Planning policy is ‘a mess’

HOW DID the Government get it so wrong? Is there really no minister with a working knowledge of the planning system? Who on earth did they speak to? Make no mistake, what’s contained within the ‘draft National Planning Policy Framework’ is a mess, and no line-up of apologists talking about ‘scaremongering’ will make it right.

At a recent seminar on the framework organised by the Department for Communities and Local Government and attended by planners, councillors, business representatives and interest groups like ours, it was hard to find a single supporting voice.

Even according to the business sector, the likely outcome would run counter to Government’s stated intentions – for instance, in leading to more out of town retail parks, rather than healthy town centres. We asked if any evidence would be brought forward to justify ministers’ claims that planners were holding up the creation of the nation’s wealth and contributing to homelessness – but that clearly wasn’t going to happen.

The South Downs Society’s response to the consultation (we are the National Park Society for Britain’s newest national park in the South Downs) has been kept deliberately short. We were keen to focus on our main concerns and not respond to the request for some word changes that might help clarify Government thinking.

In brief:

Reducing over 1,000 pages of detailed planning guidelines to around 50 may sound good but the guidance is detailed for a reason, and the proposed ‘idiots’ guide’ is so vague as to be meaningless, a lawyers’ charter if ever there was one.

Need is not the same as demand. Planning is about reconciling private wishes with public impact, and encouraging growth where it is needed – it’s not about allowing something to be built just because someone wants to.

The term ‘sustainable development’ has sadly become almost meaningless, at least in the mouths of politicians, to be sacrificed when inconvenient. Planners’ aim should be to integrate and balance economic, environmental and social considerations. If Government wishes to shift the balance towards economic growth, that’s their position but please don’t confuse that with sustainable development.

All ‘customers’ of the planning system desire a degree of predictability. These changes will mean doubt, uncertainty and inconsistency across the country as participants argue for their own interpretation of ‘objectively assessed needs’, or ‘out of date’, or ‘sustainable development’.

The proposals run counter to Government’s stated support for giving local people a voice in planning. Communities will now only be able to put forward their own changes to local plans and strategies if they want to see more housing, or are prepared to be bribed to accept some. The proposed Local Green Space designation to protect treasured open land can only be applied in very special circumstances.

We deplore the abandonment of current targets for reusing ‘brownfield’ land. This will increase development pressure on the countryside and damage efforts at urban regeneration.

We also oppose the reduction in protection for employment land. This may boost the housing market in the short term but will act against the interests of the business sector by denying them land for expansion and new development.

References in the framework to ‘good design’ should embrace the idea of local distinctiveness. What may be right for St Albans or London or the North York Moors may not be right for Sussex. And we fear that the framework will reduce the scope for Village Design Statements prepared by local communities.

We support rural diversification, encouraging farmers and landowners to take up new ways of generating income, but we should beware the traffic impact of unsuitable businesses in the countryside.

We would like to see reference in the framework to the issue of light pollution. Dark night skies are an important part of the special qualities of our countryside.

And, finally, while – as the South Downs Society – we are pleased to see a commitment to maintain a high level of protection for our national parks, the views into and from the park across the coastal plain and the Weald provide much of their beauty. It is just those areas that are at risk from these ill-thought out proposals.

If you share our concern, please look at these proposals yourself on the DCLG website and tell Government what you think!

STEVE ANKERS

Planning officer, South Downs Society

Station Road, Pulborough