Posted by: Nick Duxbury02/02/2012
The National Planning Policy Framework. Remember that? I did this week while wading though the government’s consultation on part L of the Building Regulations published on Tuesday.
‘How could you have forgotten?’ I hear you ask. Well, the NPPF is probably not at the top of everyone’s minds right now. After six months of unprecedented furore between the government and two of the most unlikely opponents of a Tory-designed planning policy – the National Trust and The Telegraph – most people were grateful the consultation had closed and were sufficiently sick of it to turn their outrage other government green bungles such as the feed-in tariff saga.
The rest time is over and it could be time to get outraged again.
Just a recap for anyone who needs one: the main source of contention – and there were lots – in the NPPF was the presumption towards ‘sustainable development’. This, the government claimed was key to ‘creating a positive, pro-development framework, but one underpinned by the wider economic, environmental and social provisions in the National Planning Policy Framework’. The presumption means that planners should ‘approve all individual proposals wherever possible’.
Of course, the problem is the use of ‘sustainable’. This was ambiguous, and its definition referred to economic and social sustainability as well as environmental sustainability as three pillars of, ahem, sustainability. In short, its critics screamed that ‘sustainable development’ doesn’t equate to sustainability in any meaningfully green way and that the government was hijacking the term in order to bulldoze through any development plan presented to planners with a default response of ‘yes’.
The government has maintained that the NPPF is not a ‘developers’ charter’ because of localism – the local plans each council will have in place will reflect the views of the local communities. This is a whole different argument, but the point is, under localism each council is supposed to have autonomy over its local plan and, therefore also, local development rules.
Well, reading the Building Regulations, I stumbled across a single paragraph that could throw fresh fuel on the NPPF fire.
Paragraph 196 on page 58 reads: ‘Where local planning authorities wish to set environmental targets for new homes at a level higher than Building Regulations, the National Planning Policy Framework requires that these should be subject to viability testing. Notwithstanding legitimate local aspirations to seek higher sustainability standards, this is to ensure that necessary development is not hindered through unrealistic policy expectations.’
Er, what? Viability testing?
Let me get this straight. If local people and their elected councils want to impose local environmental standards on housing developments in their areas, then they have to undergo tests to make sure said democratically established standards don’t cost the developer too much? What is ‘necessary development’? What is ‘unrealistic policy expectations’? And who decides what is necessary, unrealistic and, ultimately, viable?
It strikes me that not only does this undermine the principle of localism, but it also caps sustainability in the environmental sense. Under the proposals in the Building Regulations consultation, the target for the 2013 carbon cut on 2002 levels is just eight per cent. This is compared to a previous Labour target of 25 per cent. Most housing associations are already building code level three homes that meet this target anyway – and all those using HCA cash in London are exceeding it at around 17 per cent by building to code level four.
That means under the NPPF, those associations building in London would have plans for the minimum standard made subject to viability tests on associations. Were they exceeding Code 5 or six then you could perhaps understand the point about being realistic – but the building regs carbon targets are not ambitious. Come zero carbon in 2016 the lameness of these targets will be apparent as the building industry is forced to make a huge, expensive step up. Why should environmental aspiration be checked by the NPPF?
In effect it means there is a presumption towards ‘sustainable development’ – on the condition that it is not too sustainable. Economic and social (hence the word ‘necessary’) sustainability is checking environmental sustainability. In fact, to go further, the NPPF could end up forcing development to become less environmentally sustainability. Or so, my unqualified working of the logic of the presumption seems to conclude.
People in the housing world are increasing used to the way the government takes a word and assigns it a new meaning; just look at the way the government has appropriated the word ‘affordable’ to create a product that is, more often than not, unaffordable to those who were previously on a social rent.
You don’t need to consult books on Derrida to see how the newsnight journos are bamboozled by the language and fail to discern between social homes and affordable homes when housing minister proudly boasts how many ‘affordable’ homes he is building. It looks like the same could be soon said about all the ‘sustainable development’ the government has encouraged through its planning reforms.
From Green paper
Examining the latest developments from the world of sustainable housing.