UK: The Draft National Planning Policy Framework - Responding To The Consultation

Last Updated: 21 March 2012
Article by DMH Stallard

Since the election in May 2010, the Government, and in particular the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles have portrayed the planning system as insufficiently sensitive, on one hand, to local opinion and the needs of local communities, and on the other hand to the needs of "the market" and the ability of new development to contribute to stimulating growth.  After various skirmishes, in particular in relation to the premature emasculation of regional planning, the department for communities and local government have now published, in draft, their National Planning Policy Framework.  This document aims to square the circle, but also to replace 47 policy and other documents, which are proposed to be cancelled when the final version of the NPPF is published.

The pro-growth agenda was forecast in the budget, earlier this year.  As the DCLG's Consultation Guidance on the draft NPPF says:

"The Chancellor made clear in this year's Budget the Government's expectation that the answer to development and growth should wherever possible be 'yes', except where this would clearly conflict with other aspects of national policy.

The presumption turns this expectation into policy – a policy that works with the existing plan-led approach, by emphasising the role of up to date development plans in identifying and accommodating development needs. Where those plans are not up to date, or do not provide a clear basis for decisions, the policy establishes the clear presumption that permissions should be granted, provided there is no overriding conflict with the National Planning Policy Framework as a whole."

(DCLG Consultation Guidance paragraphs 16 and 17)

The claim to have reduced "about 1000" pages of policy to 58 pages, in the draft NPPF is slightly disingenuous:  the document is supported by a consultation document (30 pages) and an impact assessment (98 pages).  The latter in particular discusses much of the reasoning behind the wording of the NPPF itself, projected costs savings and increased efficiencies.  It is therefore essential reading in its own right.  By way of example, the impact assessment says, about the introduction of the presumption in favour of sustainable development:

"This places a more positive obligation on local councils to be proactive in identifying and addressing development needs, and enabling development proposals to go ahead unless this would clearly conflict with the key sustainable development principles set out in national policy.  Local councils will need to be more explicit about the needs of their areas and how they are meeting them when producing their plans.  For applicants, they will submit applications as normal, but should have a clearer idea of what isn't acceptable."

(NB In their recently published Note "National Planning Policy Framework: Myth-Buster", DCLG recognise that a presumption in favour of the grant of planning permission has been present in the modern planning system, in some form, since its inception in 1947)

And

"Increased provision for growth in up to date plans – The presumption will place a much stronger expectation on local councils to meet the identified development needs of their areas (unless to do so would conflict with the key policy objectives of the Framework taken as a whole). This is a strong policy requirement, as if local council fail to do this they will risk individual development proposals being allowed on appeal. Greater provision for development needs will enable more planning applications, for more development, to come forward in the expectation that they will be approved".

Interestingly, the impact assessment also says:

"The intention of the presumption in favour, and of the reforms described across Part B, is to make the plan making process easier and more democratic, and as a result enable and encourage more development"

Which might be said to beg the question whether more democratic decision making will necessarily release more land for development. 

Perhaps the most telling gloss on the draft NPPF itself, is provided on page 57 of the impact assessment where, in relation to planning for residential development it says:

"Government is placing a clear expectation on local councils to be ambitious in delivering housing land through ensuring more choice and competition in the land market, by requiring an additional 20 per cent of deliverable sites to be identified to meet their five year housing requirement.  This policy requiring councils to identify additional 'deliverable' sites should help to provide an overall land supply that is actually viable and ready to be delivered and developed.  Where plans are not adopted or the five year supply and additional minimum 20 per cent requirement are not kept up to date, the presumption in favour of sustainable development will apply."

Reverting to the draft NPPF itself, it is important to understand its structure, and the topics on which it provides specific policies.  The introduction is written by Greg Clark, the Minister for Planning, who opens with the words:

"The purpose of planning is to help achieve sustainable development..." 

He then discusses the meaning of sustainable development, and concludes that the NPPF will facilitate this, as well as encouraging public participation in the planning process.

