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National Planning Policy Framework: a new era for Planning in England

  • United Kingdom

    28-03-2012

    On 27 March 2012, as predicated by the 2012 Budget, the Coalition Government published the National Planning Policy Framework (“NPPF”). This followed the making of the Localism Act in November 2011 and its publication confirms that England has now entered a new era of town and country planning. The Royal Town Planning Institute has indicated that the new planning regime is the most fundamental change to the planning system since 1947.

    Following the publication of the draft NPPF in July 2011, there followed a high profile and controversial national debate in review of its content. The draft NPPF was considered by not one but two Parliamentary Select Committees. This note examines the content of the NPPF as published on 27 March and examines whether the Government has listened to its advisors or to its critics.

    What is the NPPF?

    The NPPF contains the Coalition Government’s strategies for economic, environmental and social planning policies in England. It is designed to be a single, tightly focused document setting out national planning priorities. It replaces existing national planning policy documents including all planning policy statements (PPSs), all planning policy guidance notes (PPGs) and all ministerial planning circulars. Its content reflects the Government’s Localism Agenda by placing Local and Neighbourhood Planning at the heart of the development management process. It also reflects the Government’s desires to stimulate growth and to address climate change. All this in no more than 50 pages.

    So, what is in the NPPF?

    Broadly, the NPPF provides a set of national planning objectives which are simultaneously designed to support growth, protect the environment and ensure decisions are made at a local level. The principle of “sustainable development” is at the heart of the NPPF and it is a concept that permeates the objectives set out in it. It is composed of three key components: economic, environmental and social well being. The NPPF makes it clear that each component should be given equal weight when the concept of sustainability is considered. The achievement of this objective is structured around the requirement of the planning system that planning applications must be determined in accordance with the development plan unless other material considerations indicate otherwise.

    In particular, the NPPF contains the following:

    1. A presumption in favour of sustainable development

    This presumption is described in the NPPF as the “golden thread running through both plan making and decision making”. It is arguable that this is in play now for many local authorities given the plan making delays associated with the anticipated withdrawal of Regional Strategies and having regard to the new requirements of the NPPF itself.

    2. Local and Neighbourhood Plan Making

    The NPPF requires local authorities to prepare Local Plans based on objectively assessed development needs and a robust evidence base. Local Plans are required to be drafted in reliance upon the presumption in favour of sustainable development. They will set out the local authority’s strategic priorities, specify the opportunities for development and provide clear guidance on what will or what will not be permitted and where. A 15 year time horizon is suggested, although the Local Plan will need to be kept up to date to ensure that evolving housing, business, infrastructure and other requirements are addressed. The NPPF provides a moratorium for 12 months from the full force of the ‘presumption’ for those authorities that have a post-2004 local plan that is broadly in line with the NPPF. All other local authorities will now have to grapple with the new presumption.

    Local Plans may be supplemented by Neighbourhood Plans. Parishes and neighbourhood forums are empowered by the Localism Act 2011 to set planning polices for their neighbourhood and to give planning permission through Neighbourhood Development Orders or Community Right to Build Orders. Neighbourhood Plans must be in general conformity with the strategic policies in the Local Plan and can promote more (but not less) development in a neighbourhood than is set out in the Local Plan.

    Both types of plan are required to be independently assessed before adoption.

    3. Development Management (“DM”)

    The NPPF states that the primary objection of DM is “to foster the delivery of sustainable development, not to hinder or prevent development”. Local authorities are directed to approach DM decisions positively and to attach significant weight to the benefits of economic and housing growth. Pre-application engagement and front loading are encouraged with local authorities required to “look for solutions rather than problems”. The starting point for DM decisions will be the Local Plan (and potentially a Neighbourhood Plan), provided always that the presumption in favour of sustainable development will apply.

    4. Protection of Green Spaces, Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, etc

    Despite widespread criticism, the Coalition Government (even in the draft NPPF) has ensured that inappropriate development in these protected areas is controlled. Local authorities are directed to ensure that substantial weight is given to any harm in the Green Belt and, subject to a limited number of exceptions, new buildings within the Green Belt are to be regarded as inappropriate. Similarly, great weight is to be given to protecting landscape and scenic beauty in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Development impacts on historic assets and biodiversity are to be avoided or minimised.

    Additionally, the new “Local Green Spaces” designation is introduced to assist local communities to protect green areas from development except in very special circumstances. This is a significant new policy initiative and it will be interesting to see how it is used by local communities.

    5. Other matters dealt with by the NPPF

    The NPPF also includes entire sections on subjects such as business and economic development, transport, communications infrastructure, housing, design, sustainable communities, climate change, flooding and coastal change.

    What changes have been made since the NPPF was published in draft?

    1. The NPPF makes it clear that the local plan is the keystone of the planning edifice.
    2. The definition of “sustainable development” has been strengthened to include the Bruntland definition.
    3. The NPPF now reinstates the need to protect the intrinsic value and beauty of the countryside - this was absent from the draft NPPF and has been introduced to reflect established planning principles.
    4. The NPPF now includes a brownfield first policy - this has been strengthened to prioritise the use of previously developed land.
    5. The NPPF now contains a transition period - local authorities with a post-2004 local plan that is broadly in line with the NPPF will be able to use those policies for 12 months. For local authorities with no up-to-date plan, the NPPF will come in to force today.
    6. The town centre first policy has been strengthened and office development re-included, with an exception for rural businesses.
    7. The wording of the NPPF has been amended to ensure that the three components of the term “Sustainable Development” (namely economic, environmental and social well being) are given equal weight in plan making and in DM. The wording of the draft NPPF was criticised for suggesting the economic dimension was predominant or that one component could trump the other two.
    8. Local authorities with a good track record at allocating land for housing must earmark a five-year supply plus 5%. Others without a “realistic prospect that housing will be delivered on site within five years” must earmark a five-year supply plus 20%.
    9. The NPPF contains a list of policies that are now replaced, which excludes the ‘General Principles’ document published in January 2005 detailing the basis upon which a Council can refuse a development proposal on grounds of ‘predetermination’. That document therefore remains in effect.

    A new era?

    Undoubtedly. The language of the NPPF is a sea change to the policy which was in place immediately before its publication. Policy has been stripped away in favour of a set of broad objectives.  These have the potential to conflict with one another in certain situations. The presumption in favour of sustainable development is therefore likely to play a key role in the planning balance.

    There are profound concerns whether appropriate and robust safeguards have been included within the NPPF and it won’t be until we see Local and Neighbourhood Plans coming forward and decisions taken under the NPPF, that we can have any confidence in this new policy initiative. There must, however, be some prospect that both developers and local authorities will rely upon this abridged national planning policy document to further their own commercial or political objectives and that we will shortly enter a period of legal action in clarification and challenge to the terms of the NPPF. We must also expect to see continued reliance on the old guidance in the absence of any detailed policy advice and a growing body of informal guidance in an attempt to fill the vacuum.

    Regardless, the publication of the NPPF signifies a new era for planning in England, one that potentially offers an opportunity for growth.

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