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John Howell MP: The Government's planning framework will promote sustainable growth, protect the environment and hand power back to local people

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John Howell is MP for Henley, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Greg Clark, the Minister for Decentralisation and Localism, and is the principal author of Open Source Planning.

There is no necessary contradiction between increased levels of development and protecting and enhancing the environment, as long as development is planned and undertaken responsibly. Providing for the future needs of our communities is, after all, what planning is all about. The planning system must play an active role in guiding development to sustainable solutions. Our approach to planning is based squarely on giving local people a greater say over future development and putting sustainability at the heart of the planning system.

Planning positively for the future and in a way which encourages growth is essential if we are to deal with the economic mess left behind by Labour. At the same time, we need to preserve our heritage and to protect Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Parks, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and the Green Belt. One of the key ways of doing this is by including within the new National Planning Policy Framework a presumption in favour of sustainable development. So what does the presumption do?

First, the presumption is a tool for helping put sustainable plans together; not for determining each and every application. In practical terms the presumption means that where a proposal does not give rise to problems it should be approved promptly. The local plan sets out what is and is not acceptable and remains at the heart of the planning system. The new rules do not shift power to developers; they shift power to local people.

Local planning committees will therefore still be able to reject applications which are not in accordance with their local plan, and local plans will not be able to provide for development which would significantly and demonstrably cause harm. Local councils will still be able to prioritise the use of brownfield sites. Indeed the Framework already encourages them to produce plans by using natural resources prudently and enabling the re-use of existing resources. 

Secondly, the presumption puts sustainability at the heart of planning policy. That means that plans should ensure that they promote development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Many will recognise that these words reflect those of the Bruntland Commission‘s internationally recognised definition of sustainability.

Putting flesh on this definition is achieved by ensuring that plans are based on a solid evidence base and that they consciously reflect an appropriate local balance between environmental, social and economic needs. Organisations that recognise this have already volunteered to help shape appropriate best practice to help councils use the evidence base in this way.

However, it is clear that for some environmentalists and countryside organisations the problem is not the Framework but their lack of faith in being able to make the Bruntland definition of sustainability practical.  This is an astonishing counsel of despair and is one which surely undermines the very purpose of why these organisations exist. 

The many organisations which support the Framework and those neighbourhoods which have enthusiastically come forward to be front runners in putting Neighbourhood Plans together clearly do not share this pessimism. They recognise that we need to encourage the economic growth and private sector job creation on which our prosperity depends. They recognise too that the Framework continues protection for heritage and for the environment but that, in other areas, it is right that local councils decide where to locate development when they draw up their plans – subject to meeting environmental safeguards.

The current planning system is not just cumbersome and confrontational; it is broken. That is what well over 100 organisations (including environmentalists) told me when I was writing Open Source Planning, the paper on which our reforms are based. We are fixing this broken system by simplifying planning in a way that promotes sustainable growth, protects the environment and places local people back in charge of their own communities


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