A town with the bus station in one place, a shopping street with small shops in another place, and another, then a new shopping centre with some dedicated bus services and a big car park in a newly developed centre away from the other places. Can you see why public transport might struggle? Would this be the place you would choose to live?
The town exists, in Poland, Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski, and, from experience, is not satisfactory. Such a thrown together uncoordinated mess might be the norm in future in England and Wales, should current government proposals, go ahead unchanged. Towns and cities in Great Britain have made some great leaps forward in recent years with some streets praised for their look and feel. In general, there are not miles of roadside development stretching away from towns, but rather a clear division between town and country. This, with population growth putting pressure on provision of housing, is quite an achievement.
For many years, Friends of the Earth would campaign for development of ‘brownfield land’ rather than building on farmland or other Greenfield land. Housing developers disliked the idea of building on land where there had been earlier uses, the clean-up of the land usually being more expensive. The idea of leaving swathes of empty urban land unused whilst building afresh on farmland became unpopular with many people. By restricting the availability of open fields, refreshing towns and cities with new buildings became the norm.
With anything worthwhile, a standard has to be set. There is nothing unusual with an exam result from school, or the workings of a nuclear power station, requiring following rules and meeting and exceeding standards. Is there anywhere more suited to standards than the layout of towns that might stand for many years, decades or centuries?
Rules are, however, annoying. Rules get in the way and frustrate progress. Dump that barrel of waste in the river and get back to the workplace to make some money. Buy the land, put up the building, and get people back to work quickly in the unregulated shed. When it comes to home life, you want to put up a porch without filling in a form. The planning process slows you down, the Confederation of British Industry saying in April: ‘the pace of the planning process needs to be improved dramatically if the UK is to compete internationally’.
The way the process has worked in recent years is that a set of rules ‘planning guidance’ applied nationally. Below this, more detailed standards and expectations applied on a ‘regional level’. The regional level had a democratic element with some effort being put into suggesting where gravel pits, power stations, forestry and housing would go. Rolling back a map with a maniacal laugh, evil planners would pour a requirement for new houses onto an unsuspecting borough. The democratic bit was the input of puzzled individuals pleading their case and well-funded firms wheeling out the lawyers to change the rules (and later to get around them). The final level in the planning system was the local level planning that would state what local schools, shops, roads and parks are to be provided when areas where change is allowed, get developed. Cumbersome it may be, but it meant that everyone could find the plan for the land in their area and to not be deceived. It also meant that it was much clearer for developers to know where and what type of development should take place, so if they proposed something that fitted with the plan and policies, there was every chance that they would gain permission for it.
The government wants a simpler system with policy being in a little over 50 pages (down from over a thousand). This really does seem to offer a much simpler way, and there are a lot of merits in making the policy easier to understand and more accessible to the public. However, it is not so simple if the wording is like the conditions of a bank account or ‘lawyer-speak’. The reason that planning documents are long is because they have to cover every angle and be very explicit about what is and is not acceptable (we all know how different people can interpret the same text in very different ways if there is ambiguity).
Unfortunately, much of this structured planning is to be ripped up, along with a great deal of the protection of people’s neighbourhoods, green spaces, local facilities and nature. The government’s NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) is set to replace the thousand plus pages of planning policy with around fifty. Obviously, such a reduction in size is bound to have an effect on the quality of the policy, and it appears that the overriding aim of the NPPF is to deliver as much economic growth as possible. The document states that there should be ‘a presumption in favour of sustainable development’. Sustainable development you say? Surely that’s a good thing? Well yes, it should be, but alas the NPPF doesn’t actually give a definition of what ‘sustainable development’ is, and whilst us at Friends of the Earth have our own ideas about what it means, there are lots of others in business and the council that have very different ideas – ones that will only succeed in sustaining the urban spiral, with the loss of our parks and countryside, and the creation of disjointed developments that will cause traffic chaos and have massive detrimental effects on our communities.
This strategy for increasing the amount of planning approvals by removing vast swathes of planning policy seems rather bizarre to us. It’s a bit like having a strategy to reduce crime by abolishing massive amounts of laws! If the Home Secretary was to suggest such a strategy he’d quickly find himself out of a job, but Greg Clark, the Minister for Decentralisation and Planning, seems to think this is a great plan for our planning system.
In addition to the government’s NPPF planning free-for-all, the Localism Bill is also being pushed through. The Government claims that this will allow a greater say for local communities. However, this bill includes no clear process on how local people will be involved. Much has also been made of the new ‘Community Plans’ that will allow local people to define what development takes place in their area, but again we are being sold a poor deal. ‘Community Plans’ will have to be paid for by the community, leaving it a luxury for only those who can afford it, or a developer with vested interests to sponsor it. What’s more, these plans will only be able to allow more development rather than be able to block bad or unwanted development. Hardly giving power to the people, is it?
So what can we do to save our communities and our green space from the fast buck merchants, prevent us all living in a disjointed concrete jungle, and make sure our right to be heard and involved in shaping our communities is protected and improved? Well, we can respond to the Government’s consultation on the NPPF. It might seem complicated, but really you only need to ask for a few keys parts to be altered and added to make this policy way better. Here’s what they are:
Removing the presumption in favour of development, so developers will need to pay more attention to planning policies and local plans.
Outlining the need to respect environmental limits, making sure plans and planning proposals address issues such as climate change and resource use.
Defining sustainable development, as laid out in the existing PPS1 (Planning Policy Statement 1) and the U.K Sustainable Development Strategy, ensuring that development delivers within our integrated social, economic and environmental objectives. This includes:
Living within environmental limits.
Ensuring a strong, healthy and just society.
Achieving a sustainable economy.
Promoting good governance.
Using sound science responsibly.
Please respond in writing to:
Alan C Scott – National Planning Policy Framework
Department of Communities & Local Government
London SW1E 5DU
or online at:
As an extra, or if you don’t have much time to write a full response (although it would be great if you could), please take a couple of minutes to sign up to these online actions from Friends of the Earth, Living Streets, and The National Trust, all of whom are very concerned about the impacts the NPPF would have:
Friends of the Earth action:
Living Streets action:
National Trust action:
Please also take this additional Friends of the Earth action to improve the Localism Bill and make sure local people have a voice and have real involvement in shaping their communities: