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Local planning authorities need to be pro-active, or we can expect the worst

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‘Untrammelled’ development can only happen where a local authority has no plan for accommodating housing need, writes Paul Finch

I have some sympathy for the residents of country villages or homes on the edge of cities next to green belt when they find their expectations of rural peace and quiet being disrupted by unexpected and unwanted housing development.  The National Trust and the Council for the Protection of Rural England are expressing deeply felt anger at one of the outcomes of the National Planning and Policy Framework (NPPF): groups of unscrupulous lawyers riding roughshod over local feeling to obtain as-of-right planning permissions on sites not previously regarded as suitable for development.

Conservatives are going to be given an electoral bloody nose, no doubt, since they will be blamed for what is being described as ‘untrammelled’ development in countryside where an Englishman’s home will now be a castle with a view of something he doesn’t want to see.

However, one has to say in defence of the NPPF that this development activity, prompted by advertisements in the farming press promising to make landowners fortunes on a no win/no fee basis, can only happen where the local planning authority has no proper plan for accommodating anticipated housing need.

The authorities in question have had ample time to prepare such plans, have been warned about the consequences, yet still keep their heads stuck firmly in the sand.  This is sometimes because councillors are frightened of the electoral consequences of identifying appropriate sites (shades of the current Archers plotline), in which case the electorate should look at itself in the mirror.

But there is a deeper problem, which one suspects lies behind the ostrich approach to housing expansion.  That is the way in which town and country planning ever since 1947 has had overtones of control and veto, rather than enabling and creating.  The AJ’s occasional planning correspondent, Brian Waters, has often compared planning to the rationing system that was in place when the legislation was prepared, and it is a sorry fact that some planning officers seem to imagine that they are doing you a favour if they support a planning application.

In a system where applicants feel like defendants in a court case, but one where you have to prove your innocence, it is scarcely surprising that the response is to reach for a planning consultant.  The rise and rise of this formerly relatively minor branch of the consultancy world is evidence of how planning has been deformed into something other than a method of determining suitability and design quality. Now it is about infrastructure levy and Section 106 and planning gain and similar burdens.

So planning authorities with no idea where required housing will go in the next five years can find themselves with permissions imposed by people who by definition have no interest in the feelings and aspirations of the communities who will be affected by development. Shame on those authorities for failing in their duty to make planning pro-active and to create homes for the future.

It may be that authorities will be able to invoke other parts of the NPPF to resist low-quality development, which would be a highly likely outcome of shotgun planning permissions. For example, they may reject the inappropriate on grounds of poor design. Good luck to them; but homes will still be needed.

Planning is, or should be, a democratic process for improving the environment, which includes having an up-to-date local plan that enables good development. Permissions should be granted on the basis of planning advice (and heritage advice, where relevant), independent design reviews for significant proposals and decisions of elected members. What it shouldn’t be about is bullying opportunists on the one hand, or on the other planning committees who think doing nothing is acceptable.

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