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National Planning Policy Framework review: what to expect?

National Planning Policy Framework review: what to expect?

Tom Davies & Giorgio Wetzl 26 Feb 2018
Update: The blog below pre-dates the 5 March 2018 publication of the draft revised NPPF (albeit that many of the proposals outlined below have been included in the draft, as anticipated).  For our review of the draft revised NPPF as published, please see our more recent blog.
Rumours have been circulating in the last few days that the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is about to be issued in draft form. The current expectation is that it will be launched on Monday, 5 March.
Almost two and half years have passed (or four housing ministers - you choose) since the original consultation on changes to national planning policy was launched by then-Communities Secretary Greg Clark. As political priorities within the Government have changed, the consultation on the NPPF revision has repeatedly been put back.
Last year’s Housing White Paper provided some clarity over the extent of the revision that was then envisaged for the NPPF; in particular, it would be setting out a series of new, housing-focused policy. Since then, further consultation documents have been launched and policy announcements have been made, as housing has ever-increasingly become a political priority nationally, as highlighted by PM Theresa May’s clear message at last year’s Tory Conference.
In order to better understand what we now expect in the new draft NPPF, we have identified four broad policy areas:
Plan-making
Given that 53% of English local authorities do not have an up-to-date, post-NPPF local plan in place (as of 31 January 2018), it is no surprise that plan-making is a particularly crucial area for the Government to address. Pledges in the White Paper clarified that the expectation for each local authority to be covered by a single local plan will be removed, while the revised NPPF will also make it clear that plans and policies should not duplicate one another.
National policy will also be amended to encourage local authorities to take a more ‘proactive approach’ in bringing forward new settlements in their plans, for meeting housing requirements. The test of ‘soundness’ for local plans will be changed, at least to make it clear they should set ‘an’ appropriate strategy (rather than ‘the most’, as in the current Framework).
In terms of proposals that the Government has not yet responded to (i.e. has not fully committed to), neighbourhood plans may potentially be further strengthened.  Neighbourhood planning groups may be provided with local planning authority housing requirement figures, as well as being expected to set out clear design expectations - through use of design codes - for their areas (this would also apply to local plans, and more detailed development plan documents, such as area action plans).
The September 2017 consultation ‘Planning for the right homes in the right places’ highlighted details on a proposed Statement of Common Ground, which would see neighbouring authorities setting out how they would work to address shared strategic issues and housing requirements.
The Government is also increasing its focus on viability; proposals have been consulted on already for when policy requirements have been tested for viability, the related issue should not usually need to be tested again at planning application stage.
Housing needs and requirements
The spotlight in terms of change for assessing housing needs is focused on the outcome of the 2017 consultation on a new standard methodology, which depending on how it is introduced will have significant impacts on local planning authority housing targets and planning strategies. Other than that, there are few certainties. No firm pledges have been made on affordable housing, nor on housing for the elderly – both being areas of particular focus for MHCLG ministers in recent months, and even years. But the White Paper did at least propose to strengthen national policy so as to ensure that local planning authorities have ‘clear’ policies in place for addressing the housing requirements of groups with particular needs, such as elderly and disabled people.
A revised definition of the range of affordable housing products will be included in the consultation, with a draft list having been included in last year’s Housing White Paper. Of most interest is the proposed inclusion of ‘affordable private rent housing’, the Build-to-Rent type of affordable housing. It will also be interesting to see what the latest position on starter homes will be, an initiative that has lost much of its traction following changes in Government over the last few years (confirmed by the fact that none of the Housing and Planning Act 2016-related sections has been commenced so far).
Also of interest in this context is the proposed 10% minimum requirement of all homes on individual sites (which are delivering 10 or more units) to be affordable home ownership products.
Use of land
How land is used is an area of concern for the Government; there is a clear political tension in working hard to identify solutions which would both ensure greater housing delivery (moving towards the 300,000 homes/year target), while also protecting the Green Belt and prioritising brownfield over greenfield sites.
The revised NPPF is very likely to retain existing protection of the Green Belt, as proposals in the White Paper have already highlighted that boundaries should only be amended where it can be demonstrated that councils have exhausted all other available options. When Green Belt reviews take place, it has also already been proposed that local planning authorities should focus on previously developed land and/or sites around transport hubs first.
Relating to housing supply, we know that the revised NPPF will be amended to allow local planning authorities to agree their housing land supply on an annual basis, fixed for a one-year period. We also know that measures to encourage the use of small sites - with the requirement that 20% of local housing land supply should be made up of sites of 0.5ha or less - will be consulted on as part of the revised NPPF consultation process. The December 2016 Written Ministerial Statement on neighbourhood planning will also feature in the revised Framework, although it is not known whether this will be amended from how it was proposed in the Housing White Paper consultation.
Intensification policies will also be included, as MHCLG has already confirmed that there will be greater support for upwards residential extensions (up to two extra storeys), and for using brownfield land within settlements for housing. The 2017 Autumn Budget also highlighted how the Government will consult on amending the NPPF to reflect its broad support for the conversion of empty space above high street shops, as well as for minimum housing densities in city centres and around transport hubs.
Housing delivery
Finally, and in relation to increasing housing delivery, the revised NPPF will support the development of local policies to foster the development of small windfall sites. Design, often considered as one of the key causes of local opposition to new homes, is likely to feature more in other national policies, applying to pre-application design discussion and the inclusion of design expectations in statutory plans.
As already stated in the Housing White Paper, the Housing Delivery Test will be introduced to monitor delivery across England’s local authorities; the details of the Test will be crucial, and the Government clarified at the 2017 Autumn Budget that it will consult on strengthening the proposed tiered approach in cases of under-delivery.
In terms of diversifying housing market ‘players’, small and medium housebuilders will benefit with increased policy support for developing small sites, while the revised NPPF is also likely to explicitly refer to Build to Rent and set out policy expectations in relation to affordable private rent.
Last of all, and to ensure the implementation of permissions, the Government is likely to confirm policy proposals for the reduction of implementation timescales from 3 to 2 years (unless this will hinder viability/deliverability); this measure clearly aims to tackle the alleged ‘land banks’ of larger housebuilders, despite reports questioning this claim.
Of course, we still have another week or thereabouts to wait, before we can discover what the revised NPPF will include, and what further measures are out for consultation. The current expectation is that the final revised Framework will be in place by this summer, although further delays will not be totally unexpected (given the previous track-record).
What is already clear though is the direction the Government is taking in terms of national planning policy. While the 2012 NPPF was published after the last recession and, therefore, strongly focused on viability and deliverability of housing (in particular), the revised NPPF will reflect the current housing crisis and, in particular, issues regarding affordability and the appropriateness of developments.
From an analysis of all that has officially been said so far, the revised NPPF will centre around five main goals: increasing overall housing delivery; increasing affordable housing delivery; strengthening design considerations (particularly at plan-making stage); retaining existing Green Belt protection; and (as a consequence), promoting intensification and increased density in well-connected locations (such as city centres and around transport hubs).
The wait for up to date national policy has not been short, and expectations are surely high amongst development sector stakeholders. Now it is for the Government to demonstrate that the sector has not been waiting in vain, and that the revised NPPF will directly address at least some of the issues currently detrimentally affecting the planning process in England.
Lichfields will publish further analysis of the consultation on the revised NPPF and its implications. Click here to subscribe for updates.