The NPPF; a risk worth taking for the Coalition

There has certainly been a mixed reaction to the Coalition’s draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).  Since the framework was published at the end of July, we have seen a war of words between supporters and critics of the framework take place on the battlefields of Britain’s broadsheets.

The NPPF in essence aims to simplify UK’s planning framework. The policy set outs the Government’s national planning aspirations, which will guide local development plans and neighbourhood plans, encouraging councils to support ‘sustainable development’.

Supporters of the proposals include the property industry, large businesses and rather tellingly HM Treasury. They argue that the measures are not only welcome but they are essential if Britain is to meet its housing targets and deliver sustainable economic growth. Critics, which include CPRE, the National Trust and the Daily Telegraph, who have run the strong ‘hands off our land’ campaign appealing their middle/upper class readers, argue that the policy is a charter for development offering no protection to Britain’s beloved countryside.  Actually both arguments are strong and with reason.

The current planning framework is certainly in desperate need of an overhaul. At 1300 pages long it is over bureaucratic, opaque and gives councils too many ‘get out clauses’ to block development. It has heavily contributed to Britain’s current housing shortage.  So the move to shorten the framework to just 50 pages and give councils more encouragement to promote development is long overdue. But it has gone slightly too far. The NPPF’s definition of ‘sustainable development’ puts too much emphasis on sustaining the economy rather than the environment. There is no text which safeguards protected areas of natural beauty from development. Furthermore it undermines the Government’s own localism agenda, enforcing top-down planning rather than bottom-up development plans.

The NPPF represents a huge risk taken by the government, as it was bound to anger the same demographic of voters and pressure groups that emphatically derailed their forestry sell off plans earlier this year. The political clout of this catchment is considerable. The membership of the National Trust, one of the most vocal critics of both the forestry sell off and the NPPF, is around 5 times greater than that of all the political parties combined. And the Government has done very little to appease them, with junior planning minister, Bob Neill calling immediate opposition to the NPPF a ‘smear campaign orchestrated by left wingers’.

But there are two reasons why I believe the Government will not be forced to abandon the NPPF like the forestry sell off plans. Firstly, the Government has been unified in its response to criticism. They anticipated local and national opposition and there has been a well directed team plan to offset this.  They have learnt from past mistakes. Secondly, and most importantly, the motivation and principles behind the NPPF is shared across the Government and electorate. That is the importance of generating growth to revive Britain’s stagnating economy.

The Government’s next big test will be the Conservative party conference in Manchester, where grassroots Conservatives from ‘middle England’, who are being campaigned by their constituents, will vocally refuse to tow the Government line.  My prediction is that, once the consultation stage is finished there will be a couple of amendments written into the framework, Greg Clark has already indicated so.  More written protection to the countryside will certainly be provided. But the principles that guide the NPPF will remain the same. This may not appease everyone, but that is a risk that the Coalition is willing to make. Generating economic growth is the Government’s priority at the moment. This is quite right too.

Andrew Todd, Account Executive

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