Planning rules were in the headlines again last week with the publication of the government's national planning policy framework (NPPF). After last year's coverage in the media ("Hands off our Land"), Ministers will be pleased by the early responses, which are largely favourable. The NPPF is definitely a more balanced document than its initial draft, recognising the primacy of established local plans and the importance of environmental and other factors in the decision-making process.
Much of the NPPF debate has centred around the introduction of a
policy presumption in favour of sustainable development. We've had
these before in the past but not for some time now so people are
unfamiliar with the idea, they don't know how a presumption might
work in practice. It is designed to tip the balance in favour
of a "yes" decision where local policies do not exist or they are out of date.
But Ministers have been under a good deal of pressure from council lobby groups to postpone the operation of the presumption to allow councils more time to put their local plans in place. It's a worry to councils because only about half of them have adopted or are close to adopting up to date local policies. Without up to date local plans, the policies contained in the NPPF will decide planning matters rather than locally prepared policy.
The failure of so many councils to update their policies has
been a problem for such a long time that the government has finally
lost its patience. The presumption will act as a stick to drive
plans forward, probably a good thing and a necessary thing if
and neighbourhood planning stand any chance of working.
An important question is when the presumption will apply in any
given case. Most early commentators have interpreted the NPPF to
mean that local plans will only be out of date and the presumption
will only apply immediately if local plans pre-date
2004. Most have expressed the view that there is a 12-month grace period before applying the presumption where there is a local plan which dates from 2004.
But that is not what the NPPF says.
The Secretary of State has given himself considerable wriggle room using carefully chosen words and failing to define which local plans are "out of date". The upshot is that the NPPF allows the Secretary of State to apply the presumption in favour of
sustainable development immediately in all cases, if that is what he wishes.
So how bullish will he be in doing so?
The large number of court cases to date suggest very bullish. It took several court appearances before Mr Pickles was persuaded that he couldn't abolish regional policy simply by issuing a statement to that effect and more recently, the courts have had to intervene several times to persuade him that well-planned developments cannot be refused simply because a neighbourhood plan is being discussed for the area. There is
no reason to suppose that the Secretary of State's approach to his NPPF will be any less robust.
What does it mean for landowners and
The NPPF should serve as a catalyst for re-assessing and bringing forward developments which have been stuck in the planning quagmire - just as the government hopes.
The following is a summary of the policy changes
contained in the document:
• Introduction of presumption in favour of sustainable development.
• Removal of small scale rural office development from 'town centre first' policy.
• For major town centre schemes where full impact will not be realised within 5 years, impacts should also be assessed for a period of up to 10 years.
• Removal of the maximum non-residential car parking standards for major developments.
• Removal of national brownfield target for housing development.
• Requirement for local planning authorities to allocate and update annually a 5 year supply of housing sites with at least 5% buffer (moved forward from later in plan period) but a 20% buffer (moved forward from later in plan period) where there is a record of persistent under delivery.
• Removal of national minimum site size threshold for requiring affordable housing to be delivered.
• Increased flexibility for delivery of rural housing to reflect local needs.
• Increased protection for community facilities.
• Minor technical changes to the detail of Green Belt policy.
• More flexibility for how local planning authorities meet local requirements for decentralised energy supply.
• Encouragement for planning authorities to map areas for commercial scale renewable and low carbon energy development opportunities.
• Requirement for planning authorities to take strategic approach in Local Plans to the creation, protection and enhancement of biodiversity and green infrastructure.
• Designation within Local Plans for sites of importance for wildlife and landscape character.
• Clarification of which wildlife sites should have same protection as European sites.
• Removal of requirement to set criteria and select sites for peat extraction.