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The new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) aims to speed up and simplify the planning system, and the presumption in favour of sustainable development will go some way to achieving these aims. However, while the high profile NPPF debate has focused on simplified ‘pro’ or ‘con’ arguments about development, significant aspects of the wider links between planning, development and growth have been ignored.
The reformed planning system no longer includes a mechanism for strategic planning above local authority level. The NPPF’s duty to co-operate will simply reflect existing cross-boundary relationships, for better or worse. If you believe, as Centre for Cities does, that integrated planning for development, infrastructure and services works best across council boundaries, at the scale of a city’s functional economic area, this creates an unnecessary barrier to economic development. Government could address this through stepping up their thinking on the role Local Enterprise Partnerships can play in catalysing cross-boundary planning. Cities themselves can take the initiative by using City Deal conversations to establish cross-boundary collaboration at the most effective scale.
The Government has reintroduced reference to brownfield sites as the preferred location for development (although stopping short of a ‘brownfield first’ policy). Discussion about development on greenbelt has been excluded from the NPPF debate. However, there is still a strong argument for changing the national approach to greenbelt protection, and to brownfield preferencing, by allowing local authorities todecide how far to build on brownfield sites, and whether to develop on greenbelt, for themselves. This would be unlikely to unleash a wave of sprawl: if anything, local authorities are even more aware than national government of the significance of greenbelt, and they understand which brownfield sites are viable and which are not. The greenbelt includes land with little environmental or amenity value, which local people might reasonably decide are suitable for development. This debate has been shelved for now, but will surely be back as the City Deals devolution agenda progresses.
It is also worth noting that although Business Rates retention is intended to incentivise councils to accept development we are not yet convinced it will be effective, nor that sufficient compensation will be available to change local feelings about development.
Finally, it is easy to forget that the speed of the planning system is much more of an issue for cities that are growing fast enough to support development. In the many cities that do not have the demand to support expansion of the built environment, fundamental economic concerns are more important. A much wider discussion is needed about how mid-sized cities can best maximise their growth potential, including attracting investment to boost development. We’ve raised a number of questions in Hidden Potential, and will be making policy recommendations later this year.
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