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WHAT HAS ACTUALLY CHANGED? - a perspective on the matter.

The NPPF was published on 27th March and immediately came into effect, consigning the entire suite of Government Planning Policy Guidance [PPGs] & Planning Policy Statements [PPSs] to the waste bin, together with associated ministerial statements, Circulars and minerals policy guidance.

Inevitably, there has been much speculation in both the national media and specialist professional publications on the likely consequences of these sweeping changes, much of it ill-informed, inaccurate or heavily biased toward the interests of the target readership. In this brief summary we will seek to dispel the myths and get to the heart of what the NPPF really means for all forms of development in England [not Wales or Scotland].

When the draft NPPF was published in mid-2011, the greatest area of debate [or outright opposition in many cases] was the introduction of a‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. The presumption has now been clarified by the specification that ‘sustainable development’ comprises three separate, but linked, roles – economic, social & environmental – but with none of these being undertaken in isolation. This explanation, [together with a direct reference to the five ‘guiding principles’ of sustainable development set out in the UK Sustainable Development Strategy], appears to have calmed the concern about the presumption overriding local planning policies.

In truth, the opinions of various commentators matters little; the most authoritative source of information has to be the text of the speech by the Planning Minister, Greg Clark MP, when he commended the NPPF to the members of the House of Commons. He said:

“Our reforms to planning policy have three fundamental objectives:

1. To put unprecedented power in the hands of communities to shape the places in which they live;

2. To better support growth to give the next generation the chance that our generation has had to have a decent home, and to allow the jobs to be created on which our prosperity depends; and

3. To ensure that the places we cherish - our countryside, towns and cities - are bequeathed to the next generation in a better condition than they are now.”

To that end, Mr Clark highlighted a number of specific elements in the NPPF, including:

o the local plan is the keystone of the planning system

o the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development ‘ which should work through local plans;

o sustainable development should embrace social and environmental as well as economic objectives and do so in a balanced way;

o relevant environmental policies - such as those protecting the Green Belt, SSSIs, National Parks and other areas - cannot be overridden by this presumption;

o the intrinsic value and beauty of the countryside is recognised;

o councils' policies must encourage brownfield sites to be brought back into use;

o the importance of town centres is underlined while also recognising that businesses in rural communities

should be free to expand;

o Council’s should create a buffer of housing land supply over and above five years;

o ‘Windfall’ sites may be included in the housing land supply where evidence clearly demonstrates that they represent a realistic and consistent source of housing land;

o residential garden land remains outside the definition of previously developed land [brownfield]; and

o playing fields will continue to benefit from the same protection that they did previously.

So, that was Greg Clark’s view, but what did other commentators think? The Times columnist seemed to be under the impression that everything in the NPPF is new Government policy, while The Daily Telegraph’s immediate reaction was: “Planning changes could lead to development not seen since 1930s. Councils have 12 months to defend land against development and planning applications will be 'slammed in' under the new rules”. This seems to be a gross over-reaction to a policy document that principally condenses and re-focuses previous Government guidance in PPGs and PPSs and contains little that is actually new.

Perhaps the most authoritative clarification is found in the formal guidance provided by The Planning Inspectorate [PINS] to its inspectors, who will be charged with interpreting and applying NPPF policies on the ground when determining planning appeals and assessing the ‘soundness’ of draft local plans upon which the planning system is founded. The PINS advice note lists the principal policy changes in the NPPF as:

o Introduction of the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.

o Removal of small scale rural office development from ‘town centre first’ policy.

o For major town centre uses where the full impact will not be realised within 5 years, impacts should also be assessed for a period of up to 10 years.

o Removal of the maximum non-residential car parking standards for major developments.

o Removal of the national brownfield target for housing development.

o Requirement on local planning authorities to allocate and annually update a 5-year supply of housing sites with at least a 5% buffer (moved forward from later in plan period) in all cases and a 20% buffer (moved forward from later in plan period) where they have a record of persistent under-delivery.

o Removal of the national minimum site size threshold for requiring affordable housing [previously 15 units].

o Flexibility in the delivery of rural housing to reflect local needs [possibly involving some market housing].

o Increased protection for community facilities [shops, pubs, sports clubs, village halls, etc.].

o Minor changes to the detail of Green Belt policy, [including greater scope for infilling and re-development of brownfield sites].

o Requirement on local planning authorities in their local plans to take a strategic approach to the creation, protection, enhancement and management of biodiversity networks and green infrastructure.

o Designation within local plans of local sites of importance for wildlife, geodiversity or landscape character, and clarification of which wildlife sites should have same protection as European sites.

As Greg Clark has stressed, it is now vital that Councils press ahead with their core strategies [now re-styled as local plans] which under the Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act, 2004 should have been in place by the end of 2009 but to date have only been adopted by around 40% of local planning authorities. Mr Clark clearly stated that Neighbourhood Plans must reflect adopted local plans and cannot propose less development than or contradict local plan policies.

Any planning applications that accord with the development plan should now be approved “without delay”; alternatively, they should be approved where the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out-of-date, unless any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the NPPF taken as a whole, or where specific NPPF policies indicate development should be restricted.

Whether that message is absorbed and acted upon by local authority planners and elected members will ultimately determine how successful the NPPF is in bringing forward development of all types in the coming months and years.



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