Planning matters

Our award winning blog gives a fresh perspective on the latest trends in planning and development.

Draft revised National Planning Policy Framework: a change in narrative

Draft revised National Planning Policy Framework: a change in narrative

Giorgio Wetzl 05 Mar 2018
Update: On 24 July, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published the final version of the revised NPPF; this has replaced the original NPPF 2012 (subject to the revised NPPF's transitional provisions).
See our 25 July Lichfields blog for commentary on the main differences between the draft consultation proposals and the final publication.
The Government has published its long-awaited draft revision of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This consolidates a series of proposals that have been made in the last two and half years, and which have been included in various consultation documents.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s wide ranging and lengthy speech on the launch of the draft revised NPPF, and the document itself, underline the importance the Government places on seeking to resolve the housing crisis, which had already been emphasised at the 2017 Tory Party conference.
As the Prime Minister said:
‘The picture we see today is the result of many failures by many people over many years. Fixing it won’t happen overnight. But the size of the challenge is matched only by the strength of my ambition to tackle it.’
The launch of the draft revised NPPF has been accompanied by the release of a plethora of supporting documents, government responses, and further consultations; of particular note the following have been released:
  • National Planning Policy Framework: consultation proposals and draft text;
  • Supporting housing delivery through developer contributions: consultation;
  • Draft planning practice guidance for viability;
  • Housing Delivery Test: draft measurement rule book;
  • Government responses to the Housing White Paper and the Planning for the Right Homes in the Right Places consultations; and
  • Section 106 planning obligations and the Community Infrastructure Levy in England, 2016 to 2017: report of study.
The former two consultations are both set to close on 10 May 2018.
As one might expect, and as Ministry of Housing and Local Government officials hinted today, many of the changes proposed in the draft NPPF were expected, and we have already covered what the draft revised NPPF was likely to include on the basis of previous consultations pledges (see our previous blog).
We will examine the details, and consider the  potential impacts of the draft’s proposals, in the next weeks and months in the context of other proposed changes, and with an eye to its operation in practice.  For now, we have put together ten points to take away from this raft of publications.
1. Revised framework, new format, new paragraphs
The revision has not simply affected the content of the NPPF but also its structure; the document is now set in 17 topic-based chapters which provide a clear overview of the planning framework and the relevance of different policies.  And it is even 5 per cent shorter in terms of its word count (allegedly!).
The order of the chapters also better reflects the new priorities of the Government, now very much focused on delivering solutions to the housing crisis through the plan-led system (albeit that Green Belt is chapter 13).
All the 2012 NPPF paragraphs numbers (‘para’) have been changed, and this means that we all have to learn new references, on top of the related amended content; a few starting points are set below:
  • Para 11: presumption in favour of sustainable development;
  • Para 78: encouraging local planning authorities to shorten the time limit for implementation of planning permissions to less than three years;
  • Para 87: sequential test for main town centre uses;
  • Para 123: minimum density for city and town centres (and other parts of the plan area) where there is a shortage of land
  • Para 135-136: exceptional circumstances in the Green Belt; and
  • Para 144: exceptions to inappropriate development in the Green Belt.
2. Housing, housing, housing (but not starter homes)
Unsurprisingly, and as expected, the NPPF review is mostly focused on housing, particularly on ways for improving delivery to reach the 300,000 homes per year target, and how to increase affordable housing provision; chapter 5 (para 60-81) deals with the goal of ‘delivering a sufficient supply of homes’.
The standardised methodology for calculating local housing need makes its long-anticipated appearance, drawing on the work of the Local Plans Expert Group in March 2016, with details to be set out in the revised PPG (yet to be published).
Policies regarding design, densification, affordable home ownership expectations, housing delivery test (with details on the draft methodology published today too), making the most of town centres sites, and small sites are spread across the document.
Of note, is a new proposed policy to allow the development of exception sites to provide entry-level housing for first-time buyers (and renters) (para 72); this proposal shows, once more, that starter homes are no longer seen as the solution to the home ownership issue.
