The Coalition Government's programme of streamlining the planning system in England continues in earnest, with the publication of the consultation draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) on Monday 25 July 2011. Maintaining the pace of reform set by the recent designation of National Policy Statements (NPSs) for projects covered by the Planning Act 2008, the NPPF builds on principles first enunciated in the Conservative Party Green Paper of February 2010, "Open Source Planning", and the Coalition Agreement of June 2010 (as outlined in previous S+W e-bulletins).

Features of the draft NPPF

The NPPF seeks to encourage "economic growth, better access to housing and the means to achieve positive environmental enhancement" at local level, through a simplified policy framework. This will consolidate the regime along the same lines as Scotland's National Planning Framework and Planning Policy Wales. The key features of the NPPF include:

  • a single, 52 page document to replace the 1,300 pages of policy scattered throughout Planning Policy Statements, Planning Policy Guidance, Guidance Notes, Good Practice Guides and Circulars;
  • "zooming in" on local policy, providing for new plans to be produced at local planning authority (LPA) level and supplemented by Neighbourhood Plans and the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs) under the Decentralisation and Localism Bill; and
  • the application of the principles of sustainability and plan led decision-making to three themes of "prosperity, people and places".

Principle 1: Sustainability

The "golden thread" running through the NPPF is a presumption in favour of sustainable development. This presumption removes any requirement to prove a need for a proposed development and is designed to expedite consent for proposals that accord with statutory plans. It implies that LPAs will be expected to grant permission where a Local Plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or out of date on the matter at hand, an approach many fear will prove ripe for appeal challenges. Practitioners await with interest further policies to outline how this presumption will apply at local level and, crucially, how "sustainable development" is ultimately defined.

Principle 2: Plan led regime

The NPPF prescribes new, "aspirational but realistic" Local Plans to be made for each administrative area, to be in force for a period of 15 years. The NPPF will apply at local level only and Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects will be subject to the parallel Planning Act 2008 regime. New Local Plans must satisfy the requirements of the NPPF and are likely to include proposals maps, site allocations and spatial protection for conservation purposes.

Strategic cross-boundary planning will also be necessary. Instead of conforming to an umbrella RSS, new Local Plans must actively take into account the Local Plan of neighbouring LPAs. Although there is room for joint policy-making and informal strategies on infrastructure and investment plans, each Local Plan looks set, essentially, to stand alone.

This requirement to replace Local Plans raises serious questions for LPAs, which are under unprecedented strain on resources and many of which are still preparing Local Development Frameworks to satisfy the last round of planning reform requirements (under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004). Once the NPPF is in force, all Local Development Framework documents will effectively be obsolete unless relating to unchanged policy (such as greenbelt land).

Further, as the draft NPPF does not acknowledge a hierarchy of plans, each Local Plan under the NPPF will require justification and approval by way of a Certificate of Conformity. RTPI President Richard Summers expressed concern about this on 25 July 2011, specifically that "The relationship between the presumption in favour of sustainable development and the primacy of locally-led development plans is not clear."  In the absence of an up to date, new Local Plan, the NPPF will prevail so the onus will be on LPAs to progress new policy quickly, if they wish to be masters of their own developmental fate.

Planning themes

The main proposals in each NPPF planning theme are outlined below.

Prosperity

This theme covers business and economic development (including support for economic development, promotion of vital and viable town centres and support for the rural economy), transport (including the relationship between transport and economic growth, green transport and congestion), communications infrastructure and the supply and sustainability of mineral resources.

People

The emphasis in this theme is on increasing and diversifying the supply of housing stock, aiming for high quality design and sustainable communities and to enhance the beneficial use of greenbelt land.

Places

"Places" concentrate on climate change, flooding and coastal change, progressing renewable and low carbon energy and protecting natural and historic environments.

Given the wide scope of the above themes, it appears both that detailed policies at LPA level will exert the most influence over the future of development management and that there will be significant freedom to do so. Clear transitional arrangements will be paramount to the success of implementing the NPPF. In Scotland, any gaps in interpreting the Scottish Planning Policy (which, like the NPPF, replaced a multitude of separate planning policies) have led practitioners to refer to predecessor policy for clarification - this may be inappropriate in the case of the NPPF where a more fundamental shift in planning priorities towards economic considerations appears to be underway and in the absence of the safety net provided by RSSs.

NPPF Roadmap

As part of the Coalition Government's planning policy review, the SoS invited leading practitioners to form the Practitioners Advisory Group (PAG) to provide input into the draft NPPF. The PAG submitted a suggested draft NPPF, together with a set of recommendations, on 20 May 2011, which can be seen here. It is not clear the extent to which, if any, the draft consultation NPPF will adopt the PAG's recommendations but they provide a useful insight into the potential concerns of developers in light of the reforms.

Although the need for certainty reasserts itself in the face of a changing policy landscape, granting additional weight to economic factors may be welcomed by developers and LPAs.  Initial responses from conservation and environmental groups, however, are less favourable, with Friends of the Earth calling the NPPF a "developers' charter". This reorientation is likely to lead to an enhanced role for planning obligations, the New Homes Bonus, planning performance agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy in decision-making.

In September 2011, the DCLG will be holding events in London, Leeds, Birmingham and Bristol for interested members of the public to discuss the NPPF and other reforms, such as Neighbourhood Planning. The consultation on the draft NPPF closes on 17 October 2011 and the DCLG seeks for the NPPF to be in force from April 2012.

For the full draft consultation NPPF and associated documents, please click here.