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In a conclusion which will come as about as much a surprise to heritage and countryside campaigners as discovering the religious persuasion of the Pope and the toileting habits of the genus Ursus in woodland regions, a report into the working of the National Planning Policy Framework by the Parliamentary Communities and Local Government Committee has concluded that some Property Developers are using and abusing the Framework to drive inappropriate housing and town center developments which are neither necessary, nor wanted by local authorities or the communities they administer.  The report, published on 16 December, states that “We agree that the majority of developers behave responsibly and work closely with local government and local communities. We would not want to see their reputation tarnished by a small number of developers deliberately undermining local plans through speculative applications for development which communities and local authorities do not want.”

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The report continues “We heard that the attitude of some developers might be hindering some councils’ attempts to get local plans in place. In some parts of the country, developers appeared to be targeting sites—especially greenfield sites—outside of the emerging local plan, thereby forcing councils to reassess their allocations. Vale of White Horse District Council told us that its emerging local plan was being “undermined by the continuous granting of
planning applications”.

The report also highlights the issue of developers choosing greenfield over brownfield sites because they are easier and cheaper to build on suggesting that when greenfield sites are added to the requirement placed on local authorities to identify a five year supply of building land, where greenfield and brownfield sites are both identified as viable “..developers would look first to the greenfield sites because they are cheaper and easier to build upon.”
Richard Blyth of the Royal Town Planning Institute told the committee that in his opinion Government cuts were once again at the root of the problem because cuts to funds aimed at brownfield remediation and development had “…pulled the rug from some of the original plans that had quite a brownfield emphasis”

Another of the reasons for the problems cited in the report is the under resourcing of  local authority planning departments and the failure of 41% of local authorities to come up with an effective Local Plan.  The report implicitly acknowledges that this is caused by a combination of lack of political will at a local level and the Government’s programme of austerity.   The Committee states “We understand the financial pressures councils are under, but we would contend that planning is a fundamental responsibility of councils and therefore they should treat planning as a front line service and not see it as an easy target for spending reductions.”  In other words, when it comes to a local authority cutting spending, it is a less politically damaging decision to cut the jobs of planning officers than to cut those of Teachers.  The result is that, as the National Trust notes in its evidence, “… since 2006 there has been an 18% drop in archaeological advice, and a 33% drop in conservation advice” available to local planning authorities.

The report also acknowledges the threat to Ancient Woodland and states “We recommend that the Government amend paragraph 118 of the NPPF to state that any loss of ancient woodland should be “wholly exceptional”, thus offering the same level of protection as built heritage, battlefields and scheduled monuments.  However, the Committee do not take up the issue pointed out by a number of heritage bodies in their written submissions, that there is no clear definition of what “substantial harm” actually means in a planning context.

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However, for all that many will regret that once again, while the Natural Environment issues of Biodiversity and the Green Belt get specific coverage in the Committee’s Report, and in spite of the high profile of controversial planning issues ranging from the proposed housing development at Old Oswestry Hill Fort, to the alleged Battle of Fulford site outside York and the now legendary debacle of the Port Meadow Blocks in Oxford, there is no specific discussion,  account or recommendations regarding the historic environment.  That could well be seen as a failure to raise the profile of these issues on the part of the archaeology and heritage sector, perhaps brought on by what seem to be the largely mechanistic response of groups from the sector to the committee’s consultation which tend towards discussing issues of resources and jobs rather than in evidence based case studies which highlight weaknesses in the NPPF system as implemented at a local level.   In this context it is perhaps significant that, whereas the RSPB and the Woodland Trust took part in a specific session discussing the natural environment, biodiversity and Ancient Woodland, the only body with any form of  heritage remit appearing as a witness in front of the Committee was the National Trust.  This may also be a mark of the perceived significance of the historic environment to those in charge of monitoring the planning system.   It may also surprise some that while the organisation did submit written evidence , English Heritage, the Government’s statutory advisor on the historic environment  revealed that it has not  “… carried out detailed research as to the impact of the NPPF.”

It is also the case that, with the Treasury and Chancellor Osborne seen as securely sitting in the driving seat of  Government Policy regarding planning and with just six months to go to the General Election, while some of the conclusions of the report will be mildly embarrassing to the Government it is thought to be unlikely that there will be any significant amendments to the NPPF, at least in the short term.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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