National Planning Policy Framework

National Planning Policy Framework

The Government’s eagerly awaited National Planning Policy Framework (“NPPF”) has now been published, reducing over a thousand pages of national planning guidance down to just 47 pages.

The NPPF, including the presumption in favour of sustainable development, now applies to decisions on development proposals with immediate effect in areas where no adopted Local Plan is in place.

The Government has introduced the NPPF in an effort to ‘streamline’ national policy, making it more accessible and to stimulate sustainable development whilst protecting and enhancing the built and natural environment.

Today’s publication follows the Government’s consideration of over 16,000 consultation responses made in relation to the draft NPPF over a 12 week period in Summer/Autumn 2011.

In announcing the publication, Rt Hon Greg Clark MP stated that the NPPF would “help build the homes the next generation needs” and “support growth to allow employers to create the jobs our constituents need”. This is in response to a decade of top-down targets and national planning policy guidance that the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP claims had “swelled beyond reason” making the planning system “more complex” and “ever slower”.

The NPPF, and its accompanying technical guidance, must now be taken into account in the preparation of local and neighbourhood plans, and is a material consideration in planning decisions.

The presumption in favour of sustainable development

The revised NPPF continues to place a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ at its heart, which the Government see as a golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking. For decision-taking, this means that local planning authorities will be required to:

  • Approve 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  • Where the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out-of-date, grant planning permission unless:
  • Any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, or
  • Specific policies in the NPPF indicate that the development should be restricted

After lobby groups criticised the Government as being too vague in its definition of sustainable development through the NPPF, the revised Framework now refers explicitly to the five principles of the UK Sustainable Development Strategy as well as the 1987 Brundtland Report definition of sustainable development as meeting ‘the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

Default ‘yes’ to development removed

The Government’s policy for a default ‘yes’ to development proposals has been removed in the revised NPPF after campaigners called for the Framework to give a better balance of economic, environmental and social needs.

The Framework now emphasises that the economic, social and environmental roles are “mutually dependent” and should be “sought jointly and simultaneously through the planning system.”

One year for Local Plans to conform with the NPPF

An annex to the NPPF on transitional arrangements indicates that the Government has given local planning authorities 12 months to bring adopted local plans into full alignment with the NPPF. In the meantime, local authorities and Planning Inspectors can continue to give weight to ‘relevant’ policies adopted since 2004 even where there is a “limited degree of conflict” with the NPPF.

Beyond this 12 month period, the arrangements allow for “due weight” to be given to relevant policies in existing plans according to their degree of consistency with the NPPF.

Revised NPPF includes ‘brownfield’ test

Campaigners had criticised that the draft NPPF had appeared to propose removing the “brownfield first” approach, requiring developers to direct new development to previously developed sites before using ‘greenfield’ land. This criticism was perhaps fuelled by the fact that there was no reference to the term ‘brownfield’ in the draft NPPF.

In response, the revised NPPF now includes a clear reference to prioritising ‘brownfield’ land for development and states that decision-makers should recognise the “intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside.” It goes on to state that “planning policies and decisions should encourage the effective use of land by re-using land that has been previouslydeveloped (brownfield land), provided that it is not of high environmental value.”

Restored town centre protections

The revised NPPF strengthens the ‘town centre first’ policy following accusations that the draft NPPF weakened the protection on the high street by softening the so called retail sequential test. This test requires developers that wish to build town centres uses outside existing centres to demonstrate that there is no suitable alternative site centrally that could accommodate the development.

The draft NPPF also removed offices from the uses that planning authorities should encourage for town centre locations, mentioning only retail and leisure uses.

The revised NPPF now emphasises the importance of the sequential test and includes office development in the “main town centre uses”.

Stride Treglown Opinion

Aims of the NPPF
The Government’s stated purpose of the NPPF was to firstly help make the planning system less complex and more accessible, and secondly to promote sustainable growth.

In terms of its first objective, the NPPF reduces the volume of existing national level planning policy documents which ran to over 1,000 pages and replaces it with a document that is 59 pages long in total (including annexes). A companion document provides technical guidance on development in areas at risk of flooding and in relation to mineral extraction.

However it should be remembered that the development plan is still the primary policy document against which planning applications must be determined – this has not altered by the publication of the NPPF: the statutory status of the development plan is still the starting point for decision making. In addition, the large volume of existing Planning Policy Guidance and Statements cannot be ‘unlearnt’ by practitioners and the overall thrust of many of these documents is reiterated within the document.

In terms of the NPPF’s second objective, to promote sustainable growth, the result is less easy to quantify. The draft NPPF was heavily criticised by many environmental groups. The presumption in favour of sustainable development is seen as the ‘golden thread’ running through the document, illustrated by some 47 mentions within the document. The NPPF identifies three dimensions to sustainable development: economic, social and environmental. Interestingly, the ‘economic’ is listed first. In the chapter headed ‘Delivering Sustainable Development’ , the first section is entitled ‘Building a Strong, Competitive Economy’ . This might be seen as a signal of the Government’s key priority of the NPPF to drive economic growth.

Differences between the Draft and Final Document
Overall the final NPPF has sought to find a balance between the strong objections to the initial draft and the Government’s aim to stimulate the development industry. The attempt to define sustainable development is likely to be welcomed by many critics of the draft NPPF. The industry will be similarly encouraged by the retention of the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

Initial Responses
Since the publication of the draft document in September 2011the NPPF has regularly featured on front pages, with support from development groups but vociferous objections from campaign groups.

The initial reaction to the NPPF has in the main been cautiously optimistic from both sides of the debate. The Home Builders Federation has come out in support of the NPPF noting that it provides ‘a sound basis for a more pro-growth planning system and could support a desperately needed increase in house building’ although noting its success is dependent upon both its interpretation by Local Authorities and Government support. The CBI has also welcomed the document noting that ‘for too long, our planning regime acted as a drag on growth, and this framework lets people decide the future for themselves’ . The CPRE’s initial view is one of cautious support welcoming the recognition ‘of the intrinsic value of the ordinary countryside’, prior to a full review of the document.

However, Hilary Benn MP, Labour’s Shadow Communities Secretary, has warned that “The Government’s planning reforms could cause widespread delay and chaos” whilst the document is tested by the planning appeals system and the courts.

For those supporting development projects, it is perhaps easier to find supportive and positive statements within a 1,000 pages of guidance than it is 47 pages, and the real success of the NPPF will be in its interpretation and application by Local Planning Authorities and at Planning Committees.

If you have any queries about any of the matters contained within this client advice note or would like further advice on the implications of the National Planning Policy Framework please contact Stride Treglown’s Planning team, who will be able to advise you accordingly.

We have taken great care to ensure the accuracy of this advice note. However, the document is written in general terms and you are strongly recommended to seek specific advice before taking any action based on the information it contains. No responsibility can be taken for any loss arising from action taken or refrained from on the basis of this publication. The contents of this advice note are not intended to comprise definitive statements, but rather offer the opinion of Stride Treglown and provide general guidance on planning issues.