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Response of the Brighton Society to the Draft National Planning Policy Framework

COMMENTS by the BRIGHTON SOCIETY on the NPPF draft proposals

CONTENTS

1. INTRODUCTION

2. CRUCIAL SHORTCOMINGS OF THE DRAFT NPPF
2.1 The presumption in favour of development
2.2 The timescale for the NPPF proposals to take effect

3. DETAILED CRITICISMS OF THE NPPF DRAFT
3.1 Sustainable development
3.3 Local and Neighbourhood Plans
3.3.1 Importance of the Local and Neighbourhood plans
3.3.2 Relationship of Local and Neighbourhood plans
3.3.3 Community involvement
3.3.4 Procedures for involving the local community

3.4 Additional allowance for 20% more development

3.5 Brownfield development

3.6 Traveller sites

3.7 Lack of environmental safeguards

3.8 Historic Environment

3.9 Open spaces

3.10 Unprotected countryside

3.11 Boundaries of Green Belt land

3.12 Outdoor advertisements

4. MATTERS OUTSIDE THE CURRENT SCOPE OF THE NPPF

4.1 Affordable Housing

4.2 Precautionary Principle

4.3 VAT

5. FINALLY – SUMMARY OF CHANGES PROPOSED

1. INTRODUCTION

1.1 The Brighton Society supports in principle the aim of the NPPF consultation draft to improve and simplify the existing planning system and to achieve a more efficient delivery. We also agree that the aim of creating a greater emphasis on local requirements which together with planning policies and controls, could lead to more appropriate developments.

It should also provide better opportunities for civic amenity groups such as ourselves to make a greater contribution to the planning process.

Athough the existing planning system has its faults, particularly in its tendency sometimes to cause unnecessary bureaucratic delays, in general it has not performed too badly in protecting our urban and rural environments, and we think it is vital that the controls on inappropriate development which have played an important part in this success should not be prejudiced or weakened in any way by the new proposals.

1.2 The Society considers that there is considerable room for improvement required in the consultation draft in order to achieve its aims and to ensure that we pass on a better environment to future generations.

We strongly believe that the draft proposals in their present form are likely to deliver a worse result in environmental terms than the current planning system unless the NPPF draft is drastically revised

2. CRUCIAL SHORTCOMINGS OF THE DRAFT NPPF

Although we have several detailed criticisms of the consultation draft, there are two crucial areas of disagreement and concern:

2.1 The presumption in favour of development (paras 13-18)
The primary role of planning is not to promote development or act as an economic tool; it is to achieve a balance between many often conflicting factors which include development, but also include protection of our environment whether this be rural or urban or marine. Only by taking this broader view of planning policy can we ensure that we pass on the best possible environment to our future generations.

We suggest that the presumption in favour of development above all other considerations is fatally flawed, and is the root cause of most of our subsequent criticisms.

An eminent planner once defined the role of planning as “to reduce the significance of irreversible mistakes.” It is ironic that the strategic document setting out national planning policy will be itself responsible for causing irreversible damage to the English environment unless basic changes are made.

2.2 The timescale for the NPPF proposals to take effect (paras 14 and 110)
One of the most worrying aspects of the draft proposals is that in the absence of an approved Local Plan or where relevant policies are out of date, it will be very difficult for planning applications for new development to be refused. This provides a golden opportunity to developers to submit and get developments approved by default in any interim period until Local Plans are developed and formalised – this process could take a long time and irreversible damage to the environment could result in the meantime.

It could also mean that proposals which have recently been rejected could be taken to appeal and allowed on default. Local authority resources both in terms of staff and finances would be over-committed just at a time when their full resources should be devoted to up-dating their local plans. This situation is totally unacceptable and has to be addressed.

In view of the fact that there is a massive land bank of approved developments already existing – sufficient to cater for two to three years at least of the housing need at current rates of construction – and the likelihood that lack of mortgage finance (which is likely to continue for some years to come), is currently a far greater constraint on the provision of housing than planning delays, this proposal is quite frankly crazy. It would make far more sense to allow local authorities time to get their local plans sorted out before planning applications are approved by default.

