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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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