Future national planning policy

Proposed revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework

There’s been a lot of domestic ‘news’ in the past couple of months.  The Salisbury poisoning, late winter freeze and subsequent heatwave, the gender pay gap, Facebook data management, the Windrush Generation…..and the ongoing Brexit rollercoaster.  No doubt we’ve missed a few.

Amidst this welter of events it’s important not to lose sight of impending changes in planning policy, as the Government’s consultation on proposed revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) draws to a close.

The Government intends to publish a final Framework before the summer.  Once published, the revised NPPF will set the priorities for future development in England.  Whilst it’s important to remember that the NPPF is a statement of policy, not a statutory text, it nonetheless represents central government’s overall vision for the planning system and the policies set out to deliver that vison.  These policies will direct how development happens and how it affects people, the environment and the economy.  Its importance should not be underestimated.

Despite the potential for policy-making to be overlooked as an arcane area of interest, there has been extensive reaction to the consultation draft, from interest and professional groups in the planning, development and environmental sectors, and from national media and community groups.  Concerns have been expressed about both the overall thrust of national policy, about the detail (or lack of detail) about how the revised NPPF will address existing barriers to meeting need, barriers to high quality sustainable  development, and about the overall ambition to tackle compelling questions about social inequality, disparities of economic opportunity, and environmental degradation.

The Landmark Practice has responded to the consultation, and we lay out below the key observations which we have submitted via the online survey.

Purpose of the NPPF

The NPPF was first introduced in 2012. Critically, and in line with the Government’s housing ambitions, it established a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.

As a starting point to our response to the proposed revisions, we believe that a primary purpose of the NPPF is to give clarity about the objectives of national planning policy and about how the policy framework can help decision-making to deliver sustainable development.  To quote Greg Clark, the Minister for Decentralisation and Cities in 2011 when the NPPF was first drafted, whilst the purpose of the NPPF is to bring together policies from all existing national planning policy documents into one succinct document ‘It is important that the national policies to be taken into account are written in an intelligible way. It is, of course, also desirable that they should not be ambiguous, so the drafting challenge to be clear is to capture a language and a tone that is accessible and understandable, without having the legalistic language—given that it is not statute law—that can exclude. That is our challenge.

This is a good summary of how effective policy should be framed.  So, to apply the ‘Greg Clark test’, do the proposed policy revisions meet this challenge?

A coordinated approach to national planning policy?

The key objective of the draft revised NPPF is certainly clear – it is to boost housing supply – and the reliance on private developers to deliver the vast majority of new homes remains.  The consultation proposals also state that the presumption in favour of sustainable development remains at the heart of the Framework.

Unfortunately, the draft revised Framework fails from here forwards, not least to bring together the raft of policy (and law) which sets the context for development in England.  Amongst the missing links, and therefore the missed opportunities for a coordinated national approach, are the 25 Year Environment Plan, The Clean Growth Strategy, the UK Sustainable Development Strategy, the Climate Change Act and international obligations on sustainable development and climate change.

The result of this silo approach to planning is a missed opportunity to revise policy to provide a clear mechanism to deliver genuinely sustainable development.

Housing vs Placemaking

The draft revised NPPF removes the requirement for local planning authorities to produce a Local Plan, the principal tool which sets out the strategy and detail of local development.  In doing this it compounds the problem of lack of cohesive thought about what sustainable development really entails (indeed any definition of what it is).   The planning system is the key tool that we have available to create sustainable places that promote people’s health and wellbeing, economic prosperity, and environmental value.  Removal of the Local Plan will effectively strip this down to a largely strategic approach to local planning, without requiring focussed direction on detail, which lies at the crux of creating high quality development.

Planning is not just about housing supply at any cost.  It is also about quality, affordability and durability.  In broader terms it is about delivering the right kind of development, where it is required and can be sustained, and guided by what communities actually need.

Against this background of reducing local plan policy coverage, the continued reliance on the logic that building more homes will cause prices to drop as supply comes to match demand, and housing need therefore met, appears disingenuous.