It is particularly worrying that less than a third of local authorities in England have such plans in place. And as the NPPF imposes new requirements on local authorities, (eg; the requirement that there should be a 20% set aside of development land over and above the estimated requirement), it can be argued that in fact, there is no local authority in the country which now has an up to date Local Plan.

Our local authority in Brighton and Hove does not currently have an up to date Local Plan. The possibility that planning applications for inappropriate developments could be approved because of a temporary deficiency in the Local Plan, is of great concern to the Brighton Society.

There should be a reasonable timescale allowed for Local Authorities who do not have up to date Local Plans to formulate them and put them in place before development proposals can be approved on the grounds that a local plan is out of date. It is important that the creation of Local Plans is not rushed. It is vital that there are no loopholes in Local Plans which, given the current proposals for a presumption in favour of development, would allow development alone to over-ride other environmental considerations. Sufficient time must be allowed for local authorities to up-date their local plans and for consultations with local people and community groups so that they can be agreed.

3. DETAILED CRITICISMS OF THE NPPF DRAFT

3.1 Sustainable development (paras 9-12)
The definition given in the NPPF creates a new, misleading meaning for the expression ‘sustainable development’. It looks like an obvious PR device to dress up the word ’development’, and is really designed to disguise its real meaning – which we suspect may really be a ‘Trojan Horse’ for developers.

‘Sustainable’ in the conventional sense of the word, means that any process we use in developing our society in the future should not use finite resources but instead use resources which can be replaced. It would be better kept to mean just that, rather than being hi-jacked to promote what is really just another form of commercial development.

We would argue that land in our countryside and our villages, towns and cities is an increasingly scarce resource, and that planning policy should emphasise that. For example, sustainable development means that land (as well as other finite resources), should be preserved wherever possible. For example, there should be a presumption in the NPPF that development of brownfield sites should always be preferred to development on greenfield sites. The NPPF should support this meaning of sustainable rather than use misleading terminology which purports to be sustainable, but which in fact isn’t.

3.2 Presumption in favour of Sustainable Development. (paras 13 -18)
We have already argued that this is a basically flawed policy. The emphasis is skewed in favour of development because the NPPF draft does not equally emphasise presumptions in favour of restricted development in other important policy areas such as the environment, Listed Buildings, Conservation Areas, Areas of Natural Beauty, open space inside urban or built up areas, or countryside outside built up areas or within Green Belt or National Parks. There should be presumptions in favour of restricted development in all these instances.

The NPPF creates an imbalance by promoting development above all other environmental considerations.

The presumption in favour of development will give developers who have the financial clout to employ expensive planning and legal consultants undue influence in taking advantage of deficiencies in Local Plans, and overpowering the legal, financial and planning resources of Local Authorities. The community – ie, the ratepayers – will have to pick up the tab.

This often happens already in relation to large scale development plans. Once the playing field is opened up by the presumption in favour of development, the same will happen with smaller developments. The impact on local amenities whether rural or urban could be severely detrimental. So much for local empowerment. As the National Trust says, “the dice are heavily loaded to favour development”.

3.3 Local and Neighbourhood Plans
3.3.1 Importance of the Local and Neighbourhood plans
The Local plans will be the main line of defence against inappropriate development. It follows therefore that they should be watertight and have no loopholes if they are to operate effectively and constrain and control inappropriate development proposals.

How confident is the government that all local authorities will have the resources and expertise to foresee potential loopholes in their Local and Neighbourhood Plans to ensure that all environmental amenities, whether in urban or rural environments, are adequately protected from developers and their legal teams? The presumption in favour of development makes this a particularly crucial issue because there will be no other way of preventing developers exploiting such a situation. Where are the safeguards against that scenario? There has to be some means included in the NPPF of reversing that kind of situation in cases where the interests of the community or environmental considerations need to be protected.

