Unlocking Growth - does the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework help or hinder?

Paul Clarke Bidwells

The long awaited National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has finally been published on 27 March 2012.  It seeks to deliver Government policy on planning and significantly reduces down the plethora of policies and statements previously issued by the Government.  The main thrust of the document is positive and seeks to create sustainable growth in a proactive and plan led manner.  But what does it mean for the local economy of Norfolk?

In terms of delivering sustainable development, the document has two important sections relating to building a strong and competitive economy (Paragraphs 18-22) and ensuring the vitality of town centres (Paragraphs 23-27).  In addition, there are also sections relating to supporting a prosperous rural economy (Paragraph 28) and in promoting sustainable transport (Paragraphs 29-41).  This note seeks to concentrate on those particular sections and on the implications that there may be for the local economy. 

In the Budget speech, the Chancellor made reference to the NPPF as being “unashamedly pro-growth”.  The Framework still confirms this, indicating that planning “should operate to encourage and not act as an impediment to sustainable growth”.  The Government remains committed to securing growth and “to ensuring that the planning system does everything it can do to support sustainable economic growth.  Planning should operate to encourage and not act as an impediment to sustainable growth.  Therefore, significant weight should be placed on the need to support economic growth through the planning system”.  (Paragraph 19).  The document seeks to provide, at intervals, weight to certain areas.  It is important to recognise that the only area where the term “significant weight” is used is in relation to economic growth.  While the 12 core principles of the NPPF are specifically orientated towards economic development, stating that planning should “proactively drive and support sustainable economic development”.

The document also instructs Local Planning Authorities to plan proactively and to “meet the development needs of business and to support an economy fit for the 21st Century”.  (Paragraph 20).  Planning policy should “seek to address potential barriers to investment, including a poor environment or any lack of infrastructure, services or housing”. (Paragraph 21). 

Town Centres
 

Town centres are recognised as being at the heart of the community and their viability and vitality should be supported (Paragraphs 23-27).  This Town Centre First Policy has been strengthened through the Mary Portas review, published in December and the Government’s formal response, issued in March 2012.  All major town centre uses, including offices, are covered by this policy.  In terms of retail in town centres, Planners should:
 

§  “Promote competitive town centres that provide customer choice and a diverse retail offer and which reflect the individuality of town centres;

§  Retain and enhance existing markets and, where appropriate, re-introduce or create new ones, ensuring that markets remain attractive and competitive; and

§  Where town centres are in decline, Local Planning Authorities should plan positively for their future to encourage economic activity.”
 

The sequential test still remains and it applies to main town centre uses that are not in an existing centre and are not in accordance with an up to date Local Plan, but not to “small scale rural offices or other small scale rural development”.  (Paragraphs 24-25). Importantly, this section also makes reference to areas where “town centres are in decline, Local Planning Authorities should plan positively for their future to encourage economic activity”.  

Rural Economy
 

This short section on the rural economy focuses on the need for supporting “sustainable growth and the expansion of all types of business and enterprise in rural areas”.  It also makes reference to this being achieved “through conversion of existing buildings and well-designed new buildings”, which would appear to allow the prospect of increased conversion of agricultural buildings and appropriate new additions. 

It also seeks to encourage the development and diversification of agricultural and other land based rural businesses.  Rural tourism and leisure developments that benefit businesses in rural areas, communities and visitors are also referred to.  A new requirement that appears to have been added through pressure from CPRE is that plans “should promote the retention and development of local services and community facilities in villages, such as local shops, meeting places, sports venues, cultural buildings, public houses and places of worship”.

Transport
 

In terms of promoting sustainable transport, the document reiterates the need that development should be planned to minimise travel and maximise sustainable travel.  It also recognises that the transport solutions in rural and urban areas will be different.  The transport system needs to give people a real choice about how they travel and encouragement should be given to solutions which support reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and reduced congestion.  Smarter use of technology can reduce the need to travel (Paragraphs 29-30).
 

Neighbouring and transport authorities should cooperate on major infrastructure projects.
 

Developments that generate significant amounts of movements should be located in places where the need to travel is minimised; where it is possible to give priority to pedestrian and cycle movements; and have access to high quality public transport facilities.  Planning policy should aim for a balance of land uses within their areas and mixed use developments.  Development should only be prevented or refused on transport grounds where the transport system cannot be improved cost effectively (Paragraphs 32 and 34-38). 

In response to the Portas Review, a new policy on town centre parking has been adopted.  “Local Authorities should seek to improve the quality of parking in town centres so that it is convenient, safe and secure, including appropriate provision for motor cycles.  They should set appropriate parking charges that do not undermine the vitality of town centres.  Parking enforcement should be proportionate” (Paragraph 40). 
 

LEP’s
 

The NPPF makes reference to LEP’s as being part of a process to “work together with county and neighbouring authorities and with local enterprise partnerships to prepare and maintain a robust evidence base to understand both existing business needs and likely changes in the market”.  This is the only reference made in the document other than in paragraph 180 where they are referred to as consultees in cross-boundary strategic planning.

Clearly, there is an important link in understanding the strategic perspective on local economic growth in order for Local Plans to promote “building a strong competitive economy”.  Councils are expected to “plan proactively to meet the business needs and support an economy fit for the 21st Century” (paragraph 20).  Paragraph 21 lists out six key areas where new Local Plans should:
 

§  Set out a clear economic vision and strategy;

§  Set criteria or identify strategic sites for local and inward investment;

§  Support existing business sectors;

§  Plan positively for the location, promotion and expansion of clusters or networks of high-tech industry;

§  Identify priority areas for economic regeneration, infrastructure provision and environmental enhancements;

§  Facilitate flexible working practices (e.g. through live/work units).
 

There is an important role to be played by the LEP’s in providing Councils with the views of the local business, which, inevitably, requires them to get involved in the planning process.

Conclusions
 

The document is very positive in seeking to promote sustainable growth.  The language used in this document is something of real change and whilst there is the potential for the broad objectives set in this document to conflict with each other, the presumption in favour of sustainable development is likely to play a key role in the planning balance.  The clear message to Local Planning Authorities is that planning should not be seen as an impediment to growth.  There are two important statements towards the end of the NPPF that are worth noting which are:
 

§  “Local Planning Authorities should approach decision taking in a positive way to foster the delivery of sustainable development”; and

§  Local Planning Authorities should look for solutions rather than problems, and decision-takers at every level should seek to approve applications for sustainable development, where possible.”
 

It would be easy to condemn the NPPF as a superficial document that is vague or imprecise, however, the positive language it uses should prompt decision makers to facilitate unlocking growth, not obstructing it.

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