Why everyone should comment on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) consultation

Launched on the 22nd December, (and how many times have applicants been criticised for submitting applications just before Christmas?) the consultation sets out shorter term proposed changes to the NPPF along with longer terms changes via the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill (and even more changes to the NPPF later down the line).

Focusing just on the NPPF amendments, there have been many excellent articles, blogs,
webinars, and podcasts summarising and discussing the changes. The most insightful so far
has been the Clubhouse discussion hosted by Simon Ricketts of Town Legal, the Chief
Planner Joanne Averley's appearance on Have We Got Planning News For You, and the
ongoing LinkedIn posts from Chris Young KC (I highly recommend checking these out).
Having read and listened over the last few weeks, and with a specific focus on housing, for
me the most concerning changes are as follows:

1. Local Plans no longer need to be justified.

Key paragraph(s) – 35.b)
Implications – Under the current NPPF plans are only 'sound' if they are positively prepared, justified, effective, and consistent with national policy. 'Justified' refers specially to “an appropriate strategy taking into account reasonable alternatives and based on proportionate evidence”. The amended version proposes to delete this requirement entirely.

Now, I totally agree that evidential requirements should be proportionate (this change is meant to reduce the burden of evidence and speed up the process) but how can an Inspector examining a plan or a third-party representor consider the validity of a plan or proposed policy if it does not need to be justified by evidence?

Joanne Averley was asked this question directly in the context of departing from the standard method housing number and she said that any departure would still need to be justified. However, that is not what the amended NPPF says and, without this requirement, how can anyone effectively challenge what is set out in a Local Plan?

2. Preserving rather than looking forward.

Key paragraph(s) – 11.b) ii. / 61 / 67 / 142
Implications – The primacy of the standard method in setting housing need is weakened in the draft, it is now expressly only an “advisory starting point” which can be departed from in exceptional circumstances. These exceptional circumstances include the particular characteristics of an authority and where meeting that need “would mean building at densities significantly out of character with the existing area”.

Not only does this raise questions about how you define the area and what characteristics need to be considered but, more fundamentally, it smacks of preserving places in aspic (a phrase I have heard used more than once) rather than looking forward at growth and change. Any new development will of course inherently change the character of a site but where will the line be drawn on how far  out that change can extend before it falls foul of the exceptional circumstances 'get  out' clause?

Linked to this is the removal of any requirement to review green belt boundaries to meet housing need. For many authorities, green belt release is the only way current housing numbers could be met and removing the obligation to review boundaries, again preserving things as they are, is looking in the wrong direction. Of course, Councils can still choose to review and release green belt sites, but will Members be brave enough to do so?

3. Weakening of the tilted balance.

Key paragraph(s) – 11.d) / footnote 9 / 75 / 77 / footnote 49 / Annex 1 226
Implications – Together, the proposed changes significantly reduce when the titled balance will apply through the following:

  • removing the 5-year supply requirement when a plan is up to date or has been reviewed and found to not need updating;
  • entirely removing the need for buffers;
  • enabling overperformance in terms of permissions granted to be taken into account; and
  • strengthening the status of neighbourhood plans.

While the principle of allowing a new or up to date plan to be protected against the titled balance is not in itself objectional, the whole idea behind the titled balance was to enable housing delivery when the plan led system or actual delivery levels had failed. National delivery continues to fall short of the target of 300,000 houses per annum, even with the tilted balance applying in more cases. It is hard to see how weakening the tilted balance will achieve greater delivery.

We must ask ourselves is the aim of national planning policy the adoption of local plans or the delivery of housing? If the former, then once a plan is adopted the job is done. If the latter, then there needs to be some measure of performance and a backup plan for when that performance fails.

4. Adding the concept of Beauty as a benchmark.

Key paragraph(s) – 20 / 94 / 126 / Chapter 12
Implications – While no one would argue against design quality, and many developments can be criticised for their poor appearance and lack of character, adding such a subjective concept as a benchmark is perplexing. How is beauty measured when it comes to built development? What is beautiful to one person will be the exact opposite to another (mansard roofs being an obvious example).

Further, beauty does not necessarily mean good, something could be considered beautiful but could be poorly located or not function well, a building can be beautiful on the outside but of poor quality on the inside.

Requiring development to be beautiful also comes from a flawed assumption that only ugly development is resisted but beautiful development will be welcomed. We all know this is not the case.

This is of course just a snapshot but, overall, the proposed changes seemingly water down what was once a bold and strongly worded document. Believing that residents will welcome new homes if they are beautiful and giving them more control ignores the reality we see every day.

So, is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Well, maybe.

At the end of the day this is a consultation and Joanne Averley specifically encouraged the development industry to comment but, crucially, also provide evidence of the potential impacts. This is the key bit. It's not enough just to say anecdotally that housing will be reduced, the Government needs evidence and data. How many allocated sites are overturned by Members against officer recommendation? How many examples are there of cases where perceived conflict with local character and density has led to a refusal? How many houses will be lost if allocations in the green belt or other designated areas are taken out? How much delay is caused by the failure of Councils to engage or determine planning conditions? Facts and figures that cannot be ignored are what is needed to challenge the proposed changes.

The consultation document sets out 58 questions and we have until 11:45pm on the 2nd March 2023, so for all our sakes, let's get involved!

For more information, please contact:
Samantha Thomas MRTPI
Associate Director
Tel: 07821 679721
Email: samantha.thomas@carneysweeney.co.uk 
Address: Broadwalk House, Southernhay West, Exeter, EX1 1TS