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The modified National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) passes into law

Planning portal: Understanding the new local plans is the first step to influencing them, says Michael West

The excitement generated by the government’s ‘planning revolution’ has somewhat abated as the modified National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) passes into law. Planning minister Greg Clark announced that of the 35 changes to the draft document recommended by the communities and local government committee late last year, 30 had been adopted in the new rule book. Concerns remain about, for instance, the protection of ancient woodland, recalling the government’s earlier foray into the proposed sale of Forestry Commission land. But, just as that proposal was withdrawn after protest, the NPPF has been significantly modified in response to consultation.

Particular alarm had been sounded last year at the prospect of ‘default permissions’ arising, from 1 April, where the absence of a local plan could leave planning authorities powerless to resist development. A transition period of 12 months has now been put in place, during which local plans will supposedly be prepared or brought up to date. Shaun Spiers of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has rightly said that this timescale will pose ‘a serious challenge’ to many councils. Past experience would suggest that little short of a magic wand will be needed to accelerate the due process of consideration, consultation and review, wherever the statutory requirements are not already far advanced towards an approved local plan.

In the meantime, the government’s Localism Act has set in train a vast new small-scale framework of democratically arrived at Neighbourhood Development Plans (NDPs). These are to be prepared by volunteers of each town and parish council, or Neighbourhood Forum, guided and assisted by professional officers of the Local Planning Authority (LPA). These plans are to be statutory documents (unlike the earlier Parish Plans) and must conform with the LPA’s District or Borough Plan. Where that local plan has yet to be adopted, it is likely that the overriding pressure upon council officers will be for its urgent completion. In departments depleted through straitened circumstances, there may prove to be scant time available for the new and unfamiliar guidance of NDPs.

To inform rural communities where town and parish councils are now empowered to prepare their own statutory NDP, the CPRE and the National Association of Local Councils have published a booklet entitled ‘How to shape where you live: a guide to neighbourhood planning’. This provides a step-by-step explanation of the plan preparation and includes references to how the neighbourhood will look focusing on building materials and the scale, type and mix of development.

At a well-attended seminar for councillors in Suffolk last month, an early question was how much preparation of an NDP would cost? A sharp intake of breath at the answer: ‘up to £200,000’, although maybe only a tenth of that for a small parish. However, each plan, large or small, will be subject to a referendum upon completion, prior to adoption. It seems likely that any draft NDP which omits some reasoned presentation of three-dimensional guidance may be doomed to failure at the referendum. The innate conservatism of parochial communities might spawn ‘mini design guides’, bringing to mind the Essex Design Guide, much criticised as a dead hand upon creativity but originally intended to moderate the ‘one size fits all’ of house building to layouts dictated by highway engineers.

Is this the opportunity for architects in domestic practice across the country to re-connect with town planning? Certainly the RIBA exhibition A Place to Call Home(AJ 01.03.12) is exceptionally topical, reminding us of the inspired Eric Lyons and the incomparable Walter Segal: surely a man for these sustainable times!

Michael West is architect town planner at West & Partners and was previously a Suffolk parish councillor for 40 years.You can download ‘How to shape where you live’ at www.planninghelp.org.uk

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