The government has made some concessions to popular pressure in its final version of the controversial National Planning Policy Framework, published yesterday.

It has also launched a consultation on the Carbon Reduction Commitment, claiming a saving of £330 million for participating businesses, but confessed to further delays in the delivery of rules on mandatory carbon reporting for businesses and the National Waste Management Strategy.

The National Planning Policy Framework

The NPPF sets out the government’s planning policies for England and how these are expected to be applied.

Restored is the 2005 definition of sustainable development, and gone is the presumption of “yes" to every development proposal.

In addition, councils will have longer to prepare (12-months) for the changes.

Launching the document, planning minister Greg Clark said it provides a framework within which local people and councils can produce their own distinctive local and neighbourhood plans, which reflect the needs and priorities of their communities.

He outlined the five principles of the reforms as:

  • enshrining the local plan as the keystone of the planning system
  • simplifying the planning system and making it more accessible, reducing over a thousand pages of jargon into around 50 pages of clearly written guidance
  • establishing a presumption in favour of sustainable development, meaning that ″development is not held up unless to approve it would be against our collective interest″
  • guaranteeing robust protections for our natural and historic environment, and requiring net improvements to put right some neglect
  • raising the bar on design standards ″so that we have the most exacting requirement for design that the English planning system has ever contained.″

The chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Joan Walley MP,  who was particularly critical of the earlier draft, welcomed the government’s compromises on the new rules and in particular the strengthened definition of sustainable development.

She said: "The definition of sustainable development will now have to be tested in the courts and it remains to be seen whether the new planning rules will prevent developments that are unsustainable in the way they use water, encourage car use or impact on biodiversity."

Crucially, Dame Fiona Reynolds, director general of the National Trust, also called the document an improvement on the first draft, Green MP Caroline Lucas welcomed the news that ministers have "grudgingly responded to public pressure and strengthened the definition of sustainable development", but she cautioned that "the government’s continued obsession with growth still poses a serious danger to our natural heritage".

Speaking for the CPRE, which particularly opposed the suggestion that building on green belts would be encouraged, chief executive Shaun Spiers said: "We were very reassured that Greg Clark recognised the intrinsic value of the ordinary countryside 'whether specifically designated or not' and stated that the five principles of the UK Sustainable Development Strategy are included in the document.

"But while recognising the scale of the housing crisis, we remain very concerned to ensure that the Planning Framework does not place undue emphasis on short-term economic growth at the expense of other important long term, public interest objectives of planning."

The Countryside Alliance has declared the NPPF "a much improved document" but cautioned that while Greg Clark said that the new NPPF would provide for 'a local plan produced by local people,' they "remain concerned that there is still a lack of clear guidance for a local community if it has legitimate concerns about a new development".

WWF-UK's senior planning advisor Emmalene Gottwald called the statement “disappointing" and “a lost opportunity". She shared the view of other green groups like Greenpeace that local communities are still highly sceptical about whether the government’s new framework will permit "truly sustainable development whilst providing enough proper protection".

Greenpeace's Ruth Davis went furthest in condemning the document, calling it "misguided, dangerous and wrong, and appears to be based on little more than some private, cosy chats he has had with big developers”.

About the Green Belt, the NPPF says that “local planning authorities should ensure that substantial weight is given to any harm to the Green Belt. ‘Very special circumstances’ will not exist unless the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations".

Developers' reactions

Developers welcomed the document. Simon Walker, director-general of the Institute of Directors, said Britain "needs to get building again," while Nick Fennell, head of planning for consultants Dalton Warner Davis, commented: "One phrase in the framework document has emerged as a lightning rod for opponents – the presumption in favour of sustainable development. But in reality this has already been government policy since 2005. Yet many planning authorities have struggled to deliver the new housing and infrastructure the country badly needs."

To speed up the planning process he called for more resources and expertise to be given to underfunded local councils.

The Energy Networks Association (ENA) was also pleased. David Smith, its chief executive, said: “We particularly welcome the streamlined approach and the way it reflects energy policy as set out in the National Policy Statements. For too long this has not always been the case.”

