#56: Planning: The Failed Process or The Curse of the NPPF, a community nightmare.

NPPF CARTOON

The Local Context.

The cartoon at the head of this article was used several years ago by Helen Howie, at the time a senior planning officer in Shropshire Council’s planning department, in a presentation to local councillors at Shirehall to illustrate the power of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

Helen Howie subsequently followed other planning department colleagues by leaving Shropshire Council to work for one of the larger local land agents.

Following the mass exodus of senior planning officers in 2013 (South Shropshire alone lost 40% of its experienced planning staff), those that were left behind found themselves facing private sector planning agents who had not only helped to draw up Shropshire Council’a planning policies but knew where all the skeletons were hidden.

Helen Howie would now, of course, be sitting up there in the cab with the developer.

Helen Howie used that cartoon to demonstrate what everyone in the county would be facing if Shropshire Council’s 5 year housing land supply – on which all planning assumptions regarding housing need was based – was challenged by developers who argued that they should be allowed to build more houses to meet a need that THEY determined. If that challenge to Shropshire Council’s figures was successful then the NPPF would kick in and developers would have carte blanche, it’s why the NPPF even in its consultation stages was known as “the developer’s charter”.

The 5 year housing land supply figure was challenged, in a case known as the Teal Drive appeal…

https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/local-hubs/oswestry/ellesmere/2017/07/07/appeal-to-build-homes-near-the-mere-in-ellesmere-thrown-out-/

As the case progressed, Shropshire Council had to acknowledge that the methodology used to determine its 5 year housing land supply needed to be amended to make it more “objective”, a process that was actually called “Full Objectively Assessed Housing Need”, handily referred to as “FOAHN” (pronounced as in “phone”).

The impact of the NPPF was eased only in the sense that its grip on the throat of Shropshire Council was no longer deadly enough to kill it off, it lived. Ironically, the victim then started to emulate its tormentor to the extent that it was difficult to tell them apart.

The victim becomes the perpetrator.

As I explained in some detail in blog #53: How Do Planners Get Away With It? planners are not averse to forcing through schemes that they haven’t fully consulted on by claiming to have neither the time nor the resources for such a waste of taxpayer’s money.

“Not in the public interest.”

Planners have a blind spot for irony!

What’s so creepy is that what’s between the lines is the implicit threat to any community that challenges the underlying assumption that it’s OK to build houses as long as houses ARE being built, that where they’re built is a mere detail not worth losing sleep over.

Planners vs The People: the chasm has in fact always existed but has just got wider.

On being elected to Shropshire Council in May 2013 my previous experience of “planners” had given me a rather jaundiced view of the profession, to the extent that I lumped them in with lawyers and architects, in fact in with all the various “professionals” who decide what’s best for the rest of us based on their tenuous grasp of reality.

For a number of years I was a Moderator on the ‘ebuild’ forum, an internet-based forum dealing primarily with energy-efficient self-builds (and any other incidental construction subjects, including historic buildings). If any subject took up more time than any other it was “planning”, not just the bare-bones law of national planning policy but the post-code lottery type of issue, where one local authority’s planning department took a different view on an issue than its neighbour; the subjective issues, subjective because planning departments have directors of planning and, as in all organisations, whatever cultural bias exists at the top will filter down through the ranks.

I remember a similar pattern of enquiries during my few years as a regular contributor to the Green Building Forum.

So I’ve had a lot to do with planners and planning departments from this side of the fence, including what used to be called Conservation Officers. My own business was called ‘Conservation Joinery Services’ and I was engaged in that work for over 20 years so I’m familiar with the way planning officers think and planning departments work – or did, until fairly recently, when even more power was shifted into the hands of planners.

What little accountability they were subject to before was lessened even further by the greater control they were handed by central government to self-determine whether and how far accountability applied to them. (See blog #53 and its references to the ‘Statement of Community Involvement’.)

What happened was not a subtle shift, it was a difference of an order of magnitude.

It’s worth getting your head around the NPPF because it’s so important a planning consideration, but also note that whilst the NPPF might be the primary factor, what’s lubricating the wheels is the Localism Act 2011. That, too, needs a little explaining.

So, the “NPPF”?

The NPPF followed a commitment made in the 2010 Coalition Agreement to ‘publish and present to Parliament a simple and consolidated national planning framework covering all forms of development setting out national economic, environmental and social priorities’. The then-Minister for Planning and Decentralisation, Greg Clark, suggested it introduced a simpler and more accessible approach to planning policy.”

https://www.designingbuildings.co.uk/wiki/National_planning_policy_framework_NPPF

[See also… https://www.localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/planning/318-planning-features/38849-reflections-on-the-revised-nppf ]

Eric Pickles (now Lord Pickles) was the government minister who wielded the axe over the old planning regime.

From the outset the NPPF was generally recognised by affected stakeholders as disastrous for local communities, in fact as being nothing more than a lightly disguised “developer’s charter”.

Pickles had dissembling down to a fine art; a consummate politician he wasn’t averse to bending rules, including arbitrarily calling-in and over-riding judgments of the High Court and Appeal Courts to suit his own ends when things weren’t going his way; the loose wording of the NPPF allowed him to justify every twist and turn.

The Localism Act 2011 was ostensibly about decentralising power to local people to “give local people far more ability to shape the places in which they live”*.

Through a series of reforms, Pickles claimed that:

the coalition government was making the planning process more accessible to local communities, because planning works best when communities themselves have the opportunity to influence the decisions that affect their lives”*.

Specious beyond belief!

That cartoon at the head of this article says it all graphically, the NPPF does the ethical and moral damage by ploughing its way through objection and the Localism Act adds insult to physical injury by sticking a bandage over it and telling communities that “at least you’ve had your say”.

