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What price the NPPF?

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The new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was finally unveiled earlier this week by Decentralisation and Cities Minister Greg Clark.  As the dust begins to settle on the impressively slimline document, how much wiser are we? 

Heralded as the government’s strategy for creating jobs and growth while protecting the UK’s “matchless countryside”, the NPPF promises to provide a streamlined system founded on a presumption in favour of sustainable development,  a “golden thread” running through local authorities’ plan-making and decision-taking.

The NPPF is different to the controversial draft issued last summer, but not significantly so.  The key principle remains the promotion of economic development, although this is now qualified by reference to the Brundtland definition of sustainable development, which is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  The NPPF also refers to the five principles of the 2005 UK Sustainable Development Strategy: living within the planet’s environmental limits; ensuring a strong, healthy and just society; achieving a sustainable economy; promoting good governance; and using sound science responsibly.

Since the UK government was already signed up to these structures, this is not new and the question must arise about how hard pressed planning authorities, already struggling with inadequate resources, will now be better placed than previously to make fine judgments about the suitability of planning applications against such broad criteria. The NPPF also fails to provide guidance or a vision for the development of the country as a whole. While one of the key political drivers behind the NPPF is to move away from a “top-down” planning system, the NPPF, even when read in conjunction to the existing National Policy Statements, fails to provide enough detail to enable a strategic planning response to bring forward development required to supply national infrastructure.

A similar challenge to planners is implicit in one of the twelve core planning principles, which requires plans to ‘take account of market signals, such as land prices and housing affordability’ in delivering sites for development.  This core principle is pragmatic recognition that competition is an effective tool for identifying those sites that are most favourable for development, and therefore most likely to be delivered.  Bearing in mind the 15 year Local Plan time horizon advised by the NPPF, however, and market fluctuations during the Plan period, this seems to be a recipe for, at least, abortive effort by planning authorities and developers promoting sites and, more likely, increased workload for the legal sector.

The new system came into effect immediately on 27 March although planning authorities have been given twelve months grace to adjust existing plans to be in complete conformity with the NPPF.  Weight will, meanwhile, be given to the presumption in favour of development which accords with the emerging plan.  Swift implementation is intended to prevent developments being delayed unless approving them would be against the “collective interest”. This will be welcome news to the renewable energy sector, particularly in view of the added exhortation to Councils to design their policies to maximise renewable and low carbon energy development, including community projects, while ensuring adverse landscape and visual impacts are properly addressed.

Henceforth, the NPPF states, planning should not be “simply about scrutiny”.  It should be “a creative exercise in finding ways to enhance and improve the places in which we live our lives”.  This explicit statement reflects the driving Treasury view of planning and wider environmental legislation as a brake on development.  There has, in fact, never been any evidence to support this view.  Indeed, the Defra’s Habitats Regulations review, published just days before the NPPF, concluded that there was no evidence of gold-plating of nature conservation rules and, far from being a barrier to economic recovery, the report clearly shows the economic value of the sites and species they protect.  Defra observed, moreover, that many of the problems that have arisen reflect lack of knowledge and implementation rather than over-implementation.  It all boils down to having the necessary resources to do the job effectively.

So, proficiency in juggling will be an essential skill for working with the NPPF.  Local authorities must balance competing demands when refining their Local Plans and determining planning applications with keeping a close eye on market forces.  They will need to be properly supported in their understanding of sustainability issues if they are to bring forward economically viable development that meets sustainability standards.  Council planning officers will continue, as previously, to be responsible for interpreting the core planning principles of the Local Plan in the context of the NPPF, developers’ proposals and the involvement of local residents and businesses.  And it is not just local authorities and communities who will be tested.  Notwithstanding the NPPF replacing previous planning policy guidance, the development sector will still have to navigate through individual government departments which use more than a hundred major maps for England relating to policies and programmes on the economy, transport, communications, housing and the environment. None are available in one place or through a single data source and, scattered as they are across web sites and within departmental reports, they are already difficult to find.

What next? 

At Landmark we are advising our clients that, whilst the NPPF does not significantly change the principles of the planning system, its publication means that all proposals which are in the process of being prepared should be reviewed to ensure that the best possible justification is presented.  For applications already in the system, we would recommend a swift review and submission of further representations to demonstrate accordance with the NPPF.  The above also applies to appeals, where the enhanced emphasis on sustainable development may influence both local authorities and developers in their decision on whether to pursue an appeal.

For development schemes in local authority areas where the development plan is absent, or where existing policies are out of date or are silent, then we would advise that proposals are re-visited to understand whether the NPPF now provides the basis to support the grant of planning permission.  The changes to the plan-making system are also likely to prompt a rush by planning authorities to ensure that plans are in general conformity with the NPPF, providing an opportunity for land owners and developers to promote land for site allocations.  We would therefore recommend undertaking a strategic review of any landholdings to consider whether they have potential to be carried forward into new plans.

Does the NPPF represent a brave new world in which planning authorities, developers and communities can bring forward sustainable economic development?  We will need to see how the system beds in but, at present, the short answer is – not really.  For those who have been involved in planning for many years, the NPPF represents another iteration – albeit slimline – rather than a new dawn.  The essential checks and balances that promote the high quality development needed to deliver social, economic and environmental benefit have been in place for a long time and the case law that already helps to interpret complex questions of balance remains valid.