Investigating the major development test

We've just launched our new report, National Parks - Planning for the Future with the Campaign to Protect Rural England and National Trust. Professor Lynn Crowe from Sheffield Hallam University led on the research to underpin our report and writes more about what they did and what they learnt.

The Department of the Natural and Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University, were delighted to undertake this research project, funded by the Campaign for National Parks, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), and the National Trust. We were asked to investigate the interpretation and application of the so-called ‘major development test’ (the test) in National Parks in England and Wales. My fellow lead researcher, Dr Cate Hammond and I have a long-standing interest in the protection of our National Parks, and we were ably supported throughout the project by one of our postgraduate students, Nikky Wilson.

We were asked to respond to concerns that despite the test being an integral part of the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), this does not always prevent damaging major development from taking place in or close to our National Parks. Our clients wanted us to investigate the effectiveness of the planning protection given to National Parks in England and Wales in relation to these major schemes.

The test has been amended several times since it was first introduced in 1949 (then known as the ‘Silkin test’). Perhaps the most significant changes were actually made by William Waldegrave in 1987, when National Park Authorities were first required to consider the impact of approving or refusing a scheme on the ‘local economy’. Our research has shown that reference to the ‘local economy’ is a significant factor in the approval of major development applications.

We evaluated major development policies in the Local Plans of all National Park Authorities in England and Wales. This demonstrated that there was significant variation in both the definition of major development and National Park Authorities' interpretation of existing policy. The definition of major development perhaps seems a fine legal point, but it can have significant impacts on the implementation of the test. A legal opinion provided by James Maurici of Landmark Chambers in 2014, emphasises that the definition of major development in relation to the test is a matter of planning judgment to be decided by the individual National Park Authority. Importantly, national significance or absolute scale is not mentioned, but the severity of the impact on a National Parks’ special qualities is paramount.

We investigated the implementation of the test by searching National Park Authorities' planning portals to examine over 70 individual cases, and then a more detailed examination of fifteen selected case studies. We also undertook interviews with senior National Park Authorities planning officers and received comments from National Park Societies, National Trust planning advisers and CPRE local groups.

We are extremely grateful to all those National Park Authority planning officers who gave up their time and local group members - often working as volunteers - who provided us with a rich background to many of the individual planning cases. We came to fully appreciate the size and complexity of these cases. Many local group members commented on their admiration of National Park officers dealing with such time consuming schemes. The research also identified many examples of good practice which we hope will be promoted widely amongst all the National Park Authorities.

Our main findings suggest that the existing test is generally well supported by National Park Authorities. It is not the actual wording of the test which causes any significant issues. As one local group member commented to us "the policy would have been sufficient to turn down xxx application, had they wanted to". However, there is strong support for more guidance on the interpretation of some of the terms in the test, such as ‘public interest’ and ‘exceptional circumstances’.

Although the current wording of the test in the NPPF is weaker than the original Silkin test, the recent changes do not appear to have had any significant impact on decisions. Local and national decisions reflect central government’s agenda at any particular time, and also the continuing challenge of supporting National Park purposes whilst allowing local economic development.  Enabling the sustainable development of local communities whilst ensuring National Parks' primary purposes to protect and enhance these special landscapes for everyone to enjoy, remains the challenge at the heart of these complex cases.

The full report of our main findings can be read online here.

Lynn Crowe, Professor of Environmental Management. Tweet to Lynn at @LynnCroweSHU or email her at l.crowe@shu.ac.uk