A new dawn for planning?

10th May 2012

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Stephen Tromans QC finds the final national planning policy framework (NPPF) is better than the draft, but says questions remain

The new national planning policy framework (NPPF) for England has been published, and follows considerable adverse comment by environment groups about the draft that appeared last year.

The NPPF replaces 44 existing policy documents and will necessitate the review and possible revision of existing development plans to take into account the policies in the framework.

As with the draft version, the achievement of sustainable development (SD) is central to the NPPF, but at least some attempt has now been made to define that concept by reference to the five “guiding principles” in the UK sustainable development strategy.

Understanding what is meant by SD is important because, like the draft version, the NPPF retains the presumption in favour of sustainable development. However, it does not seek to make clear how the five guiding principles are relevant.

Rather, it sets out what is regarded as SD first by reference to 12 “core planning principles” (para. 17) and then under a series of 13 topic headings, such as “building a strong, competitive economy” and “meeting the challenge of climate change, flooding and coastal change”.

A major concern of critics of the draft NPPF was that its tenor favoured economic growth over other aspects of SD. The final NPPF makes it clear that the three “dimensions” of sustainable development (economic, social and environmental) are each reflected in roles of the planning system, which are not to be undertaken in isolation, as they are mutually dependent.

It also makes it clear that pursuing SD involves seeking positive improvements in the quality of the built, natural and historic environment, as well as in people’s quality of life.

It will be for local planning authorities to work out what that means in practice, but plans should meet objectively assessed needs for development unless adverse impacts would “significantly and demonstrably” outweigh the benefits, or where specific policies in the NPPF indicate development should be restricted.

The main restrictive policies are those relating to the green belt, possible flood risk, the reuse of previously developed brownfield land, the conservation of biodiversity, landscape and scenic beauty in designated areas, conservation of the historic environment, and the avoidance of unacceptable pollution risks.

The “default yes” to development, which was so controversial in the draft NPPF, is therefore still present but is qualified and weakened. The default setting is positive and proactive, in that “local planning authorities should look for solutions rather than problems” (para. 187).

It is also clear that local planning authorities are going to have to ensure not only a five-year supply of specific deliverable sites for new housing but also an additional buffer of 5% to ensure choice and competition in the market – rising to 20% where there has been “a record of persistent under delivery of housing”.

The emphasis on neighbourhood planning means the NPPF is intended to be consistent with the Localism Act 2011. Although neighbourhood plans will have to be aligned with the strategic needs and priorities of the area and should not promote less development than set out in the local plan, neighbourhood plans are intended to have the ability to shape and direct sustainable development – and indeed will take priority over non-strategic policies in the local plan (para. 185).

Another example of possible localism in action is the “local green space” designation, under which local communities will be able to rule out development other than in very special circumstances. The government is no doubt mindful that this could be a powerful tool for local resistance to development, and therefore the NPPF emphasises that such designation should only be used where specific criteria (para. 77) are met, and “will not be appropriate for most green areas or open space”.

The NPPF will not mark an end to dissension between those favouring development and those who would prefer their locality to remain as it is. Indeed, during the transitional 12 months allowed for local authorities to get their houses in order in terms of local plans that are consistent with the NPPF, there is likely to be much argument over the weight to be given to the existing plan in cases where there is a “limited degree of conflict” with the NPPF (para. 214).

Another major question mark is how well and how effectively neighbouring local planning authorities will cooperate in matters such as planning for biodiversity across local authority boundaries (para. 117) and identifying suitable areas for renewable and low-carbon energy development, such as wind farms (para. 97).

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