17th October 2011

Leading planning QC exposes flaws in Government reforms

In a succinct yet powerful Legal Opinion the Campaign to Protect Rural England's Honorary Standing Counsel, John Hobson QC, has criticised the Government's draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for weakening protection of the Green Belt and wider countryside [1].

Despite consistent reassurances from senior Government Ministers that protection for the Green Belt will remain unchanged, John Hobson states that in his professional legal opinion "this is a significant change which may weaken the protection that applies to Green Belts [2]." He continues: "if the government do indeed wish to carry forward the protection of the Green Belt to the same degree as at present, the express presumption against inappropriate development in the Green Belt should be reinstated [3]."

Neil Sinden, Director of Policy and Campaigns for CPRE, said: "Ministers seem genuinely committed to protecting the Green Belt but its becoming clear the NPPF is not up to the job. We hope that they will take note of this legal advice and make clear that there continues to be a presumption against inappropriate development in the Green Belt."

The Legal Opinion also challenges Government claims that their proposed changes would lead to a cheaper, faster planning system. By failing to adequately define what is meant by 'sustainable development,' Ministers risk a system of planning by appeals. John Hobson states: "The NPPF does not provide a clear definition of what it means by sustainable development or indeed any clear statement of what are the sustainable development principles to which it refers… Consequently there is an ambiguity which permeates the NPPF, and which is likely to lead to uncertainty in its application, with a consequent increase in the number of appeals [4]."

He concludes: "I consider that although the NPPF is intended to provide a framework for the delivery of sustainable development, it does not set out with any clarity what are the 'key sustainable development principles' which are intended to govern planning decision-making. Moreover, the operation of this presumption is likely to weaken the plan-led approach to deciding whether or not to approve development. In certain respects, notably in relation to Green Belts and the wider countryside, the level of protection presently accorded to such areas may well be significantly weakened [5]."

Neil Sinden concluded: "It is startling how big the gap is between the interpretation of John Hobson – a widely respected and hugely experienced planning lawyer - and what the Government is expecting from its reforms. It is now abundantly clear that the current draft of the framework is flawed in many critical respects. It is encouraging that some developers also recognise that significant changes are required. We urge the Government to go back to the drawing board and issue a revised draft for further public consultation.

"CPRE recognises the need for more housing, and for a simplified and speedier planning system with more local involvement. But the proposed reforms as currently drafted will not achieve those aims, nor will they protect our cherished countryside. We need more than a clarification of language on a few points of detail. What we now need is a complete redraft."