On the 1st September 2014 I was one of about 70 delegates who attended a forum held by the Parliamentary Committee that is reviewing the NPPF. After many sessions of oral evidence from members of the construction industry, from the professional associations of the planning industry, from housing providers and from conservation organisations, it was the turn of the parish and town councils and of the action groups to be heard.
At the end of the event, the summary from the Committee Chairman, Clive Betts, showed that the message that had been received from this group was clear, unanimous, and possibly a little disconcerting for the members of the committee. This was the grass-roots talking and it seemed that what they had to say was not quite what the MPs expected to hear. The topics that were debated were the operation of the NPPF, the provision of housing, the value of Local Plans and views on localism and local democracy.
People attending the forum came from all areas of England and it very soon appeared that there is a common experience of the working of the NPPF and that much of this experience has been negative. It was clear that residents in communities had engaged in the process and experienced bitter disappointment that their views about what should, or should not, happen in their communities had not been taken into account. There was considerable anger at the arbitrary way in which housing numbers are forced on districts and at the fact that even local planning authorities cannot control the spread of speculative development. Parish and town councillors in particular expressed their concerns at the failure of the system to provide decent and relevant infrastructure or even the kind of housing that their areas needed.
It was evident that there was a feeling that whilst lip-service was paid to localism, the real power rested in unelected Inspectors and developers. Many subjects such as expensive and litigious practices, powerful construction interests, democratic deficit, failure to give social and ecological factors due weight in the process, fears about inadequate provision for infrastructure and flood prevention, dearth of high-street shopping, heavy household debt and negative equity, received an airing in the plenary session after the round-table exercises.
I attended this session on behalf of Protect Congleton – Civic Society and obviously, as vice-chairman of that group, I am aware that many people in Congleton are unhappy about the way in which the current planning regime is working or not working. I feel that it is a pity that some local councils did not take the opportunity to write to this Review of the NPPF and explain the issues to the committee. Contrary to what it says on the portal, the Review is still open for comment and I would again urge all our local councils at every level to send in some comments. It is not too late and if you need some information about where to send your evidence it is available on the Committee for Communities and Local Government portal.
The next people to give evidence to the Committee will be the planning ministers. The NPPF, and indeed the evidence given to the Review, has been heavily dominated by input from the construction industry. The architects of the NPPF have, in my opinion, created a Developers’ Charter and it is time that a more democratic and better balanced system was put in place. Mr Betts was asked to say what power the Committee had to change things and he very honestly answered, none. It is up to the Government, which has no plans to amend the NPPF, to listen to the evidence of the Committee. It is up to us, as the electorate, to inform that evidence and to ensure that our communities get a fair deal on planning and local democracy.
Protect Congleton – Civic Society