Proposed Revisions to the NPPF
Delay and obfuscation set to dominate planning policy for the remainder of this Parliament.
After a year of political turmoil and a bank bench rebellion stalling the progress of the Government’s ‘flagship’ Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, it had been hoped that the publication of a revised NPPF would introduce some much needed stability to planning and development.
Unfortunately the long-awaited proposed revisions to the NPPF, which were published on 22 December have already evidently achieved the exact opposite.
Local authorities are already citing the NPPF consultation as a reason to delay progress on local plans. Furthermore, many of the revisions with the policy document, if implemented, will almost certainly contribute to further delays.
One such example is, ironically, within the chapter Providing certainty through local and neighbourhood plans. It is proposed that protection for neighbourhood plans will be extended from those that are up to two years old to those which are five years old; also that tests which currently require local planning authorities (LPAs) to demonstrate a minimum housing land supply and to have delivered the minimum set out in the Housing Delivery Test will be removed.
This increasingly ‘bottom up’ approach - otherwise generally referred to as localism (the Government’s enduring flagship policy dating back to 2012) - is indicative of a rebalance in the relationship between the national elements of the planning system (primarily the Planning Inspectorate) and the local level (councillors and communities) which is evident throughout the proposed changes. With the endeavour evidently now being to ultimately make it considerably more difficult for developers to gain planning consent on appeal. The terminology used is key: the Secretary of State has said that he will instruct the Planning Inspectorate that it should ‘no long over-ride sensible local decision making’. However, how do we all define ‘sensible’?
Forcing Inspectors’ decisions to comply with local sentiment will likely inhibit the ability for the Planning Inspectorate to determine the future of a scheme on the basis of policy compliance. Essentially prioritising local (political) whims over professional experience and overview, thus making the local community (however this might be defined) the ultimate arbiter of a planning application – are we essentially and seriously talking about planning by local referendum?
If we look hard enough, there are some positives to be found: the belief that the greater the community support, the greater the scheme will shift from being ideology to necessity. Currently, developers must evidence some support through consultation on a planning application to ensure its success; in future, they must ensure that a planning application meets with the aspirations already set out by the local community. While, from a professional point of view, I do not necessarily believe that this delivers a better scheme, it may have the advantage of avoiding a clash with the local community at a later stage in the process (although how likely this is in reality may be is another question). Ultimately, the Secretary of State appears to have been forced into replacing objective structure and policy with a bottom-up approach which will vary considerably across LPAs and even within individual LPA administrative areas themselves. It is far from ideal, but it is one what clients may have to abide by.
Another power-swap and another delaying factor is the proposed introduction of design codes. Local authority-wide design codes are intended to ‘set simple clear minimum standards on development in that area – such as height, form and density’. The purpose of design codes is to, ‘empower communities, working with local authorities, to have a say on what their area will look like by setting clear standards for new, beautiful development’. In principle this is no bad thing, but it assumes that ‘beauty’ can be determined and agreed by a wide range of decision-makers, and that design can be consistent across LPAs. How can a single design code be applied across a planning authority which is both urban and rural? How will it address both areas in need of change such as former industrial sites, to those protected from change, such as AONBs? How can it facilitate both increased density in town centres and a reduction of development in less sustainable locations?
And as we know, the vast majority of people prefer pastiche neo-Georgian and neo-Victorian styles of development to modern architecture. To allow this mentality to dominate future development decisions will very likely thwart progressive design, at the expense of regression and delivering pastiche.
The consultation on the revised NPPF runs until 2 March, and the Government has committed to a further round of consultation later in the year. Unfortunately many LPAs will, and are, pausing local plan-making in the meantime. For progress to resume only if there is greater certainty regarding the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.
And as has already been seen, these changes will result in delay not only to local plans, but, as LPAs await further clarity before taking potentially unpopular decisions, to planning applications currently in the pipeline. In such circumstances we may suggest that clients may well need to seriously consider and pursue more appeals on the grounds of non-determination. But what benefit is there to committing considerable time and expense to an appeal, when the powers of the Planning Inspectorate are proposed to so undermined? Likewise, what alternative is there if sustainable development and positive growth is to be maintained, in light of the ongoing serious housing crisis and the economic recession?
In reality, it is hard to see the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill gaining Royal Assent this Parliament, and so it would seem that this is it: the 2019-2024 Government’s contribution to the planning system – launched with the fanfare of the 2020 Planning White Paper, reduced to little more than a surrender to NIMBYs.
Elizabeth is a Director in Boyer’s Colchester office. She has over 23 years’ experience gained in both the public and private sectors. Prior to joining Boyer in 2021, she spent 12 years at East Suffolk Council, latterly heading up the Development Management and Specialist Services team. Elizabeth has experience of managing and delivering complex and major developments across both the south east and northern England. She also has experience of planning enforcement and the appeals process including giving evidence at Hearings and Public Inquiry.