There are serious questions about how development control will operate under the new proposals. What happens if say, there is no mention of a large out of town shopping complex in a Local Plan because the need for one was not shown up by the Council’s research into local requirements, yet a large and powerful supermarket group comes up with a proposal for one. Will there be a presumption that it should be allowed because the possibility of it is not included in the Local Plan?

We have a gut feeling that there are all sorts of implications thrown up by the ‘presumption in favour of development’ such as this, which are incredibly difficult to foresee at the moment, but which will need to be dealt with somehow, as and when these situations arise. Inevitably unless the draft document is improved, many of these conflicts will end up in the courts with legal teams representing developers and local communities slogging it out between them.

We think the best way to deal with the problem is to remove the presumption in favour of development. The implications of not doing so are just too enormous to contemplate.

3.3.2 Relationship of Local and Neighbourhood plans (paras 50 and 51)
The NPPF states that the policies contained in the neighbourhood plans take precedence over existing policies in the local Plan for that neighbourhood. This puts even more importance on the neighbourhood plan being comprehensively written too, otherwise developers could take advantage of any loopholes in the same way as could happen in the case of Local Plans. This is particularly important (and it is a matter of great concern to us), as the presumption in favour of development applies also to neighbourhood plans, and as planning permission can also be granted under Neighbourhood Plans under certain circumstances.

In our view the relationship and areas of potential conflict between local and neighbourhood plans needs to be examined further and clarified.

3.3.3 Community involvement
The basis of this is the presumption that development must take place (presumption in favour of development again!), and provision made for it in Local and Neighbourhood plans. If the local community wishes otherwise then its views will be disregarded.

So much for one of the expressed aims of the NPPF to empower local people and communities. It isn’t going to happen. Local people will find themselves having to find the resources and specialist knowledge to fend off developers and prove that developments will (in many situations), cause significant damage to the local environment.

3.3.4 Procedures for involving the local community
What procedures will there be to ensure that Local Authorities engage with the local community, including specialist interest groups like the Brighton Society? What timescales will be put in place to ensure that adequate time is provided for local community groups (many of whose members will be in full-time employment), to be able to make a contribution to the debate? Some councils will want to push Local Plans through quickly, particularly in view of the risks of not having a Local Plan in place discussed in paragraph 2.2 above.

3.4 Additional allowance for 20% more development (para 109)
We are concerned that this will give an unrestrained right to developers to build on land designated for this. Some mechanism has to be created to monitor the situation and to prevent overdevelopment. There is no provision for this in the NPPF draft. It sounds suspiciously like a developer’s contribution to the proposals.

3.5 Brownfield development
There should be a presumption in favour of redevelopment of brownfield sites for new housing, rather than building on greenfield sites. This would be in accordance with a true definition of ‘sustainable development.’ It would also be encouraged if VAT on such developments was zero-rated – see para 4.3 below.

3.6 Traveller sites
Brighton and Hove suffers particularly from problems of where to accommodate travellers, who are continually being moved on from one illegal site to another, and this, combined with an acute shortage of land within the city boundaries, creates a real problem for the city. Should not guidance on this question be included within the NPPF document?

3.7 Lack of environmental safeguards (paras 10, and 183)
It is significant that para 10 of the NPPF includes three headings; the first two – planning for prosperity and planning for people – are in bold text; the third heading – planning for places is not in bold text. Is this a typing error or does it reflect the Government’s priorities? We suspect it is the latter. We disagree with with the implied lack of emphasis on the importance of the environment .

Equal weight must be given to all three to create an effective balance between often conflicting aspirations. In many instances, particularly where development is proposed within sensitive existing environments, the presumptions in favour of environmental amenities must outweigh the economic considerations. Of course there will be situations also where the opposite applies, but the NPPF should recognise that local authorities must consider all options equally, evaluate the most important aspects in a given situation, and that other considerations of value and importance to the local community must not be over-ruled by the presumption in favour of development.

