This is entry number 276, published on 19 September 2011, of a blog on the Planning Act 2008 infrastructure planning and authorisation regime. Click here for a link to the whole blog.

Today’s entry attempts to explain the controversy surrounding the draft National Planning Policy Framework.

What is the National Planning Policy Framework?

The NPPF is currently a draft replacement for almost all existing government planning guidance - nearly 1000 pages condensed into 52 pages.

Wow.  Does that mean they've left a lot out?

Yes, of course, but they have done a good job of keeping the most important parts.

Can they just change the law like that?

It doesn't change the law, it is only guidance.  The law on deciding planning applications is still that they must be decided 'in accordance with the [local council's policies contained in its] plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise'.

What is all the fuss about then?

The main fuss is about part of paragraph 14 of the draft: 'Local authorities should ... grant planning permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date.'

Is that different from the current situation?

Yes.  Currently if a plan is absent, silent etc., you don't automatically grant planning permission, you use government guidance, the out-of-date plan and other factors to decide.

So once local plans are up to date this problem goes away?

Pretty much, yes, although they will need to be comprehensive and clear enough too, or else they will be accused of being silent or indeterminate.

OK, good.  Most local authorities have up to date plans, right?

Wrong.  Since the system for creating plans was revised in 2004, only 30% of local authorities have created a plan at all.

What have they been doing all this time? The other 70% had better get a move on, then!

Indeed, and it's worse than that.  The NPPF itself (and the abolition of regional strategies) may cause even the 30% of currently up to date plans to become out of date.

Uh-oh.  So will there be a planning permission free-for-all when the NPPF comes in?

There might be, but there is a qualification at the end of paragraph 14: "these policies should apply unless the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole."

So only the NPPF itself stands in the way of development until local plans plug the gap?

So it would seem.  Note also that this is a more pro-development test than the Planning Act 2008 regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects, where the test is refusal if the 'adverse impacts outweigh the benefits'.

You had to mention the Planning Act 2008 somewhere!

Of course, that's what this blog is about.

I thought the NPPF contained a 'presumption of sustainable development'.  Won't that help?

The start of paragraph 14 says that there is such a presumption, but arguably does not link this to the granting of permission when a plan is absent, silent etc.

Oh dear.  What is sustainable development, by the way?

Difficult question.  The NPPF defines it as 'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs', taking this from the report of the UN Brundtland Commission in 1987. In practical terms, though that definition is difficult to apply to real situations.

So what can councils do to plug the gap?

The NPPF has a partial let-out at paragraph 26 - councils can ask the government for a 'certificate of conformity' that their existing plans are consistent with the NPPF.  Otherwise it's just a case of getting a comprehensive up to date plan through.

They'd better hurry up then.  When is the NPPF going to come into force?

Probably in April 2012.

That's not long.  Can anything be done to change the wording before it comes in?

Yes.  There is a public consultation that is open for another four weeks, until 17 October.