National Planning Policy Framework published 27th March 2012

The Government has published its long awaited final version of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for England which will replace all current Planning Policy Statements and Guidance Notes. At 50 pages long, the NPPF replaces more than a 1,000 pages contained in previous planning policy advice.

Relevance to developers, investors and occupiers

Planning law requires that applications for planning permission must be determined in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

This revised National Planning Policy Framework now means that:

  • Local Planning Authorities need to ensure that their development plan - the “local plan” is now updated in order to comply with the guidance. Plans adopted since 2004 only have 1 year from the publication of the framework to continue to have full weight in decision making – after which due weight will be given to local plan policy in accordance with its level of consistency with the NPPF.
  • In the absence of an up to date development plan, the guidance given in the national planning policy framework is a material consideration in determining future planning applications.
Property developers, investors and occupiers will need to ensure that their future development proposals are:
  •  fully supported by the national planning policy framework.
  • ensure that their interests are reflected in the forthcoming reviews of the “local plan” – which could as a result as consequence of this guidance in one “local plan” document being produced for the entire Borough/District (and hence not a series of development plan documents (such as core strategies, development management policies and site specific allocation plans as previously produced), as well as new “neighbourhood plans.”

What does the National Planning Policy Framework say?

pdf iconAppendix 1 to this bulletin summarises the key components of the Framework.


Commentary

Context

This National Planning Policy framework (NPPF) has to be seen within the wider context of the Coalition Government’s stated objectives to simplify the planning system in England in response to the previous Labour Government’s centralised and regional approach to planning.

The Coalition Government considers that this previous centralist approach to planning in England is not democratic, bureaucratic and did not positively engage ordinary members of the public and local community in the planning system in England, resulting in conflict and planning appeals.

It is also considered by the Government that the economic recovery is being held back because the planning system takes too long to determine applications to deliver needed new homes and jobs.

The result is the Coalition’s requirement that planning decisions should now be taken locally unless there are pressing reasons why the Government should intervene – for example, in relation to nationally important infrastructure projects.

This “Localism agenda” to planning has now been formally established by the 2011 Localism Act which in summary:

  • Abolished Regional Assemblies and Regional Spatial Strategies.
  • Abolished the Infrastructure Planning Commission.
  • Introduces a new tier of planning – Neighbourhood planning – establishing Neighbourhood plans; neighbourhood development orders; and community right to buy.

What does the NPPF do?

  • It replaces 30 planning policy statements and guidance notes and seeks to compress and compartmentalise these statements into a more succinct and easily understood framework for local decision makers to work with when determining future local plan policies and making planning decisions.
  • Reinforces the plan led system in England as a basis for determining planning applications in England.
  • The basis of the planning system is to deliver “sustainable development” and ensure that planning policies and planning decisions do deliver sustainable development.
  • Seeks to deliver much needed new homes and jobs in England in a more effective manner, through community support and engagement by the delivery of updated Local Plans and complimentary neighbourhood plans.
  • Seeks at the same time to enhance the vitality of town centres, protect Green Belts, the countryside and heritage assets.
  • Seeks to combat climate change due to the requirement to deliver a low carbon based economy.

So what has actually changed because of the NPPF?

We would say – not much – it’s “business as usual.” Appendix 1 summarises why this is more or less the case.

Therefore, despite the rhetoric, the following well established planning principles remain intact – and some would say possibly even more reinforced:

  • Green Belts are not being abolished and, as before, “very special circumstances” need to be made to develop land and buildings within them.
  • The countryside is still being protected; SSI’s; Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty; Heritage Coast; National Parks.
  • Retention of the “town centre first” policy and hence the sequential approach by ensuring that “main town centre uses” comply with this policy approach so as to protect the vitality and viability of town centres.
  • Retention of the sequential and exception test so as to ensure that development does not take place within flood risk zones unless specific criteria are complied with.
  • Retention of the need for local planning authorities to ensure that they have a deliverable 5 year supply of housing land.
  • Ensuring that developments are not car dependent, and are accessible by other means of sustainable transport. Mixed use developments are to be promoted in highly accessible areas. Travel plans and transport assessments are still required.
  • Avoiding long term protection of sites allocated for employment use where there is no reasonable prospect of a site being used for that purpose.
  • Requirement of high quality design and protection and enhancement of heritage assets.

Therefore changes that have been made are far more subtle in nature – and in turn will be detailed in the future by “the golden thread” of sustainable development which will be given in the Local Plan and neighbourhood plans.

Such changes include:

  • To seek to achieve sustainable development, economic, social and environmental gains should be sought jointly and simultaneously through the planning system.
  • Removal of “major developed sites” in the Green Belt and enabling non residential buildings within the Green Belt to be extended or altered whether redundant or in continuing use which would not have a greater impact on the openness of the Green Belt.
  • Including office developments as a “main town centre use” and therefore requiring office uses to comply with the sequential test and impact assessments on town centres.
  • Creation of a new “local green space designations” that the local community wish to protect.
  • Promotions of “Community Right to Build Orders” through neighbourhood plans to protect the loss of valued local community facilities and services.
  • Policies relating to the need to support high quality communications infrastructure essential for economic growth.
  • Normally approve planning applications for change of use to residential and associated development from commercial buildings (Class B Use Classes) where there is an identified need for additional housing in the area, provided that there are not strong economic reasons why such development would be inappropriate.

Can the NPPF actually deliver sustainable development?

This remains to be seen as there is an inherent conflict between the stated aims of sustainable development. These conflicts can be summarised as:

  • Local plans might not be able to identify areas of growth and development required, given local community objections and the absence of a regional planning dimension.
  • New homes and jobs will still have to be provided outside existing urban areas - towns and cities cannot accommodate all of England’s future housing and jobs and this will inevitably mean conflict with countryside and Green Belt policies.
  •  Not all main town centre uses can be accommodated in town centres without significantly increasing town centre boundaries.
  •  The public still want to shop at out of centre locations accessed by car; town centres cannot easily meet that need because retail formats cannot be accommodated viably within town centres.
  • The economy is changing in such a manner that the established roles of town centres only underpinned by retail is no longer the case given the rise of internet shopping; customers being highly mobile and seeking wider choice; and being able to shop at out of centre locations which have a wider retail offer.
  •  Neighbourhood planning creates another tier of planning that will need to be addressed by applicants. This new tier could be an obstacle in the delivery of sustainable development where the community resists economic and social change.
  • The NPPF does not stop the need to provide information in support of planning applications (which is still to be set by Local Planning Authorities) the need for community engagement or “Environmental Impact Assessments” as set by the Planning Acts in light of European Union environmental legislation.

So in summary – the NPPF will not change these inherent conflicts between the need for development – to help economic growth and the delivery of much needed new homes in England - and at the same time the need to preserve the country’s valued countryside, Green Belt and heritage assets.

What is clear however, is that the Government wishes planning decisions to be resolved and negotiated at the local, community level – and not determined by Central Government level as prescribed in the 2011 Localism Act.

The irony is that this localism approach could well increase uncertainty and hence planning appeals - the Government’s Planning Inspectorate will, we fear, play an increasing role in determining applications.

To mitigate this scenario we would suggest that there is an even greater need for local community and possibly political engagement as a result of the Government’s localism agenda and the NPPF.

For further information please contact your usual CgMs contact or

Erica Mortimer – Director

Mike Straw – Director

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