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The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)
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By Tony Allen, DMH Stallard

The final version of the NPPF was published, and took effect, on 27 March 2012.
 
In the forward the Minister for Planning, Greg Clark, said that the NPPF replaces “over a thousand pages of national policy with around 50 written simply and clearly…” . The withdrawn documents are listed at NPPF Annex 3, and include most, but not all, PPSs and PPGs, plus a range of other guidance documents, letters etc.  It is however a Framework and will not stand alone.
 
Alongside it DCLG published “Technical Guidance to the NPPF” which deals with Flood Risk and Minerals Policies. The NPPF itself states that it should be read in conjunction with existing policy for travellers sites and that it does not contain specific waste policies, which are dealt with in the National Waste Management Plan for England.
 
DCLG has also said that it will review the remaining plethora of guidance documents (approximately 6000 pages) “…to see which bits it is useful to have…”. By way of example, we understand that English Heritage is waiting to hear whether it will need to revise its “Historic Environment Planning Practice Guide” first published in 2010 to accompany the short lived PPS5 on Heritage Assets.  The other issue not dealt with in the NPPF is policy for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects.
 
That having been said, the NPPF does provide a concise and firm, if not wholly unambiguous, set of policies for plan-making and decision-taking in England.  At its core is paragraph 14:
 
“At the heart of the National Planning Policy Framework is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking.
 
For plan-making this means that: 
  • local planning authorities should positively seek opportunities to meet the development needs of their area;
  • local plans should meet objectively assessed needs, with sufficient flexibility to adapt to rapid change, unless:

- any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole;
- specific policies in this Framework indicate development should be restricted

For decision taking this means:
  • approving development proposals that accord with the development plan without delay; and
  • where the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out-of-date, granting permission unless:
    - any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole; or
    - specific policies in this Framework indicate development should be restricted.”

Planning Policy
 
As the NPPF acknowledges (paragraph 2) the statutory basis for planning decisions remains Section 38(6) Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 – that applications should be decided in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.  The NPPF itself must be taken into account in the preparation of local plans and as a material consideration in planning decisions.  This paragraph also recognises the primacy of “relevant EU obligations and statutory regulations”.
 
Plan making is covered at NPPF paragraphs 150 to 185.  Key principles are that the plan should be consistent with the presumption in favour of sustainable development, that policies should provide clear guidance on how planning applications should be decided and crucially that plans should:

  • plan positively for the development and infrastructure required in the area to meet the objectives, principles and policies of this Framework;
  • be drawn up over an appropriate time scale, preferably a 15 year time horizon, take account of longer term requirements, and be kept up to date;
  • be based on co-operation with neighbouring authorities, public, voluntary and private sector organisations;
  • indicate broad locations for strategic development on a key diagram and land-use designations on a proposals map;
  • allocate sites to promote development and flexible use of land, bringing forward new land where necessary, and provide detail on form, scale, access and quantum of development where appropriate;
  • identify areas where it may be necessary to limit freedom to change the uses of buildings, and support such restrictions with a clear explanation;
  • identify land where development would be inappropriate, for instance because of its environmental or historic significance; and the
  • contain a clear strategy for enhancing the natural, built and historic environment, and supporting Nature Improvement Areas where they have been identified.”

Each point is expanded in the following text, but note in particular the continuing emphasis on the need to meet in full assessed housing needs, the reinstatement of controls on out of town commercial development, and the need for sequential site analysis, the acknowledgement of the importance of compliance with environmental regulations and sustainability appraisals, and a new reference to the need to consider the impact on viability of development when imposing financial requirements for off-site infrastructure etc (paragraph 173).
 
The approach to policy making for rural areas is dealt with at paragraph 28, the relationship between local plans and neighbourhood plans at paragraph 185, the importance of sustainable transport at paragraph 34.  There is also an interesting reference to planning for larger scale development, new settlements and those embodying the ethos of Garden Cities, at paragraph 52, and emphasis on the need for good design at paragraph 56. 
 
Decision-Taking (paragraphs 186 – 206)
 
Annex 1, paragraph 214, gives local planning authorities 12 months from 27 March 2012 during which they may base their decisions on relevant planning policies adopted since 2004 “even if there is a limited degree of conflict with the Framework.” 
 
Throughout the NPPF (and see paragraph 14 above) the emphasis is on positive and quick determination of planning applications, and on the approval of those which are in accordance with planning policy generally and in particular with the requirement for “sustainable development”.  In the draft NPPF, this phrase was given a definition viewed by many as at variance with the generally understood meaning of the concept, as defined in particular in the UK Sustainable Development Strategy 2005.  The phrase is now defined more clearly, as follows:-
 
“There are three dimensions to sustainable development, economic, social and environmental. These dimensions give rise to the need for the planning system to perform a number of roles:  
 

  • an economic role– contributing to building a strong, responsive and competitive economy, by ensuring that sufficient land of the right type is available in the right places and at the right time to support growth and innovation; and by identifying and coordinating development requirements, including the provision of infrastructure;
  • a social role– supporting strong, vibrant and healthy communities, by providing the supply of housing required to meet the needs of present and future generations; and by creating a high quality built environment, with accessible local services that reflect the community’s needs and support its health, social and cultural well-being; and
  • an environmental role– contributing to protecting and enhancing our natural, built and historic environment; and, as part of this, helping to improve biodiversity, use natural resources prudently, minimise waste and pollution, and mitigate and adapt to climate change including moving to a low carbon economy.”
 
Some critics have commented that here, and elsewhere, the NPPF attaches disproportionate weight to the needs for growth and a competitive economy, to the detriment of the protection of the environment – experience will tell!
 
The NPPF, in some detail, encourages pre-application discussions with local planning authorities, other statutory consultees, and the wider community.  It also introduces a presumption against any planning application which conflicts with a neighbourhood plan which has been brought into force.
 
In terms of planning conditions and obligations, the NPPF broadly maintains the presumption in favour of the former, and says:-
 
“planning obligations should only be used where it is not possible to address unacceptable impacts through a planning condition.”
 
Summary

Commenting on the NPPF on the day following its publication, the Guardian quoted from Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland:
  
“it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”  
 
Making the point that too much of the wording is still unacceptably vague.  This was certainly true of the 2011 draft, but marginally less so in this final version.  Others have commented on the limited application of the requirement that local planning authorities with a track record of “persistent under delivery on housing” to provide for 20% of housing land on top of their five year land supply.
 
On the plus side, many will welcome the intended simplification of the local planning process, the return of the title “Local Plan”, the requirement to co-operate with neighbouring authorities, and the general discouragement of supplementary documents except where a case can clearly be made for them.  There is also a general sense of a return to greater protection for undeveloped land, including residential gardens, and a preference for re-use of previously developed land.
 
Overall, however, the restructuring of the planning system represented by the NPPF, the Localism Act and other policy statements from this Government will need to be assessed through the experience of use over the next two or three years and also in the context of the continuing process of review of other planning and associated guidance documents.  We will publish regular updates and are happy to answer questions on the interpretation of the NPPF, and changes to the planning system generally.

 


DMH Stallard are a unique multi-disciplinary team of legal experts and chartered town planners have particular specialisms in heritage and listed buildings, house building, waste and renewables, infrastructure, retail, leisure, education and public sector work. They are consistently ranked as a “top firm” in the planning and environmental field.

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