Tuesday’s long-awaited publication of the draft National Planning Policy Framework was even bigger than the England cricket team’s era-defining victory over India, at least in development circles. As the champions of the UK’s cities, our first act at Centre for Cities was to search the document – all 58 pages – for references to cities and urban planning. We were keen to see what signals the Government had chosen to send about the role of the reformed planning system in helping cities chart their own development course. Our search proved fruitless.
The draft NPPF contains no mentions of ‘cities’, or indeed ‘city’, and a single solitary use of the word ‘urban’ as part of the phrase ‘urban and rural planning’. The absence of cities is in stark contrast to the prominence of rural areas in the NPPF, where the document is very clear about its ambitions. It sets out three objectives for sustainable economic growth, one of which is “to raise the quality of life and the environment in rural areas by promoting thriving, inclusive and locally distinctive rural economies”. The word rural occurs 15 times in the document.
The absence of cities from some of the more prescriptive aspects of planning guidance – billboard controls, isolated homes, redundant farm buildings - is of course understandable, but it is surprisingly that while the NPPF sets out aspirations for town centres and the countryside, it misses the bigger picture. Cities are the drivers of the UK economy, housing 56 percent of the population and contributing 60 percent of the jobs. If our city economies do not thrive, we are in trouble. If the NPPF can find room for a dedicated section on supporting the rural economy, it could also spare a thought for the urban.
As our Cities Outlook 2011 research shows, the UK’s cities are in contrasting economic health and at different points in the economic cycle. The planning system is a key driver of jobs growth, and cities are facing some tough jobs challenges, as our recent Moving On Up, Moving On Out? report demonstrates. To achieve the elusive growth on which the health of the economy depends, we need a planning system that understands and supports the needs of our cities, and serves their changing development needs. Any council without a signed off Local Development Framework will be racing to complete the job before national planning policy over-rides any local control. This is not a situation conducive to the high quality, evidenced strategic thinking that local authorities need to become proactive urban managers.