Sustainable development is defined as:

"...development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (taken from the report of the Brundtland Commission 1987)

The NPPF then provides its own more detailed definition of sustainable development,  which it elides into justification for more development, concluding:

"There is no necessary contradiction between increased levels of development and protecting and enhancing the environment, as long as development is planned and undertaken responsibly."

The NPPF then introduces its presumption in favour of sustainable development arguing that "a positive planning system is essential because, without growth, a sustainable future cannot be achieved."

The NPPF recognises and, to an extent, endorses the long-standing legal requirement (Section 38(6) Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004) for planning decisions to be taken in accordance with adopted planning policies.  This is then however overlaid repeatedly with statements in terms that planning applications should be approved unless they would compromise "...the key sustainable development principles set out in this Framework".

In one of its most controversial sentences, paragraph 110 requires that planning permission should be granted for residential development if relevant policies are out of date, for example where a local authority cannot demonstrate an up to date five year supply of deliverable housing sites. 

These policy statements have been highlighted in many published comments on the draft NPPF to date.  It is however important to note that it does provide checks and balances which, if carefully and thoughtfully applied may help to bring the planning system back into balance and ensure that, whilst it does produce more, and quicker approvals, it does not do so at the expense of large areas of presently undeveloped land perceived as having environmental or community value or of the quality of life and amenities of communities generally.  By way of example, the NPPF contains sections on matters such as:

  • Climate Change, flooding and coastal change
  • Natural Environment
  • Historic Environment

The last reads as a (very short) precis of PPS5 "Planning for the Historic Environment" which was itself only published in March last year.  Despite the abbreviation, the impact assessment insists that, by comparison with PPS5, the NPPF does not alter existing policies or create new ones and that:

"...the impacts of moving from Planning Policy Statement 5 to the Framework for those involved with the historic environment should be de minimis."

What is not clear at this stage is whether the Planning for the Historic Environment Practice Guide, published at the same time as PPS5, will survive or will be replaced with another guidance document. It seems likely that in this and other areas, after April 2012, various new guidance documents will be produced in areas like this, thus extending the period of uncertainty which change on this scale will generate.

What changes or clarifications might one wish for in the final version of the NPPF?

  1. Clarification of the use of the expression "Local Plan" in the document. This phrase was dropped in the Planning and Compensation Act 2004. Is it now reinstated, and if so, what underlying legal changes are required to effect this?
  2. The removal of the blunderbuss proposal in paragraph 110, mentioned above, that where local policies are out of date, permission should be granted (even if, implicitly, this is defined as sustainable development). In this respect, the statement in paragraph 19 that the default answer to planning applications should be "yes" if the scheme meets the "key sustainable development principles..." should at least be amended to include reference to planning policy, in accordance with Section 38(6) Planning and Compensation Act 2004 and to allow weight to be attached to emerging or other draft policies, as at present.
  3. In several sections, the NPPF encourages or requires Local Planning Authorities to work together to address wider issues ( - in relation, for example, to Local Plans, the "Duty to Cooperate", Strategic Housing Market Assessments and infrastructure provision). Having abandoned Regional Planning, the implicit acceptance of the need for planning beyond LPA boundaries should be made explicit, with recognition of the need for appropriate structures (and funding?).
  4. The NPPF also requires LPAs to prepare policies which are based on and able to accommodate market demand for land; this needs to recognise that in some areas, development at such a level could have unacceptable impacts, and that therefore this level of demand cannot be met (the draft is inconsistent, mentioning this point in some places but not others).
  5. The reinstatement of a policy to give priority to the reuse of previously developed land (and, in relation to residential development, the proper assessment and reuse of vacant properties).

What happens next? DCLG is saying that the final version of the NPPF will be published in April next year. The draft has attracted an avalanche of comment and criticism, including at least one complete redraft (see Campaign Against Sprawl), and many political interventions. It will be interesting to see if this deadline is met. There is also a question whether, thereafter, supplementary documents will begin to emerge, to replace some of the flesh which has been removed from the bones of the old policy documents. For the historic environment, for example, there  are rumours that the 2010 "Historic Environment Planning Practice Guide" could reappear in a new form.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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