Revised NPPF stronger on sustainability

30th March 2012


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The government's controversial new planning rules have been amended to provide greater clarity in its definition of sustainable development and more emphasis on improving the natural environment

In response to strong criticism from environmental campaigning groups and the House of Common’s environmental audit committee, the final version of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) now refers the UK’s 2005 sustainable development action plan and states that sustainable development involves seeking "positive improvements" to the natural as well as the built environment.

Created to help speed up planning decisions and remove barriers to development, the NPPF overhauls the UK’s planning system, replacing 1,300 pages of guidance with a 50-page strategic document and giving local authorities greater autonomy over the development approach most suited to their own areas.

The draft NPPF, published last summer, was not well-received by groups including the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), which labelled its "presumption in favour of sustainable development" as a "developers' charter", weakening levels of environmental protection.

While the NPPF still states that the presumption remains a "golden thread" in its approach to planning, it now refers to it less frequently in the text, and the statement that authorities' default position should be to say "yes" to developments, has been removed.

Instead, ministers have adapted the wording carefully to highlight a balanced approach to development, stating: "Economic, social and environmental gains should be sought jointly and simultaneously."

Other changes to language within the text are subtle, but have been welcomed as important compromises. For example, the NPPF now makes explicit reference to brownfield sites, where previously it spoke only of "sites of lesser environmental value”. It also now specifically lists the land classifications, such as sites of special scientific interest and green belt, where development should be restricted as well as making reference to the value of land that does not have an official designation.

Further concessions include a greater focus on biodiversity, including new requirements for the planning system to "recognise the wider benefits of ecosystem services" and to "remediate and mitigate despoiled, degraded, derelict, contaminated and unstable land, where appropriate".

Joan Walley MP, chair of the environmental audit committee which criticised the draft NPPF for its failure to define sustainable development, welcomed the changes but warned that the real test of the NPPF and its approach to sustainability was yet to come.

“The definition of sustainable development will now have to be tested in the courts and it remains to be seen whether the new planning rules will prevent developments that are unsustainable in the way they use water, encourage car use or impact on biodiversity,” she said.

Another concern raised with the draft framework was that around half of local authorities are yet to create a local development plan, despite the introduction of legislation requiring such plans in 2008, and some that had a plan, did not have one that was in sync with the NPPF. In presenting the final framework to parliament, planning minister Greg Clarke confirmed that while the NPPF had come into force immediately, local authorities would have 12 months to write or amend their local plan, before being forced to use the NPPF.

Reaction to the final NPPF has been generally positive from bodies representing developers and those that had campaigned for greater environmental protection, but many highlight the need to see how the framework is used.

The CPRE, for example, said: “We are pleased with the direction of travel on the recognition of the value of undesignated countryside, the definition of sustainable development and the explicit acknowledgement that use of brownfield land is a core planning objective. Ultimately, however, the proof of the new policy framework will be how it works in practice.”

Meanwhile, Joanne Wheeler, senior policy advisor at the UK’s Green Building Council, commented: “It is encouraging to see that our concerns about the draft NPPF have been heard. However, it really is now down to how local authorities implement this at the local level.

“It is critical that local authorities fully understand sustainability issues, to make sure that they achieve a balance between requiring robust sustainability standards but also ensuring development remains viable.”

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