Under the subtitle: ‘Greater community consultation’, Pickles actually set out in the National Planning Policy Framework “the importance of early and meaningful engagement with local communities”*, a statement that verges on the criminally misleading.

[* Written statement to Parliament by Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government.]

Giving with strings attached.

The NPPF guidance says that a proposal should be approved as sustainable development unless the adverse impacts clearly and significantly outweigh the benefits. Anyone with even a passing interest in semantics will see that the battle is lost before it’s begun.

That “a proposal should be approved as sustainable development unless the adverse impacts clearly and significantly outweigh the benefits” is, on the face of it clear enough. But define “clearly”; define “significantly”.

To make an aggrieved local community faced with an unwanted development feel as if it has a chance of arguing its case, the NPPF dangles a carrot by saying that if the development is not “sustainable” any claimed planning advantages can be considered non-existent, therefore the presumption in favour can be challenged, which is WHY developers pepper their supporting arguments with the word “sustainable” and so, supported by the government’s determination to encourage building wherever a brick can be laid, the planning “benefits” can be made to appear overwhelmingly in favour of the “presumption” which, bitter experience has taught us, makes it difficult-to-impossible to displace, proving that you can be beaten around the head with a carrot as well as a stick.

Keep the buggers guessing.

Another consideration, for the planners as well as the developers, are “market signals”.

Market signals may be just one of many factors but they can be manipulated easily (planners are learning from developers here – as are the politicians), objection can be made to appear unreasonable:

But people need somewhere to live, are you suggesting we shouldn’t build houses?”.

Given the malleable nature of “market signals”, subject as they are to government policy based more on the numbers on a spreadsheet, as well as political expediency (especially close to general elections), than locally determined need based on, well, locally determined need, “market signals” are nothing more than white noise.

So how do you determine “need” when that “need” is presented as being nothing more than a response to “market signals”? It’s a movable feast!

Here in Highley a few years back the number of houses the community assessed it needed was determined according to the number its infrastructure could handle, the sums were kept simple. The assessment was completed as part of the main county-wide planning document known as ‘Site Allocations and Management of Development (SAMDev).

By the time SAMDev was first rolled out in its final form the bulk of that locally determined “need” had already been built and occupied, leaving a balance of 30 houses needed to meet Highley’s quota, a balance easily identified and classified, not least because one outstanding site within the development boundary had Outline Planning Permission (OPP) for at least 30 houses in place for over 30 years anyway!

Also on the books was another site (known locally as ‘The Cedars’ and officially included in Shropshire’s 5 year housing land supply figures) with OPP for 40 houses which has subsequently been developed with 35 houses and renamed the Staley Grove estate, so more than enough to satisfy anyone other than the planners.

Bewilderment Rules, OK.

So what about the “plan-led” planning system Shropshire’s planners make so much fuss about?

So what about it?

Indeed.

Couch legislation in the vaguest of terms and it’s made arguable and whilst both sides of the argument might be heard, only one voice will ever be listened to – the planners.

It’s my conviction that even in planning it is not unreasonable to expect a minimum standard of professional ethics at a level the public expects of its public servants (and public perception here is paramount) because the term “public servant” isn’t without meaning, and certainly isn’t without expectation on the part of the public, a public that public servants ostensibly exist to serve.

They often add insult to injury by claiming that the “consultation” they engage in is a concession because they are under no obligation to consult at all. That was made clear by the planning officer presenting Shropshire Council’s case for the further 122 houses in Highley assumed in the Council’s latest Local Plan. His exact response to criticism of the methodology in respect of the publication (2019) of their “preferred sites” locations was…

Well, we didn’t actually have to consult at all!”

What the planners rely on is the document I referred to earlier, the ‘Statement of Community Involvement’ (SCI). As an exercise in just how extreme the limits of cynicism can be stretched it takes some beating because the CSI not only allows a local authority to decide whether to consult, it allows them to set out the conditions on which it is prepared to consult.

https://www.shropshire.gov.uk/planning-policy/local-planning/statement-of-community-involvement/

When 2 + 2 = 3.5 – x (where x = infrastructure).

Even a basic understanding of the social housing market explains why, in a place like Highley (population circa 3,600+ and semi-rural with little local employment), the availability of social housing at affordable rents can make the difference between a family or an individual just about managing and not being able to manage at all. There is, after all, supreme irony in building houses for the open market that no one can afford to rent, let alone buy.

But you cannot in all conscience build houses in communities without thought for the impact those developments will have on local roads, shops and schools, yet significantly for Highley future development is not linked to infrastructure in any way, shape or form.

Without consideration of infrastructure the word “sustainable” is meaningless.

Consideration of infrastructure is critical at the outset and makes the inclusion of Highways in inter-departmental planning an imperative, but the impression given is that, at least in the Shropshire Council planner’s book, instead of being a core consideration it is seen as a radical divergence from orthodoxy.

Planning classifications of ‘communities’, which determines how a community is viewed in terms of its potential to absorb more development, is now decided by Shirehall planners. Regardless of how those communities might insist they should to be classified in line with their local knowledge based on actually LIVING in that community, it is Shirehall calling the shots.

How out of touch with reality planners can be is demonstrated by their continuing to argue that the population figure for Highley in 2016 was “estimated” to be 3,195, despite the earlier 2011 official government census (not known for making ‘estimates’) showing the population – eight years ago – as 3,602, since when we’ve seen 122 houses built since 2013.

Either the planners have got it seriously wrong or the population has shrunk.

The population has obviously shrunk, there couldn’t possibly be any other explanation.