How well are the NPPF planning reforms working for Norfolk?

Professor Malcolm Wagstaff, chairman of the planning team on the Cringleford Parish Council, and Ann

Professor Malcolm Wagstaff, chairman of the planning team on the Cringleford Parish Council, and Anne Barnes, Parish Council clerk, with the plans for the development of Cringleford, at the site agreed by locals as acceptable for building, near Round House Park. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Archant 2013

Twelve months after the government published its pro-growth planning reforms, rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL asks: Is it working?

When the government published its radical overhaul of the planning system in March 2012, it pledged to remove barriers to development while giving communities greater influence over where homes should be built.

But as the 12-month transition period elapses and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) comes into full force, what has been its effect in East Anglia?

Some campaigners are warning of a 'free-for-all', with councils not given enough time to complete their local plans and therefore unable to prove they have the required five years' supply of deliverable sites for new housing.

Those are the circumstances where the NPPF's 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' comes into play, forcing planning committees to approve schemes if their policies are out of date.

Opponents, including the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), say this has opened the doors to a rash of speculative applications – failing the promise of localism by abandoning communities to fight unwinnable battles against unwanted development.

In Norfolk, many of those battles are centred on the fringes of Norwich, where ambitious growth plans for 37,000 new homes are being dictated by the Greater Norwich Development Partnership (GNDP).

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But the partnership's Joint Core Strategy (JCS) is also yet to be fully adopted, following a legal challenge which forced part of the document back to a public inspection, due to begin next month.

Significant decisions in the last year include 1,196 houses approved by South Norfolk Council at Hether-sett, while in Blofield a decision to refuse 175 homes was overturned on appeal because an inspector deemed Broadland's shortfall in five-year housing supply meant the NPPF's 'presumption in favour' should have taken precedence.

CPRE president Sir Andrew Motion said: 'This is a charter for builders and truly irreversible damage is already under way.'

Planning minister Nick Boles said: 'The system is working. New rights give communities a bigger say on development than ever before through neighbourhood and local plans.'

Here's what various interested parties in East Anglia think.

David Hook, of CPRE Norfolk's planning group:

'Despite the rhetoric of localism, it now seems that local communities are increasingly powerless to prevent damaging development even in the most sensitive locations.

'The NPPF presumption in favour of sustainable development, where a five-year housing land supply cannot be demonstrated, is increasingly requiring local planning authorities to grant planning permissions even when they conflict with local plans.

'Locally South Norfolk Council felt unable to refuse planning permission in December 2012 for 180 houses on the edge of the village of Mulbarton, even though its own public consultation on the preferred local sites for new housing development had not been completed. This also meant that the views of the parish council, who wanted to develop a neighbourhood plan to promote development on a more locally acceptable level, were overridden.

'The NPPF seems to be allowing developers access to even more greenfield sites than are contained in the already over-generous supply included in the GNDP / Joint Core Strategy with its excessive housing targets for the Norwich area.'

Stephen Heard, chairman of campaign group Stop Norwich Urbanisation (SNUB):

'We in SNUB believe that the NPPF has had little impact in and around Norwich as the plans for the JCS and in particular the North East Growth Triangle (where 10,000 homes are planned around Rackheath) continues to ignore the wishes of the local residents.

'We see no evidence of the unprecedented power that was meant to be in the hands of communities to shape the places in which they live. Indeed we see the exact opposite as local community groups and even local parish councils are ignored as local authorities pay lip service to their duty to co-operate as enshrined in the NPPF legislation.

'A number of local parish councils have abandoned plans to develop Neighbourhood Plans as they see little point in taking the time and effort to comply with a plan that by default approves the JCS. The very point of these local plans was to enable housing authorities to build a bottom-up housing strategy in conjunction with their local residents rather than impose a top-down strategy using out-of-date intelligence and economics as has happened here in Norwich.'

Paul Clarke, partner at Norwich-based planning consultants Bidwells:

'Essentially, the councils were given a year's grace to realign their planning policies. To date, my experience with the councils has varied from complete denial ('our policies don't need to be changed') to a complete review of their plans and indeed their attitude towards growth. The figures that I've seen in terms of housing approvals show that whilst in England there is a resurgence in approvals being given, this is not happening in the Eastern region.

'So I believe that the NPPF is getting a mixed reception at councils. Can we blame the councils or the NPPF for the lack of growth? Not entirely. We have to recognise that in the current economic climate the East of England has to be more proactive in trying to generate growth. Certain councils understand this and are seeking to attract developers to build on sites.

'Others need to recognise that whilst they see themselves as regulators of pressure for development, a 'pressure valve' if you like, there may not be any pressure there.'

Gary Wyatt, who resigned from Hethersett Parish Council in frustration at the community's lack of power to stop 1,196 houses being approved in the village:

'It is accepted that there is a housing need and that our villages are desirable places to live. However, my fear is that the current apparent free-for-all in the granting of large-scale planning applications will spoil the locality for all residents, both current and future.

'The NPPF was designed to make it easier for such development to go ahead. On the other hand, the Localism Act was another key part of the government's planning reform and one of its objectives was that 'local communities should have genuine opportunities to influence the future of the places where they live' via neighbourhood plans drawn up by local communities. However, in the face of strategic plans such as the housing sites allocated by the GNDP, which override any local ideas, parishes are helpless to resist.'

Andrew Proctor, leader of Broadland District Council and former chairman of the GNDP:

'The NPPF wants local authorities like us to have a development plan and I think when you look across the country there are not as many development plans as you would expect there to be. That presents a worry to everybody. We tried to get ours together, and although we suffered a setback with the legal challenge to the Growth Triangle part of it, the South Norfolk section of the JCS has been adopted, so any proposals coming forward in that area need to be in accordance with that development plan.

'What the NPPF does is demonstrate that all development needs to be plan-led. If you have not got a plan for your area, this will be imposed on you. So I would say that our development plan (the JCS) is the plan by which we can manage development in this area. It gives us a much better chance of managing that development rather than saying we should just slavishly follow the NPPF.'