on every page) and preparing legal challenges.
They will be plotting planning applications that previously they would not have dared even consider.
Only time will tell how successful they will be. And only time will tell how well EDDC’s new Local Plan can protect our beautiful countryside in the face of such aggressively pro-development new planning laws.