Wednesday 25 April 2012

Review: National Planning Policy Framework 2012

Reading government policy is not quite as enjoyable and easy as the book I reviewed on Monday, but nonetheless worth looking through.

The National Planning Policy Framework is a document recently adopted by the coalition government as requirements for the UK planning system. It revokes and replaces 44 government documents that had previously made up the nation's planning policy, cutting down over a thousand pages of policy to a manageable 50 or so.

A Controversial Policy

There was great concern when the first revision of the document was published from organisations and individuals who thought that the government's "presumption in favour of sustainable growth" would be a free ticket for developers to build whatever the hell they liked, provided they could justify that the "benefits" outweigh the "adverse impacts" in terms of "sustainable economic growth".  You can see why they had problems with it from this passage:
Local planning authorities should: ...
  • grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date.
All of these policies should apply unless the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole.
Thankfully, they revised it, and now the clause in question reads:
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; or
    • 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  • where the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out-of-date, granting permission unless: 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.
This managed to persuade environmental and historic interest organisations (such as the National Trust) to accept it, and most of them have now withdrawn their complaints.

What does the NPPF actually say?

The National Planning Policy Framework's clauses are often open for a lot of interpretation.  The benefits of this, in my opinion, are that it prevents bureaucrats from picking up on minute details of planning policy and blowing them out of all proportion, and it also leaves lots of flexibility for different strategies to be taken by councils and developers in different parts of the country, where the economic, environmental, or social requirements of the area may be different.

I'll use one of the "Core Planning Principles" (clause 17) as an example (and one that is particularly relevant to us transitioners!):
[Planning should] support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate, taking full account of flood risk and coastal change, and encourage the reuse of existing resources, including conversion of existing buildings, and encourage the use of renewable resources (for example, by the development of renewable energy) 
This, I'm sure you'll agree, is a very noble piece of policy, and one that most of us would support wholeheartedly. It is also flexible enough to allow for areas in question to prioritise different aspects of climate change depending on the risk of the location to flood risk, for example, or the number of existing buildings that the area has.

But at the same time it's a bit woolly, for exactly the same reason. Whether a particular local authority does prioritise one aspect of a "low carbon future" over another is seemingly up to them, and could cause undesirable consequences if they put too much emphasis on one thing over another, as they may be persuaded to if they are threatened by lobbying interests, or influential media coverage.

Approval for housing developments, for example, is one of those things that will be different depending on the strength of the local authority's plans.  If the local plan comes to the conclusion that housing developments are fine, and all other conditions are met, we could see housing developments sweep through towns, but if the Local Plan limits new housing development, then even developments with strong sustainability credentials may struggle to get through.

So will this policy guarantee us sustainable development?

The strength of this new policy is based on the fact that it hands much of the power and responsibility for planning back to local authorities (where, in my opinion, it belongs), by stating that local plans should be made, and that these plans should reflect the particular needs of the community, as well as be in line with national policy (i.e. the NPPF document itself).

With this power in the hands of the local authorities, we then rely upon the strength of those particular authorities to create plans and implement them in a balanced manner. Whilst in theory the policy ought to give councils the power to challenge controversial projects, it may also leave a lot of scope for dubious projects to fall through the cracks where the council does not have the resources to create a detailed enough Local Plan (particularly an issue when budgets are being cut back).

What difference does this all make to me?

For those submitting planning applications, they should be granted quicker where they are in line with the Local Plan, and should be slower and harder to achieve if they are not in line with local plans.

But even if you do not ever wish to file an application, there are a couple of big changes that the framework represents, even if most of the time you won't notice them. Local authorities, holding more responsibility, should be more vocal about what local plans are, and how they are changing, as these are now the documents determining whether an application should be approved or not.  Hopefully politicians will woo voters by indicating what they hope to prioritise in local plans, and voters will hold them accountable to what they promise.

I have yet to read the more detailed clauses (I've only got to page 12 so far!), but I'm sure this won't be the last you hear from me on the NPPF!

Images: The National Trust's "Planning for People" campaign, that led the fight for rewriting the NPPF; Save Hethersett campaign image from

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