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A new era for housing? 10 things we learned about the planning shake-up

Prime minister theresa may on barratt construction site
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The AJ unpicks Theresa May’s draft proposals to revise the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and linked measures to increase the number of new homes

1. Housing numbers

Having rejected the idea of centralised targets under the coalition government, documents released alongside the draft revised NPPF propose to strip local authorities of the power to assess their own housing needs. It proposes a centrally determined methodology for deciding on housing need based on a formula taking into consideration local house prices, wages and projected household growth. The resulting increase in planned housing numbers will be capped based on figures in existing local plans, ‘to ensure the method is deliverable’.

John Acres, president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, said: ‘The sharp focus in [yesterday’s] draft on increasing housing supply and on local plans will help to speed things up and bring more certainty to the market. But questions remain whether these changes go far enough to ensure that housing is sustainably located and of sufficient quality and diversity, developed where it is needed most, supported by the necessary infrastructure, and whether authorities have the resources on the ground to deliver.’

2. Design

The draft revised NPPF strengthens requirements for good design, saying that local plans drawn up by councils should set out a ‘clear design vision and expectations’. These should be supported by visual tools including design guides and codes. It also reflects a suggestion in the housing White Paper that assessment frameworks such as Building for Life should form part of local authorities’ toolkits for assessing design. The document also places greater importance on the pre-application discussion process for securing good design. Finally, it says that great weight should be given to ‘outstanding or innovative designs which promote high levels of sustainability or help raise the standard of design more generally in an area’, as long as they are ‘sensitive to the overall form and layout of their surroundings’.

RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said: ‘The NPPF makes numerous positive suggestions that will support the ambitions of architects and developers to build more high-quality, sustainable and affordable new homes.’

3. Viability assessments

The government has gone some way to replicating the new approach to viability assessments adopted by London mayor Sadiq Khan. The government proposes that applications meeting all relevant policies in a local plan, there is no need for an assessment. However, unlike the approach taken in London, there is no mention of getting tougher on scrutinising viability assessments submitted on schemes which fail to meet local plan requirements. But it does, in line with Khan’s approach, propose making all such assessments publicly available.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: ‘We’ve been campaigning long and hard on viability assessments – a tool exploited by developers to wriggle out of building their fair share of affordable homes – so we’re pleased the government is listening, and taking steps to close the loophole.’

4. Town centres

In an attempt to shore up declining town centres, the draft NPPF proposes clarifying the ‘sequential approach’ to development, which aims to direct development away from out-of-town sites. It says town centre or edge-of-centre sites do not have to be immediately available for them to be suitable alternatives to those further out. The government also proposes removing the current requirement for impact assessments on office schemes outside town centres.

5. Densities

In an attempt to ensure that better use is made of land – particularly in high-demand areas where sites are more scarce, the government proposes to take a tougher approach on density. It proposes rules to avoid low-density development, giving greater weight to the value of using brownfield land for housing, making more use of empty space above shops and making it easier to convert shops and offices to housing. It also proposes minimum density standards for town and city centres and around transport hubs where there is a shortage of land for development. Councils would be given greater backing to refuse applications which fail to make the best use of land.

6. Rooftop extensions

As part of the proposals to make better use of land, the draft text also proposes that councils should allow upward extensions on top of existing homes. These would be allowed if the extensions were consistent with existing heights in the neighbourhood, comply with local design policies, and can maintain safe access for occupiers. However, the government also says that it is considering an idea that it previously came out against – extending permitted development rights to these rooftop extensions.

7. Green belt

The government has not given in to pressure from parts of the development sector for a significant relaxation of current green belt protections. However, new wording would allow for brownfield land in the green belt to be used for affordable housing, so long as there is no harm to ‘openness’. It also makes it clear that green belt land can be used for burial grounds, allotments and rural exception housing sites.

I’d rather see an ugly power station replaced with attractive housing than a wood concreted over

Theresa May: ‘I’d rather see an ugly, disused power station demolished and replaced with attractive housing than a wood or open field concreted over – even if the former is in the green belt and the latter is not.’

8. World Heritage Sites

Following a number of well-publicised spats in Liverpool, the government has revised the NPPF’s wording to clarify that the ‘outstanding universal value’ of World Heritage Sites should be taken into consideration by planners. It also says that decision-makers should give great weight to conserving such sites, irrespective of whether the potential harm is ‘less than substantial’ or not.

9. Small sites

The draft text proposes that councils should ensure at least 20 per cent of the sites allocated for housing in their local plans are 0.5ha or smaller. However, the government says it is open to views on whether a broader approach should be taken to promote more medium-sized sites and to prevent the slowing of plan production. It asks for views on the percentage proposed and whether the approach should be finessed to cover just those sites included on authorities’ brownfield registers.

Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders said: ‘Small sites tend to deliver more quickly and smaller builders, for whom short-term financing is more of a concern, have every incentive to build and sell quickly. More opportunities for these smaller developments will diversify the market, boost capacity and speed up delivery.’

10. Planning fees

In a document released alongside the proposed changes to the NPPF, the government suggests an increase of 20 per cent on the level of planning fees for ‘local planning authorities who are delivering the homes their communities need’. The increased payment for developers would be in addition to a blanket 20 per cent rise already introduced. Consultations will now begin on how the measure would be applied.

The government will consult on the proposed changes to the NPPF over the next two months.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • MacKenzie Architects

    The Planning fees should be higher, but be tied to an eight-week turnaround, and all the useless clutter of reports demanded, should be simplified to a single paragraph for each except in objectively obvious cases.

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  • Developers will be refused permission if they haven’t packed enough homes on the land? There is about as much danger of that happening as there is of a child refusing a lollipop.

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