Market Insight

NPPF latest: U-turns and yet more missed opportunities?

February 22, 2023
construction site of new homes
With less than a month to go until the end of the consultation on the latest planning changes, proposed by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), we take a look at what changes are proposed, and their potential effect, and discuss whether this is yet another missed opportunity for meaningful planning reform.

The ‘Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill: reforms to national planning policy’ is the next step in the Government’s overarching strategy to revise and update the current planning process.

It follows on from previous announcements including the planning reforms introduced through the Queen’s Speech in May 2022 and the Planning for the Future White Paper in August 2020.

Just like the previous announcements and recent revisions to the use class order and permitted development legislation, this has the potential to shake up the current planning process event further – and by association, the entire built environment.

The consultation started on 22 December and will run for just over two months, ending on 2 March 2023.The consultation relates to two documents.

The first outlines the approach to updating the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the second looks at the preparation of National Development Management Polices.

The consultation has been met with scepticism in some quarters, given the number of planning changes which have been proposed over the last few years.

However, it is important to recognise the opportunities that change to national legislation could bring to the development industry.

What changes are proposed?

Unlike previous consultations, more sufficient detail has been included this time, to explain the rationale around the proposed direction of travel.

This helps development professionals, providing them with the opportunity to review the revised wording for the NPPF, before it gets formally adopted.

So, what are the key themes that have emerged from the proposed NPPF changes?

  1. Housing figures, housing delivery and land supply tests
  2. Green Belt
  3. Community involvement
  4. Beautiful design
  5. Climate change and sustainability
  6. Local Plan delivery and timescales

Most of the proposed changes to the NPPF relate to housing and in turn the Green Belt.

This should come as no surprise given the level of local opposition to large scale residential development proposals and Local Plans, which include Green Belt allocations, to meet nationally prescribed housing targets.

What effect will the changes have?

Since the announcement regarding the changes, some Local Plans have been put on hold, including South Staffordshire Council, North Somerset Council, Horsham District Council, Isle of Wight Council, Teignbridge District Council, Stockport Council and Mole Valley all issuing statements to this effect.

The proposed changes to the NPPF are likely to reduce the pressure on Local Authorities to adhere to the current housing targets, by reducing the weight currently given to the pre-scribed targets calculated through the standard methodology.

Instead, these figures will now be considered as an advisory starting point, as opposed to a minimum target which can be negotiated down or up, based on suitable evidence.

This evidence can include the Green Belt with the Government clarifying this by saying that Green Belt boundaries are not required to be reviewed and altered to meet the objectively assessed housing need.

Whilst it is difficult to predict exactly what will happen as result of these changes it is likely that we will see several Local Authorities reducing their current housing based on Green Belt constraints. This could create further opportunity for higher density residential development within town centres and on previously developed land.

However, any changes in density increase would need to be delivered ”in keeping with the character of the area”.

Whilst the sentiment of this wording is agreeable, it is likely provide further reason to refuse residential schemes within town centres in practical terms which, at a time when our town centres need reimaging, could have a negative impact on town centre regeneration.

It is disappointing to see yet another missed opportunity to deliver positive planning change, as there are so many great opportunities for innovation and modernisation within the development industry.

David Ramsay, Head of Planning, Vail Williams LLP.

How can we meet housing targets?

If we are going to strive to achieve the Government’s objective of providing new homes (300,000 per year including affordable and older people’s) the question becomes how?

The two initial options of building out (settlement expansion), and building up (higher density), seem to have been taken off the table in most but the most urban locations.

Add to this, the fact that certain allowances will be introduced in relation to housing delivery, with Local Authorities being able to reduce their need to adhere to having a 5-year housing supply, and the matter becomes even more contentious.

Whilst the onus should not fall solely on the Local Authority to deliver housing, as there are many other parties involved, the flexibility proposed to be allowed to local authorities does not help the case for development and instead reinforces the argument to retain the status quo.

The government has tried to address build-out rates by suggesting that financial penalties will be applied for developers who are building out too slowly, and that ‘past irresponsible planning behaviour’ should be a material consideration. However, the consultation stops short of clearly defining what such behaviour entails.

The government has also tried to incentivise and support communities in delivering affordable housing.

Whilst this has some merit, it is unlikely to be wholly successful given the level of local opposition to affordable housing delivery, and the lack of clarification over how this would tie into the existing planning framework.

The current evidence in relation to neighbourhood plans seeks to emphasise this point, with its limited impact in boosting housing supply and providing a clear statement to direct housing within sustainable urban centre.

However, there will be more emphasis on the character of the area which will be established through the introduction of design codes. In the short term, this is likely to increase the appetite for local authorities to bring forward identified urban sites and those on the brownfield register.

Given the likelihood of further delays in local plan making as authorities re-evaluate the housing target and potential site allocations, and with less weight being given to the five-year housing supply and delivery rates, authorities are likely to push back on the need to meet these targets.

As a result, the emphasis will probably turn to known sites as opposed new sites, however, additional calls for development land (Call for Sites exercises) could provide the opportunity to include areas with high redevelopment potential, particularly outside areas of green belt or perceived landscape sensitivity.

In the longer term this will place greater emphasis on previously developed land, and sites with a high level of re-development potential, with urban, town centre and high street sites likely to be an area of particular focus.

In-fill development will likely become the prevailing form of housing delivery, as authorities look to protect settlement boundaries from further encroachment, with development located in sustainable and highly accessible areas lively to be encouraged.

Another missed opportunity

Setting aside the obvious political motives for the revision of the government’s flagship planning policies at this time, the current consultation stops short of recognising the ability of the planning system to guide sustainable growth through improvements to infrastructure and the environment.

Local Plans and policy frameworks should be there to provide guidance, and an overarching local development strategy.

It is disappointing to see yet another missed opportunity to deliver positive planning change, as there are so many great opportunities for innovation and modernisation within the development industry.

More time needs to be spent assessing where the best opportunities for development are, including Green Belt, and the maximising positive benefits that development can bring.  This is not to say that places are not worth preserving and maintaining, but instead we should be identifying where improvements can be made, and how development can appropriately facilitate those improvements.

The lack of information on open space, employment, economic growth, infrastructure, and conservation only seeks to highlight this point.

The NPPF should be looking to promote a more coordinated and proactive joined up approach to development at all levels. Instead, this overly pessimistic restrictive approach, will result in piecemeal development, which is in no one’s best interest and will not deliver significant infrastructure improvements.

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