A new emphasis on density and character
There are two new references within the draft NPPF on density, one of which is in line with the previous direction of travel…
Footnote 30: In doing so, brownfield and other under-utilised urban sites should be prioritised, and on these sites density should be optimised to promote the most efficient use of land, something which can be informed by masterplans and design codes. [The bold is my emphasis]
…but the other one has, potentially, more serious implications for housing delivery:
11 (b) strategic policies should, as a minimum, provide for objectively assessed needs for housing and other uses, as well as any needs that cannot be met within neighbouring areas, unless: ii. any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole such adverse impacts may include situations where meeting need in full would mean building at densities significantly out of character with the existing area. (Footnote 8 advises that this should be in the context of ‘taking into account any design guides or codes which form part of the development plan for the area, or which are adopted as supplementary planning guidance’. [The bold is my emphasis]
It is clear that the change in paragraph 11 is meant to be an important change because this is raised in paragraph 9 of the consultation document ‘Reforms to national policy’ as the ‘first’ change:
‘Taking account of constraints and previous plans: we propose to make 3 changes relating to matters that may need to be considered when assessing whether a plan can meet all of the housing need which has been identified locally:
First, we intend to make clear that if housing need can be met only by building at densities which would be significantly out-of-character with the existing area (taking into account the principles in local design guides or codes), this may be an adverse impact which could outweigh the benefits of meeting need in full (as set out in paragraph 11(b)(ii) of the existing Framework). This change recognises the importance of being able to plan for growth in a way which recognises places’ distinctive characters and delivers attractive environments which have local support; imperatives which are reflected in the Framework’s chapter on achieving well-designed places.
What are the potential implications?
Some may not regard this proposed change as either particularly new or significant in terms of either local plans or development management as surely all development should ‘have regard’ to existing character, but I would urge caution as to both the implications for local plan preparation and in the determination of planning applications. From a recent appeal for new development in a suburban area, I have first-hand experienced of the potential impacts this could have on development management decisions.
My main concern is the application of this ‘test’ in the context of the suburban areas of all of our major urban areas which, with all due respect, I have found to be fairly similar across London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle etc. So, while these areas may have ‘a character’ they do not, in my view, necessarily have a particularly ‘distinctive’ character that needs to be recognised per se and used to potentially prohibit newer development being built at higher densities in appropriate (not all) locations within such areas.
In my view, this is important, not only to assist in delivering the new homes we need, but also because it is still the intention, as set out in the consultation on ‘Reforms to national policy’ that:
‘The method for calculating local housing need was amended in 2020 to apply an uplift of 35% for the 20 largest towns and cities, in recognition of this potential. The government intends to maintain this uplift and to require that this is, so far as possible, met by the towns and cities concerned rather than exported to surrounding areas’. (paragraph 14)
So, in a time when many of our cities are already struggling to deliver the homes needed within their boundaries, how will they achieve the housing growth required within their urban boundary. Surely, those authorities will need to look to locations in their lower density, predominantly two storey, suburban areas - which have good access to stations, bus stops, schools, employment and shops - to deliver higher density development?
But that assumption should be treated with caution. As I mentioned earlier, at a recent appeal Theresa Villiers MP for Chipping Barnet was of the view that a development, which was supported by officers and the GLA ‘… will be discordant and completely out of place next to open space in a low rise Victorian Edwardian suburb with distinctive character’. To be clear, the proposed development was not for ‘tall’ buildings, but they were taller than the surroundings, and there was no Conservation Area in proximity of the site.
The Planning Inspector dismissed the appeal, while noting that ‘Against this has to be balanced the benefits of the scheme. These would be substantial. The need for new housing is acute and the LonP makes clear that development must make the best use of land and optimise the capacity of sites. The proposed development would provide 539 new homes of which 35% (calculated by habitable rooms) would be affordable. The new homes would have a social benefit and there would of course be an economic benefit from the development, with jobs created and more people to put money into the local economy in the longer term and the financial benefit of the new homes bonus’.
