Planning for people or for profit?

The publication of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has attracted a lot of attention, even among the non-planning world and a number of civil society organisations have been highly critical of it. The National Trust has been most prominent in this debate (using their large membership and high profile to good effect – managing to capture the attention of even the Prime Minister). So I was interested to be invited to dinner with their Director-General, Dame Fiona Reynolds, along with a small number of partners who support community participation and have an interest in planning, to discuss their concerns about the NPPF.

The main concern the National Trust has about the NPPF is that the ‘presumption in favour’ of sustainable development disproportionately weights economic objectives over environmental and social aims. It is a concern I share. The idea behind it is clearly to ensure the planning system is no bogged down in laborious bureaucracy and better serves the needs of enterprise.

With sluggish economic growth and real fears of a going back into recession, one can (kind of) understand the government’s reasoning – and this is not a ‘new’ issue. The previous government sought to find a solution to precisely the same issue when they commissioned the Barker Report some years ago.

However, to assume that development will be sustainable unless it is proven to be otherwise, is frankly bonkers. It places the burden of proof on organisations and communities that care about the environment to respond to every shoddy planning proposal that is submitted. It removes the burden from enterprise, but places it squarely on those who will be adversely affected to defend themselves.

This cannot be right, particularly given that we know poor people are disproportionately affected by impact of climate change (and so a disproportionate burden in defending these negative impacts will fall on them). It seems to reaffirm the criticism made by some that this government – despite its rhetoric – favours big business over ‘the little people’; the already powerful over the disempowered.

The NPPF also seems to be at odds with some of the government’s other priorities and policies, undermining the potential opportunities for communities to take control over services, assets and developments in their communities. The prioritising of economic interests over social and environmental needs is hard to square with their rhetoric on neighbourhood based services and neighbourhood plans.

Localism means devolving the power to make decisions to local areas. But if a neighbourhood wants to have a balance between social and environment as well as economic ambitions, it’s hard to see how they will be able to under the proposed system.

It’s easy to characterise the National Trust as a bunch of do-going, middle class NIMBYs who are opposed to all forms of development – as some parts of the press have been doing. And I don’t share their view that “The town and country planning system, as a whole, has served the country well”- a point I made to Fiona in discussion.

The planning system has not served all sections of society well. We know from research we have carried out in the past that community groups feel unable to have an influence over planning and that it does not reflect their views, needs and ambitions. We ought to avoid harking back to some glorious past in any criticism of the future plans. We do need change.

The planning system can have a profound effect on society – how different groups interact (or don’t), building local community and identity (or destroying it), contributing to mental wellbeing and resilience (or not).

We obviously face economic challenges at present that need to be addressed, but the recent riots have also highlighted the important social challenges we face too. And the need for social housing is reaching critical levels. We do need more development. However, unfettered economic development has not got a good recent track-record. Liberalisation of the banking system hasn’t ultimately helped us much either, has it?

The NPPF ought to be establishing the long-term framework for planning, but the emphasis of economics over social and environmental objectives is classic short-termism that offers simply false economies.

So what’s the alternative?

The philosophical dogma (which strangely, is not suppose to be a characteristic of conservative thought!) that is driving ministers cutting of statutory guidance – which they characterise as simply ‘red tape’ – means the likelihood of a major U-turn on the NPPF is probably fairly remote.

More realistic, I believe, is to focus on ways in which it can be strengthened in order to strike a better balance between social, environmental and economic objectives.

I think we can look to recently published Best Value Guidance (which reduces 60-odd pages to a couple of sides) contains a strong affirmation of the need to consider ‘social value’ in commissioning decisions. I believe there is scope for incorporating this idea firmly into the planning system – so that the social, environmental and economic outcomes of a proposed development are considered. This could also address the current problem of the externalities which impact adversely on communities but are not a recognised cost for the developer.

How this ought to be done will inevitably be different in different areas – but that’s what the NPPF is intended to do anyway; provide a framework for local areas to work within in different ways.

Something needs to be done to address the current imbalance in favour of economic development over other needs. If not the true future costs are likely to greatly outweigh the short-term benefits as we are forced to meet the costs of growing inequality and environmental degradation.

Soon after the 2007 general election, the Tories said the cost of social breakdown was £102bn a year. The government has frequently stated that it thinks things got considerably worse under Labour and we now face even greater challenges to fix what the PM calls our ‘broken society’. So presumably the costs of social breakdown are much higher than they were in 2007. Will prioritising economic aims in planning reduce that cost? If anything, surely we ought to be prioritising social objectives to reduce this burden and free up resources for more productive economic purpose?


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