The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was published on 27 March 2012, just over a year ago. It replaced thousands of pages of guidance with around 60 pages and promised a step change in the efficiency of the planning system. How has it fared over the past year?
The first anniversary is significant because the government gave local authorities a year from the date that the NPPF came into force to get their local plans up to date or face their policies being overridden (see paragraph 214 of the NPPF). Help was offered by the Department for Communities and Local Government to achieve this.
How have local authorities responded to this pressure? Based on data gathered by Planning Magazine, at the date of the NPPF coming into force last year, 123 local authorities out of 326 had adopted local plans in place, or 37.7%. Since then just 24 authorities have adopted their plans, bringing the total to 147, or 45%. The pressure doesn't seem to have had much effect - in the year before the NPPF came into force 38 authorities adopted their plans, so the rate of adoption has gone down.
The effect of overriding is spelt out in paragraph 14 of the NPPF, namely:
For decision-taking this means ... where the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out-of-date, granting permission unless:– any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole; or– specific policies in this Framework indicate development should be restricted.
Thus since 27 March 2013, the NPPF is able to override the 179 local plans that are not yet up to date.
NPPF and housing
One of the main purposes of the NPPF was to boost housing provision. How has housing fared in the last year?
According to research by Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners, the proportion of large (more than 50 unit) housing schemes refused by local authorities but then granted on appeal has gone up from 54% to 65% of all refusals since the NPPF was published. Greg Clark, the planning minister at the time, said recently that the number of new homes being granted planning permission has gone up by 25%. I'm not sure where he got that figure from, but it could be correct if the number receiving planning permission in the first place has gone up as well as successful appeals. Also the percentage of appeals does not necessarily reflect the number of houses since different applications could involve greatly differing numbers of housing unit.
The NPPF is having an effect on housing policy too. While local authorities have sought to reduce housing targets in their local plans compared with the nearly-all-abolished regional strategies, they have had to put them up again for their plans to be found 'sound'. According to more NLP research, of an admittedly small number, 14 out of 18 plans found sound since the NPPF came in now have targets above the regional strategy targets and the other four have lower targets.
Unfortunately, the increase in permissions and policy allocations is not translating into an increase in construction: government statistics are that spending on construction of new housing fell by 6.7% between the fourth quarter of 2011 and the fourth quarter of 2012 - that is my interpretation of Table 2 in the spreadsheet to the right.
NPPF and the Planning Act
The NPPF does not contain policies directed at nationally significant infrastructure projects governed by the Planning Act (see paragraph 3), but the NPPF is nevertheless likely to be considered 'important and relevant' enough to carry weight when decisions are made on Planning Act projects. Conformity - or not - with the NPPF is likely to be conveyed via any planning statement issued by the promoter and Local Impact Reports submitted by local authorities.
There is an interesting difference between the test for NSIP applications under the Planning Act 2008 and for conventional planning applications under the NPPF. The Planning Act says that consent should not be given if the adverse impacts of the project outweigh the benefits. The NPPF says that consent should not be given if the adverse impacts would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits.
The balance under the Planning Act seems to be even, whereas the balance under the NPPF requires much more in the adverse impact pan of the scales before it tips in their favour.
The NPPF does seem to be having - or contributing to - a positive effect on planning applications for housing. The real test, however, will not be its first year of operation but its second year, when the 55% of local authorities who do not have up-to-date local plans face their policies being overridden by the NPPF.