Navigating the draft revised National Planning Policy Framework

Navigating the draft revised National Planning Policy Framework

By Cathy Hall, Senior Associate

The new draft NPPF has been published for consultation – this runs until 10 May – and the final version is expected to be published 'in the summer'. This brief overview focuses on what it means principally in planning terms, and it’s as much about what’s not there as what is there.

What’s new?

The short answer is not a lot – we already knew it would all be about housing. This is mainly because the draft has been a long time coming: the first round of consultation was initiated three planning ministers’ ago. This isn’t the primary legislation which would typically follow a White Paper last year. This means it cannot make any changes to the planning system/process, only changes to the national framework of planning policies within that system.

However, some version of it will replace the current version of the NPPF relatively soon so it will directly impact development and investment decisions for an increasing number of projects in England going forward.

How much housing and where?

The mechanics of the standard method for objectively assessed housing need don’t get explicitly revisited in this consultation. Instead it’s addressed in a newly-published Government response to the September 2017 standard housing need method which appears to suggest that what was consulted on then, will be taken forward with no real changes. This means more housing for the South East and, while this doesn’t technically mean fewer elsewhere (because the Government is keen to point out that these housing numbers should be treated as a minimum), this will be the reality for a lot of places.

A note of caution on housing: the actual numbers haven’t been published this time around. The wording of the draft revisions to the PPG means that they will be subject to revision when the 2016-based population and household projections are published. Added to this, the vaguely-worded section in the draft PPG on deviations from the method do little to address some of the issues raised in the previous consultation. While not mandatory for LPAs to adopt the standard method, there’s a clear marker to discourage LPAs from doing so with the threat of a more rigorous examination process.

Housing delivery test

One of the main points the media has picked up on is the housing delivery test whereby LPAs would be penalised if housing completions fall below a certain level against requirements/need. Remember though, LPAs by and large do not ‘deliver’ housing, so while granting planning permission is within their control, a delivery test as a stick to beat LPAs is a big shift in planning policy. Added to this, the mechanics of it are quite complicated: there are transitional arrangements but in essence, LPAs have 2.5 years to get their house in order so that by 2020 if they aren’t delivering 75% of their requirement, the presumption in favour of sustainable development will be applied to applications including housing.

This is a very simplified version of what’s in the document: but the key point is that under these proposals LPAs would be being judged on something that is outside their control. There is a reference that LPAs should consider a developer’s track record or the history of a certain site when determining applications but little beyond that. Unless of course the Government is expecting LPAs to deliver housing which they are in some cases themselves but accounts for a very small proportion of delivery.

If not the green belt, then where?

The draft NPPF confirms the continued protection of the green belt, as well as some other measures to do with greater woodlands protections. What this equates to in the draft is retaining much of the previous protections (exceptional circumstances to justify release) but also introduces some additional hurdles for LPAs to demonstrate brownfield and densification opportunities have been exhausted before a review can even be considered and then, in the event land is removed from the green belt, requiring LPAs to set policies which offset the impact of that removal. And renewable energy remains outside the list of the developments which meet the ‘exceptional circumstances’ test.

Brownfield land (even including within the green belt, particularly if its ‘entry level’ housing) and higher density developments are the answer to the nation’s housing supply woes. Linked to the density point, there is going to be a separate consultation on changes to the permitted development legislation to include additional storeys to buildings (no timetable yet for this though). While that may free up some resource in the planning system, the parameters of the PD rights will be critical, if only to avoid instantly contradicting the new design chapter in the draft NPPF which is presumably intended to somehow soften the blow to those authorities with high housing numbers.

Viability reforms

The pooling restrictions on S106 contributions have been lifted in certain circumstances: in LPAs where values preclude a CIL tariff structure working; but in LPAs where a CIL would work, the pooling restrictions are only lifted where those LPAs have a CIL in place. So CIL isn’t scrapped just yet, and instead some measures are proposed which are intended to make it work better. Taking forward one of the recommendations from Liz Peace’s October 2016 review of the current system, the concurrent consultation on developer contributions introduces the ability for combined authorities to set a Strategic Infrastructure Tariff, like the London Mayoral CIL, to support the ‘a piece of strategic infrastructure’. Other measures include greater transparency from LPAs on how CIL monies have been used.

The more significant changes are about viability testing, including a requirement that they should be publicly available. For many working on projects in London, this may seem like old news but there’s confirmation that viability appraisals are only needed where schemes aren’t policy compliant (the critical policy in this instance being affordable housing percentages but could equally relate to departures on loss of industrial land or other protected uses).

What else?

  • In what looks like an effort to speed up plan-making, there’s reference to plans needing to include strategic policies/ allocations which address the ‘strategic priorities’ (for housing, commercial, infrastructure etc. how much and where) and which deal with ‘any relevant cross-boundary issues’. They’re intended to look forward a minimum of 15 years from adoption and subject to review at least once every five years.
  • Retail needs should now be assessed for the next 10 years, rather than the current 15-year requirement, recognising that looking beyond 10 years is difficult. A step in the right direction but, given the current practice guidance recommends planning based on only 3-5 years, the model for assessing retail needs often means that there is surfeit of space that is not fit for purpose, the revised wording doesn’t seem to go far enough.
  • Related to this, no changes are made in the draft practice guidance to the sequential approach for town centre uses remains unchanged so the opportunity to shut down the debate generated by different appeal decisions and judgments on precisely what ‘flexibility’ means which slows down decision making has been missed.
  • Aside from a cross-reference to the Industrial Strategy, B class uses (employment development), whether it’s planning for logistics or loss of industrial, really doesn’t get much of a look in.
  • There’s a new reference to planning policies and decisions promoting public safety which seems to be a nod to Grenfell and last year’s terror attacks – so a new dimension to formally factor into design considerations.
  • There’s a new chapter on digital communications infrastructure, the tone of which is mainly that LPAs must be supportive provided developers/providers make sure the kit isn’t too ugly. And that new developments should have full fibre connections.
  • There’s going to be a review of the planning inquiry process with the intention to halve the time taken. No details on timing of this though.
  • Although MHCLG has made a decision about whether any of 15 LPAs currently threatened with special measures because they haven’t made sufficient progress on getting a plan in place will face any direct Government intervention but they aren’t announcing that yet.

Lastly, transitional arrangements: once the final version is published, the new NPPF will apply immediately for decision taking, whereas for plan-making, LPAs will have a further six months’ grace.