Countryside remains cautious over new National Planning Policy Framework

The final revisions to the government's pro-growth planning reforms have received a cautious welcome from countryside campaigners.

In its earlier draft form, the government's simplified National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) brought howls of criticism from outraged conservation groups.

But those initial fears – of a development free-for-all which would concrete over our most treasured countryside – were, for the most part, allayed yesterday by planning minister Greg Clark as he unveiled the final revisions to the document.

Mr Clark told MPs that 1,000 pages of 'impenetrable jargon' had been reduced into about 50 pages of clear guidance on the planning policies which should be adopted by local councils.

He said the existing planning regime had become too costly, too complicated and too uncertain in an economy where houses were urgently needed and rural businesses must be free to expand and thrive.

The adopted NPPF retains the 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' which was the cause for much of the earlier consternation.

But Mr Clark said local plans, rather than regional house-building strategies, would be the keystone of the new system, and that local decisions would balance the social, economic and environmental factors which define a 'sustainable development'.

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The minister also offered an assurance that the new guidance would not override existing protections for green belts, national parks and sites of special scientific interest, and that it recognised the 'intrinsic value' of all countryside, whether or not it was designated.

Rural campaigners said they believed the minister had made 'significant progress' towards meeting their concerns, and welcomed the acknowledgement that use of brownfield land should be a core planning objective.

But they said the ultimate proof of the new policy framework will be how it works in practice.

Caroline Davison, planning and campaigns manager for the Norfolk branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said: 'The government has listened to some of the very real concerns many of us have about the well-being of our precious countryside.

'It is reassuring that Mr Clark stated that the new framework recognises the intrinsic value of the ordinary countryside. In Norfolk 70 per cent of the countryside is undesignated and therefore vulnerable to development, and so we will be studying the new wording of this part of the framework with great interest.

'It has been the CPRE argument all along that planning regulation is not the main thing holding back the economy. There is little evidence that the reforms will provide the required economic boost, but they could seriously affect national well-being if they are allowed to do long term damage to our countryside.'

Richard Powell, director for the National Trust in the East of England said he was pleased that the controversial 'default yes' to development had been removed from the NPPF – but he also retained some concerns.

'I'm concerned that although on paper the government has listened to reason, the places we love may still be under threat from a system that is under-resourced,' he said. 'The danger is that nearly half of the local authorities in England have still to finalise their core strategies (which plan development in the long-term) and the reforms give them very little time to adopt them. I fear that in the short term at least, a lack of clarity across the country and a shift in lobbying and pressure by developers may cause real damage to the nature of the communities we all live in and love.'

One of the many planning authorities yet to complete its local development framework is Broadland District Council, which is preparing an interim planning policy to stave off any speculative planning applications until specific growth plans can be finalised.

The authority, along with its partner councils in Norwich and South Norfolk, also faces uncertainty over the Joint Core Strategy (JCS) which outlines house-building targets across the Greater Norwich area – elements of which were successfully challenged by a local campaign group.

A spokesman for Broadland District Council said: 'We broadly welcome the NPPF because it simplifies government guidance and will therefore make the planning process more accessible for all concerned.

'However, concerns have been raised by some people that the framework will result in some significant gaps in planning guidance. So in order to make sure that residents are not affected by any such gaps Broadland is working on an interim planning policy statement which we are confident will be agreed by next month.

'That will provide some protection for our communities against inappropriate speculative applications by giving some consistency and transparency to the sort of criteria that members of the council will need to apply when considering applications.'

Stewart Lindsay, a member of the Stop Norwich Urbanisation (SNUB) group which raised the legal challenge against the JCS, said: 'We welcome the fact that we still have robust planning legislation there to stop speculative developers from running amok – providing the government sticks to its word and gives power to the local people. Local people should be involved in saying what their needs are.'

Wildlife groups including the RSPB also welcomed the announcement that protection for Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) would not be weakened.

Paul Forecast, RSPB director in the East, said: 'Today's news is a victory for wildlife, a victory for people and a victory for sustainable economic growth.

'While we and many others raised fears over the direction the original draft of the NPPF was taking us, it is clear ministers have listened to our concerns and taken them on board.

'Here in the East, we are blessed with some stunning countryside and protected habitats that genuinely benefit wildlife and people. This new planning system will help the government deliver on its promises to promote growth, halt the loss of biodiversity and enhance our natural environment.

'We have always supported the idea of simplifying the planning system to make it less cumbersome and bureaucratic – but this must not happen at the expense of our environment. A healthy environment is essential for a healthy economy and the planning system is there to ensure the needs of people, business and nature are all met.'

The Country Land and Business Association, (CLA) said the planning reforms were a 'shot in the arm' which could kick-start rural innovation.

CLA East regional surveyor Tim Isaac said: 'The section on supporting a prosperous rural economy is excellent, laying the foundations for the growth of all types of business in rural areas. This includes conversion of existing buildings, constructing well-designed new ones, allowing new land-based rural businesses to get started and helping farmers to diversify. We are even hopeful that it may pave the way for a more positive and flexible approach towards on-farm reservoirs, so desperately needed to maintain food production in the eastern region, especially in times of drought.'

Other groups which welcomed the final NPPF included the Home Builders Federation, which earlier this month released figures showing that only 44pc of the houses needed for local families in the East of England were being built, while average house prices had more than doubled in the last decade from �86,950 in 2000 to �195,000 in 2010 – 7.5 times the average income.

David Henry, head of planning for Savills estate agents in the East, added: 'Regionally we face considerable growth pressures, particularly for much needed new homes, as well as being at the forefront of economic recovery. Planning has an important role to play in helping this to happen. The streamlining of policies in this way has to be welcomed.

'However, it is not a green light for all development. Planning applications will still have work through the local system not against it.'

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