The Commons Committee report on the draft NPPF is out today. The interest is mainly going to be on what is
said about the presumption in favour of sustainable development. Let’s start at the Committee website.
It opens saying that the default answer of ‘yes’ to development should be removed (and predictably, that is the bit the Telegraph leads on). But later the website quotes Clive Betts MP who chairs the committee saying that the committee believes “that a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ should be a golden thread running through the planning system” and goes on to say that there needs to be clarity that economic, social and environmental dimensions need to be balanced. So let’s go to the report to see what is actually said.
Yes, they do recommend deletion of the phrase 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”. I had always taken that to be a chatty way of expressing the presumption, and it might well be somewhat out of place in a formal document. What do they actually say about the presumption? The key paragraph is 80:
“It is sensible that planning should support a presumption in favour of sustainable development as a strategic purpose, but that presumption is not precise enough to be used as a tool for decision making. Where there is an adopted Local Plan in place, the Local Plan should be the starting point for planning decisions. Local Plans should be based on robust evidence, transparent, capable of providing the development needed in an area, reflective of local circumstances, and offering as much certainty as planning reasonably can. The presumption in favour of sustainable development should be redefined as ‘a presumption in favour of sustainable development consistent with the Local Plan.’ In our view, this will not only firmly anchor sustainable development to local circumstances, but will also provide a spur to local authorities to prepare their Local Plans.”(my italics)
Later they go on to recommend a short transition period to enable authorities to bring their plans up to date:
“during which the presumption in favour of sustainable development is not applied in cases of absent, silent or out-of-date plans until councils have had a realistic chance of putting such plans in place.”
Now it is strange to say that the presumption is not precise enough to be used as a tool for decision making. I remember using the “presumption in favour of development which does not cause demonstrable harm to interests of acknowledged importance” as a satisfactory tool when it was the policy formulation in the 1980s. We have always had patchy plan-coverage and the presumption operated throughout the modern system, from 1948 onwards. And of course has been there since 1923, as I keep pointing out (though it is gratifying to see that a reference to the presumption having been there in 1949 is in the committee report). Maybe the words which need to be added to the modern presumption are “which does not cause harm to interests of acknowledged importance” – see my NPPF consultation response.
The Government has been quick off the mark with its own response to the committee, confirming there will be a transitional period, but silent on the relationship between the presumption and the plan. Probably with good reason for it is difficult. Does the Government want to deliver growth through the planning system? Does it want to make Britain the place of choice to start and grow a business (which is where all this started)? And does it believe that localism can deliver that? Plan making is massively slow and the requirements for SEA make it difficult to make significant amendments swiftly and economically. The LDF system could have been flexible, allowing councils to respond simply to changes such as the global economic downturn. But as enacted it is a lumbering beast. Contrast this with a presumption in favour of sustainable development which would be weighed with other material considerations, and which is capable of being changed by a new policy statement at any time.
Which is the nimble approach needed to keep investments from sliding and to respond to the speed of the markets?