The Government’s planning reforms are unnecessarily damaging the countryside and undermining local democracies, concludes a new report launched by CPRE.
Community Control or Countryside Chaos? analyses the impact of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) on the countryside in the two years since it was adopted.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), introduced on 27 March 2012, was designed to make the planning system simpler and more accessible to the public. The report considers how the NPPF has been implemented in the period since March 2013 through the analysis of the 29 Local Plans that have been prepared and/or adopted since then, and through over 70 key decisions on major planning applications and appeals.
Planning for housing is where the system is causing most concern. CPRE believes that we need more new housing,
and a particular priority should be affordable housing to meet identified local needs. Policies on how local authorities should demonstrate a five year supply of housing sites have not been sufficiently clear and CPRE’s analysis shows that this is leading to unnecessary loss of countryside.
This is causing frustration and anger at the local level and not delivering the Government’s aspirations for ‘localism’. This is largely because pressure from developers, legal action, and/or decisions by Planning Inspectors are restricting how local authorities can demonstrate land available for housing.
Local planning authorities’ policies continue to be undermined, with at least 39 out of 58 major housing developments being granted at appeal by the Secretary of State or his Inspectors in the last year alone. This is double the number identified in CPRE’s research covering the previous year (2012/2013).
In at least 14 additional cases, local authorities have felt that due to the threat of appeal they have had no choice but to grant applications for major development, even where these are not in accordance with established Local Plans.
There have been some glimmers of hope. The Government has allowed a very small number of local authorities to set housing supply targets lower than assessed ‘need’ because of a recognition that the availability of land is environmentally constrained.
Decisions by the Secretary of State have occasionally refused developments through appeal or call in, on the grounds of design or countryside protection.
Most of the evidence, however, points to a simplistic approach to planning for new housing, which has focused on a national desire to get housebuilders building. This means that development is being directed, through Local Plan examinations and planning appeals, to profitable locations for large housebuilders regardless of the environmental consequences.
Sites already earmarked for housing are being left undeveloped while councils are under increasing pressure to allocate more and more land for future development.
This pressure has significantly slowed the rate at which local plans are being adopted, meaning councils are powerless to decide what land should be developed in the best interests of local communities.
The report also reveals that only a quarter of local authorities propose to prioritise brownfield sites over greenfield because the NPPF does not give enough support for them to do so.
Councils are increasingly reluctant to defend an appeal due to the risk of incurring costs, which can go into the hundreds of thousands of pounds if they reject inappropriate development that is ultimately overturned.
CPRE wants the Government to recast the presumption in favour of sustainable development, as set out in paragraph 14 of the NPPF. This should put a greater burden of proof on developers to show, when they apply for planning permission, that proposed developments are socially and environmentally, as well as economically, sustainable.
Give greater scope for planning applications to be refused on grounds of ‘prematurity’, in order to allow suitable time and space for local authorities and neighbourhoods to develop robust plans for the future of their area.
New Homes Bonus payment
In December 2013, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne MP, also suggested that, in future, local authorities who refused housing applications would not be eligible for the New Homes Bonus payment if these applications were granted at appeal.
This appears to be another attempt to pressure local authorities into accepting development, no matter how damaging or inappropriate it might be.
In March 2013, CPRE found at least twenty cases where major housing developments (of 10 dwellings or more) were granted planning permission in open countryside, despite being contrary to local planning policies and, more widely, the Government’s stated commitment to localism.
At the time the Government disputed our analysis, saying that the cases are not representative. Ministers have also pointed to an overall reduction in the number of appeals. But the proportion of all appeals for major housing developments (each of 10 dwellings or more) that have been allowed has steadily climbed over the past five years, from 31.7% in 2008/9 to 46% in 2012/35.
A report by Savills later in 2013 claimed that 75% of all planning appeals for ‘large’ housing developments between March 2012 and March 2013 had been allowed. This trend appears to have continued since then.
CPRE has analysed 58 appeal decisions in the 11-month period since the beginning of April 2013, and of these 39 major developments (67%), totalling around 8,700 new houses on greenfield land, have been granted.
In particular, nearly half (17) of the 39 developments CPRE mentions were decided by Secretary of State Eric Pickles directly rather than by an Inspector (so called ‘recovered’ appeals), while only seven ‘recovered appeals’ for major housing development were dismissed.
Given their political stamp, such decisions are likely to have still more weight and publicity than most appeal cases decided by Inspectors. The message of these decisions is clear: since the NPPF came into force, the Government is much more likely to back a developer at appeal in most major cases. Local planning authorities are therefore likely to see these appeal decisions as precedents which they must follow.
Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive of CPRE, said: “This report provides firm evidence from across England that the Government’s planning reforms are not achieving their stated aims. Far from community control of local development, we are seeing councils under pressure to disregard local democracy to meet top-down targets.”
“Local authorities are having to agree fanciful housing numbers and allocate huge areas of greenfield land to meet them. Where they lack an up to date plan, the countryside is up for grabs and many villages feel under siege from developers.”
“But tragically the result is not more housing, and certainly not more affordable housing – just more aggro and less green space,” Mr Spiers added. “The Government urgently needs to rethink its planning policies. Otherwise, its defining legacy will be – in the words of Nadhim Zahawi MP – the ‘physical harm’ it does to the countryside.”
He noted that in recent weeks there have been some signs that Ministers are willing to do more to promote brownfield development and protect the Green Belt.
“This is welcome, but much more needs to be done to protect the countryside, put communities back in the driving seat, and build the new homes the country needs,” Shaun Spiers concluded.
The full report is available online.
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