Planning policy verdict: government listened

This is a guest post by Dame Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust and Green Alliance trustee. She gives her reaction as the final National Planning Policy Framework document is published by the government, following the influential campaign by the National Trust and others.

We’re all poring over the new, and final, National Planning Policy Framework.  There are many nuances to be teased out and, in the end, only time will tell whether this is a document fit to shape England for the next 50 years. But there’s no doubt at all that this is a much better document than the draft we first saw last July.

We were very clear on our concerns last summer. The draft NPPF as it was presented would have led at best to chaotic planning as appeal after appeal was heard; at worst, it would have resulted in the sort of unrestrained destruction of countryside and heritage that led to the creation of a planning system in the first place.

Important changes made
The rhetoric from government has not changed.  The NPPF is still seen as a tool – mistakenly, we think – to drive growth, rather than to enable good growth. But the government has made several important changes to the original, on issues we campaigned for on behalf of our members and the 230,000 people who signed our petition:

  • the primacy of the Local Plan is confirmed, ensuring that development must be consistent with the plan;
  • a better definition of sustainable development, based on the 2005 sustainable development strategy;
  • the insertion of references to the use of brownfield land and the need to promote town centres;
  • removal of the incendiary default ‘yes’ to development where there is no plan;
  • reference to the ‘intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside’, recognising the importance of the countryside outside designated areas;
  • confirmation that existing plans will remain in force while the new NPPF is introduced, and that there will be a one-year transition for the preparation of new plans.

Now for the nitty gritty
There is no doubt about the importance of this document. It’s the foundation for how England develops as a country over the next 50 years and beyond. But the NPPF is only the start. Now comes the nitty gritty. A transition period of 12 months is allowed for all those local authorities without plans, or without adequate plans, to create them. And places that already have plans will need to evolve them so that they align with the new framework.  This will require a huge effort involving local communities across the country. It’s a huge opportunity too – a chance to think about and create places we want to live in.

But people will need help to do that, and that’s where organisations like the National Trust and many others who have a track record in working with communities can play their part.  This is the start of a national conversation about what people want from the places they live in; and local effort to translate general guidance into Local Plans that work, meeting a mix of social, environmental and economic goals, in ways that are right for that community.  We must rise to that challenge too, and help people to get the best possible outcomes.

Government can listen
It was back in July 2011 that our Board of Trustees took the almost unprecedented decision that the National Trust should launch a public campaign against the threat posed by the draft NPPF. It’s not often we campaign so strongly on a national issue because our four million members represent such a broad church. But the imperative this time was clear. We were amazed by the response and level of support, from the public online and at our properties, from the media, and from politicians; and from some extraordinary allegations levelled against us in the beginning to the prime minister’s open letter to me in the Daily Telegraph.

It’s been a remarkable nine months. But what it shows is at once utterly unremarkable and very special – just how much places mean to people.  And that, even in the face of extraordinary rhetoric and pressure, governments can listen to people.

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