Spatial planning is fundamental in the delivery of a society that is environmentally and socially sustainable. The idea that communities should have local facilities to reduce the need to travel and for cities to become more compact, preventing further destruction of the countryside is part of spatial planning, and therefore essential to achieving sustainable development.


These ideas were shared by many of the people who attended the Friends of the Earth’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) masterclass, held in Birmingham on the 30th of June.


For those who are not aware of the NPPF, it is the new planning framework that combined all of the previous policy statements to produce a fifty page document (reduced from 1000 pages). Over the last few months it has raised concerns among many groups, especially environment organisations – see our response here.


The aim of the event was to address concerns and discuss opportunities that the new planning framework can provide. The diversity of those present, from different parts of England and from varying organisations, is evidence of how important the planning changes are and how an “action perspective” was needed.


Particularly interesting was the first workshop, led by Hugh Ellis from the Town and Country Planning Association, which looked at the key policies included in the document and how they differ from the previous policies. What emerged is that, although many principles have remained, the NPPF uses generally more ambiguous language. Therefore, the NPPF could allow more planning approvals through the courts instead of the planning system. This highlights the controversial introduction of the presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’ which could skew the planning system more in favour of developers than people and environmental needs. The workshop also discussed which parts of the NPPF could be used to promote real sustainable cities.


Another workshop that I particularly enjoyed was about retail, and led by Helen Rimmer. Some of those who attended had a lot of experience with protecting town centres and local businesses from uncontrolled and unwanted supermarket developments. The discussion looked at policies that could protect our local shops, which should be included in local plans. These ideas have been very influential for the Community Planning Guide that we are writing at Birmingham Friends of the Earth.


The meeting was a good opportunity to meet other people involved in planning and to discuss ideas and opinions. The Planning Hub, an outcome of the class, will be useful in keeping people connected and in providing a point of reference both for those generally interested in planning and for those campaigning for or against a specific development.


The event must be praised for focusing equally on the negative and positive sides of the NPPF. It provided useful suggestions about how to defend communities from unwanted developments and how to create opportunities through good local and neighbourhood plans. The main message that from the meeting was the importance of people getting involved in local planning making. Early involvement in planning will help to shape our community to meet local needs and will push for positive social and environmental sustainability.