OK, time to confess: I’m presenting a seminar tomorrow, an update on changes to the planning system, and I’ve only just read the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). I’ve read it before, of course – well bits of it – but this is the first time I’ve sat down with a cup of coffee (OK, it was a glass of red wine) and read it through from cover to cover in one sitting. It took me just over an hour but it was an hour well spent because – and this is where I come off the fence (and it feels more like coming out of the closet!) – I think it’s great!
In an hour’s reasonably easy reading I’ve got a complete understanding of what the planning system is about, what it’s meant to be achieving, how it’s supposed to work and how we’ll all benefit if it works as intended. Yes, there are lots of details we used to have that aren’t there now – but actually we don’t really need them to be there as long as we all know the principles and use accumulated knowledge, common sense and shared best-practice to arrive at sensible, logical decisions.
As far as I can see, sustainable development really is at the heart of the NPPF. I’ve been one of those arguing for a clearer, tighter definition – but I was wrong to do so: the NPPF has to be taken as a whole, it tells you that in the introduction, and if that’s how you read it you know what sustainable development is – and isn’t – by the time you get to the end. I once attended an event at which the eminent planning lawyer Sir Desmond Heap spoke about the concept of “amenity”, likening it to an elephant – “almost impossible to describe, but you can’t mistake it when you see it”. The NPPF’s elephant is “sustainable development”. The definition at the beginning might seem to leave the concept very loosely defined but keep going and an hour later you really should have a pretty good idea of what it means as a planning objective.
So, there we are, I’m converted and tomorrow I’ll be dropping the cynicism and advocating the NPPF as a very sound basis for logical, creative and positive planning; an end, I hope, to the “tick box” syndrome that has, I believe, sapped the energy, enthusiasm and credibility of planners for far too long.
Now for the Localism Act – well, perhaps later, and even then just the Plain English Guide: there’s only so much conversion a person can cope with in an evening (even with a second glass of wine)!