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The Draft NPPF: A New Dawn?

I was contacted recently by a planning student who asked me to fill out a questionnaire for his dissertation. After remembering the pain and agony of writing my own dissertation a few years ago (ahem), I gladly obliged.

  • Question 1: What role do I play in the planning process?
  • Answer: Planning Consultant
  • Question 2: how long have I held that role?
  • Answer: Over 20 years (depressingly this option was the last available box to tick so let’s move on!)
  • Question 3: Some residential developers have a land bank or ‘pipeline’ of sites at various stages of planning, why do you think this is?

…and that got me thinking. According to the Government (and to set the mood for the arrival of a new draft of the NPPF) the fault lies with the development industry. This is obviously not the first time that such a suggestion has been made and whilst my allegiances lie firmly and unashamedly with the private sector I recognise that there are some who seek to delay the release of development land. However, based on my experiences as a private practitioner at the forefront of the planning process I can safely say that the vast majority of developers I act for want to deliver long lasting, well designed schemes at the earliest possible opportunity.

The answer to Question 3 depends on how land banking is defined. The finger of blame for delays in the planning system will of course be pointed in all directions. However, at no point since the current version of the NPPF was published in 2012 has anyone I have met during the course of my working day (planning officer, local resident, consultee or other) described the planning system as simple. That in my view is the big problem.

It is fair to say that the expectations of pre-application engagement, the pressure on local planning authority resources (and the Planning Inspectorate) and the rise of localism, let alone the time it takes to navigate post-application requirements such as pre-commencement conditions and Section 106 agreements do not always entice landowners and developers to engage in the process. During a recent pre-application meeting with an LPA in relation to a policy compliant scheme of around 40 dwellings where a full suite of technical reports were provided in advance the Case Officer suggested that the developer should obtain further pre-application advice with the Council, consultees and the local community, engage in a design review and agree to a s106 agreement securing a design code. Clearly the simplified planning process we were promised via from the current version of the framework is not working.

As for the draft NPPF published earlier this month (https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/draft-revised-national-planning-policy-framework) there are a number of suggested changes that you should be aware of which I have set out below. However, these changes will impact most on the residential sector and in other respects it is very much business as usual. Notably the overall approach to town centres remains the same other than in relation to offices where the expectation that office developments outside town centres are subject to an impact assessment has been removed. Green Belt policy has been tightened. Before concluding that exceptional circumstances are justified local authorities should have examined all other reasonable options. Limited affordable housing for local community needs has however been added to the list of exceptions, on previously developed land, where the construction of new buildings would not be considered inappropriate development. Reference to the “golden thread” has also disappeared

Other notable changes are:

  • Policies providing a specific reason for restricting development, such as Green Belt and National Parks, are set out as a defined list rather than as examples, as in the present framework.
  • Local plans should provide for objectively assessed needs for development, including unmet need from neighbouring areas, unless particular policies provide "a strong reason for restricting the overall scale" of development.
  • The three ‘tests’ of sustainability – social, economic and environmental should be matters for plan making, not matters used to gauge applications.
  • The presumption in favour of sustainable development would be triggered where a council cannot demonstrate a five-year housing supply "or where the housing delivery test indicates that delivery of housing has been substantially below the housing requirement over the previous three years".
  • Local plans will be considered sound if, as a minimum, they meet as much as possible of an area's objectively assessed needs, particularly for housing.
  • A standard methodology for assessing housing need will be implemented via the revised framework.
  • A housing delivery test will impose sanctions on Councils failing to meet housebuilding targets in their local plans.
  • Where a Neighbourhood Plan exists, and promotes a suitable scale of land for housing allocation, the 5 year requirement becomes a 3 year target.
  • Planning authorities must fully examine "all other reasonable options" for meeting their identified development needs before releasing green belt.
  • Strategic plans should set out a housing requirement figure for designated neighbourhood areas and this should not need retesting at neighbourhood plan examinations.
  • The sequential approach to town centre uses is amended to make clear that out-of-centre sites should be considered only if suitable town centre or edge-of-centre sites are unavailable or not expected to become available within a reasonable period.
  • The government expects minimum density standards to be used in town and city centres and around transport hubs in areas where there is a shortage of land for meeting identified development needs.
  • Where policy requirements have been tested for viability at the plan-making stage, such issues should not usually need to be visited again at the planning application stage.

Consultation on the draft NPPF runs until May 10 and a final version is due for publication before the summer. A consultation on developer contributions and viability also runs alongside the NPPF consultation. It is worth stressing that the draft is likely to be subject to change before it is finalised. Interestingly though the Government has indicated that planning authorities will have six months from publication of the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to submit local plans for examination under the old framework. Read into that what you will.

Whatever framework we find ourselves with, now or in the future, the basic advice remains:

  • Seek professional advice as soon as possible and where necessary allow for engagement with the key stakeholders and the local community;
  • Ensure your proposals are well designed, well considered and justified by appropriate technical evidence;
  • Remain optimistic about the value of working collaboratively with the local planning authority but challenge unacceptable delay in the system robustly.

Having completed my questionnaire I decided to find a clever phrase to sum up my thoughts which led me to the following:

‘There are only two options: Make progress or make excuses’

‘Be patient: sometimes you have to go through the worst before you get the best’

That didn’t make me feel any better so I decided to stop googling and get on my representations to the NPPF! Good luck out there and gives us a call if you want to discuss any of the issues I have raised.

Article by Ian Jewson

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