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Housing crisis at centre of proposed changes to NPPF

Josef Cannon considers the proposals set out in the Government's recently published consultation document on the National Planning Policy Framework.

Introduced with minimal fanfare (save for in the Daily Telegraph, which called it 'the biggest relaxation to planning protections for 30 years'), on Monday the Government published a consultation on their proposed changes to the NPPF, the central policy statement to which planning decision-makers must have regard as a material consideration.

The proposals place 'the housing crisis' at the centre of proposed changes, with a series of measures proposed which, it is hoped, will ease the problem of too few houses being built in the country, with the associated issue of affordability also being front and centre. Headline proposals are:

  1. A broader definition of 'affordable housing': to include "products that are analogous to low cost market housing or intermediate rent, such as discount market sales or innovative rent to buy housing";
  2. Increasing density around 'commuter hubs': no minimum density is proposed but instead a proposal to 'require' higher densities around commuter hubs where it is 'feasible'. A commuter hub is said to be a public transport interchange where at least one service is 'frequent' (i.e. one every 15 minutes);
  3. A fairly vague proposal to increase support for authorities planning new settlements;
  4. Affording 'substantial weight' to the use of brownfield land; and to the provision of housing on 'small sites' (less than 10 units) where they are within settlement boundaries; and, if they are sustainable, where they are immediately adjacent to settlement boundaries. This latter suggestion seems to add little to the existing 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' in any event;
  5. A promise of 'taking action' where delivery of housing falls below the relevant target: in what seems to be a development of the '20% buffer' provision presently used when calculating 5-year housing land supply, the suggestion is that this will be monitored on a two-year cycle to avoid distortion of 'short-term fluctuations'. The action to be taken is not specified but the suggestion is made that such under-delivery might trigger the release of additional sites.
  6. Further encouragement to release unviable or unused commercial land: unless significant and compelling evidence to retain it as employment land; and
  7. Various proposals in support of the provision of starter homes: including:
          • Encouraging starter homes within mixed-use developments;
          • Including starter home provision within rural exception sites, as affordable housing;
          • Enabling Neighbourhood Plans to allocate small sites in the Green Belt for starter homes
          • Supporting the reuse of brownfield land in the Green Belt where it 'contributes to starter homes' by making such reuse 'not inappropriate development' for Green Belt purposes

The reforms are equally notable for what they do not propose to address. There are numerous areas of uncertainty keeping planners and planning lawyers busy and this consultation does not seek to resolve any of them. Some examples of where further guidance/clarity could have been offered are:

What 'policies for the supply of housing' in paragraph 49 in fact means (or is intended to mean) in light of the ongoing debate amongst judges of the Planning Court;

The proper role of affordable housing need in calculation of the OAN: does it need to be met in full? Is increasing supply to meet (or help to meet) affordable housing needs arising part of an OAN calculation or a policy-on 'requirement' response?

How should C2 residential institutions be dealt with in housing land supply terms: should bedspaces be counted as units?

Are the paragraphs of the NPPF relating to the protection of heritage assets such that they are caught by footnote 9 to paragraph 14, in that they are policies that indicate development should be restricted?

Does paragraph 119 exclude the paragraph 14 'presumption in favour' in every case involving Habitats Regulations assessment or only where a screening decision (as they used to be called) indicates that full AA is required?

Does the omission of open air changes of use from the list of 'not inappropriate' development in paragraph 90 mean that they are all, inevitably, inappropriate development in the Green Belt?

That opportunity having been missed, developers, local authorities and their advisers will continue to have to grapple with these questions and the inevitable result that different takes on them will continue to emanate from different Judges, Inspectors, consultants, planning officers and advisers.

The consultation is open until 25 January 2016 and is available here.

The Development Team at Cornerstone Barristers is well placed to provide up-to-date advice on the practical implications of this consultation and on other current planning issues. For further information please call 0207 242 4986 or email clerks@cornerstonebarristers.com.