The NPPF also fails to give sufficient emphasis to aspects of current planning policy such as the importance of protecting Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas. Para 183 talks about protection of Heritage assets but in our view fails to specifically emphasise the importance of our historic built environments, which have great value not only for local communities, but also are vital to the tourist industry, particularly in cities such as Brighton and Hove.

Other areas where we think the NPPF does not provide adequate safeguards are open spaces within urban areas (para 130 and 131), and the importance of maintaining open countryside not within AOBs, Green Belts or National Parks (para 167). The importance of protecting these should all be given a stronger emphasis to balance the over-riding presumption in favour of development.

3.8 Historic Environment (paras 176 – 191)
Just as the NPPF sets out a presumption favour of development as the over-riding aim of the document, so too should it set out a presumption in favour of preservation and conservation of historic and heritage assets where these are deemed to be important by the local community. The NPPF should make it possible for Local Plans in such situations to over-ride the presumption in favour of development set out elsewhere in the document.

The importance of listed buildings, non-listed but nevertheless important buildings for either historical or visual reasons or for the contribution they make to their local environment, and Conservation Areas, should specifically be mentioned in the NPPF.

In all these cases the NPPF should emphasise the need to ensure that all proposed physical changes do not compromise the value in visual terms of the buildings or localities concerned. This should include matters like solar panels on historic buildings and in Conservation Areas. In Brighton the installation of these on older buildings in Conservation Areas is already resulting in completely incongruous alterations.

Guidance to local authorities on matters such as this in formulating their Local Plans should be specifically emphasised in the NPPF under the Historic Environment section. If not, there is a danger that potentially unsympathetic alterations are likely to be approved – or even worse, approved by default – on the basis of ‘sustainable development’ and/or the presumption in favour of development.

These and other similar alterations, which left uncontrolled would just make a mockery of the efforts made over the years by local authority Conservation Officers and by civic amenity societies such as our own, to ensure that the visual character of our cities, towns and villages is maintained to the highest standards.

3.9 Open spaces
The role of open space within cities, towns and villages is a vital resource which any so-called ‘sustainable’ policy document should set out to preserve above all other considerations. There should be a presumption in favour of maintaining existing open spaces used by the public which over-rides in all cases the presumption in favour of development. The NPPF doesn’t do this.

Instead it threatens the viability of many open spaces within built up areas by imposing housing requirements on local authorities who in many cases will be tempted to look at designating some of the open spaces within their Local Plan areas for development, in order to be able to meet their forecasts of demand for housing within their areas.

This is particularly of concern to us in Brighton and Hove because of the shortage of land in the city owing to its restricted situation between the South Downs National Park to the north and the sea to the south.

There seems to be no provision within the NPPF for the creation of new parks and imaginative play spaces within urban boundaries. Compare this lack of vision with the wonderful parks in towns and cities created by the Victorians.

3.10 Unprotected countryside
There is an unquantifiable value in just open countryside, which is not an AONB or a National Park or a part of a Green Belt.

One of the most valuable characteristics of the English countryside is the clear definition between built up areas of villages, towns and cities and the countryside which surrounds them.

This quality must be maintained and preserved, or else we will be increasingly travelling through ribbon strip developments as development land expands into open countryside along access roads and infrastructure corridors. This has happened in Ireland, and if it happens here will ruin that vital distinction between town and countryside. The spread of urban areas has to be contained, and planning policies must emphasise the importance of this.

Sadly the NPPF fails this test like so many others because of its presumption in favour of development above all other considerations.

3.11 Boundaries of Green Belt land
It is an odd feature of existing Green Belt policy that boundaries of the Green Belt are often drawn along the centre of roads. This makes no sense at all – the integrity of the Green Belt will be threatened by potential development along one side of the road while green belt countryside is on the other.

It would make far more sense to draw the line well beyond the road on the opposite side of the road from the Green Belt, so that the road travels through a belt of open countryside. Both those using the road and the Green Belt itself would benefit enormously.

There is an opportunity in the NPPF to set this situation right.

