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Sounds like a plan?

Paul Clarke, reviews the changes and potential impact of the National Planning Policy Framework.

The Negotiator

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Ahh, this green and pleasant and hopefully sustainably developed land…

The new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) finally arrived at the end of March in a slightly longer format than was promised and in a more watered down version than its draft published in July 2011.

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Paul Clarke

The NPPF does, however, deliver on its intentions to simplify the huge amount of Government advice that has built up over a number of years on planning policy. This has to be welcomed in a world that has become ever more confusing in terms of gaining the most straightforward of planning permissions for development.

Whilst it could be argued that the advice is now somewhat vague and imprecise, the main thrust is positive and proactive in terms of promoting growth within a plan lead environment.

The starting point for the advice is in achieving sustainable development and, while misquoting the resolution, it reiterates the Brundtland Commission Report in defining sustainable development. It also makes reference to the five principles of sustainable development established by the UK Sustainable Development Strategy. The approach to sustainable development seeks to create a balance between the three main issues of promoting a strong economy, having a strong, vibrant and healthy social community, and protecting the environment.

The document is uninhibited in seeking to make planning a positive tool for delivering sustainable development and clearly states that local planning authorities should look for solutions rather than problems. Whilst there are a number of other points to raise regarding this particular document, we believe this is its most important role in trying to change the mind-set of decision makers in seeking to gain the public perception that development is not necessarily a bad thing. Planning should be perceived as creating and enhancing the places where we live and work, it should be seen as pro-actively making things happen at the right place within the right timeframe.

The NPPF reiterates that the Development Plan remains the starting point for any planning decision. Proposed development should accord with an up to date Local Plan and any Neighbourhood Plans will be part of the structure. Councils have been given 12 months from the publication of the NPPF (ie until 27th March 2013) in order to prompt them into securing the adoption of plans. To date, the Councils generally have been very slow at getting to grips with adopting Core Strategies and this is directed at speeding this process up.

Greg Clark MP image

Greg Clark MP

“In recent years, planning has tended to exclude, rather than to  include, people and communities. In part, this has been a result of targets being imposed, and decisions taken, by bodies remote from them. Dismantling the unaccountable regional apparatus and introducing neighbourhood planning addresses this. In part, people have been put off from getting involved because planning policy itself has become so elaborate and forbidding – the preserve of specialists, rather than people in communities.

This National Planning Policy Framework changes that. By replacing over a thousand pages of national policy with around fifty, written  simply and clearly, we are allowing people and communities back into planning.”

RT Hon Greg Clark MP, Minister For Planning

In terms of economic growth, the document requires the planning system to do everything it can to support economic growth and give significant weight to it. The ‘Town Centre First’ policy has been strengthened and office development re-included with an exception for rural businesses. It draws attention to large-scale residential developments having to have a mix of uses, with key facilities such as schools and shops within easy walking distance.

Also, hidden within the policy details, is a note that sustainable development needs careful attention in terms of viability and costs in decision-making. The scale of obligation should still provide competitive returns to a willing landowner/developer to enable the development to be deliverable.

Reference is also made to the Community Infrastructure Levy that should support an incentivised new development “particularly by placing control over a meaningful proportion of the funds raised with the neighbourhoods where development takes place”.

In terms of housing, it is interesting to note that the five-year land supply is still retained with a five per cent buffer for those who have shown a track record in delivering housing. There is also a clear directive to others without a “realistic prospect that housing will be delivered on site within five years” must earmark a five year supply plus 20 per cent.

Reference is also made to the protection of gardens and for the need for good design as well as identifying criteria for rural housing.

Does this start a new era? Undoubtedly, we believe it does. The language used in this document is something of a real change and whilst there is the potential for the broad objectives set in this document to conflict with each other the presumption in favour of sustainable development is likely to play a key role in the planning balance.

Whilst there have been significant objections raised in terms of there being appropriate safeguards within the document directed at protecting the countryside and our sensitive historic built environment, there would appear to be a positive thrust to ensure that planning is no longer perceived as being a break on growth.

