Prime Minister launches NPPF consultation. Will it deliver on promises?

06 Mar 2018

Commercial and Regulatory, Housing, Local Government, Planning and Environment

By Dr Ashley Bowes

Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced the long-awaited amendments to the NPPF, which aim to support the “housing revolution” promised in the Budget in November last year. The consultation on the new NPPF rules closes on 10 May.

Although she heralded the NPPF amendments as “rewriting the rules on planning”, the proposed changes largely incorporate the proposals that have already been consulted upon in the Fixing our Broken Housing Market Housing White Paper and Right Homes for the Right Places consultation. Additionally, there is codification of guidance issued since the NPPF was first published, including no fewer than ten Written Ministerial Statements. The proposed new NPPF stretches to 70 pages, 11 more than the present NPPF.

Overall, the new policies introduce useful clarifications and proactive measures, same of the fundamental issues remain.

The core planning principles are deleted and re-housed in revised thematic chapters that broadly follow a chronology (plan making, through decision taking and onto enforcement), which makes the document more coherent and accessible to those less familiar with the planning system.

The language is also simplified in many respects and, with the benefit of six years of litigation, policy objectives and tests have been clarified. However, there are no fundamental changes. Non-physical constraints, such as Green Belt, remain and the tests for development within those areas remain strict.

The 10 key points to note are:

1) There are changes to the presumption in favour of sustainable development (now at paragraph 11):

a) For plan making, there is to be a requirement to meet the OAN unless specific policy “provides a strong reason” not to do so.
b) For decision taking, the reference to absent, silent or out of date is replaced with “no relevant development plan policies, or the policies which are most important for determining the application are out of date”.
c) The presumption now indicates that permission should be granted unless specific policies “provide a clear reason” for refusal (cf. the current wording “indicate development should be restricted”). The list of such specific policies is now contained within a closed list at fn.7. This new close list notably excludes valued landscapes and severe traffic impact, which the Secretary of State himself has previously identified to be specific policies under the current NPPF.

2) There is clarification on the need for viability assessments and, where they are needed, an expectation they will be made publically available (paragraph 58). This should be read alongside the draft planning practice guidance on viability.

3) The new standardised methodology for calculating needs is introduced (via paragraph 61) however because reference is made to the PPG update (not yet available) it is unclear whether this is the same methodology as the Right Homes in the Right Places consultation last year.

4) There is a presumption of meeting affordable housing on site (paragraph 63).

5) The housing delivery test, trailed in the Housing White Paper, is introduced (via paragraphs 74-77) and clarification around engagement of tilted balance (paragraph 75).This should be read alongside the draft measurement rulebook published alongside the draft Framework. There is also greater clarity on the role of neighbourhood plans in delivering housing and the role of planning authorities to assist them to come forward prior to a strategic plan being in place (paragraphs 66-67).

6) There are changes to the sequential approach to town centre uses, explaining that suitable sites in the town centre or edge-of-centre includes not just those which are “available” but also those “expected to become available within a reasonable period”(paragraph 87).

7) Green Belt policy remains very strong. Proposed amendments include particularising considerations within the exceptional circumstances test (paragraph 136), expanding neighbourhood plan powers with regard to Green Belt boundary changes (paragraph 135) and an expectation that policies set out how removal of land from Green Belt can be offset (paragraph 137). There is also a proposal to permit the use of brownfield land in Green Belt for affordable housing provided there is no substantial harm to openness (paragraph 144 g).

8) There is enhanced protection for the natural environment, with a new policy presumption against development which would result in the loss or deterioration of ancient woodland or other irreplaceable habitats absent “wholly exceptional reasons” (paragraph 173(c)).

9) There is clarification following the case law, that decision-makers should give great weight to a heritage asset’s conservation irrespective of the level of harm (paragraph 189).

10) There is a new section on oil, gas and coal exploration, enjoining minerals authorities to recognise the benefits of oil and gas development including “unconventional hydrocarbons”(which would embrace high volume hydraulic fracturing “fracking” proposals) (paragraph 204).