On 25 July 2011, the Government issued proposals to streamline the planning system and released for consultation a draft National Planning Policy Framework.  It contains provisions which are directed towards increasing house building and sustainable development generally and placing the policy making for areas in the hands of local authorities rather than centrally directed targets.

The intention is that the framework replaces over 40 documents which constitute current central Government guidance including planning policy statements, planning policy guidelines and circulars on greenbelt, housing and transport among many others.  If implemented, over 1,000 pages of national planning policy would be condensed into a document just over 50 pages long.

The framework is divided into six broad chapters:

  • delivering sustainable development;
  • plan making;
  • development management;
  • planning for prosperity;
  • planning for people; and
  • planning for places.

The 'golden thread' running through the document is the presumption in favour of sustainable development which is defined rather broadly as '…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.' To this end 'local planning authorities should plan positively for new development and approve all individual proposals wherever possible.'  Rather more provocatively as a core planning principle it states that 'decision-takers at every level should assume that the default answer to development proposals is 'yes'', adding 'except where this would compromise the key sustainable development principles set out in this framework.'

The framework requires local planning authorities to produce a local plan for their area identifying housing, business, infrastructure, mineral and other requirements within a 15 year time horizon.  Existing terminology referring to 'area action plans', 'local development frameworks' and 'core strategies' would be dropped in favour of, essentially, a single document. 

Local plans would need to set out an area's strategic priorities and the existence of an up to date local plan is intended to be central to the process.  The Government's impact assessment on the proposed changes reveals that around half of all local councils in England and Wales still do not have a published core strategy and fewer than a third have one adopted.  In addition to stimulating economic growth, therefore, the presumption would be intended to act as an incentive for local planning authorities to update their plans.  Paragraph 26 of the framework adds that 'in the absence of an up-to-date and consistent plan, planning applications should be determined in accordance with this framework including its presumption in favour of sustainable development.'

Authorities with up-to-date core strategies would presumably be able to have them ratified as local plans by seeking a certificate of conformity with the framework (para 26) but if the framework is brought into force, local authorities would almost certainly need to review even their most up-to-date policies in the light of the new requirements.

One of the most obvious areas where this is the case is housing.  The framework would require local planning authorities to prepare a strategic housing market assessment to assess their full housing requirements taking into account household and population projections and addressing the need for all types and tenures of housing.  Authorities would have to identify and maintain a rolling supply of specific deliverable sites (ie - available now, offering a suitable location for development now and with a real prospect of deliverability within five years) with the supply then including an additional allowance of at least 20% 'to ensure choice and competition in the market for land.'  The impact assessment adds that one of the aims of this would be to reduce the uplifted expectation value which arises from the designation of an area for future housing (referred to in the assessment as 'economic rent') thereby increasing a site's viability.

It is proposed that the centrally set 15 unit threshold for affordable housing would be removed under the framework.  Each local planning authority would have to set policies for meeting the need for social housing on the relevant development site unless off-site provision or a financial contribution of broadly equivalent value could be 'robustly justified'.  The impact assessment expresses the Government's hope that a local council would increase the threshold only to remove an obstacle to development and/or increase the viability of the land for housing development.  It also suggests that there would be significant disincentives for a local authority to reduce the threshold as they would only be able to do so where they have evidence that it would not reduce the viability of development in the area.

Much of the opposition to the framework is coming from the National Trust and Campaign for the Protection of Rural England which has particular concerns that the document does not specifically lend weight to protection of the countryside.  Beyond 'protecting valued landscapes' and specific weight being given to National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, there is no specific designation for countryside although in respect of agricultural land there is a stated preference for areas of poorer quality land being used if necessary.  There would also be the ability for neighbourhoods to designate certain areas as 'Local Green Space' although it is clear that this should not apply to extensive tracts of land and also only where they are in 'reasonably close proximity to a centre of population or urban area.'

The draft framework, impact assessment and consultation document are available from the Department for Communities and Local Government website and responses are invited by 17 October 2011.