Flaws in England’s National Planning Policy Framework are allowing developers to “game” the planning system and secure greenfield housing consents even where sustainable brownfield land is available, new research by the National Trust indicates.
It looked at 27 local planning authorities with extensive countryside and all of which had met the NPPF’s demand to have an up-to-date local plan in place. But 16 of them had seen their plans challenged by house builders and some obtained consent for greenfield housing sprawl in areas the council had not allocated for development.
The research found that, in half the cases, claims about “undersupply”, which the NPPF allows developers to force unwanted land releases, was simply the result of falling house building after the recession. The downturn left many councils struggling to meet targets and having to meet “off plan” demands.
Four councils which did adopt high building targets hit difficulties when the land they allocated proved inadequate to meet them. Where land was allocated at a smaller number of larger sites and builders failed to build on them, councils were again forced to release unallocated sites. Some councils have faced challenges to generous assessments of “housing need” and the NPPF requirement to clear alleged backlogs in five years has caused additional problems.
“This new evidence shows that the Government’s plan-led system is too open to challenge from streetwise developers,” said Trust historic environment director Ingrid Samuel.
“In 2011 the prime minister assured us that the new system would give local people more of a say. But it seems that in some areas the local vision for development is being bypassed. The rules need tightening to prevent this from happening. Sadly the NPPF is allowing developers to ignore the local communities it said would be at the very heart of its new approach. The communities we looked at are those that accepted the Government’s challenge, and have made difficult choices about where new housing should – and shouldn’t – go.”
The research includes case studies of sites where the NPPF provisions about “shortfalls” were used to undermine sustainable planning. They include 48 houses built in the South Devon AONB, two Norfolk rural sites totalling 630 homes and unwanted homes in South Cambridgeshire.
“Whilst we support the principle of building on brownfield land first, we recognise the need to build some homes in the countryside. But homes should only be built where land has been allocated for development by the local council and is supported by the local community”, said Ms Samuel.
The Trust says local plans should be sovereign and strategic issues should only be dealt with when a new plan is prepared.
Councils should not be penalized for allocating large sites or setting ambitious targets.