As the Localism Bill continues its passage through Parliament and some local authorities are left pondering the legality of their attempts to pull back from the RSS housing numbers in the light of the Court of Appeal’s latest decision in the Cala Homes saga, two recent publications offer the tantalising prospect of the most pro-growth agenda for the planning system in decades.

In December last year Greg Clark, Minister for Decentralisation and Planning, announced a review of all existing central government planning policy with a view to replacing all policy statements, circulars and guidance with a single simpler National Planning Policy Framework (‘NPPF’). At the same time, he invited representatives of the development industry, local government and the green lobby to provide a practitioner’s perspective on what the NPPF should look like.

The end result of the group’s deliberations has now been published in the form of a proposed draft of the NPPF and its content is nothing short of radical. It builds on the strongly pro-growth ‘Planning for Growth’ statement issued with the Budget in March and allays many of the industry’s fears about localism.

The full document can be found at www.nppfpractitionersadvisorygroup.org but some of its highlights are:

The presumption in favour of sustainable development The proposed draft NPPF offers a broad definition of sustainable development, encompassing economic and social sustainability as well as the more traditional concept of environmental sustainability. This puts economic growth and the needs of communities on an equal footing with the low carbon agenda and at the very heart of what the planning system should be seeking to deliver.

The draft then makes it clear that the presumption requires local planning policy to properly meet the objectively assessed development needs of the community and for development proposals that accord with such policies to be approved. Significantly, the draft also proposes that where planning policies are out of date or unclear on a particular development proposal, approval should be granted if it meets these sustainaibility tests.

An enhanced five year land supply The requirement for local planning authorities to maintain a five year supply of housing land is retained and expanded, largely stamping out reliance on windfall sites to achieve an adequate supply and proposing an additional 20% supply to allow choice and competition.

In addition, the five year supply figure should continue to be based on a Strategic Housing Market Assessment and should also take account of the unmet needs of neighbouring areas. The proposed draft also warns against any assumption of zero net-migration, requiring migration projections to be factored into the assessment.

Viability, viability, viability The proposed draft NPPF has much to say about viability and makes it clear that planning obligations, Community Infrastructure Levy and other ‘planning costs’ should not endanger the viability of development. It also confirms that viability requires the provision of an acceptable return to both a willing landowner and a willing developer.

It is important to remember that this document does not have the formal approval of the Government, who will be publishing a formal consultation draft of the NPPF later this month. But the document has been produced at the request of and with support from the Government so it deserves to be taken seriously.

The credibility of the document is also strengthened by the recent publication by the Government of its own draft definition of sustainable development. While there were some changes to the precise wording of the definition, its similarity to that in the proposed draft NPPF is remarkable.

Comment: While there are some areas of concern, the document is overwhelmingly pro-development and offers a genuine glimpse of a planning system that achieves the Government’s twin aims of delivering more development and giving more power to local people.

Such an approach should be welcomed by the industry, but will disappoint those who see localism as a means of blocking development. If this document is carried forward then it offers the prospect of a system that offers local communities more say in the planning system on the condition that they adopt a pro-growth agenda.

One of the implications of such an approach, at least in the short term, is likely to be a return to a 1980s style system of planning by appeal. But if developers can be confident of a favourable (and quick) outcome, this will not necessarily be a bad thing.

Of course, all of this hangs on whether the Government’s own draft NPPF looks similar to this proposed draft. Our sources tell us that this is likely, with ministers demanding a detailed justification for every proposed amendment. We understand that the publication of the formal consultation draft is likely to be on the 19th or 20th of this month, in which case we do not have long to wait for the answer.