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Is the NPPF really going to help?

The revision of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is, according to government, ‘a key part of its reforms to make the planning system less complex and more accessible, and to promote sustainable growth’.

On the surface this sounds like a jolly good idea; after all, at over 1,000 pages the existing framework is a hefty read for even the most dedicated planner, let alone the average Joe Bloggs for whom government insists this and other Big Society reforms are looking to empower.

We at Action for Market Towns have been pretty supportive of the thrust of policy stemming from the localism philosophy. In our work supporting community partnerships across the country, the renewed government focus on empowering local people to have a real say in the way their communities – or ‘neighbourhoods’ as we must now call them – are shaped is extremely welcome.

Neighbourhood planning has the potential to give much stronger, and statutory, legs to the work that 1,000s of communities have already been undertaking through community led planning, while the new community rights provide better opportunities for local people to safeguard and improve the services and assets that they feel are most valuable to them.

So it’s all looking very rosy. Or is it? As we read the draft, we were left feeling that the initial promise of making it accessible to all as an additional tool for positive community involvement in planning was perhaps a little overstated. The positive opportunities created by the Localism Bill are to be framed within the revised NPPF and this is where a number of potential difficulties arise.

Where there is no neighbourhood plan, planning applications would need to be reviewed in light of the local plan and the national framework. Where there is no local plan – and according to CLG figures, only 30% of planning authorities have a completed and signed off local plan – then the criteria rests solely on the NPPF, and the NPPF says ‘yes’ to development.

Some communities may simply not have the ambition or resources to enable them to take advantage of neighbourhood planning, leaving them at the mercy of (and in the absence of a neighbourhood plan ‘in agreement with’) potentially unsuitable development because of the NPPF.

Those communities that are producing plans may not have the capacity or knowledge to understand fully or interpret the NPPF policy, given the resources available to them, in comparison with the skills and financial resources available to developers. And as it stands, the drastically streamlined NPPF is wide open for misinterpretation or even misuse. It could give developers the opportunity to bamboozle communities into improving plans against community interest.

With a presumption in favour of sustainable development, and where ‘sustainable’ appears to be focusing primarily on the economic pillar, what will this mean for the neighbourhoods with no neighbourhood plan, or an incomplete local planning framework? We know from experience in community led planning, that a fully consulted and evidence-based neighbourhood plan could take anything up to two years to develop – so what happens in the meantime? Are we going to find developers jumping in to develop sites, including our precious greenfield, claiming that they have the go-ahead from government, and are we, the local people, going to be either too under-resourced or too late to stop them?

The neighbourhood planning process currently requires a referendum at the end to approve the document. While we are wary of the need for this given the additional resources required to make it happen, might not a useful addition to planning be that any major developments (where no neighbourhood plan/completed local plan exists) be subject to a similar democratic vote?

Our position paper outlines both our concerns with the NPPF and our support for community led and neighbourhood planning. We are circulating this to all our members and will make a formal response on behalf of them.

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