The NPPF – 7 days later

Well,  after a week to dissect and digest it what’s the verdict??  I think it’s going to take a lot longer than a week to really test the NPPF and fully understand its implications for woods and trees as well as England as a whole. But as we wait for the lawyers to define what sustainable development means and what developmental benefits can really outweigh the loss of ancient woodland, here are my highlights (and lowlights) of the new planning framework for England.

Sustainable Development/The presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development

The NPPF has had lots of positive coverage in the press, and yes it is an improvement on the draft. The NPPF is now less obviously weighted in favour of development. The infamous ‘default yes to development’ has been removed and this blunt approach of the draft seems to have been watered down. However, as always the devil is in the detail. For example, the presumption now reads more clearly and there is a more inclusive definition of sustainable development which includes the 5 principles of sustainable development set out in the UK’s Development Strategy of 2005. However the value of this definition is undermined in the text as it states that paragraphs 18 to 219 taken as a whole constitute the Government’s view of sustainable development. Yes, you’ve guessed it – the nice new definition of suitable development is not within those paragraphs!

The Countryside

The core policies do set out increased protection than the draft for ordinary countryside: 

Take account of the different roles and character of different areas, promoting the vitality of our main urban areas, protecting the Green Belts around them, recognising the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside and supporting thriving rural communities within it; 

This cannot be seen as a victory for the countryside however, as it is a weakening of the existing policy set out in ‘Planning Policy Statement 7: Sustainable Development in Rural Areas’ (PPS7).  PPS7 asked Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) to promote:

good quality, sustainable development that respects and, where possible, enhances local distinctiveness and the intrinsic qualities of the countryside;

We don’t just want planning policies to recognise natural beauty, we need them to protect it and enhance it!

Housing 

This chapter mentions that new settlements or extension to settlements should follow the principles of ‘garden cities’. This has also had lots over coverage in the press, with the tabloids dubbing them ‘CamTowns’. Here at the Trust we have mixed views on what this could mean. We hope that these new towns can really embrace the best elements of garden cities and new green technologies, providing leafy green, well wooded places for people to live and work, not just be used as an excuse for low quality sprawl. 

Design

This section that has definitely improved since the draft, with a strong statement setting out that poor design should be refused. There is also a stronger emphasis on creating a sense of place and the importance of public spaces. We welcome the continued recognition of the importance of green spaces and landscaping in creating this sense of place. However we would liked to have seen specific mention of the benefits of tree planting. Whilst the creation of public space is positive, we believe that what you do with that space dictates its success and tree planting can be central to this.

Healthy Communities

The Local Green Space Designation proposed by the draft NPPF has been retained. This is very welcome, especially in the light of changes being made to the Village Green registration process. We asked for more detail on how communities can actually use this designation. Unfortunately the NPPF did not deliver this, though the final version does stress that a site must be special and locally significant. We are hopeful however that guidance on this will still be published – without this it is not at all clear how the designation will be put into practice.

Flooding and Climate Change

This chapter that has also improved; the 2008 Climate Act is now cited, giving the guidance a statutory context. The final version retains the draft’s reference to green infrastructure in mitigating against flooding and the impacts of climate change. We are disappointed that the special benefits of trees for functions such as cooling and stabilising soils have not been mentioned.

Conserving and Enhancing the Natural Environment

The introduction to this chapter in both the draft and the final versions talks about ‘valued landscapes’. The government state that the term ‘valued’ is a link back to localism. It is hoped that the term ‘valued’ will be judged upon local views/use, rather than being dependant on any designation. As such we hope it will offer opportunities for local people to protect the woods and trees they love and value.

One of the big stories following the publication of the NPPF was the return of the brownfield first policy. This unfortunately is not the case; whilst it is a step up on the draft (which made no mention of brownfield land) it is by no means the same as the previous policy in Planning Policy Statement 3: Housing which stated that previously developed land (brownfield) should be prioritised for development. The NPPF states only that planning should ‘encourage’ the re-use of previously developed land. There is no mention of developing brownfield land or pushing for its development prior to greenfield sites. It is also bad news for ancient woodland as the policy is not strong enough to prevent sprawl and the development of greenfield sites. LPAs have to meet the required housing numbers; they don’t have to prioritise the development of brownfield sites. Will developers take full advantage of the situation and develop where the returns are the greatest – greenfield sites!?

