New National Planning Policy Framework

You have to build a house before you can sell it, so conveyancing specialists will understandably be keen to know whether the Government’s newly published National Planning Policy Framework (“the NPPF”, July 2018) is going to facilitate the delivery of the new housing the country so badly needs. 

The NPPF – which replaces the previous version published in March 2012 –  is not just about housing – it sets out the Government’s planning policy as to how sustainable development across the board should be planned for how planning applications proposing development of all kinds should be determined.  But its success or failure will surely be judged by whether it delivers a step-change in housing delivery.   

The Government’s oft repeated mantra is that our housing market is broken.  So it needs promulgate policy designed to facilitate the delivery of huge number of new homes. But new housing is often hugely contentious, with locals unhappy when they feel new housing is being imposed on them. 

So, the challenge for the Government has been to ensure that wherever possible development should come forward in a planned way, in order to secure local buy-in.  But at the same time it has to ensure that if those plans fail housing schemes can still be considered and delivered in a sustainable way. 

Step 1 is easy: the NPPF tells each Local Planning Authority to prepare a development plan that sets out how the Council is going to meet the need for new housing in its area.  The draft plan is subject to extensive public consultation and is only adopted following sign off by an independent Planning Inspector.  The plan has to be subject to regular review to keep it up to date.  The NPPF makes it clear that planning application that proposes development in accordance with an up to date development plan should be approved without delay.  This is the first part of the “presumption in favour of sustainable development” that the Government has put at the heart of the NPPF.  So far, so simple.  But it depends of course on Local Planning Authorities preparing and maintaining up to date plans, and many authorities have failed to do this. 

Step 2 is more complicated. It arises where the Council hasn’t got a plan in place, or where it does have a plan but the plan’s policies are out of date.  In this situation that Government’s policy is that planning permission should be granted unless the policies in the NPPF that are designed to protect specific areas of assets (e.g. the Green Belt, Listed Buildings) provide a clear reason for refusing the development, or if the harm the development would cause would “significantly and demonstrably” outweigh the benefits it would deliver, when judged against the policies in the NPPF taken as a whole.  This is the second part of the presumption in favour of sustainable development – designed to tilt the balance in favour of the developer when the Council’s plan is not fit for purpose.  

But will it deliver more houses? The answer is that it should. This is because the NPPF contains new provisions which stipulate that the Council’s housing policies will be out of date – and thus the titled balance will be engaged – in the event that the Council cannot show that it has a five year supply of housing land and /or it has delivered less than 75% of its housing needs over the previous three year period.  There are thus stark consequences in the event that an areas housing needs are not being appropriately planned for or met, i.e. housing is more likely to come forward in areas where the Council/locals do not want it. 

Crucially though, this won’t be a recipe for a free-for-all, because the Government has taken steps to strengthen the role of neighbourhood plans – i.e. local development plans typically prepared by the parish council or other local body and a central plank of the localism agenda.  The NPPF specifically states that the tilted balance is unlikely to be struck in the developer’s favour if there is a neighbourhood plan in place that is less than two years old and which makes provision to meet the plan’s housing need and where the Council can show a three year (as opposed to a five year) housing land supply and where it has delivered at least 45% of its housing target over the previous three years.  In this way, the Government is aiming to give locals a meaningful voice over development in their area.  Neighbourhood plans are a powerful tool. 

And so, overall, the NPPF adopts a carrot and stick approach: housing should come forward in a planned way, but where those plans break down permission should be granted unless there is a very good reason to refuse consent.  The new regime should move more houses more quickly.  If this doesn’t work it is difficult to see where the Government goes next, without direct market intervention. 

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