West Sussex Countryside
By Alex Oxborough
Environmental groups have warned that new planning policy guidelines, recently released by the coalition government, are a threat to the countryside, ancient woodland and the character of rural communities.
JUST one year after the establishment of the South Downs National Park, the Sussex countryside is under threat. Bringing to mind the adage “the best laid plans of mice and men” — often applied to actions that prompt unintended consequences — environmental groups have warned that a lack of clarity in the government’s recent review of national planning policy has left legal loopholes.
The most radical overhaul of planning policy for 20 years, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has rewritten the rulebook on development. Whereas in recent years planning policy mushroomed in an attempt to balance the need for economic and social development with the protection of the environment, the NPPF aims to streamline and modernise planning policy.
Reducing hundreds of pages of guidance, comprehensible only to professionals and the initiated, to a 59-page document was never going to be easy, but changes effecting long-established principles, such as the requirement for environmental sustainability, mark a shift in the protection given to the conservation of the countryside and the existing character of rural communities.
Woodland Trust Chief Executive Sue Holden said, “Ancient Woodland remains significantly threatened under this new framework. Although the NPPF retains phrasing from existing planning policy around the protection of ancient woods and trees, the wording that planning applications should not bring about the loss of these habitats ‘unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss’, leaves a dangerous loophole.”
By defining sustainability as, “ensuring that better lives for ourselves don’t mean worse lives for future generations”, the NPPF has arguably watered-down the environmental connotations of the term since it was defined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987, and cleared the way to put economic and social needs first. Brighton and Hove Green MP Caroline Lucas said, “Local communities rightly remain highly sceptical about whether the Government’s new framework will be up to the job of allowing truly sustainable development whilst providing enough proper protection.”
Chris Todd of Brighton and Hove Friends of the Earth said, “The NPPF sounds very good in places, but what do those expressions mean? Does it mean that if you create jobs and provide housing you can get away with damaging the environment?” Chris believes the change in the meaning of terms such as sustainability will result in expensive legal challenges. He said, “If developers, councils or individuals don’t like particular decisions, or believe things were taken wrongly or misinterpreted, then that could end up in the courts. Where there are elements of doubt or ambiguity then the whole process could take a long time to be sorted out while people struggle.”
Given that the 2011 draft version of the framework had included measures to speed the planning process in order to boost economic growth, the likelihood of lengthy planning disputes is a shot in the foot for the coalition government. The public mauling of the headlining “presumption in favour of sustainable development” when the draft framework was released resulted in a further source of potential delays in key planning decisions across the county.
Following fierce criticism from middle-England heavyweights The National Trust and the Countryside Alliance, the “presumption in favour of sustainable development” has been watered-down in the final Framework. Now development must comply with a local authority plan, but where none exists it must go ahead unless, “Any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly outweigh the benefits when assessed against policies in this Framework.” A leaked local authority briefing report notes this “effectively limits the local scope for manoeuvre” to reject poor quality planning applications against the best interests of the local community.
Sussex local authorities are now scrabbling to put in place up to date and robust development plans. Not a simple task when even figures such as Liz Peace, Chief Executive of the British Property Federation are saying “Urgent questions remain over how local authorities should determine how many homes and jobs they need, and what the guidance that underpins the NPPF should be.” The majority of local planning authorities are in the process of creating or updating plans to comply with the NPPF. As the Framework’s grace period to put plans in place runs out in March 2013 many local authorities are still vulnerable.
Brighton and Hove City Council City Plan is currently awaiting examination by an independent Government inspection, prior to adoption. Toad Hole Valley, a green field site in Hove, has been allocated for a new industrial estate, in spite of opposition from local residents and Labour Councillor Brian Fitch who argued the suitability of a brown field site near Shoreham Harbour. Councillor Fitch said, “I know you can hear the noise of the bypass in the distance, but it’s a lovely setting and the local public here have enjoyed it for a number of years.”
As a result of the NPPF local authorities will increasingly have their hands tied when it comes to identifying land for development. Councils will be obliged to allocate a five-year supply of land for housing based on projected population figures, plus an additional 5% buffer, to be updated annually, unless there has been persistent under-delivery in which case the buffer will be 20%. No definition of how “under-delivery” will be assessed is given so this will be open to legal challenge. For Brighton and Hove this is likely to leave them particularly vulnerable to challenge because of the historical reliance on ‘windfall’ sites, freed up by change of use, in housing delivery in the city.
Though the aim of the NPPF is clear from the Framework’s Ministerial Foreword onwards—economic growth— the practical application of the Framework is currently a mystery. A lack of clarity in the use of terms, and the circumstances in which key caveats become active, means that, for now, planning will remain almost incomprehensible. A cynic might point out that now it is incomprehensible to professionals, too. What this will mean for the Sussex countryside remains to be seen.