It’s six years since the National Planning Policy Framework had a revamp, so it not surprising that we (and everyone else in the industry) were chomping at the brick in anticipation of the revised document.
The tweaked Framework doesn’t offer any big surprises but is well intentioned and encouraging in providing further means to facilitate housing delivery within a plan-led system. The question is, does it go far enough? Will it enable us to meet the 300,000 homes a year need? Will the somewhat suprise parallel publications ‘Supporting housing delivery through developer contributions’ (read associated blog by Dan Mitchell) and ‘Draft Planning Practice Guidance for Viability’ have more impact?
Further to Partner, James Hall’s initial reaction, below a selection of our team share they’re immediate thinking.
Ben Lewis, Infrastructure and Energy Director (Cardiff)
As infrastructure practitioners will be aware, development plans can be an important and relevant consideration for the Examining Authority for an NSIP, especially where there is an absence of a national policy statement. The requirement of the new NPPF for planning policies to: “…provide for any large scale facilities, and the infrastructure to support their operation and growth, taking into account any relevant national policy statements and whether such development is likely to be a nationally significant infrastructure project…” is a significant change from the current NPPF which simply requires authorities to “take account” of the need for strategic infrastructure in their development plans.
The strategic importance of NSIPs at the local scale is also emphasised in the draft NPPF, which sites these projects (along with those consented under Transport and Work Act and hybrid bills) as one ‘wholly exceptional reason’ where the loss or deterioration of habitat as a result of development would be outweighed by the wider public benefit the project would deliver.
We welcome the Government’s push for development plans to plan positively for large-scale transport and energy projects. The NPPF’s encouragement of authorities using Statements of Common Ground to address cross-boundary issues will undoubtedly assist in this process.
On first reading, the NPPF appears to be trying to ensure that NSIPs are supported by policy at the national and local levels. This will definitely benefit scheme promoters who do not benefit from an NPS specific to their development or technology. They cannot rest on their laurels, however, as the local policy support will still need to be secured through participation and engagement in the development plan process.
James Donagh, Development Economics Director (Ebbsfleet)
The switch to a standard method for calculating local housing need speaks volumes about the Government’s uncompromising approach to the housing crisis that takes them close to setting local targets.
Whilst the devil will be in the detail of yet to be published practice guidance, all the indications are that the simple three step standard method, consulted upon earlier in the year, will be adopted.
For plan making, that means a supply of homes equivalent to household projections, plus an uplift to address unaffordability, and the plan has gone a long way to ticking the ‘positively prepared’ box.
The standard method can be expected to set a relatively high level of need nationally, possibly 300,000 homes a year, and that is to be welcomed.
However the distribution of housing need may have unintended consequences.
We speculate that 45% of England’s need will fall to London and the South East, with London accounting for the bulk of that need. If we are right, pressures to release industrial land will inevitably increase.
To make informed decisions about land release, robust and up to date employment land needs assessments will be required. Experience tells us that employment land need evidence is sometimes not as good as it could be.
And if the housing need scales tip the way of the wider south east, what does that mean for the north? It is essential that ambitious plans for economic growth are not compromised by unambitious plans for housing.
The Government’s ‘right homes right places’ consultation response offers reassurance that distribution will be monitored. Hopefully they are alive to our concerns:
“The standard method is a key part of the Government’s ambition to deliver the right number of homes in the right places. The methodology is based on population growth projections which can change. We propose to keep the methodology under review to ensure that quantity and approximate distribution of need that is established by the standard methodology remains appropriate.”
Peter Newton, Architectural Director (Reading)
Delivery, Density and Design are three key themes for us to pick up on in the revised NPPF. I very much support the focus on delivery of much needed housing stock, balanced by processes and provisions that support sustainable, high-quality design.
We also welcome the commitment to do this at high densities in our town and city centres and around transport hubs, ensuring that the best use is made of this land. I’d like to see this taken further linking higher density development not only with the critical purpose of meeting the housing shortage but also its ability to create successful places, after all density delivered through good design, with proper engagement will deliver a lasting legacy of contemporary, authentic, street-based urbanism.
