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RIBA: MPs right to flag up ‘unsustainable development’ fears

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The RIBA has said the MP were right to raise concerns that the government’s planning reforms were driving unsustainable and inappropriate development

The institute’s head of external affairs Anna Scott-Marshall said the new report from the Communities and Local Government Select Committee, which looks at the effects of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), had reflected many of the institute’s fears.

Although the committee was broadly supportive of the stripped-down planning policy, introduced in 2012, MPs said its key ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ had made it easier for developers to push through speculative schemes in areas that did not have up-to-date local plans or a five-year housing supply.

Fewer than half of local planning authorities have such local blueprints in place, and the committee called for it to be a legal requirement for them to be adopted within three years.

They also called for the closing of a loophole that allows developers to challenge the inclusion of particular sites in five-year plans on the grounds of their viability and for a U-turn on some of the government’s change-of use reforms to stop the piecemeal introduction of residential development in town centres.

Scott-Marshall said much of the committee’s report echoed the evidence RIBA had given earlier in the year.

‘Like the committee we have concerns about the emphasis on the economics of sustainable development over the tenets of social and environmental sustainability, which is ramping up pressure on councils to accept inappropriate developments in their area,’ she said.

‘The NPPF should be there to support councils to demand quality and long-term sustainability from new housing stock, rather than focusing on short-term fixes.

She added: ‘The NPPF can only be successful with meaningful local plans; it is hugely concerning that such a proportion are still absent despite the ‘stick’ put in place when the NPPF was introduced.

‘The three year window suggested by the committee may help but frankly it is hard to see exactly what will unlock the political deadlock alongside reduced resource which results in a lack of good local plans.’

Royal Town Planning Institute president Cath Ranson added that the report had been right to spotlight the importance of staffing at councils.

“The committee has placed great emphasis on the need for resources to be restored to local planning authorities and in particular to plan making,’ she said.

‘We also back the MPs’ demands for proper provision of infrastructure. Lack of physical and social infrastructure has emerged in our own research as one of the major obstacles to housing supply.’

Hugh Ellis, head of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association, said the report would play an important role in opening the debate about reforming the NPPF.

‘We are particularly pleased with the report’s conclusions that a more robust definition of, and commitment to, sustainable development is needed,’ he said.

Bob May, director at consultants Turley said criticisms of the development sector diminished an otherwise good report.

He said: ‘The most important conclusion of the report is that for a plan-led system to work, plans need to be in place. 

‘Overall we welcome the emphasis in the report on strengthening the plan-led focus of the NPPF.  However, it is too early to think about changing the NPPF itself. Whether the current government has the appetite or time for embarking on even minor changes remains to be seen.’

The select committee’s full report and its 43 recommendations can be read here.

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