Never before has planning attracted so much attention from the press. Over the past few months, headlines in various newspaper have declared ‘Hands Off Our Land’ and in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins described the planning reforms as a ‘recipe for civil war’.
So what’s all the fuss about and are we really about to see England’s green and pleasant land destroyed by development?
Let’s start by discussing what the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is and why it is so important. Planning law states that planning applications must be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise. The development plan is currently made up of a range of documents including Planning Policy Statements (PPS) and Planning Policy Guidance (PPG) drafted by the government to offer guidance on matters such as development in the green belt, housing, and sustainable development in rural areas. The next tier of planning policy is regional policy, known as Regional Spatial Strategies. At local level, the planning policies drafted by the council in its local plan will also be taken into account.
This is all set to change. The Localism Bill, in line with the government’s commitment to de-centralise the planning system and give councils and local communities greater power in the planning system, will abolish Regional Spatial Strategies. At local level, a new tier of policy will emerge known as neighbourhood planning. This will enable each neighbourhood to plan development in its area that can go beyond the development envisaged by the council’s local plan. In determining planning applications and preparing both neighbourhood plans and local plans, there must be regard for the policies in the NPPF.
The vast majority of PPS, PPG and planning circulars will be replaced with the draft NPPF, streamlining over 1000 pages of policy guidance into a single 58 page document. The draft is currently subject to a public consultation period, which closes on 17 October. The significant culling of existing planning policy is designed to ensure that the system is made easier for local communities to understand and engage with.
It’s the presumption in favour of sustainable development in the NPPF that’s causing the controversy. It states that councils should plan positively for new development and approve proposals where possible. Countryside protection groups see this as a threat to the open countryside, which they argue will succumb to market forces. This presumption is subject, however, to a caveat that where the adverse impact of the proposal outweighs the benefits when assessed against the NPPF as a whole, it should not apply.
The remainder of the NPPF outlines guidance on a range of matters, such as the historic environment. Currently Planning Policy Statement 5: Planning for the Historic Environment (PPS 5) sets out guidance relating to heritage assets, including listed buildings, conservation areas, scheduled monuments and World Heritage Sites. 18 pages of PPS 5 have been reduced to two and a half pages in the draft NPPF, and heritage groups are concerned about the watering down of the protection of historic sites. While PPS 5 refers to a presumption in favour of the conservation of designated heritage assets, the NPPF refers to the ‘considerable importance and weight’ that should be given to its conservation. Some have argued that the protection has been watered down to counteract those councils that slavishly adhered to the presumption in favour of conservation by refusing consent for development that seeks to revive and reuse listed buildings in need of repair.
There is also criticism that the NPPF fails to offer any policy guidance for developments that require minor or moderate harm to listed buildings, which account for the majority of listed building applications. Currently PPS 5 considers ‘less than substantial harm’ and requires that the public benefit of the proposal be weighed against the potential harm to the listed building.
In respect of housing, councils are expected to earmark additional land. The current policy states that councils must identify and maintain a five-year rolling supply of land for affordable housing. The NPPF maintains this but adds a further 20 per cent ‘to ensure choice and competition in the market for land’. Housebuilders have welcomed this pro-development stance in light of the desperate shortage of affordable housing.
The Department of Communities and Local Government hope to publish the final version of the NPPF by the end of this year, but in the meantime the debate between the government and countryside protection groups will continue.
Karen Phull is a partner at Farrer & Co specialising in planning law