The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) came into existence in April 2012 and saw planning law changed with the aim of speeding up decisions and boosting housebuilding. The DCLG Select Committee inquiry report into how the NPPF is working in practice was published on 16 December 2014 (the Report). The Committee sought evidence particularly on the impact of the NPPF on planning for housing, town centres and energy infrastructure.
A statutory requirement
The Committee's recommendation, already referred to above, is clear that Government should introduce a statutory requirement on councils to have an adopted local plan in place within three years of the legislation coming into force, together with possible penalties for non-compliance.
As the NPPF is clear that local plans should be the starting point for decision-making and that for a plan-led system to work plans need to be in place. The Committee noted its frustration with Ministers lack of focus on the proportion of adopted plans. Only 21% of LPAs have adopted their local plans since the introduction of the NPPF. Out of the twenty largest LAs in England, only eight have adopted plans, with just four of these having been adopted post the NPPF.
The Committee observed that Councils should treat planning as a front line service and should ensure that resources are channelled not only into development control but also into proactive plan making.
The Report recommends an amendment of the NPPF (3) to make clear to LAs that they should be looking to reduce the complexity and increase the accessibility of their local plans, and that this should be accompanied by guidance about the key elements plans should contain. The Committee also considers that the process for producing a plan could be streamlined and accelerated if councils made the plans more strategic, and did not seek to include unnecessary amounts of detail; plans should be 'succint'.
PINS to consider innovative and flexible approaches to local plan examination process
The Committee also suggests that the Government look again at the local plan examination process and that it consults on options to allow for the partial adoption of local plans, if necessary through a change in statute. Pending this the Report suggests that PINS should do what it can within the existing framework to ensure LAs do not find themselves in the frustrating position of having their plans found unsound. In particular, inspectors should give councils maximum advice during the early stages of plan production, and should be encouraged to consider the potential for innovative and flexible approaches that will enable councils to get their plans adopted, even if the need for an early review is identified.
Responsibilities of developers
In light of some of the evidence received by the Committee it is of the view that it would also be helpful if the NPPF drew attention to the responsibilities of developers, and recommends an amendment to the NPPF (4) to include a section setting out the expected responsibilities of developers.
Expedited light touch review of all aspects of local plans
The Committee observed that PINS issued guidance to help LAs (whose plans were published ahead of March 2012) to carry out a fast track review to ensure compliance with the NPPF. The Report seeks to expand this offer a means for LAs to conduct a fast track review of all parts of the local plan, including key elements such as housing and employment strategy. The Report recommends strengthening the NPPF (5) to make clear that, as a matter of good practice, LAs should review their local plans regularly to ensure they are up-to-date, and calls on Government and PINS to develop an expedited process to ensure LAs are able to carry out a light touch review of all aspects of their plans.
Duty to co-operate
The Committee considers that evidence shows that the aspiration that LPAs should work collaboratively to ensure that strategic priorities are properly coordinated and clearly reflected in local plans is not always being delivered in practice. The Report makes the following recommendations for meeting the duty to co-operate:
- that as part of the recommended consultation on local plans, the Government consult on options for incentivising LAs to meet the duty to co-operate and penalties for failure to do so;
- for Government and PINs to draw councils’ attention to examples of good practice and encourage LA groups to produce joint core strategies;
- for Government to place a duty on combined authorities to co-ordinate the production of a joint core strategy for their area;
- that by March 2015 the Government issue clearer guidance on what constitutes co-operation.
The Committee is supportive of neighbourhood plans, and commends those communities who have got, or are working to get, a neighbourhood plan adopted. But, the Committee was concerned, that the take-up of neighbourhood planning appeared to be more prevalent in affluent areas than deprived ones. It recommends that the Government take steps to promote and support neighbourhoods particularly those areas with significant levels of deprivation.
The Report includes the finding that the policy on the interaction between neighbourhood plans and local plans is far from clear. The Committee was concerned that when neighbourhood plans are produced before the local plan, they could set out allocations that do not meet the needs the local plan subsequently identifies for the wider area. In such cases, the Committee felt that the NPPF statement that local plans should reflect priorities contained in any neighbourhood plans could leave the LA hamstrung. The Report recommends that the Government consult on how the relationship between neighbourhood plans and local plans could be clarified and that this consultation should include the option that neighbourhood plans should not be adopted until an adopted local plan is in place.
If neighbourhood planning were to follow the logical process of working in conformity with the local plan, then it may be easier for house builders and developers to follow the call of the Committee and work with communities to ensure that development meets local needs.