The time has come to stop talking and start delivering the growth that UK plc needs.’ Jeremy Blackburn, RICS

RICS logo imageJeremy Blackburn RICS imageThe BPF cites the following as being the main points of note in the new NPPF:

  • Transitional arrangements – Local authorities with a post-2004 local plan that is broadly in line with the NPPF will be able to use those policies for 12 months. For local authorities with no up to date plan, the NPPF will come in to force today;
  • The definition of sustainable development – this has been strengthened to include the Bruntland definition;
  • Brownfield first policy – this has been strengthened to prioritise more clearly the use of previously developed land;
  • Five-year land supply – Local Authorities with a good track record at allocating land for housing must earmark a five-year supply plus 5%. Others must earmark a five-year supply plus 20 per cent;
  • The intrinsic value of countryside – this has been included in the NPPF; following its removal from the first draft
  • Town centre first policy – this has been strengthened and office development re-included, with an exemption for rural businesses.
Further comment on the NPPF

Malcolm Chumbley, head of UK Development Agency at Cluttons: “The NPPF we now have is a concise, sensible and stable framework which will put pressure on councils to develop local plans which meet the social, economic and environmental demands in their areas. “Although the NPPF does indicate that planning authorities should normally approve planning applications changing commercial buildings to residential use, we believe the government back-tracked on earlier promises having caved-in to councils and their lobbyists. More could have been done to provide more housing, more quickly by allowing the very many empty commercial properties to be converted without the need for extra consents.”

Liz Peace, Chief Executive of the BPF: “We believe the NPPF is now a more moderate and sensible document. The changes to the framework do not, however, alter its overall objective of supporting well-planned sustainable growth within a streamlined, plan-led system. What’s needed now is clarity over how the NPPF is going to be implemented. Urgent questions remain over how local authorities should determine how many homes and jobs they need, and what the guidance that underpins the NPPF should be.”

Adam Challis, Head of Research at Hamptons International: “The pro -v- anti debate on housing provision has been antiquated and genuinely misses the key social impacts. Rather than ‘concreting the countryside’, the planning system has been successfully ‘de-greening our cities’ instead.” “It is about time that we get real about housing need, as current actions on all sides fall woefully short of what is required to improve housing delivery volumes.”

Steven Lees, Director at SmartNewHomes: “The Government is right to prioritise the development of brownfield land and housebuilders are well versed in creating sustainable developments out of these sites as they have done for years, with 75% of new home schemes being built on previously developed land. If 250,000 homes were built every year for 25 years, only 1% of England’s land mass would be used.”

Philip Robin, Director in Jones Lang LaSalle’s Planning team: “The UK is a small island, and the lack of inclusion of any form of regional planning guidance will not assist the underlying objective to promote sustainable economic development, much needed to help the country emerge from the current economic situation and to protect and promote the UK longer term position in the world economy. This policy vacuum needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

Paul Smith, Director of Apex Planning Consultants: “The reduction in regulation is quite simply breathtaking. Years of planning guidelines have been thrown onto a latter-day bonfire of the inanities. For years the planning process has had a reputation for being confusing, bureaucratic and slow, but the arrival of the pared down Planning Policy Framework is no guarantee that things will get simpler.”

Philip Lewis, Regional Director and Chief Planner at environmental specialist Atmos Consulting: “It would seem that these changes are geared towards meeting the demand for more housing in the South East, where they will encourage edge-of-town development, and they are unlikely fundamentally to change the planning system in the long term. The issues holding back larger and  infrastructure development have not really been addressed, nor have the economic needs of other parts of the country.”

Richard Tamayo, Commercial Director at NHBC: “The new planning framework and recently-announced first time buyers’ mortgage initiative are both important steps in empowering the private sector – the current engine of growth for housing numbers – to produce the volume of homes the country urgently needs. However, other challenges still remain, around for example zero carbon homes. NHBC is committed to supporting government and the industry to ensure that the next generation of homes is built to high standards and meet the demands of today’s new home buyers.”

Jeremy Blackburn, RICS Head of UK Policy: “The NPPF provides a robust framework alongside existing national policy statements and we are optimistic that sustainable development can be delivered. Carefully targeted professional guidance and detailed good practice notes will be central in supporting the process and this is a job for RICS and the other professions. The time has come to stop talking and start delivering the development and growth UK Plc so badly needs.”

Andrew Burgess, Planning Director at Churchill Retirement Living: “We are particularly pleased to see the specific clauses putting the onus on local authorities to reflect future demographics when drawing up their Local Plans. Moving to an apartment specifically designed for independent older people can reduce loneliness and engender a real community spirit, sadly missing in wider society.”

Rebecca Bennett Casserly, Head of Affordable Housing at Built Asset Consultancy EC Harris: “The NPPF includes a welcome focus on the provision of new homes in a period of unprecedented under supply and affordability pressures. However, simplification will only reap reward if the “how” to implement the framework is articulated rapidly and does not in itself create a time lag.

Paul Clarke is Partner, Planning Division, Bidwells.

May 9, 2012

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