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Publication of Draft National Planning Policy Framework sparks instant debate

On 25 July the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) published a draft of the proposed National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for consultation. The NPPF outlines the Coalition’s national planning policy and, as Decentralisation Minister Greg Clark explained, will “integrate our current suite of policy statements and guidance into a single concise document”, which, as at the current draft, runs to some 58 pages.

The anticipation which await the publication of the Draft NPPF was somewhat dampened when a version was leaked early in July. Despite this, the official publication has launched a highly publicised national debate over it contents, particularly in light of claims by Dame Fiona Reynold, Direct General of the National Trust, that the proposals would lead to “unchecked and damaging development in the undesignated countryside on a scale not seen since the 1990s.”

The National Trust is correct that the NPPF makes it clear that development is to be encouraged and the Coalition has made no secret that it wants, by its planning reforms to encourage the supply of housing and help boost the ailing construction industry - one of the key objectives in the NPPF is to increase significantly the delivery of new homes. An example of this pro-development stance is that one of the core land-use planning principles which the NPPF says should underpin both plan-making and development management is 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.”

The presumption in favour of sustainable development is at the heart of the NPPF and is one of the core principles against which many of the policies are read. As the NPPF puts it para. 14 it “should be seen as the golden thread running through both plan making and decision taking.”

The principle of sustainable development should not be taken to promote development at all costs - at the very heart of it is the idea of sustainability. The NPPF takes the meaning of sustainable development adopted by the Report of the Brundtland Commission ‘Our Common Future’ in 1987 - development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and the section of the NPPF on ‘Delivering Sustainable Development’ explains that for the planning system that means:

(1) Planning for prosperity (an economic role)
(2) Planning for people (a social role)
(3) Planning for places (an environmental role).

The section of the NPPF on ‘planning for places’ takes the transition to a low carbon economy as one of its key objectives and states that local planning authorities should adopt proactive strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Further, and particularly in relation to the concerns expressed by the National Trust, the NPPF notes that to achieve the objective of delivering a healthy natural environment, the planning system should aim to conserve and enhance the natural and local environment by (i) protective valued landscapes; (ii) minimising impacts on biodiversity and; (iii) preventing both new and existing development from contributing to or being put at unacceptable risk from land, air, water or noise pollution or land instability. The NPPF goes on to state that “in preparing plans to meet development requirements, the aim should be to minimise adverse effects on the local and natural environment. Plans should allocate land with the least environmental or amenity value where practical, having regard to other policies in the Framework including the presumption in favour of sustainable development.”

The NPPF clearly aims to strike a balance between two core aims (1) promoting economic growth and meeting the country’s desperate need for housing and (2) protecting out natural environment from the increasing pressures of development. The principle of sustainable development is, itself, a good illustration of those two, often competing, aims. How the final document strikes the balance is yet to be seen. Consultation on the draft which has just been published closes on 17 October 2007.

A copy of the draft NPPF can be found on the Department for Communities and Local Government website.