Councils told to get ready for planning overhaul

27 Mar 12
English councils have just 12 months to get local plans ready in order to comply with the new planning regime, which came into effect today.

By Richard Johnstone | 27 March 2012

English councils have just 12 months to get local plans ready in order to comply with the new planning regime, which came into effect today.

Building site

Launching the controversial National Planning Policy Framework, planning minister Greg Clark said it would ‘put unprecedented power’ in the hands of communities who will be able to approve developments through local plans. It also introduces a new presumption in favour of sustainable developments intended to boost economic growth.

Clark told MPs that the reforms aim to ensure that ‘our countryside, towns and cities are bequeathed to the next generation in a better condition than they are now’.

The framework replaces more than 1,000 pages of planning policy with 47 page of ‘clearly written guidance’. Changes were needed because the planning system had ‘become more complex [and] it has ground ever slower’, Clark said, leading to fewer homes being built in the last decade than in any other in the last century.

The presumption in favour of sustainable development will mean that developments will not be held up ‘unless to approve it would be against our collective interest’, he said.

This will be judged against local plans agreed by councils. These will now form ‘the keystone of the planning system’, setting out the development policies for housing and economic development across an authority.

Town halls now have a year to update existing plans. However, around half of all authorities do not have plans in place, despite it being required since 2004, so Clark said that ‘emerging plans’ could also be used in planning cases.

Local Government Association chair Sir Merrick Cockell said that one year provides a ‘reasonable’ timetable for authorities to develop their own plans.

He added: ‘This important change will mean that local people will have a real say over development in their area, and make it easier for town halls to tailor the planning system towards supporting growth that meets the area’s needs.

‘The LGA has been clear that robust transitional arrangements are required to ensure that unwanted developments don’t arise while councils are working on their local plans. We look forward to working with the government to ensure that the transitional arrangements councils have secured provide the clarity they need in practice.’

Following criticism from some environmental groups of the draft framework, which was released for consultation last July, there are now ‘robust protections’ for the natural environment, the minister told MPs. This includes an explicit statement that a council’s priority should always be to ensure that brownfield sites are brought back into use before greenfield developments are approved.

Clark said that changes make ‘crystal clear’ that sustainable development embraces social and environmental as well as economic objectives, and the framework now explicitly includes UK sustainable development principles.

Most of the recommendations made by the Commons’ communities and local government committee when it examined the proposals, have been accepted all or in part. The MPs had highlighted the ‘many examples of inconsistent drafting’ in the NPPF.

Committee chair Clive Betts said that the emphasis placed on local plans had ‘strengthened’ the document.

He added: ‘I welcome that the final NPPF drops the statement that “decision-takers at every level should assume that the default answer to development proposals is ‘yes’, except where this would compromise the key sustainable development principles set out in this Framework”. 

‘Other welcome changes include, the restoration of a clear emphasis on brownfield development and town centre first alongside recognition for the requirement for equivalent or improved replacement sports facilities, when existing facilities are lost to development.’

Business group the CBI said that it was thankful ‘the government has held its nerve’ on introducing the presumption to approve sustainable developments.

And the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which had opposed the draft due to this presumption, said it was ‘very reassured’ that the five principles of the UK sustainable development were now included.

But chief executive Shaun Spiers said there were concerns that the 12 month transition period would pose a ‘serious challenge’ to many local authorities.

‘We hope these councils will be given adequate support to get their plans in place. This will be critical if local people are to have a real voice in planning decisions,’ he said.


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