'Twas the night before Christmas (well, almost, it was 22 December) and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities delivered on Michael Gove's promise to publish revisions to national planning policy for consultation.

The consultation came in the form of a consultation on proposed reforms to national planning policy and indicative mark-up of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Despite the pre-Christmas promise, this is not the prospectus which was expected last summer – we are now told that the wider review of the NPPF referred to in the Policy Paper accompanying publication of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (LURB) will follow once the LURB is enacted.

At first glance this consultation seems comprehensive, but, upon closer inspection, it's only really a patchwork prelude: apart from the NPPF mark-up, most proposals are thematic and for future consultation. The consultation itself is a combination of: a recap of the LURB; immediate proposals for revising the NPPF (in the indicative mark-up); a broad outline of proposals for the wider review of the NPPF; and an outline of the principles governing the new National Development Management Policies (NDMPs) which are being introduced by the LURB. Nevertheless, the overall direction of travel is clear and there is plenty to mull over.

What are the key points arising out of the consultation document? Eight broad themes include:

Plan-led system – it is intended that, under the new system, local plans will be produced more quickly and with simplified contents. Local authorities will have to start work on new plans (at the latest) five years after the adoption of their previous plans, and the new plan must then be adopted within 30 months. Authorities will also no longer be permitted to issue Supplementary Planning Documents, but can issue "supplementary plans" which will be given the same weight as the existing local plan.

Housing supply – to incentivise the faster adoption of local plans (and thereby reduce "unplanned" development and reliance on the presumption in favour of sustainable development), the government is proposing to remove the requirement for local authorities with an up-to-date plan to demonstrate continually a deliverable 5-year housing land supply. Also, the government is proposing to remove the current requirement on local authorities to include a buffer of 5%, 10% or 20% on top of their housing land supply (as currently required by paragraph 74 of the NPPF) and for oversupply of homes early in the plan period to be taken into account when calculating housing supply. The government is also consulting on a mechanism by which the Housing Delivery Test would be "switched off" where a local planning authority can demonstrate that there are "sufficient" deliverable permissions to meet the housing requirement set out in its local plan.

Strengthening the status of neighbourhood plans – the government is proposing additional protections for neighbourhood plans in circumstances where a local planning authority's policies for the area are out-of-date. First, the government is proposing to extend protection to neighbourhood plans that are up to five years old instead of the current two years. Second, the government is proposing to remove tests which currently mean local planning authorities need to demonstrate a minimum housing land supply and have delivered a minimum amount in the Housing Delivery Test for Neighbourhood Plans to benefit from the protection afforded by the NPPF. These proposed changes can be seen in paragraph 14 of the indicative draft NPPF.

Soundness test – the soundness test for local plans is proposed to be simplified such that local plans no longer need to be "justified" and objectively assessed housing need would only need to be met "so far as possible". Whilst presented as a simplification of paragraph 35 of the NPPF, the effect undoubtedly constitutes a dilution of the soundness test.

National Development Management Policies – the purpose of NDMPs is to give statutory weight to issues of national importance/application. The consultation envisages that the NDMPs will cover areas such as conserving heritage assets, preventing inappropriate development in the green belt, net zero policies, and restricting development in areas of high flood risk. This will enable local plans to be slimmed down by removing issues of national/general application and will make plans more locally-relevant and focused. NDMPs will carry the same weight in decision-making as local plans and neighbourhood plans, and may also constitute material considerations in Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project decisions. NDMPs will carry greater weighting where there is conflict between them and development plans. The policies themselves will be designated by the Secretary of State after further consultation.

Onshore wind – in the light of the current energy crisis, the government has proposed amendments to paragraphs 155 and 158 of the NPPF to provide policy support for the re-powering and life-extension of existing onshore wind farms and other renewable/low carbon energy where the impacts are or can be made acceptable in planning terms. The government has also proposed amendments to footnote 63 of the NPPF which are apparently intended to encourage new onshore wind development – however, whilst the language has softened somewhat (eg impacts now need not be "fully addressed" but be "satisfactorily addressed"), the nebulous concept of local community "support" has been introduced and it remains to be seen what this could mean.

Renewed emphasis on "beauty" – "beautiful" development is portrayed as both a means and an end – more likely to be supported locally and thus consented, but then building pride in place and positively affecting health and social wellbeing. The NPPF has been tweaked in several places to emphasise that places and buildings should not only be well-designed but beautiful. To support this, local planning authorities are encouraged to ensure planning conditions reference clear and accurate plans and drawings that provide visual clarity about the development, and are clear about approved use of materials. Both changes are more an exercise in emphasis than change from current practice.

Local design codes – the consultation reiterates that the LURB (currently before Parliament) will require local planning authorities to produce design codes for their areas, setting clear minimum standards on, for example, height, form and density of development. These will have statutory status, either as part of local plans or supplementary plans, and are meant to empower communities to have more say on the appearance of their areas – though whether these end up being just another hurdle for developers to clear will remain to be seen. One type of development the government is already keenly promoting through a surprisingly detailed change to the NPPF is mansard roof extensions, for which the revised NPPF offers full-throated support, provided their external appearance "harmonises with the original building".

What next?

The consultation closes on 2 March 2023. The changes to the NPPF shown in the indicative mark-up will be implemented as soon as possible after that in spring 2023, followed by the promised wider-review of the NPPF later this year. Michael Gove is aiming for Royal Assent by March 2023, with a view to the reformed planning system going live in late 2024.

There is a lot of work to be done if comprehensive, effective reform of the system is to be achieved in that time. DLUHC will be kept very busy, particularly if the EU Retained Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill continues its progress unamended through Parliament, as will LPAs themselves in getting to grips with the new system as it is implemented.

Where does this leave the planning system? Fears have been expressed that the current, piecemeal changes to the NPPF could undermine rather than boost the supply of the right houses in the right places – reinforcing "nimbyism", slowing down plan-making and undermining LPAs ability to plan well for their areas whilst increasing pressure on already stretched teams. Many authorities are pulling their local plans in response to the proposed changes. However, the importance of the planning system to solving many of the country's challenges is clear, as recognised by the recent Final Report of the Mission Zero Independent Review. It's in everyone's interest to ensure that planning reforms brought forward are designed and implemented well. All involved in development should consider responding to both this consultation and those to come later this year.

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