On a positive note, there is recognition (in the associated draft Planning Practice Guidance) that a range of housing types and affordability is needed to sustain balanced communities, and that land price is a major barrier to delivery of affordable housing.  Recognition that the ‘price paid for land is not a relevant justification for failing to accord with relevant policies in the plan’ is a step forward, and it is proposed that Councils will be expected to set levels of affordable housing in advance by conducting their own viability assessments. Crucially, the land price used to set these levels will be based on the existing use of the land, with a premium to incentivise a landowner to sell. This means that community needs, rather than market forces, should set the windfall site value, a significant improvement on land prices directing the nature and type of development.

Whilst this is welcomed, in areas of existing high land costs, both rural and urban, it seems likely that uplift values will still heavily influence the type and affordability of new homes, and the lack of reference to good design and other elements of place-making is unhelpful.

Sustainable Development, the Environment & Climate Change

The existing NPPF explicitly states the key role played by planning – to help shape places which will be resilient to the effects of climate change – as being ‘central to the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.’

The draft NPPF revisions represent a subtle (but deliberate?) de-prioritisation of climate change and sustainable development policy. Gone are the clear statements in the current NPPF about the important role of planning in helping to shape places in a way that secures reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Gone also are the requirements on local authorities to be proactive in meeting the ambition of the Climate Change Act 2008, including specific objectives such as promoting transport approaches that cut greenhouse gases, and development which meets the twin challenges of global competition and of a low carbon future. These climate change specific policies for development are replaced by a general requirement for planning authorities to assign significant weight to the need to support economic growth and productivity.

Conformity with national policy and legal context

It could be assumed that HCLG did not have time when preparing the draft revised NPPF to study other Government national policy, notably on economic development and the environment, or to catch up on planning case law.

BEIS might be wondering where the interaction between planning policy and delivery of the Clean Growth Strategy (whose purpose is to ‘increase our productivity, create good jobs, boost earning power for people right across the country, and help protect the climate and environment upon which we and future generations depend’) appears. Given the fundamental role of planning to help deliver required (onshore) development, there is a curious lack of cohesion between the draft revised NPPF and the overarching BEIS objective of growing the national economy using green growth.

Lack of consultation between Ministries might also explain the scant reference in the draft revised NPPF to key measures in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.  To be effective, the 25 Year Plan should naturally work in tandem with planning policy. Yet the draft revisions omit reference to key 25 Year Plan objectives, including setting stronger standards in Local Plans for new development to deliver green infrastructure, SUDS, net biodiversity gain and air quality management.  Also missing is consideration of how planning will address the significant land use objective identified by the 25 Year Plan, the proposed establishment of a strategic Nature Recovery Network.

The inclusion, now as a footnote, of the requirement on planning authorities to consider proposed wind energy development involving one or more wind turbines ‘not acceptable’ unless ‘the planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been fully addressed and the proposal has their backing’ remains as illogical and confusing as it was when issued as a Written Ministerial Statement. In no other development sector are the views of particular local people assigned such weight that they exert decisive influence on a planning matter, and the policy also runs counter to case law (Holder v Gedling Borough Council [2016] EWHC 3095).

Clarity and deliverability

The social, economic and environmental challenges facing the country require a robust and consistent approach to future growth – an approach that will steer major and innovative investment in jobs, infrastructure and housing towards places where it is needed. Delivery of these needs will require significant investment from the private sector and public bodies, and active buy in by communities.

At a personal level, we want our clients to be able to deliver the high quality, sustainable development to which they aspire in a timely and cost effective manner.

Does the draft NPPF provide the clarity needed to achieve this?

No.  The best that we can offer on the proposed revisions to the NPPF is a D- score. We consider that the draft revised Framework falls far short of giving clarity or certainty to the development market, to those responsible for managing consenting systems, and to the communities who will experience the results of planning policy on the ground.  Nor does it help public bodies, developers or stakeholders to think in a more sustainable and long-term way.

We very much hope that the high level of responses to the consultation draft revised NPPF will prompt a pause in adoption of the revised Framework, followed by intense effort to develop a fresh, coordinated and unambiguous approach to future place making.

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