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09/11/2016

Simplify plan-making to make NPPF work, says NPPF creator

Words: Simon Wicks

Simplified local planning and consistent application of policy are needed for the plan-led system to work, one of the architects of the NPPF has argued.

Politicians also need to simply let planners do their jobs, said John Rhodes, a member of the four-person team that wrote the National Planning Policy Framework.

“What we really require is consistent application of policy rather than planning reform,” the founder of Quod told an audience of solicitors and barristers at the Cornerstone Barristers annual planning day on Monday (7 November).

Indeed, he said, the NPPF could almost be boiled down to the single statement in paragraph 14, that spells out the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

“It’s a single paragraph national planning policy and it contains everything you need to know about determining a planning application,” he said, adding: “Or at least it did until the government added a footnote.”

Reviewing the process of distilling thousands of pages of planning policy into the NPPF, Rhodes stressed that its strength was in its simplicity. “Planning policy doesn’t need to be that complicated,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean planning decisions aren’t enormously sophisticated.”

The progress of local planning, however, was held back by the sheer weight of material that resource-starved planning authorities were expected to compile as evidence. As a member of the Local Plans Expert Group (LPEG), Rhodes has also been part of an inquiry into methods for making local planning more efficient and effective.

Some inspectors, the panel had found, had to hire storage units to keep all the paperwork relating to local plan inspections. And, because only 31 per cent of local authorities had a post-NPPF approved plan, many were relying on out of date figures to underpin their housing projections.

Added to this, said Rhodes, the interventions of politicians had created uncertainty around the application of policy. This was particularly evident in ministerial interference with green belt reviews which, he said, sent the message to local authorities that the government wasn’t serious about applying NPPF stipulations around green belt development.

Rhodes echoed the recommendations of the LPEG inquiry with a variety of ways in which to make plan-making more efficient and effective and to restore the integrity of the plan-led system, including:

  • Make it a statutory duty to create a post-NPPF local plan. “If you don’t produce a plan your existing [pre-NPPF] plan will dissolve and others will come in and write your plan for you.”
  • Streamline the process of assessing objectively assessed need (OAN) for housing. “There must be a simpler way of doing this. Why don’t you just have a formula that that tells you how to work out your OAN at the touch of a button?”
  • Reduce environmental impact assessments to a short “assessment of environmental capacity” and a statement of how environmental considerations have been incorporated into the plan
  • Enforce the duty to co-operate. “The duty to cooperate is useless. A duty to chat is what most people called it [during the LPEG inquiry]. It’s not being properly enforced.”
  • Limit policy change and alterations to the National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG), to let the NPPF properly establish itself. “Could we have less change please and simply more application of policy and stop fiddling with the NPPG? It’s not there for politicians, it’s there for us lot as practical guidance on policy.”
  • Ease the soundness test by altering the phrase "most appropriate strategy" in paragraph 182 of the NPPG to "an appropriate strategy" to allow for greater flexiblity in approving plans and greater speed in plan-making.
  • Impose a statutory schedule on creating a local plan, which Rhodes suggested should be two years.

“You can’t expect the NPPF to be successful if it’s not fully reflected in local plans,” Rhodes stressed. “Imagine a world in which we had a full suite of local plans consistent with the NPPF planning to meet housing needs. You could not make a more serious statement about the intention to meet housing needs. That’s the way the national crisis would be addressed.”

The planning law day also featured presentations by practice barristers on starter homes, neighbourhood planning, community infrastructure levy and environmental legislation post-EU referendum.

Image | iStock

 

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