The government's National Planning Policy Framework was published on 27 March 2012. The NPPF, which applies only in England, provides a framework within which local plans will be prepared by local planning authorities and it is a material consideration in the determination of planning applications. The Framework came into effect immediately but, during a 12 month transitional period, existing development plan policies adopted since 2004 may be given full weight, even if there is a limited degree of conflict with the Framework.
The Framework sweeps away the accumulated mass of circulars, "policy" letters, guidance notes and policy statements and replaces them with a simpler, more straightforward expression of planning policy. As explained with admirable clarity in Greg Clark's ministerial forward: "The purpose of planning is to help achieve sustainable development. Sustainable means ensuring that better lives for ourselves don't mean worse lives for future generations. Development means growth."
Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development
At the heart of the Framework is a presumption in favour of sustainable development. This caused alarm when the draft Framework was first published, with the National Trust in particular fearing that it meant a development "free for all" with no protection for the Green Belt or other open spaces. The final version of the Framework should allay those fears. It still contains statements that local planning authorities should "positively seek opportunities to meet the development needs of their area" and that development proposals that accord with the development plan should be approved without delay, and where the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out of date, permission should be granted. However, those statements apply only "unless any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in the Framework taken as a whole, or specific policies in the Framework indicate development should be restricted". Further, the NPPF does not override the legal requirement that decisions are to be taken in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.
Core Planning Principles
Twelve core planning principles should underpin plan and decision making:
- Be genuinely plan-led.
- Not simply be about scrutiny.
- Be pro-actively driven and support sustainable economic development.
- Always seek to secure high-quality design and a good standard of amenity.
- Take account of the different roles and character of different areas.
- Support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate.
- Contribute to conserving and enhancing the natural environment and reducing pollution.
- Encourage the effective use of land by reusing brownfield land.
- Promote mixed use developments.
- Conserve heritage assets.
- Actively manage patterns of growth.
- Take account of and support local strategies to improve health, social and cultural well-being.
The protection for town centres is also largely carried through into the Framework. In particular, the Framework requires local plans to support the viability and vitality of town centres. It recognises that it is important that needs for retail, leisure, office and other main town centre uses are met in full and are not compromised by limited site availability. It retains the sequential test which is to be applied to planning applications for main town centre uses (except small scale rural development) that are not in an existing centre and are not in accordance with an up-to-date local plan, so that they are located first in town centres, then in edge of centre locations and only if suitable sites are not available should out of centre sites be considered. Those over a certain size (2,500 sq m where no threshold is set locally) will need an impact assessment including an assessment of the impact on investment in centres in the catchment area and on town centre vitality and viability.
The Framework encourages the re-use of previously developed land provided it is not of high environmental value. Local planning authorities may also continue to consider the case for setting a locally appropriate target for the use of brownfield land.
The Green Belt
For those fearing the loss of Green Belt there is no discernable softening of policy. The Framework states explicitly: "the Government attaches great importance to Green Belts" and "when considering any planning application, local planning authorities should ensure that substantial weight is given to any harm to the Green Belt".
In particular, the construction of new buildings is to be regarded as inappropriate in the Green Belt except in certain very limited circumstances. Inappropriate development in the Green Belt should not be approved except in "very special circumstances" which will not exist unless "the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations".
There is protection for open spaces outside the Green Belt, too.
The government has made growth its priority and wants planning policy to be used primarily as a tool to achieve that aim, rather than as an obstruction to it. For that tool to be most effective it must be made more accessible. By encapsulating almost the whole of planning policy in one, relatively brief, easy to read document the NPPF appears to have done that. Crucially, however, it appears also to have retained sufficient safeguards to prevent the problems which wholly unrestrained development would bring and to avoid alienating public opinion. Achieving the balance between "development" and "sustainability" will remain the challenge it always has been.
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