Summary and implications

In July 2011, the Government published its much anticipated draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for public consultation.

The NPPF will replace current Government planning policy and has the potential to make important changes to planning decisions and development plan policies in England and Wales. The draft NPPF is described by the Department for Communities and Local Government as a key part of reforms to make the planning system less complex, more accessible and promote sustainable growth.

Developers, planning authorities and local communities will be particularly interested in:

  • The introduction of a presumption in favour of sustainable development; and
  • The significant reduction and simplification of government policy.

The presumption in favour of sustainable development

The draft NPPF refers to the definition of sustainable development from the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report “Our Common Future” as meaning development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The draft NPPF places significant emphasis on local planning authorities planning positively for new development and states that authorities should approve all individual proposals wherever possible and should:

  • Prepare Local Plans on the basis that objectively assessed development needs should be met, and with sufficient flexibility to respond to rapid shifts in demand or other economic changes;
  • Approve development proposals that accord with statutory plans without delay; and
  • Grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date.

The above policies should apply unless the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in the draft NPPF taken as a whole.

Our view

A common issue with sustainable development is ascertaining what it actually means, particularly in regard to particular development proposals or policies.

Reference to the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 definition appears outdated and in our view would have been best left out of the draft NPPF to avoid policy confusion. Reference to the needs of present and future generations suggests, on one interpretation, that those needs have to be assessed and development proposals might face an assessment as to why they are needed. That would be a backward policy step in our view and reading the draft NPPF as a whole, it does not appear to be a policy position that is intended.

The criteria for the presumption regarding the preparation of Local Plans and approval of planning applications will be welcome by developers as a counter-balance to the localism powers currently before Parliament in the Localism Bill.

As we anticipated, the benefit of the presumption for developers is significantly restricted, however, so that it applies “unless the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits”. This leaves a significant discretion within the terms of the presumption for planning authorities to refuse planning permissions on matters of planning judgement regarding impacts. We expect an increase in the number of planning appeals, for example, in areas where the Council and local community are generally resistant to more housing on grounds not sufficiently based on impacts.

Reduction in the amount of government policy

The draft NPPF will replace thousands of pages of existing government planning policies, made up of Planning Policy Statements, Planning Policy Guidance and Circulars with a single 58-page document.

Our view

We anticipate that the reduction in government planning policy will generally be welcomed all round and inevitably simplify it, making it more user-friendly. Perhaps the greatest beneficiaries are likely to be local neighbourhoods seeking to use their localism powers after the Localism Bill is passed.

Practitioners are likely to view the revocation of the detailed technical guidance as a loss in some instances resulting in more justification being required for assessment methodologies.

The reduction and simplification of government policy should not be seen as a change in policy. For the most part, the essence or direction of existing policy is retained (with the principal exception being the introduction of the sustainable development presumption). With the replacement of the existing more detailed and prescriptive policies, local planning authorities will, through their interpretation of the NPPF policies, have greater discretion as to how they are applied in their local areas. With the notable exception of the sustainable development presumption, we do not generally anticipate that developers will receive an easier ride through the planning system.