A lot of nonsense is being talked about the draft national planning policy framework (NPPF), much of it by people who should know better. Here are five quasi-legal points to consider in judging the debate.
Firstly, the NPPF repeatedly refers to the need to accommodate "objectively assessed needs". Clearly, a proper planning process must try to meet identified needs, providing good homes for all, space for jobs to be created and places of which we are proud. If there are key environmental, social or other reasons why needs cannot be met, then growth will not be accommodated. Unsurprisingly, this is the policy framework we already have. Indeed, the main change that the NPPF signals is that councils will have to take responsibility for identifying and accommodating needs.
Secondly, the planning system will stay plan-led. It will be for local planning authorities to decide how they accommodate growth. They can decide how they do so sustainably, what spatial patterns they promote and what areas they protect. The absence of prescriptive central policy guidance should be exhilarating for imaginative planners. They can define their sustainable future. An up-to-date plan will justify refusals if a proposal threatens the vision in the plan.
Thirdly, there is question of what happens in the period before new-style local plans are in place? In areas where there are no relevant plan policies, the NPPF says that development should be permitted unless there will be adverse impacts that would "significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits". Many existing plans will meet the framework's requirements, so this is not an issue. Where there are no plans, they should be drawn up quickly. A sensible emerging plan will be a material consideration.
Fourthly, the framework will only be a material consideration. The weight to be attached to it will be a matter for the decision-maker, either in preparing a development plan or in determining a planning application. The NPPF will not be a straitjacket. Provided decision-makers have good reasons for taking another approach, they will be entitled to do so.
Lastly, the NPPF makes no mention of "financial considerations". This is curious. The much-criticised clause 124 in the Localism Bill is needed to ensure that the New Homes Bonus, Community Infrastructure Levy and future business rates receipts can be considered in planning decisions. In fact, the clause needs to be widened so it applies at the development plan stage. But the draft NPPF should clearly state that, while financial considerations may be material, they should never breach the fundamental principle that planning permission should not be bought and sold.
The draft NPPF is a short and welcome reminder that the planning system should encourage sustainable growth. This is scary for some, since it leaves decisions about the content and shape of sustainable development to councils and local communities.
Originally published in Planning Magazine, 26 August 2011