Mr Mulholland has posted a piece on his website this week about housing, planning – and, inevitably, about Leeds Labour Council. We’re reluctant to give yet more time to Mr Mulholland’s statements. We’ve covered his outpourings on Otley’s ‘secret talks’ this week already. But the issue of housing and planning is a burning one in Leeds North West – and rightly so. It is thus essential that people be very accurately informed about the situation. As usual, Mr Mulholland’s post is self-serving rather than enlightening.
Many of Mr Mulholland’s statements start from the assumption of a villain, or dragon – Leeds Labour Council – against which he rides out as the pantomime hero. This time it is Leeds Labour Council which has plans to ‘concrete over Leeds North West‘ – his earlier words. It is their evil ways which have to be tackled. It is they who must be slain – in his post this week – using the arguments of sustainability.
We prefer to start with the law – with the NPPF – the National Planning Policy Framework. This is the legislation which HIS government put in place – in the teeth, it should be remembered, of huge opposition from environmental and green groups. This is the legislation which now determines all planning. It’s essential to understand its impact on local authorities like Leeds City Council.
The Legal framework for planning in England
As Mr Mulholland will know, the NPPF REQUIRED the – over-hasty – construction of 15 year plans, by ALL Local Authorities, with five-year plans – updated annually – identifying ‘deliverable sites’. [NPPF p 12 Sect 6 para 47]
Note that! 15 and 5 YEAR PLANS were REQUIRED. There was no option here. Failure to produce those plans, and in double quick time, would result in Local Authorities losing ALL control over development.
As CPRE [Campaign for the Protection of Rural England] puts it
‘A particular issue is the prominence given by decision makers to the NPPF policies requiring a ‘five year supply’ of sites deemed to be ‘deliverable’ for new housing. [our emphasis] Planning Minister Nick Boles has said that only if such a supply exists would local councils ‘get to make the decisions’ on where new development is located.’ [our emphasis]
Two : NPPF removes the presumption in favour of Brownfield development
The NPPF has REMOVED the presumption in favour of Brownfield development, as it existed under the last Labour Government.
This is how CPRE sees the situation
“Planning Inspectors have said there is no longer a policy requiring the use of brownfield sites before greenfield, contrary to Ministers’ assurances that policies must encourage brownfield sites to be brought back into use.
Local authorities that are producing plans are coming under pressure to allocate more greenfield sites than originally intended.’
‘The NPPF scraps national targets for housing development on previously developed land (brownfield).’
So the NPPF has forced Councils to put together – in extreme haste – a fifteen –year plan and a five year plan of ‘deliverable’ sites. If Leeds Labour Council doesn’t produce such plans, OR IF IT JUDGES THE PLAN AND ITS NUMBERS WRONGLY – i.e. if it doesn’t second-guess the inspector’s decision – then it’s a free for all for developers. There is no longer any requirement to put brownfield first – the presumption is entirely in favour of development. The Council is not a free agent here.
Mr Mulholland, a dealer in half truths and silences, quietly ignores these aspects of the fundamental framework.
Three: the presumption of sustainability
The NPPF has replaced existing planning legislation. In its place there is now a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.
Enter Mr Mulholland, stage left, to slay the dragon with the sword of ‘sustainability’.
He claims that Leeds Council must not develop the potential sites within his constituency because the developments are not sustainable.
But what does sustainable development actually mean?
That question, as Mr Mulholland will know, has been at the heart of debates about the NPPF from the outset.
Sustainability has many definitions – they include e.g.sustainable in terms of construction and materials.
The Parliamentary Select Committee examining the bill recognized that the definitions of sustainable development were so loose that the way would be open to endless legal challenge.
‘As Stuart Hylton, representing the Planning Officers Society, stated [to the Committee], “. . . . you have a definition that runs to 52 pages whose conclusions will inevitably point in all sorts of different directions.” Whilst we [i.e. the Select Committee] can appreciate the thinking behind an approach that encourages users of the NPPF to read it as a whole, we consider that this approach will lead to far more uncertainty and, possibly, legal challenge.’
Four: Sustainability and economic growth
What we all need to realize here is that the NPPF – whatever it says about sustainability – has created a situation where economic growth [arguably therefore house building per se] trumps all other arguments.
The NPPF, through the wording it uses, gives a pecking order to arguments about development. It creates a series of trump cards – where sustainability doesn’t simply count high.
CPRE have summed up the results very neatly
Significant weight: economic growth. It trumps:
Substantial weight: harm to green belt, which trumps:
Great weight: innovative design; schools; landscape and scenic beauty in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty; conservation of wildlife and cultural heritage in National Parks and the Broads (NB: not AONBs); designated heritage assets; benefits of the mineral extraction, including to the economy. These trump:
Appropriate weight: protected wildlife or geodiversity sites or landscape areas.’
You will note that schools etc score very low down in this pack of cards (and incidentally, Mr Mulholland’s Government has removed Leeds Council’s power to build them, too).
‘Significant’ ‘Substantial’ ‘great’ ‘appropriate’ – these look innocent enough. But they are the stuff of legal argument.
And legal argument is what we will get – and its costs. Something else a cash-strapped Leeds Council, struggling to meet its obligations as a result of Mr Mulholland’s government’s cuts, cannot afford to ignore.
CPRE once more:
‘the weight given to the different pillars of sustainability is set to remain one of the main areas of contention in planning decisions and appeals.
Arguments can certainly be mounted on the basis of sustainability. But we can be sure that the developers, who were involved in designing the NPPF, and their lawyers will be as ready to use the courts as any campaigning group. And they have deeper pockets, and the ear of Coalition ministers.
The NPPF has dismantled 60 years of planning legislation – designed to balance all the various interests which development inevitably brings into conflict – rooted in Local Authority control. It replaces that with a system based on a highly debatable definition, enshrined in a document whose legal terminology gives precedence to economic growth, and backed by a distant inspectorate – and the minister. Developments may now go ahead ‘on the say-so of a national quango reporting directly to ministers’. [Hilary Benn]
So much for Localism. This is a developers’ charter.
Where does this leave us?
So to some extent we would agree with Mr Mulholland – the only arguments local people have are on these grounds of sustainability. And they should use them. They matter.
But Mr Mulholland is misleading people if he tries to suggest to them that Leeds Labour Council has much room for manoeuvre on all this.
They have been required to produce a hasty 15 year plan; they have to second-guess what will make that plan acceptable to the all-powerful inspectorate; the power to favour brownfield first has been taken from them, and they have to reckon with litigious developers in whose favour the NPPF has stacked the cards.
Their position is circumscribed by the NPPF – and the Inspectorate has effectively replaced them as the planning power which can make – or override – decisions for the people of Leeds North West. Leeds City Council are no longer masters in their own house.
A dragon to be slain by the valiant Mr Mulholland?
Or a stricken beast – penned, pinioned and skewered by the monster of HIS Coalition government?
But for the Labour Party in general, we’d prefer the image of a plucky David, facing Mr Mulholland’s LibDem/Tory Goliath.
Because the Labour Party is fighting hard on this issue.
At local level we are backing campaigns consistent with our own position – brownfield first, protection of Green Belt, sustainable development, affordable housing.
And at national level, the Labour Party is committed to the repeal of the NPPF – and to replacing it with , e.g. a ‘brownfield-first’ policy and truly local dialogue.
In fact if Mr Mulholland were honest, he would be telling the people of Leeds North West that the best way of ensuring the future of our green and pleasant land is to Vote Labour.
But since the purpose of all his statements is the protection of his own parliamentary place – we doubt he’ll do that.
But we will.
Leeds North West Deserves Better than This.