On the plus side however, this paragraph does state that plans should allocate land with the least environmental or amenity value first. This of course raises more problems – how do you judge environmental or amenity value, is it judged to be nationally or locally significant? And more importantly, is it environmental or amenity value? And can the two be compared?

Paragraph 117 in this chapter states that policies should ‘promote the preservation, restoration and re-create of priority habitats’. Ancient woodland is a priority habitat and we hope that this will promote its value in local plans, maybe even encouraging planning authorities to promote the restoration of Planted Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWs).

Unfortunately, where the NPPF gives with one hand it also takes with another, as the previous paragraph refers only  to planning policies, not decisions. Planning decisions will continue to be decided by guidance which includes the dreaded caveat we still fight against! The caveat set out in PPS9, the draft NPPF and now set out in paragraph 118, bullet 5 still remains:

planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland, unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss;

The wording remains the same as it was when set out in PPS9 with the addition of the word ‘clearly’. I believe that this could be interpreted either way, more evidence will need to be provided to make a case for either side and as such it makes very little impact on the actual implementation of the policy. So we remain very disappointed. This country’s last remaining ancient woodland is still under threat as the planning system will continue to facilitate its destruction.

Conclusion

By setting the bar very low with a very weak draft NPPF, the final version could only be an improvement. The difference between the draft and the final version is not however what is important. It is the changes between the NPPF and all the policies it has swept away that is key and that is what it should be judged on. Unfortunately it is going to take a lot longer than a week to do that.

Victoria Bankes Price MRTPI, planning adviser

About Kaye Brennan

Senior Campaigner (Policy & Advocacy) for the Woodland Trust and Administrator, 'Woodland Matters' blog
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20 Responses to The NPPF – 7 days later

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  10. itsonlyausername says:

    The term ‘Sustainable Development’ is contradictory.
    How can development be sustainable and fit with the ‘green’ spin that the government presents to all and sundry?
    It is only sustainable when it continues unabated to change one type of environment into another without stopping. There is only so much land available and it will always be the natural landscape that gets covered in tarmac and concrete for the ‘big businesses profits’ and ‘economic growth’. That is because the only landscape available for the developers which has less protecton is the natural landscape. For a nation that supposedly loves the great outdoors we certainly treat it like a litter tray when it comes to how we leave it after we go outdoors and we treat it like it is expendable when it comes to protection from greedy developers who’s real agenda is not providing homes for the homeless but providing big profits so share dividends get paid and share prices are maintained. Please don’t tell me we need more properties because I will shoot you down in flames with the real facts that get hidden away by those same people with the vested interests in more properties being built. Its all about money and power and status and ‘Economic Growth’ and absolutely nothing to do with sustainability.
    I loathe the term ‘Economic Growth’ more than I loathe the term ‘Development’ or ‘Developers’. Both raise my hackles and get me really angry because they have become synonymous with destruction of green spaces for profit. Nothing else.
    Incidentally the only thing ‘Green’ about this government is the mixing of yellow (Lib/Dems) with blue (Tory), which as any artist will tell you gives you green. That’s as green as they will get and so far they have proved it perfectly.

  11. Claire Margetts says:

    I think that our ancient woodlands deserve Listed status as much as historic buildings!

    • itsonlyausername says:

      I agree but the government won’t. They will never list ancient woodlands or the Ancient Trees as historic Monuments (or as you said ‘buildings’) because that would set an impossible precedent. How do you define ‘Ancient’? In terms of woodland we say it is 400years of continuous existence on the same piece of land. What about individual trees? I have argued this point for years but it is all about its value and worth to society and especially the paying public side. If its not profit making then forget it.