3. Stronger plans
Plans have been strengthened and provided with an even greater role, further underlining the Government’s intention for the English planning system to be a plan-led one, with a focus on strategic policies. The plan-making chapter (3, paras 15-38) reflects previous announcements and/or changes made through primary legislation, such as for local plan policies to be reviewed ‘at least once every five years’ (para 23), and proposed tweaks to the tests of soundness (para 36).
And the duty to co-operate would be bolstered by a requirement for the preparation of statements of common ground, documenting the cross boundary issues to be addressed, and progress in dealing with them. Further details would follow in planning practice guidance.
4. Viability: from application to plan
Viability is an area where many stakeholders have called for change, and the Government has responded by revising the viability assessment paragraphs of the current NPPF.
Gone is the familiar para 173 on ensuring viability and deliverability, and any reference to ‘competitive returns to a willing land owner and willing developer’  - a very contentious point in the housebuilding industry. New para 58 clarifies that when development proposals accord ‘with all the relevant policies in an up-to-date development plan’ there will be no need to submit a viability assessment.
Furthermore, there is proposed to be a (previously consulted on) fundamental shift towards focusing viability assessments at the plan-making stage rather than the decision-making stage, but with the local plan setting out where further (publically available) viability assessments might be required at planning application stage (para 34 and ‘Supporting housing delivery through developer contributions’).
5. Green Belt, protection and brownfield land
Green Belt policy (para 132-146) has been tightened further, and previous consultations’ proposals (such as on amending boundaries via Neighbourhood Plans, and offsetting the impact of removing Green Belt land) have been inserted.  
Before concluding that ‘exceptional circumstances’ justify the amendment of Green Belt boundaries, local authorities ‘should have examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting [their] identified need for development’ (para 136); reasonable options include consideration of whether the strategy ‘makes as much use as possible’ of suitable brownfield sites and underutilised land, optimises density of development, and demonstrates discussion with neighbouring authorities about unmet need accommodation (through the statement of common ground). 
Para 137 would clarify that when the need for Green Belt change has been demonstrated in ‘exceptional circumstances’ (para 136), then plans should firstly consider releasing brownfield land and/or land which is ‘well-served by public transport’, whilst also considering offsetting measures.
This tightening has been tempered by the proposal that affordable housing developments on brownfield land, and which would not cause substantial harm to openness and would meet an identified need would not be considered inappropriate development (para 144g); the previous proposal referred to Starter Homes only. Similarly, para 145 provides that material changes of use that would not affect openness and would conflict with Green Belt purposes are not to be considered inappropriate development in the Green Belt.
6. CIL and S106
A whole consultation document on ‘Supporting housing delivery through developer contributions’ has been launched, to deal with reform to section 106 and Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which we will review in detail in due course.
The objectives of the proposed reform are to provide more clarity and certainty around how developer contributions work, improve their relationship with market signals and changes through time, improve transparency, accelerate development, and allow the introduction of Strategic Infrastructure Tariff by combined authorities (on the London’s MCIL model).
Proposals to simplify the process for reviewing CIL charging schedules, lifting section 106 pooling restrictions, allowing CIL charging schedules to be set based on existing use of land, and for setting developer contributions nationally, which would not be negotiated, are among the proposed measures.
7. Is the review just about housing?
To a certain extent, yes, the review is almost all about housing (or housing-related issues). However, amendments to non-housing-related sections could have quite an impact in practice.
As far as plan-making is concerned, in allocating sites to meet the need for town centre uses it is proposed that policies should look at least ten years ahead but not necessarily over the entire plan period, in view of the difficulties of longer term forecasting.
