Avoiding wheezes and whims

By Greg Clark | 08 August 2023
  • Greg Clark

My first job in Government was to draw up the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). It was a tumultuous experience. During the month of September 2011 I appeared day in, day out on the front page of the Daily Telegraph – and not in a good way.

The reason for the furore was I proposed to replace more than 1,000 pages of planning policy across a forest of acronyms (anyone remember PPSs and PPGs?) with a 50-page document. To do so was assumed to be an act of barbarism. In fact, it was a serious exercise to make planning more accessible and to galvanise sustainable development.

I’m worried about the imminent publication by the Government of a revised NPPF. It’s not just that I take a proprietorial interest in what I still think of as my baby.

It’s partly that, having reformed policy, I wanted it to be stable and familiar to practitioners – including members and officers in local government. One of the problems of planning policy was it was always in flux, an endless sequence of government wheezes and whims.

I’m also concerned planning policy will be hijacked by crude Westminster politics – a battlefield on which sensible development is the casualty.

The 2012 NPPF worked, and we must not lose sight of why. The first indicator of success is no one would go back to how things were before – whether it is councils, housebuilders, environmentalists or the planning profession, it is rare to meet anyone that doesn’t think the NPPF was a step forward.

Second, it got houses built. You can see the rise in planning permissions from the moment the NPPF was published and took immediate effect. It broke out of a trough of 125,000 net new homes a year to reach 250,000 a year before Covid hit.

Third, it has made sure our cherished natural and historic environments have been protected and I think the quality of changes to our built environment made through planning permissions is higher now than was the case in the 90s and noughties.

The main reason the NPPF worked was it required honesty. Planning would be local, but a plan had to be genuine: a serious acceptance of the responsibility to meet the future housing and development need of an area, and to permit development to achieve it. A local authority that refused to make a true assessment of need, or declined to grant planning permissions to meet it, had ducked the essential requirement to plan genuinely for the future, and should forfeit the right to make decisions.

I worry we may be heading for a muddle, with some councils thinking they have carte blanche to declare they need little or no development and can drop serious plan-making or sensible decision-taking. Some local planning authorities have already paused their plan-making or site allocations fuelled by this hope. And at the same time the new NPPF seems destined to include more quixotic initiatives imposed by Whitehall on communities, who know themselves better than the most well-intentioned official in London.

There are some ways in which the original NPPF can be improved. The duty to co-operate, which applies to neighbouring councils, has turrned out to be a driver of disagreement, rather than a means of resolving larger-than-local matters. The next big reform I would make would be to move planning to upper-tier authorities where a more strategic perspective can be taken. It would also address the alarming thinness of many district council planning departments, where under-resourced officers are pulled in all directions without the professional benefit of working in a team of experienced colleagues.

I would also introduce a more robust requirement that new development should be accompanied by improvements to infrastructure – not just roads and transport but upgrades to water supply, drainage improvements, more schools and doctors’ surgeries, and leisure and sporting facilities. Development would be much less contested if the public were confident it would lead to better infrastructure rather than greater strain on it.

With a growing population and changing patterns of work and leisure, we absolutely need to build more. But I don’t understand the tendency of some Conservative ministers to talk the record of the last 10 years down: we have doubled the rate of housebuilding, while protecting the environment. We should be building on what worked, not abandoning it.

Conservative MP Greg Clark is a former levelling up secretary


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