Utility contractors MWH said the document would help unlock much-needed investment in energy and waste infrastructure. Marcel Goemans, its sector director, waste and renewable energy, said it "helps to make a much more compelling case for private investment in UK waste treatment infrastructure. It will go a long way to help readdress the balance between risk and reward that has impacted current projects getting off the ground.”

The waste management body, the Environmental Services Association (ESA), lamented the fact that detailed waste planning policy guidance had been deferred from the document until publication of the National Waste Management Plan, and called for the government to avoid a hiatus in waste planning approvals.

Delays on waste management

Defra did release yesterday a briefing on ‘Progress with delivery of commitments from the government’s Review of Waste Policy in England (2011)’, which sets out where the department thinks it is on many waste issues.

ESA expressed disappointment that Defra has not met planned timeframes in some important areas such as development of the National Waste Management Plan and a guide for Energy from Waste.

The National Waste Management Plan is now not expected until the end of 2013, Defra said.

"It is vital that the revised timetables for these projects are met,” complained ESA's director of policy Matthew Farrow.

In the meantime, local authorities must continue to attach weight to relevant NPPF policies when planning for and determining waste management development.

Company Reporting of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

This is not the only delay that was reported by Defra yesterday.

It also published a Parliamentary Report, Company Reporting of Greenhouse Gas Emissions to try and explain why regulations on the mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas emissions will not be introduced by 6 April 2012 as planned.

Businesses reacted with dismay to the news.

Rhian Kelly, CBI director for business environment policy, said she was “frustrated, but not surprised" and urged the government to scrap the CRC and replace the reporting elements of it with mandatory carbon reporting, which would be a “less complex, costly and bureaucratic process for businesses”.

The delay was also slammed by Martin Baxter, executive director for policy, Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA), because over 90% of environment professionals working in UK businesses want mandatory reporting to be introduced.

Calling the delay “unacceptable", he said: "The government has had four years to make a decision, held a number of consultations, and built up a strong evidence base that demonstrates that GHG reporting delivers cost savings for business and environmental benefits, and needs to urgently make a decision on this”.

Undoubtedly, the government has been strongly lobbied from opposing viewpoints, and anyway it would be difficult to bring in mandatory reporting while the unpopular Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) stays in place.

Carbon Reduction Commitment

Talking of which, in a further development yesterday, secretary of state for energy and climate change Ed Davey launched a widely anticipated consultation on whether to scrap the CRC.

He said that DECC had listened to businesses’ concerns about the measure and now proposes "to radically cut down on ‘red tape’".

He claimed that participants will see their administrative costs cut by almost two-thirds, equating to around £330m of savings up to 2030, and that the scheme will still deliver carbon savings of 21 MtCO2 by 2027.

The number of fuels covered by the scheme will drop from 29 to 4, and there will be no requirement on facilities covered by Climate Change Agreement or the EU Emissions Trading System to purchase CRC allowances. A firm not qualifying will incur no costs in Phase II and onwards.

Furthermore, new emissions factors will be introduced which will align it with greenhouse gas reporting processes, and it will no longer be compulsory to include detailed metrics in the Performance League Table. Critics will complain that this is a step backwards.

The CRC currently covers emissions corresponding to about 62m tonnes of carbon. The government's preferred replacement scheme, it claims, will result in only 73,000 tonnes less being covered over the 20-year period.

DECC’S latest impact assessment also shows that taking allowance costs out of the equation indicates that participants will save twice as much in energy costs as the scheme's administrative costs, generating a net saving.

KPMG's Ben Wielgus countered that leaving the costs of allowances in "means the scheme will be a net cost to participants. However, the Chancellor announced in his March 2012 budget that even if the CRC is scrapped, the revenue raised would be replaced by some form of new environmental tax".

Besides, he said, a survey conducted by KPMG had revealed other benefits: 60% of CRC participants said the CRC made them pay more attention to energy/carbon and half said the scheme will lead to them reducing their footprint. Two-thirds said they spent less than 40% of their carbon management time on the CRC, indicating that many are already measuring and reporting their carbon footprints for other purposes.

The formal consultation will run for 12 weeks from today. The government will amend the legislation for CRC by April 2013.

Story: David Thorpe, News Editor