      In fact talking of protections did you know that if an SSSI site gets in the way of a companies development plans then the company can apply to government to have the site delisted allowing the company to develop their business despite the SSSI’s value and worth to biodiversity or even if it holds the very last member of an endangered species. In other words if a company wants to build a road it can do so subject to getting approval from the government (which isn’t difficult). All the company has to do is say ‘It obstructs out business plans and affects our future profitability’. Then the government will bend over backwards to accomadate profitability because that = ‘Economic Growth’ and that makes people think that the government has been great for the economy and hence worthy of re-election. Yeah right!
      Business comes first. Nature comes nowhere. That is why I fight like crazy to stop these people in their tracks.

  12. Will Godfrey says:

    Unfortunately I am not the least surprised by this smoke and mirrors act by the government. I wrote to my MP several times covering this whole issue and from the evasions in the replies it rapidly became clear that commercial interests far outweighed any other concerns.

    • Kaye Brennan says:

      Welcome and thanks for this comment, Will – sounds spot on I’m afraid!

      • itsonlyausername says:

        I got the same response from Tony Baldry MP (Tory, Cherwell) who as of late has been less than interested in discussing anything that went against the governments plans. In fact whilst in opposition he was most helpful yet since becoming one of the ruling elite he has changed his tune completely and no-longer even bothers to engage in a sensible debate. One response was ‘So what do you want me to do about it?’ in reply to a petition/letter on the protection of the Brown Hare, another endangered species. In fact he was most obnoxious about the introduction of Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking) into the UK claiming that the Environment Agency had decided and if I had any complaints then the law courts were the way to go. In other words they supported Fracking and we had better pay through the nose to stop it or shut up. What chance do we have with regards the future protection of the green spaces? I wouldn’t believe them if they said the sun was shining somewhere on planet Earth.
        What a difference a day in power makes.

  13. notonevote says:

    An oil company applied for permission to test drill on ancient woodland in Surrey because it was the lowest cost option; farmers would not have to be compensated. The seismic survey data was weak, the potential capacity uncertain. Only when this was specifically pointed out to the planners did they reject the application. The problem was that none of the planners new anything about technology or the oil business. Fortunately, on of the objectors did.

    However, the company appealed to the minister and we wait hear the determination. A suitable donation to party funds and a significant proportion of the woodland will be destroyed. The irony is that one day any oil or gas field beneath the woodland will be so valuable that compensating a farmer will be an insignificant cost but the oil or gas will have gone.

    • Alice Farr says:

      Lets hope that the evidence persuades the planning inspector to reject the application also. We often find that drilling rigs are located in woodland, as you say, it is a lower cost option but the trees also screen the development from view and help to filter noise. We have objected to these plans due to loss of ancient woodland and have been supporting the local group who are preparing for a public inquiry later this year.

  14. Jacquie Cox says:

    A great article Kaye, but utterly depressing. It was my impression also that they give with one hand and take away with the other. It has been my experience as a WoodWatcher that there are many woodlands that do not have Ancient Woodland status, but a question exists as to the possibility that they may well be i.e. they appear on maps from the early 1800s. Often there are woodlands where parts are designated as Ancient, and other parts that appear on these maps are not. I wonder if the introduction of the new NPPF makes a case for revisiting these woods to make clear their status once and for all. Especially since only actual Ancient Woodland appears to hold any value. Or is that a wood too far?

    • Alice Farr says:

      Thanks Jacquie and you are quite right. The ancient woodland inventory is only provisional. Some woods have been missed off, particularly if they are small. Planning policy used to specify that local authorities should identify areas of possible ancient woodland in their boundaries but this has not been carried forward into the NPPF.

      If there is any doubt about the history of a wood we always do initial checks and request that an applicant does the same. Some areas are updating their inventories which is fantastic. They are more accurate and include small fragments of woodland but not all area have been updated. As ancient woodland is so valuable and is irreplaceable we would like to see more updates to make sure we are not losing unidentified woods.

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