Nicole Roe, Planning Associate (Manchester)
It appears to be a case of ‘business as usual’ for town centre uses. However, there are some notable changes proposed to the current Section 2 of NPPF:
- A new emphasis on allowing centres to grow, change and diversify including the removal of a requirement to ‘plan positively’ for the future of declining centres.
- Removal of the phrase ‘meeting needs in full’ in relation to how Local Authorities plan for town centres.
- Clarification of the term ‘available’ within the sequential test.
- The removal of the requirement to carry out an impact assessment for office developments.
I see these alterations, on the whole, bringing the Framework in line with current trends and interpretations. For example, the requirement for an impact assessment for Office development is seldom upheld and it is questionable how many authorities employ retail policies that do, or are capable of, ‘meeting needs in full’.
However, the clarification over the definition of ‘available’ as part of the sequential test has further reaching implications for decision making. The availability test was employed in the manner now outlined by the Draft NPPF - as meaning available now or, likely to be within a reasonable time period. However, that school of thought was questioned by both the ‘Rushden Lakes’ and Tollgate Village Decisions which highlighted no such definition exists within the current NPPF.
This alteration to NPPF seems to indicate that the original interpretation was that intended by Government, however, we remain unconvinced that it is an effective definition. What constitutes a ‘reasonable’ time period is extremely ambiguous, and we fully expect to see its meaning once again battled out at Appeal and in the High Court.
Lyndon Gill, Planning Director (Cambridge)
It is not wholly surprising that the NPPF unashamedly focuses on housing delivery given the fervour within Central Government to be seen to address the acute shortage of housing across the country. There is pressure upon Local Authorities to re-cycle commercial and industrial land, which is likely to increase further where they are constrained by Green Belt and cannot demonstrate a 5 year housing supply. Whilst it is difficult to argue such an approach where land and premises are truly surplus to requirements due to their location, or physical state, the need for various forms of commercial development cannot be an afterthought. This is particularly relevant to a logistics sector that is driven by e-commerce that requires urban locations with suitable drive times to residential areas.
The NPPF recognises that ‘significant weight should be placed upon the need to support economic growth and productivity’ which is to be welcomed, but the word ‘productivity’ cannot be grasped by Authorities as a means to restrict the quantum of commercial land supported for development based on what are now generally recognised as ‘out-of-date’ employment densities. The Industrial and Logistics sector is experiencing a revolution in its own right and is fundamental to the future growth of the UK economy, as such Local Plans and decision making must recognise that this sector not only supplies jobs on-site, but underpins the function of the wider UK economy and a far wider employment base beyond the land it occupies. In that context the one and a half pages
of dedicated to ‘Building a Strong and Competitive Economy’ feels like a missed opportunity that does not reflect the need for a resilient and inclusive Industrial Strategy to secure the UK’s future prosperity.
For many of our clients, the need for strategic sites goes beyond the knowledge driven, creative and high tech industries. Land equally needs to be made available in the right place for Logistics hubs, and in that sense it is helpful the NPPF recognises that some sites outside of defined settlement boundaries will be required. The commitment to infrastructure delivery and positive planning of large scale transport projects across boundaries is also welcomed, but consultation on the location of these – and the land release that goes with them must account for the needs of all sectors of the wider economy, not just local politics and housing need. This clearly requires a more effective Duty to Co-operate to tackle ‘larger than local’ needs.
Paul Foster, Planning Director (Cambridge)
It is slightly disappointing to see that the reference to minerals being “essential to economic growth and quality of life” has been dropped from the draft. However, the requirement for local authorities to give “great weight” to the benefits of mineral extraction remains – one of only six references in the draft NPPF.
A particularly welcome boost for UK onshore O&G operators is that Councils now need to recognise the benefits of on-shore oil and gas development - including unconventional hydrocarbons, i.e. shale gas - in their plans; and put in place policies which facilitate their exploration and extraction. This builds on the Written Ministerial Statement of September 2015 which firmly supported the economic benefits arising from shale gas in the UK. It will be interesting to see whether this requirement for Mineral Planning Authorities to formally recognise the benefits of O&G in their minerals plans has a bearing on the political pressure leading to a growing number of refusals for hydrocarbon extraction in recent months.
