Five years ago I was engaged in some fierce twitter discussions with countryside campaigners over the draft National Planning Policy Framework (the National Trust described me as one of their fiercest critics). Opponents of the NPPF, which condensed 3,000 pages of planning policy into a 55-page document, claimed it would lead to a surge in house-building on Green Belt and greenfield land and “concrete over the countryside”, a phrase that they used repeatedly. Here is a particularly egregious example of the propaganda war that was being fought at the time.
When the final version of the NPPFwas published in March 2012 its core contentious principle, a presumption in favour of sustainable development, remained in place. Five years’ later the countryside is pretty much untouched, and the scaremongering of the National Trust, the CPRE, and others has proved to be unfounded. So what does the post-NPPF planning world now look like?One of the key requirements of the NPPF was for local authorities to produce an updated local plan. According to a recent analysis by Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners only three in ten have done so in the four years since the NPPF was published, so it has hardly speeded up the process of plan-making! Of those, around half had to increase their housing requirement to meet objectively assessed need, often due to developer pressure when plans were examined in public. Outside London compliant Local Plans are planning for 19% more housing overall than the equivalent household projections, but over half of the 97 local authorities with a compliant Local Plan have housing targets that are below objectively assessed need.
Nathaniel Lichfield claim that the NPPF is leading to a “significant boost” to planned housing supply across England. I am not so confident, because those who have put an NPPF-compliant Local Plan in place are more likely to be the more progressive, forward thinking councils. It still leaves 7 in ten local authorities without a compliant plan and the feet-draggers are more likely to be dominated by councils with significant NIMBY opposition to housing growth. It is notable that most councils in the London Green Belt, for example, have failed to produce a plan, their councillors presumably preferring to rely upon current Green Belt protections rather than risk the wrath of their voters by progressive plan-making.
Although it is true that net housing supply has increased to 170,690 dwellings in 2015 this is still significantly lower than the 2008 figure of 223,530, and starts are now down on the same time last year. Given that the old planning system was in place in 2008, how much credit for the recent increase can be given to the NPPF and how much is down to other issues, such as the government pumping public money into private housebuilding?
The Duty to Co-operate is another key requirement of the NPPF. Having abolished regional planning, the government somehow believes that very different local authorities, such as Stevenage and North Herts, can agree on where new homes should go. Will the instinctively anti-growth burghers of North Herts seriously allow land-strapped Stevenage to build on their patch? I doubt it. One in fifteen of the plans examined to date failed on the Duty to Co-operate.
The NPPF was a good step forward, but the process is still not releasing enough land for growth and too much power is still with developers. Local authorities are being hoodwinked by greedy developers who are evading their duty to provide affordable homes through dodgy viability assessements. I have sat through a few planning appeals in recent years where highly paid QCs acting for developers were being paid £40,000 for a two-day hearing. In one appeal the developer had three legal people on their team and the Council had a single QC. How can councils possibly compete on an equal footing, particualrly when they are terrified of costs being awarded against them? This process makes you realise that every single word in a planning policy has significant meaning, and yet too many local authorites spend too little time on plan-making and strategy, with too much effort devoted to development control – they are reactive rather than proactive. Yet planning departments are short of resources and many struggle to find good planners, who are too often poached by developers.
Local authorities now have until the end of March 2017 to produce an NPPF-compliant plan, or risk government commisars taking over their planning departments. High profile councils such as Oxford, Chelmsford and Guildford could be at risk.
As Zhou Enlai might or might not have said, it’s probably “too soon to say” what the impact of the NPPF will be. Give it another ten years and perhaps the position will be clearer. My feeling is that the planning system is too often blamed for problems that it is not responsible for, and that wider structural and political problems are more to blame for the failure to build enough homes.
(This blog was first published in Inside Housing on 27th May 2016)