In Brighton and Hove there are a number of undeveloped open areas between the A27 by-pass to the north (which mostly acts as the boundary between the city and South Downs National Park), and the built up area of the city to the south.

Under the NPPF proposals there is a grave risk that these areas will be developed as of right, and unless the Council is able designate them as open space – which it may not be able to if it is to meet the housing targets imposed on it be the NPPF – then these open areas will be lost and the insulation they provide as a green buffer between the A27 by-pass and the city will be lost forever.

This is yet another example of yet another unforeseen consequence of the new proposals. And it won’t be the only one.

3.12 Outdoor advertisements (para 123)
This clause is completely inadequate. What does the word ‘amenity’ mean? It needs to be clarified and strengthened. Anyone who has travelled to the USA, Canada or New Zealand can see for themselves the disastrous effect that advertisements and commercial signage can have on the urban and rural environment. Compared with those countries, it is a wonderful relief to return to England and not have to be assailed to the same extent by advertisement hoardings, and garish commercial signs usually associated with light industry, food retail establishments and the like.

This clause must be strengthened to ensure that the size, impact and quality of any signage is strictly controlled under Local Plans and that all signage – in all areas of the urban and rural environment – is strictly controlled.

It is particularly important in Conservation Areas and in the vicinity of historic buildings – such as the many we have in Brighton – that a strict control policy towards signage – including estate agent’s signs and advertisements – is maintained and strictly enforced.

4. MATTERS OUTSIDE THE CURRENT SCOPE OF THE NPPF
There are other measures which could help achieve the aim of providing more housing which are not mentioned in the NPPF. It isn’t just planning delays which are responsible for the shortage of housing

4.1 Affordable Housing (paras 111 -112, and Glossary)
Provision of affordable housing is really important if people are to be able to buy their own houses and get on the property ladder. This aim seems to be one of the main reasons given for the major changes proposed to the planning system.

The role of Housing Associations in providing affordable housing, whether social housing for rent or part-owned, is vital to provide housing at the lower end of the property spectrum where the need is greatest, yet their important contribution hardly seems to be recognised in the NPPF.

We assume that private developers will still be required under Local Plans to provide a proportion of affordable housing within any approved developments, but there is no specific mention of this in the NPPF.

Nor, apart from minor references in paragraphs 111 and 112, and a definition in the Glossary, there is anything in the NPPF document which indicates how the role of Housing Associations could be encouraged and expanded. In fact we believe that by making it easier for private developers, the NPPF will actually reduce the ability of Housing Associations to provide low cost housing in areas where it is most needed.

For example, Housing Associations under the existing system have been able to take advantage of ‘Exceptions sites’ where social housing can be built outside village or town boundaries, thus benefiting from the reduced land value. This advantage over private developers will be removed under the NPPF proposals which will allow private developers to submit planning applications for these sites, thus increasing the land value and thereby the overall cost of new housing.

There should be an emphasis in the NPPF to encourage local authorities to create more incentives for Housing Associations to acquire land at low cost in order to provide affordable housing and make it available to families and young couples looking for somewhere to live in their own neighbourhood.

This is very important if the goal of building as many new dwellings as possible on an annual basis is to be achieved.

4.2 Precautionary Principle
This is an issue which needs to be resolved on a national basis. Because of its emphasis on locally based planning, there is a lack of any precautionary mechanism in the NPPF to monitor the number of planning approvals granted for new housing, and keep local authorities up to date with the rate at which the demand for new housing over the country as a whole is being met.

There is a danger that there could be an over-supply of new approvals in some areas – across local authority boundaries – because of the presumption in favour of development.

Ireland recently suffered from precisely this – a housing boom and bust, almost 180,000 houses built which remain empty, and what was open countryside ruined in the process. Do we want to see that repeated here?

And equally, the number of houses built needs to be monitored against the number of approvals granted. Just because planning approval is granted doesn’t mean that a development will be built. Developers could just set up more land banks and sit on them while the value goes up, or market empty sites with planning permission, having extracted the extra value generated by the planning approval.

