Campaigners have helped shape a Select Committee report on the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
Select Committees are made up of MPs who work together to check and report on the work of government departments. The highly controversial National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has been subject to inquiry since July by the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Select Committee, which considered evidence from the Woodland Trust amongst other individuals and groups. The report is published today – will Government adopt the changes recommended?
The Trust has a long record of championing woodland protection and creation within the planning system and we submitted written evidence to this Committee during its inquiry. We welcome its report today, in particular the call for further detail to be included in the final NPPF. Whilst it is not alone in supporting the principle of shortening national planning guidance, the Committee remains concerned that this has happened at the expense of clarity. We agree. We believe adding in detail will help improve environmental safeguards within the system and this could go a long way in enhancing the environmental policies set out in the NPPF – of course we think the expansion and protection of woods and trees this should form part of that detail!
Crucially, the Committee’s report recognises that the draft NPPF confuses sustainable development with sustainable economic growth, thereby skewing planning in favour of economic considerations. We are deeply worried that the quest for economic growth is being allowed to threaten our natural environment and irreplaceable habitats, particularly the most vulnerable such as ancient woodland. This is exactly why, although protection for ancient woods and trees was retained in the draft, we are still calling for the loophole that allows ancient woodland to be destroyed where the “economic benefits outweigh” the environmental loss to be removed. This loophole is a good example of how ambiguity in the planning system continues to place irreplaceable habitats at risk from development pressures – this wont change without a clear steer in the NPPF to both developers and the planning authority. More than 65% of the planning applications we have challenged in the last decade which threatened ancient woodland, were for developments which could have been sited elsewhere.
A very positive element in the report is the call for the removal of the ‘default yes’ to development – a point on which the Trust has been campaigning for in partnership with other environmental groups. Meanwhile, it was reassuring to read the Committee’s calls for clarification that the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ only applies where the proposed development accords with the local plan. Whilst that may have always been the intention, the Government does need to provide clarity on this, given how central this presumption could be in the new planning framework. Revising the draft would also provide an opportunity to make the new ‘local green space designation’ a workable tool, with more detail provided on what constitutes a suitable space and how local people can get these designated.
Communities and Local Government will need to respond to the recommendations in the report. Greg Clark, the Minister in charge of planning, has welcomed it and we hope he takes on board the valuable recommendations the Committee has made when publishing the final NPPF, due in early spring 2012. Acting on ancient woodland protection and improvement of the local environment are two very simple things Government can do to show it has listened to the Committee as well as the concerns raised by us and many others during the recent consultation.
As ever we will keep you up to date, just watch this space! – and you can subscribe to our blog to be the first to hear the latest news.
Victoria Bankes Price, planning adviser