NPPF 2018 – more of the same or catalyst for change?

The much anticipated revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) finally emerged into the light of day on 24 July 2018, on the very last day of Parliamentary business in Westminster.

Associated planning practice guidance was published on the same day, although currently only to cover viability and housing and economic need. Further updates to planning practice guidance to reflect the changes in the NPPF will be uploaded in due course. The simultaneous publication of housing need and viability practice guidance underlines the principal focus of the new NPPF, which is to substantially increase new housing delivery. NPPF 2018 is framed unapologetically to implement government policy as set out in the Housing White Paper (February 2017), in its response to consultation on Planning for the right homes in the right places (March 2018), and the Autumn Budget 2017.  The intended way forward is clear: ‘Planning policies and decisions should promote an effective use of land in meeting the need for homes and other uses, while safeguarding and improving the environment and ensuring safe and healthy living conditions.

Although the consultation draft of the revised NPPF published in early March attracted nearly 30,000 responses, the final version contains few substantive changes to the proposed revisions. There are changes, however and, as we commented in an earlier article it’s important to note that whilst 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 vision.  These policies will direct how development happens and how it affects people, the environment and the economy.  Its importance should not be underestimated.

In that article, Landmark also expressed concern that the draft NPPF gave the impression that DHCLG was isolated from critical threads of government policy, notably the Climate Change Act, 25 Year Environment Plan and BEIS Clean Growth Strategy. These omissions have, in part, been rectified in the final version and we outline, below, the key changes to environmental and climate change policy in the revised NPPF.

Policy on release of green belt land for development has been tightened

Green belt boundaries should only be altered where exceptional circumstances exist, and have been fully evidenced and justified.  Local planning authorities must back up this up by demonstrating that all other reasonable options for meeting identified development need have been examined. They must also show that development of suitable brownfield sites and underutilised land has been prioritised over release of green belt land, that density of development elsewhere makes effective use of land, and that any change in boundary considers whether neighbouring authorities could accommodate any of the identified development need. The revised NPPF further makes it clear that plans may provide for limited affordable housing for local community needs in green belts, and adds burial grounds and allotments to the list of exceptions to development restrictions in the Green Belt.

Enhanced protection for ancient woodland and veteran trees

There is strengthened protection for ancient and veteran trees by including them as ‘irreplaceable habitats’, so that the ‘wholly exceptional reasons’ test (in paragraph 175c) applies to both ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees. The term ‘Aged trees’ has been changed to ‘ancient trees’ to align with existing terminology used by Natural England.

Local wildlife sites must be protected by local authorities

Councils are instructed to explicitly refer to locally designated wildlife sites in policies relating to biodiversity. They should ‘identify, map and safeguard” these sites as components of a hierarchy of “international, national and locally designated sites of importance for biodiversity”.

Landscape protection reinforced

Wording omitted from the consultation draft has been reinstated to make it clear that National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty, and to clarify the scale of development that may be appropriate within them. 

Clarity on the meaning of harm to historic environment

The way in which impacts of proposed development on the significance of designated heritage is now clarified as ‘great weight should be given to the asset’s  conservation […] irrespective of whether any potential harm amounts to substantial harm, total loss or less than substantial harm to its significance’. Where a development proposal will lead to less than substantial harm to the significance of a designated heritage asset, ‘this harm should be weighed against the public benefits of the proposal including, where appropriate, securing its optimum viable use’.

Climate Change and Energy

The link to local authorities’ policies needing to be “in line with the provisions and objectives of the Climate Change Act 2008”, removed from the consultation draft, has been fully reinstated as a footnote to para 149.  The Government did not consider that the exact wording that appeared in the 2012 NPPF needed to be reinstated, as the revised Framework makes the importance of addressing climate change very clear. There is also clarification that local authorities can set higher energy efficiency standards for new developments in order to deliver ambitions under the Planning and Energy Act 2008 or other legislation. Further detail will be considered through the Building Regulations consultation in due course. Repowering of wind turbines are exempt from the onshore wind restrictions laid out in the 2015 Ministerial Statement. Otherwise, proposals for one or more wind turbines “should not be considered acceptable” unless they are proposed on sites identified in a development plan and have won the backing of the local community.

Flood Risk

Strengthened policies on sustainable drainage and flood and water management should now be considered as part of contributions expected from new development. Need for the exemption test will depend on the potential vulnerability of a site and the development proposed. Applications on allocated sites may still be subject to the exception test if additional information has emerged since the development plan was prepared. Land should be safeguarded from development not only if it’s required, but also if it’s “likely to be required“, for current or future flood management.

Achieving well-designed places

New policy confirms the need for design quality to be considered throughout the evolution and assessment of individual proposals, and supported by early discussion between applicants, the local planning authority and local community about the design and style of emerging schemes. Applications that can demonstrate early, proactive and effective engagement with the community should be looked on more favourably than those that cannot. 

Timing

The NPPF 2018 policies became material considerations in determining planning applications on 24 July. For plan-making in progress, the 2012 NPPF will apply for the purposes of examining plans which are submitted on or before 24 January 2019, although it may be expected that the 2018 Framework may carry weight as that deadline comes closer. 

Overview

The government has clearly taken on board some of the many responses to the NPPF consultation. Whilst this is to be welcomed, changes made to the final version are insufficient to support the step change in planning needed to bring forward genuinely sustainable development that creates places where people want and deserve to live.

The revised Framework has, effectively, separated planning policy from the definition of sustainable development drawn from the 2005 UK Sustainable Development Strategy, its obligations to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and, thereby, to the goals and targets of the 25 Year Environment Plan. ‘The Government does not consider that adding further definitions of sustainable development or references to wider strategies is necessary for these overarching objectives (of the NPPF) to be understood.’

Whilst there is space within the Framework for local planning authorities to implement positive strategies to consider these objectives in relation to new developments, there is little incentive or requirement for this more proactive approach.  Against a background of scarce public resources it seems likely that the creative planning effort needed to deliver the prosperous clean economy envisaged by the Climate Change Act, 25 Year Environment Plan and BEIS Clean Growth Strategy will be the limited to those few authorities with energy and political will to direct resources to inventive planning.

 

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