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Greg Clark MP and John Howell MP: The Coalition's blueprint for sustainable development

Greg Clark MP is Minister for Decentralisation and Cities and John Howell MP is his PPS and the principal author of Open Source Planning.

Yesterday the Government published the final version of the National Planning Policy Framework following last year’s public consultation.  Taken together with the important changes introduced in the Localism Act, this amounts to a fundamental reform of the planning system.  Our intention to undertake these reforms was clearly set out before the General Election in a Conservative policy paper entitled ‘Open Source Planning’.  In it we set out a clear statement of why we were going to make these changes and who we were making these changes for.  What we said was:

“Rather than have one planning structure determined centrally and then applied unvaryingly across the country, we want to create a planning system where there is a basic national framework of planning priorities and policies, within which local people and their accountable local governments can produce their own distinctive local policies to create communities which are sustainable, attractive and good to live in.”

We recognised that the planning system was vital for a strong economy, for an attractive and sustainable environment and for a successful democracy.  We recognised too that the planning system in England achieved none of these goals.

The changes we have made have been designed to achieve three things:

  • First, they have been designed to restore democratic and local control over the planning system.
  • Secondly, they have been designed to produce a simpler, quicker, cheaper, less confrontational and less bureaucratic planning system, and
  • Thirdly, they have been designed to rebalance the system in favour of sustainable development.
The Localism Act has substantially addressed the first of these goals through neighbourhood planning.  There is great enthusiasm amongst communities for neighbourhood planning and the opportunity it gives for local people to help shape the places in which they live and to share in the benefits of development.  There are 233 Neighbourhood Plans being put together under our’ frontrunners’ scheme.  What they show is that we were right to give local people the opportunity to shape the places in which they live and they are rising to the challenge of doing so with confidence and with a positive eye on the future needs of their communities.  They are showing that planning is a collective enterprise and one which should free up creativity not stifle it.

The National Planning Policy Framework, which the Government published yesterday, contributes particularly to the second and third of these goals.  By reducing over 1,000 pages of national guidance to around 50 pages we are continuing the simplification of the planning system which we started with our promise to end Labour’s hated, bureaucratic, and top-down Regional Spatial Strategies.  By producing a national planning policy framework in clear English we have made sure that, for the first time, national planning policy is accessible to the very people it most affects – the people who live in our cities, towns, villages and countryside.

This Framework particularly empowers local councillors to plan positively when they put their local plans together ensuring that they can achieve the balance which is appropriate for their area between its economic, environmental, and social requirements.  We must, of course, accommodate the new ways in which we must earn our living and contribute to the growth that our economy needs after the disastrous years of Labour’s term in office.  We must also make sure we house a rising population which is living longer and do so in houses of which we can be proud.  Planning alone cannot solve the crisis in housing we face, and which has resulted in the country building the fewest number of houses in peace time since the 1920s. However, it can underpin and significantly contribute to the Government’s housing strategy and the need to build more houses.

This framework recognises too that our natural and historic environment is essential to us all and it gives us a chance to ensure that it is better looked after than it has been to date.  There is no contradiction between the need for economic growth and the protection of our environment.  It is precisely what planning is there to ensure as this Framework makes clear.

The Framework makes explicit that a presumption in favour of sustainable development is at the heart of the planning system.  What this does not do is change the importance and primacy of a local authority’s Local Plan; in fact it reinforces it.  What it does do is to make explicit that sustainable development which is reflected in the Local Development Plan should be approved without delay and that which is not should be refused, subject to any relevant material considerations.  It also makes it clear that the presumption does not ‘trump’ the other policies in the Framework and which help set out what would or would not be sustainable development.

For too long the planning system has been confrontational.  In many cases the development industry and communities have tried to overcome this confrontation through quality engagement.  The Framework builds on this good practice to encourage communities and developers to see themselves as on the same side in delivering what people need, where they need it and that it reflects the quality design standards in which we can all take pleasure.

As a result of this Framework and the changes we have made to the planning system there are already signs of a renaissance of interest in planning from both communities and from those developers which recognise that co-operation and engagement are in the common interest.

As Open Source Planning said: “the planning system can play a major role in decentralising power and strengthening society – bringing communities together, as they formulate a shared vision of sustainable development.”

This Framework is a major step to achieving that.


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