The changes proposed to the sequential test for main town centre uses would allow out-of-centre sites to be considered only if town centre or edge-of-centre locations are not available, or not expected to become available ‘within a reasonable period’ (para 87), acknowledging that a suitable town centre site might be in the development pipeline. The requirement for office development (above a certain floorspace threshold) outside of town centres to undertake and submit an impact assessment is proposed to be removed.
Other changes can be found in Chapter 14 ‘Meeting the challenge of climate change, flooding and coastal change’ (para 147-167), as the revised text clarifies (at para 155) that plans should have regard to the cumulative impacts of flood risk, rather than just looking at the flood risk impact of individual development sites.
8. London and Central Government are on the same page
The draft London Plan and the revised NPPF have a lot in common, significantly more than one might expect.
Policies on small site allocations, benchmark land value calculation methodology (EUV+), viability assessments and affordable housing, higher densities in town/city centres and/or transport hubs are just few of the cases where the two documents are proposing very similar approaches. 
A more coordinated approach to planning between Central Government and regional/strategic authorities is a welcome news, particularly in times of significant political divisions within the Country.
9. David Cameron’s planning legacy is (almost completely) gone
The planning legacy of David Cameron’s Government has been almost completely lost in just over 18 months; this is the case for starter homes (which have been considerably reduced in importance and joined by ‘entry-level housing’ together with discount market rental properties), promoting estate regeneration, and section 106 dispute resolution, to mention just a few of that Government’s measures.
It is clear that Theresa May has sought to change the rhetoric about planning and housing in Government, recognising the complexity of the housing crisis, and providing for wider potential solutions which do not focus on home-ownership alone. And the Prime Minister was clearly reaching out in her speech to the planning profession, conveying the message you are an important part of the solution.
10. What’s next?
As said at the beginning of the blog, the Government will seek views on the two proposed consultations until 10 May 2018; the current expectation is for the Government to publish the final revised NPPF ‘before the summer’ (i.e. before Summer Recess, 24 July 2018).
Furthermore, we know that the Government intends to consult on further planning reforms, particularly around new permitted development right for upwards extensions, as well as around more effective ways of bringing agricultural land forward for housing.
We also know that the transition period for what concerns plan-making would be 6-month long following publication. But there are no proposed transitional arrangements for either the amendments to the soundness test, or for the introduction of statements of common ground. We understand that the Government considers that the Housing White Paper, and other consultations, have provided enough time for local authorities to recognise the direction of travel and prepare for these potential future changes to the revised NPPF.
Sajid Javid also announced in his speech today that he will ‘shortly announce an end-to end review of the planning inquiries process’ with the aim to ‘halve the time for an inquiry on housing supply to be determined’ – a highly ambitious target in our view unless there is a very significant injection of resource into the Planning Inspectorate.
Changes and proposed amendments to the planning practice guidance, and the outcome of the Letwin’s review on planning permission build out rates, are also expected in the coming weeks and months.
The overall impression after the very (very) first read of the documents is that the Government is keen in showing clear leadership, recognising the wide scale of the housing crisis and the lack of any quick fix to this situation.
However, some of the proposals seem designed to appeal to the public more than being the consequence of evidence-base reflections. These might have unintended impacts if not carefully monitored or if consultation responses from affected stakeholders are not thoughtfully considered.
The wait has been long, but the revised NPPF seems to offer a lot to think about in the coming weeks and months; the planning reform process is far from finished and the Government has clearly acknowledged that. Whether this alone will be enough to change the current situation, increase housing affordability, and achieve and sustain the golden target of 300,000 homes a year, it is clearly too soon to be said.
Theresa May’s speech was very important for the planning profession - she wanted to convey that we are very much part of the solution to the housing crisis; unlike the negative picture simplistically painted by Cameron and Osborne prior to the current NPPF. This is another step in the right direction but there is much gathering together of what’s been trailed before.

James Fennell, Chief Executive


Lichfields will publish further analysis of the consultation on the draft revised NPPF and its implications. Click here to subscribe for updates.