National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF): A new era for sustainable planning?

National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF): A new era for sustainable planning?

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Author: Tim Willis

As promised in Chancellor George Osborne's 2012 Budget, the Government issued the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), today (27 March)

It brings to an end any further speculation about what may or may not have survived the consultation process.

The NPPF is effective immediately, and reduces 1,300 pages of National Planning Policy Guidance to just 59. Some might argue that it actually runs to 83 pages, given that a separate Technical Guidance to the National Planning Policy Framework has also been released.

Disappointingly, that technical guidance is described as an 'interim measure pending a wider review of guidance to support planning policy' - so more policy changes are anticipated.

Annex 1 of the NPPF contains transitional provisions. In essence:

  • the NPPF is a material consideration required to be taken into account by local planning authorities (LPAs) now
  • for 12 months from the date of publication decision-takers may continue to give full weight to policies adopted in their development plan since 2004, even if there is a limited degree of conflict with the NPPF
  • the NPPF reflects the law 'post implementation of the Localism Act 2011', so some policies will apply only when the relevant legislation is in force

Annex 3 sets out the documents to be replaced by the NPPF, i.e. existing PPG and PPS Guidance, and letters to chief officers. Circular 05/2005: Planning Obligations is also replaced.

The document itself has a rather split personality. On one hand it promotes:

  • the creation of sustainable communities that are 'strong vibrant and healthy'
  • the involvement of local communities in preparing neighbourhood plans in order to 'shape' the development in their area
  • new powers for communities to identify and protect 'green spaces' in their area that are of 'particular importance to them'
  • the importance of early engagement with the local community via pre-application discussions

Yet on the other, contains provisions that actively encourage growth and economic development via:

  • a new 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' - the so-called 'golden thread' running through both plan-making and decision-taking (although it is noted that the emotive words 'the default answer to development proposals is yes', which appeared in the draft NPPF have been removed from the final version)
  • a commitment to 'sustainable economic growth'. As such the NPPF confirms 'significant weight' should be placed on the need to support the economy through the planning system
  • a new requirement for LPAs to achieve a five years plus 5% housing land supply figure to achieve choice and competition in the market; or five years plus 20% (i.e. six years), where there has been a 'persistent' record of under delivery by the LPA. Many authorities will no doubt be looking at having to provide an additional 20% figure, but what does 'persistent' mean in this context?
  • reference to development 'management' rather than development 'control'
  • an emphasis on the need for 'viability' assessments to enable delivery of development, presumably to ensure that potential housing land is not 'land banked' due to potential financial barriers to development

While the Government has been keen to emphasise the important new planning role for the community, the fact remains that there is an inherent tension between the need for growth through development, and a community's desire to control or 'shape' that growth.

This raises two points:

  • what exactly is 'sustainable' development? This is a difficult concept and offers potential for a variety of different views. The NPPF does not provide any new definition or clarification in this respect, choosing instead to refer to the broad principles of sustainable development in Resolution 24/187 of the United Nations General Assembly
  • who or what exactly is the 'local community'? Again, the 'community' is a concept that is hard to define, particularly in urban areas made up of a number of disparate groups

There is a further issue here in that the 'presumption' in favour of development is policy, rather than statute based. This could raise potential difficulties in applying the presumption where there is an overriding statutory requirement to protect the character of an area; for example conservation areas.

Further, in a straight fight, what weight is to be given to the presumption for development under the NPPF when balanced against the presumption against 'inappropriate development' in the Green Belt?

Presumably, the NPPF can ultimately still have decisive weight despite the 'substantial weight' given to Green Belt protection under the NPPF?

Ultimately, of course, a change in planning policy cannot solve the country's chronic housing shortage or economic concerns on its own. So while the NPPF advocates a simpler planning system, achieving the Government's aspirations for economic growth will still require early release of much more land for development, and accessibility to appropriate and affordable levels of finance.