The long awaited proposals by the government to overhaul the National Planning Policy Framework have finally arrived, focusing on speeding up the delivery of new housing and maximising the use of land whilst strengthening green belt protection – not an easy balance to achieve. The following include some of the key aspects of the consultation.
The battle between developers and authorities as to whether or not those authorities can demonstrate a five year housing land supply (in which case the presumption of sustainable development generally applies) is set to continue. It is proposed that authorities will be able to ‘fix’ their five year housing land supply for a one year period, whether through a recent plan or annual position statement (following engagement with developers and the Secretary of State). This may help cut down the number of appeals on this issue to some extent.
The presumption in favour of sustainable development will also apply where, over a three year period, authorities deliver less than 75% of a housing requirement to be set by a new housing delivery test. A transition of 25% in 2018 and 45% in 2019 will however provide some flexibility for authorities. The presumption itself has been tinkered with and no doubt case law will follow on the new wording, including what represents the “most important” policies in determining an application or a “clear reason” for refusal.
Speedier delivery is sought once permission is granted. Authorities are encouraged to require development to come forward within a shorter period than the default three years, except where deliverability or viability would be hindered. That ignores the time involved in obtaining reserved matters, discharging conditions and otherwise getting sites ready for implementation – topics that will continue to be debated hotly as part of the Oliver Letwin review of land banking. More token starts on site to ensure planning permissions are preserved may result.
Substantial weight is to be given to the value of using brownfield land for new homes and higher density development is to be supported. The devil is always in the detail, however - and the desirability of maintaining an area’s prevailing character (including residential gardens) remains a relevant consideration. Where there is a shortage of land to meet housing needs, authorities should seek to optimise the use of land including potentially through minimum density standards. Helpfully, a flexible approach to policies relating to daylight and sunlight is required. Changes of use of redundant employment and other land are to be supported, but the increasing pressure on industrial land in the south east in particular may make authorities reluctant to sanction substantial releases.
Upward extensions to residential and commercial premises have gained policy support – where consistent with the prevailing roofline and subject to design. A potential permitted development right to build upwards, dismissed by previous administrations, is now back on the table for further consideration.
Green belt protection is to be strengthened so that specific criteria must be satisfied before exceptional circumstances are met allowing a change in boundaries. This is perhaps disingenuous given the pressure on authorities with significant green belt constraints to deliver new homes. Express reference is made to the potential for new settlements and major urban extensions to be accompanied by new green belt areas. Plans may propose affordable housing for local needs within the green belt.
The need for a greater mix of housing is recognised. 10% of homes on major sites are to be available for affordable home ownership, with limited exceptions. Controversially, authorities are required to support developments on unallocated sites outside existing settlements which offer a “high proportion” of homes for first time buyers or renters and where there is a local need. Such developments must be proportionate in size to the existing settlement and not compromise specific protections set out in the Framework.
As expected, the development of small sites is promoted to speed up delivery in the short term and provide opportunities for smaller developers. Authorities are encouraged to ensure that at least 20% of sites allocated for development are small sites. This is likely to prove unpopular, given the work involved in identifying such sites and the number of objections that they can attract given the likely impacts on neighbours. Authorities are also asked to work with developers to encourage the sub-division of larger sites. Developers are likely to be reluctant to engage where there is conflict with their obvious business need to maintain a steady pipeline of houses to build out.
Policy compliant schemes should not generally require viability assessment – but proposals involving a shortfall against required affordable housing provision are likely to continue to trigger assessment. Following recent trends towards increased transparency, the draft revised Framework proposes that all such assessments reflect new guidance (also published for consultation) and be publicly available. Review mechanisms, now common in London, are actively supported in certain circumstances including multi-phase developments. Benchmark land value should be based on existing use value plus a premium for the landowner and a return for developers based on 20% of gross development value is proposed, with exceptions.
There is also a long awaited consultation on reforms to the community infrastructure levy to reduce complexity and increase transparency. The proposal to consider lifting pooling restrictions on strategic sites is welcome. However, in the longer term, the government is considering a number of options for developer contributions including a new system with contributions set nationally and made non negotiable.
Overall, the proposals in their totality could help introduce more clarity and certainty into the system, but the government must move swiftly to respond to the consultation and publish the final Framework and associated guidance and regulatory changes. Until then, uncertainty will remain. However, it remains to be seen whether authorities will take the difficult and potentially unpopular decisions that must underpin a step change in housing delivery and, if they do not, whether the government truly has the appetite and resource to step in. The consultation closes on 20 May 2018.