Dan Mitchell, Partner (Manchester)
I was pleased to hear affordability running through Theresa May’s speech – this wasn’t just a rallying cry to build more homes, but a recognition that we need to be building the rights sorts of homes too. Too often, and too easily, the latter has been overlooked in blind pursuit of the former – and in cities like Manchester this is becoming a real problem. It is good to see a minimum level of affordable housing set at 10 per cent, helping to give those who invest in housing greater certainty.
But to truly make inroads to the current housing crisis it can’t just be about hitting the numbers and housebuilding volumes. While sweeping statements of intent are important for galvanizing the industry, it’s the practical detail of this proposed new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) that will determine the scale of the impact.
When it comes to boosting delivery of affordable homes – for key workers or otherwise – the devil is as much in the definition as in percentage targets. The expansion of what qualifies as affordable housing to include discounted market sales housing and other tenures is a significant step forward. More diversity in what developers can deliver as affordable housing – particularly for sale as opposed to rent – would open up opportunities on more sites and attract more entrants to this market. We need to stop seeing affordable housing as a public-sector problem, and by broadening out the range of affordable housing products, the private sector can play a much bigger role and also increase the speed to market.
James Hall, Partner (Leeds)
As well as the building of much needed homes, there are a number of other benefits for the North East with some ‘carrot and stick’ actions to get local authorities who are not building enough homes and adopting Local Plans into action, such as Gateshead Borough Council.
Introducing these stronger penalties for local authorities without an adopted Local Plan and proven housing land supply would also help ensure properly planned development.
“While the region should benefit from this announcement, there are some policies where it won’t fare so well. Using a standardised approach to setting housing targets, where they are not comparing like with like, is still a concern, especially in the North, where the approach should be directly linked to job creation.
The revisions certainly have the potential to make it easier for the industry to deliver greater housing numbers, not just planning permissions - by removing the obstacles that developers often face in implementing planning permissions quickly.
Jo Burton, Heritage Associate (Cambridge)
On first reading, changes to policy affecting the historic environment would appear to fall into the ‘less than substantial’ rather than ‘substantial’ category. Aside from a reshuffle of some of the paragraphs and wording, the paragraphs most often cited in development control remain largely unscathed.
Disappointingly but perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the ambiguities that arise in trying to implement the current document remain unresolved. In particular, there is no attempt in the main body of the document or glossary to define the terms ‘substantial’ and ‘less than substantial’ with respect to the two key tests for assessing the acceptability of harm to designated heritage assets. Whilst guidance is offered in the Planning Practice Guidance, a correct application of these terms is pivotal to the decision-making process. For this reason it would be helpful to see an attempt to offer a definition, however challenging this may prove.
Where changes are proposed, in general these improve upon the wording which is to be welcomed but do not appear to substantively change the policy landscape with respect to built heritage.
Wendy Lancaster, Landscape Planning Associate
Protecting Green Belt Land, Chapter 13, of the consultation draft is almost word for word the same as Chapter 9 of the current document. I can’t help but think that we are missing a huge opportunity, little has changed and it still remains a single-issue policy.
A key addition in landscape terms is a minor one but which may provide opportunities to local authority and developer alike. A short addition to paragraph 137 (previously 84) states that local authorities “should set out ways in which the impact of removing land from the Green Belt can be offset through compensatory improvements to the environmental quality and accessibility of remaining Green Belt”.
Paragraph 140 of the consultation draft, echoes chapter 81 of the current document, stating that, once defined, local authorities "should plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt", including through increased access, provision of opportunities for recreation and sport, and the retention and enhancement of landscapes, yet no mechanism exists to do so in the current document. As a result, many areas of Green Belt remain degraded, provide little access, and comprise detractors within our landscapes. Does this little sentence at the end of paragraph 137 finally provide the means by which local authorities can provide those improvements set out in paragraph 140 as well as opportunities for developers to provide compensation in the form of accessible open space?
A key difference that arises throughout the draft NPPF is increased reference to multi-functional and connected green infrastructure (GI), a reflection of the increasing recognition of the importance of connected multi-functional spaces that can contribute to wildlife habitat, social well-being, landscape quality, sustainable drainage and urban cooling, amongst others. Yet nowhere within chapter 13 does it mention GI.
In a world of increased pressure to provide development, and local authorities increasingly looking to Green Belt land, shouldn’t Green Belt work a little harder?
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