Shaun Spiers’ Response
CPRE is a locally based organisation and our 2026 Vision for the Countryside calls for a shift in power, particularly planning powers, to local authorities and parish councils. So we strongly support the thrust of the Localism Bill.
But three areas of serious concern need to be addressed if planning reform is to have the outcome that both CPRE and the Government wish for.
1) The framework within which local decisions on land use will be taken
We agree with the Government that the planning system has become over-centralised and over-complicated, but there are good reasons why central government, starting with the last Conservative Government, has introduced national guidance on things such as housing density, the use of brownfield land or the location of supermarkets and shopping centres.
My background is in the Co-operative Movement and I don’t need any persuasion that, as Greg Clark says, ‘if you give people their head’ they can ‘cope for themselves’.
But no one believes that important decisions on land use simply left to the invisible hand of localism will add up to a coherent whole. There will be a framework, a context, and we are very concerned about how local decision-making will be shaped not only by the National Planning Policy Framework, which will be very important, but also by what are politely called ‘incentives’ – inducements to local authorities and local communities to give planning permission – and the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) currently being established to replace regional planning bodies.
We have serious concerns about the LEPs, which have a narrowly economic focus and are even less democratic and accountable than the Regional Assemblies (an achievement of sorts). It is certainly hard to see how the LEPs will deliver the aspirations for landscape scale conservation and ecological restoration that we expect to see set out in the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper, due to be published this spring.
We are also very worried about the Government’s plans to reward Councils for approving housing developments and, by implication, to punish those that don’t agree to new housing. If one of the consequences of the last Government’s top down targets was the wrong sort of houses in the wrong place, the current Government risks the same outcome by different means. We do need many more new homes, but we need them to be of good quality, built in the right place and based on an assessment of local housing need.
2) Sustainable Development
Ministers have been admirably clear that ‘the new planning system is predicated on encouraging growth’ (Eric Pickles), that its purpose is ‘not to prevent new building, but to promote it’ (Greg Clark). But references to sustainable development have been rarer, vaguer and more grudging.
Currently the legal purpose of planning is to deliver Sustainable Development – to ensure the integration of social, environmental and economic ends, within environmental limits.
You can’t run a slide rule over decisions on land use and say clearly that they are or are not compatible with the principle of Sustainable Development. Decisions on land use are inherently complex and contested. But the concept of Sustainable Development provides an invaluable framework for judging decisions on land use.
The last Government sought at times to arrogate economic interests over social and environmental considerations, and in the process undermined confidence in the planning system. The framework set by LEPs and ‘incentive schemes’ such as the New Homes Bonus threatens the same result.
And it is not enough for ministers to say, when asked or when speaking to environmental groups, ‘of course development must be sustainable’ when almost all their references to planning are about how it is a drag on development – the Prime Minister recently, Eric Pickles at a conference last month, the Housing Minister almost every time he speaks.
We need to hear ministers from the Prime Minister down talking about the purpose of planning in terms of Sustainable Development, rather than just economic growth or housing delivery. And we need a firm commitment to Sustainable Development within the Localism Bill.
3) Third Party Right of Appeal
CPRE shares the Government’s aim of encouraging communities to get involved in the planning system and shape the places where they live. But communities may be disappointed when they realise that neighbourhood planning is a one-way street – that while ‘it is not a way of saying “no” to any development, it can be a way of saying “yes” to more’ (Greg Clark).
And they will be very disappointed that the Conservatives’ intention before the election to rebalance the appeal system by limiting developers’ right of appeal and introducing a limited community right of appeal has been dropped in favour of the status quo. A third party right of appeal was also a firm commitment in the Liberal Democrat manifesto.
At present the planning system is stacked in favour of developers. As Alan Bennett wrote in the London Review of Books shortly before Christmas, it is ‘weighted against objectors who, even if they succeed in postponing a development, have to muster their forces afresh when the developer and architect come up with a slightly modified scheme. And so on and so on until the developer wins by a process of attrition.’
A limited community right of appeal is essential to ensuring that localism works and communities really do feel empowered. A community right of appeal is a necessary safeguard to ensure that decisions are taken in line with the local plan. If local people can’t appeal when permission is given for a development that is not in the local plan, they are likely to see involvement in the planning system as a waste of time.
I very much hope that we will be able to work with the Minister to get a solution to this problem, one that avoids vexatious appeals or bringing the planning system to a halt, but which delivers on the promise of localism.
CPRE is grateful to Greg Clark for his thought-provoking speech. The Government’s vision and breadth of thinking on planning is very welcome. Although I have focussed on CPRE’s concerns in this response, there is much that we welcome in the Government’s approach and in the Minister’s speech. But unless our concerns are addressed, there is a big danger that the reformed planning system will neither empower local communities nor deliver sound decisions on land use.