Paul Finch’s letter from London: Greg Clark has the unenviable task in the NPPF of putting town and country planning into perspective
Communities and Local Government minister Greg Clark must be feeling embattled. His proposals to reform the planning system started their consultation period quietly, no doubt because some people had gone on holiday, and many others, including me, thought the proposals had considerable merit, not least their publication in 52 pages of concise, readable English.
Alas for Clark, the powerful voices claiming to represent all that is noble about the English countryside are lining up to condemn him and his works. So powerful are the battalions arraigned against him that Clark has made noises about changing the wording of the NPPF where necessary in order to prove the government’s commitment to our green and pleasant land. George Osborne and Eric Pickles have had to step in to strengthen his hand.
Reading last Sunday’s newspapers it was clear what a tough job Clark has on his hands. When Bill Bryson (the secular saint of all we hold dear) joins Simon Jenkins (the saint of all that is rational), in a combined action against Whitehall, everyone takes cover.
What has particularly alarmed ruralists is the idea that planning permission should be granted for sustainable development as a default policy in the absence of an up-to-date local plan. Clark should stand his ground on this. For one thing, it is simply not true that the policy framework gives carte blanche to any old development anywhere. Ruralists are looking at this document as a series of silos, rather than as a connected piece of policy. This has led them to think that the worst is inevitable and that there is nothing in the framework to protect them.
In reality, in order to achieve planning permission, any scheme will need to conform to a series of guidance details set out in the NPPF, one of which is that designs of obviously poor quality should be rejected. That is one big safeguard against automatic permissions. Another is the
fact that in the NPPF, design quality and sustainability are treated as trees whose roots are inseparably bound, providing another safeguard against the quick and shoddy.
Finally, as the ruralists must know, there are a series of protections written into the framework that give substantial safeguards to rural communities and countryside lovers worried about the usual suspects unloading ill-considered mega-estates in the wrong place.
Of course Clark will want to amend and finesse where he can if it helps to carry the day. But he has another duty entirely separate from the issues of control that the NPPF contains, and that is the duty to provide the citizens of a growing country with the housing and the environments they so badly need. He faces the classic dilemma, outlined well by Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times, of dealing with people who don’t want development taking place anywhere near them, even if they recognise the desirability of development in principle.
The truth is that we need a radical approach to development and its planning context, given that the main political parties have failed over the last two decades to deliver this. It is not sufficient to reduce the argument to the binary view that rural housing is bad and urban housing is good. This fails to support those rural communities priced out of the market by weekenders who end up cheerleading for the countryside communities they themselves have contributed to making unworkable.
Nor will it do to continue treating housebuilders as pariahs, there to pay endless taxes and face long delays before they can go about their business.
Clark has an unenviable but important task ahead of him. Building is about growth, which is at the heart of the government’s political and economic agenda. Getting mimsy about planning reform does no good at all, which is why, possibly for the first time, planning reform was included as part of Osborne’s Budget statement in March. The chancellor was continuing an initiative started, let’s remember, by Gordon Brown.