Wonky policy; or, why you should care about the NPPF

by robertmcnicol

Hi both. Hope you’re exceeding well. Well, isn’t it exciting?! No, not simply to be young on such a night as this. I am, of course, discussing the furore – nay, the incredulity – with which our sainted government’s latest wheeze has been welcomed. You will no doubt have heard of the National Planning Policy Framework, and will eagerly have submitted your responses to the consultation. What do you mean, you’ve been too busy alphabetising your Morrissey back-catalogue?!

Yeah, OK. I know it’s not the most thrilling of subjects. I mean, what fool would actually consider working in planning? I ask you. No really. And I realise that our beatific overlords are responsible for some other – how to put this politely? – execrably malodourous behaviour, but if you have a passing care for our environment (natural, built, or otherwise) then I would suggest that this NPPF is something that ought to concern you.

The background. Currently, the country has a lot of planning policy. A lot less than it used to, but quite a lot none the less. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing (though my views on this aren’t the same as a lot of planners’); our government, however, believe that it is, and have basically replaced a whole load of respected planning policy with 60-odd pages of astonishingly light-touch regulation. Which worked well for the banking industry, I think we can all agree.

Planning, it is deemed, is now basically in existence to encourage growth. No longer is it a tool to, er, plan. It is there so that we get growth. What is growth? Development. Apparently. “Development means growth“. Wha?!?! Is it growth when you knock down a school to build houses? Is it growth when you build an Asda on previously agricultural land? Is it growth when you, I don’t know, stick in double glazing? Planners, if the NPPF becomes policy, will be people you have to ask nicely to say yes to you. They won’t be able to say no, except in the most unusual circumstances. (By the way, planners say yes to about 85% of all applications at the moment. So we’re not talking about planners needing their wings clipped, we’re talking about removing their ability to say no to the 15% of rubbish that comes in.)

The National Trust and the Telegraph have both dug in their heels, mainly concerned about the threat to the countryside – and they’re not wrong. However, being an urbanite I’m particularly concerned with the diminishing of the reasons planners will be able to reject development on design grounds – only “obviously poor design” can be refused. Whilst I don’t claim that the last fifteen years have been salad days for architecture, at least planners were able to say no to the mediocre and unsuitable, the crass and the jarring; no longer will we strive for good design. If the NPPF goes through, we will see a decade of cheap, tacky, boorish buildings in nasty spaces. That’s a promise.