There needs to be a mechanism to monitor this situation otherwise there is a risk that the efforts of local authorities to identify and meet the housing needs for their areas will be undermined.

This problem is also related to national development policies. Now that the Regional planning bodies have been dismantled, will the presumption in favour of development apply equally to all areas of the country?

What about areas of the country like the north-east where communities are shrinking, and there are hundreds if not thousands of empty houses? Will the 20% rule apply here?

What about areas of the south-east (like Brighton), where the availability of land and housing is getting scarcer because of the population shift from north to the south? Should not there be a policy somewhere in the planning system that development should be encouraged in more disadvantaged areas of the country, and discouraged in those areas which are suffering from too many pressures on existing resources and facilities? Will the policies set out in the NPPF in fact promote this imbalance still further?

This is another area where the concept of ‘presumption in favour of development’ does not seem to have been properly thought through.

4.3 VAT
It is an inexplicable paradox that VAT is applied to alterations to existing buildings but development on greenfield sites is zero-rated. If the government is serious about solving the housing problem and providing low-cost housing, particularly in metropolitan areas, then VAT must be applied to each on an equal basis. This would reduce the current imbalance in favour of building on greenfield sites, and encourage the re-development of previously developed and brownfield sites for all uses, including new housing. It would make a significant contribution to reducing the housing problem, and encourage the provision of far more low-cost homes than under the current tax regime.

5. FINALLY – SUMMARY OF CHANGES PROPOSED
We would like to see the draft NPPF revised in the following respects:

5.1 Remove the presumption in favour of development. This will address the majority of our reservations.

5.2 Remove the misleading expression ‘sustainable development’ Just call it development. Or come up with another description for the definition set out in paragraph 9.

5.3 Set out a reasonable and realistic timetable within which Local Authorities can prepare and finalise their Local Plans in conjunction with their local community before ANY of the policies contained in the NPPF become mandatory.

5.4 Provide a failsafe mechanism if deficiencies in the Local Plan lead to patently detrimental consequences to the local environment and the wishes of the local community.

5.5 Give the local community a greater say in the formulation of Local Plans free from development targets – because that is what they are.

5.6 Ensure that there are procedures and safeguards so that local communities are given the time and facilities to make a real contribution to planning policies in their local areas.

5.7 Issue guidance to local authorities on how to resolve the problem of finding accommodation for travellers.

5.8 Remove the requirement for a 20% additional allowance for development.

5.9 Specifically encourage the use of brownfield sites for new housing development.

5.10 Confirm that equal weight will be given in the NPPF to the categories of planning for prosperity, planning for people, and planning for places (para 10) but acknowledge in para 11 that there will be many circumstances, particularly within existing built environments, where planning for spaces will outweigh the others because of a need to protect the existing environment.

5.11 Create a presumption against development which would detrimentally affect the historic environment in our villages, towns, cities and countryside.

5.12 Create protection for open spaces used by the public within built up areas.

5.13 Recognise the value of open countryside and include policies to preserve, enhance and protect the character of the countryside from inappropriate development.

5.14 Encourage local authorities to review the boundaries of Green Belt land where these run along main roads to ensure a buffer of open space along those roads.

5.15 Encourage local authorities to put in place strong policies to control the proliferation and detrimental environmental effects of advertisements and signage.

5.16 Incentives should be created for Housing Associations to allow them to expand their ability to provide more affordable housing, and to make a greater contribution towards the aim of increasing the number of new dwellings built annually.

5.17 Create a monitoring system on a national basis to keep track of the amount of housing developments approved, built and completed, and issue updated guidance on a regular basis to local authorities so that they can see how their own allocations, planning applications, approvals and built provision are affected by the national picture.

5.18 Provide national guidelines for future development to address the imbalance between the increasingly depopulated north and the increasingly overpopulated south and issue guidance to local authorities where this is likely to affect the provision within their local plans.

5.19 Make VAT zero-rated where existing buildings are converted and/or refurbished to new uses.