Notwithstanding such substantial benefits being provided by the development the Inspector took the view that: ‘However, I cannot accept that this approach should mean a complete disregard for wider context, even where a site is relatively self-contained, and nor do I consider that only such things as conservation areas and historical assets should be considered to be ‘special’ or ‘valued’. The Inspector noting that ‘The Character Study is generally correct therefore in informing that Barnet is generally suburban in character, with most properties in New Barnet rising to two or three stories. In terms of the CS the typologies in evidence in the area are residential streets, residential estates, and the town centre’.
So, ‘suburban in character’ won the day, but can these character traits not be applied across the country?
Implications for local plans
As a further note of caution, I bring us back to the preparation of Local Plans. The reference to densities and character of areas in the draft NPPF is in fact related specifically to the ability to meet the objectively assessed housing needs in full and that ‘this may not be possible’ if, for example, an ‘adverse impact’ involved a situation where meeting need in full would mean ‘building at densities significantly out of character with the existing area’.
My issue is one of timing, process and definition. The draft NPPF advises in draft footnote 8 and in the ‘Review of national policy’ that this should involve ‘Taking into account any design guides or codes which form part of the development plan for the area, or which are adopted as supplementary planning guidance’.
There are a few of points of concern here. Firstly, draft footnote 8 says that the design codes that are currently SPGs should be taken into account in the same way as the SPGs that will be subject to independent examination in due course. This not only elevates them into the presumption in favour of sustainable development for plan-making, but potentially discourages the expensive drafting of a new Design Code until the current SPGs “cease to have effect at the point at which authorities are required to have a new-style plan in place”.
Secondly, is there a chicken and egg issue here? With under resourced local planning authorities, will Design Codes be prepared and in place before a Council has considered the spatial strategy and will those identify how many homes can be delivered with the urban areas? Further, at the end of the process, I cannot see how a local plan Inspector at an EiP can realistically spend sufficient time exploring whether the character of all areas within a Borough or District can or cannot accommodate increased densities to a lesser or greater extent.
Furthermore, in the same way that the character traits discussed above might be applied across the country, the Barnet appeal decision referred to generic policy and guidance on design set out in the NPPF and National Design Guidance and considered it “not dissimilar to the advice given within the documents listed within [ten year old local] policy CS5”, with the local policy thus being afforded full weight. Unless Design Codes are required to go much further than national policy and guidance, it will be open to local authorities simply to rely on the fallback to that national policy and guidance, in the way that many do for various policy aspects – and long before national development management policies come into force.
A pragmatic way forward?
The London Plan seeks to reconcile this dichotomy by recognising that:
As change is a fundamental characteristic of London, respecting character and accommodating change should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Understanding of the character of a place should not seek to preserve things in a static way but should ensure an appropriate balance is struck between existing fabric and any proposed change. Opportunities for change and transformation, through new building forms and typologies, should be informed by an understanding of a place’s distinctive character, recognising that not all elements of a place are special and valued (paragraph 3.1.7). [The bold is my emphasis]
This seems a sensible way forward and I consider this clarification is required if the application by local communities and councillors of wording regarding densities and the impact on character of an area is not to be used to prevent the building of new homes in areas where they are needed and can be sustainably provided.
Be involved in the debate
We will, need to be careful going forward on how reference to density is eventually worded and how this is applied to large parts of our urban areas, during the local plan process.
We will need to remain vigilant, to ensure that the concept of optimising density to promote the most efficient use of land, which is so strongly worded within the NPPF, and the many benefits that arise from higher density housing development is not overshadowed by the desire to preserve ‘any’ character of our suburban areas and by the debate on what is ‘significantly’ out of character with such areas.
In addition, needless to say, active monitoring and involvement with local planning authorities on Design Codes should be a must for all housebuilders and developers, as these will, undoubtedly, have an impact on development going forward. It will be more important than ever to ensure that the wording/intent of the NPPF is not misapplied in local plans and all efforts should be applied to seek to influence the description or definition of ‘character’ and how this could accommodate change. As a final point, given that there is likely to be a national set of development management policies, more pressure should be applied to seek flexible policies in local plans that allow for change in the character within local planning authority areas and for local plans to identify areas where higher density and/or tall buildings will be appropriate – subject, quite rightly, to good design.