Draft Revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework – a platitude towards boosting housing delivery?
Edward Bright (Principal, Planning) shares his thoughts on the Draft Revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and what the changes might mean.
With Westminster drowning under the pressures of negotiating a successful Brexit, there’s no doubt those in Whitehall are all working hard. However, the Draft Revisions to the NPPF clearly show that creating ground breaking and effective domestic policy to boost housing delivery is not an easy task. Is this publication merely a platitude toward previous manifesto promises?
Blaming national housebuilders for the lacklustre levels of housing delivery due to supposed post permission ‘land banking’ of sites is, in reality, naïve. It fails to consider the likely reasons why sites are left dormant following permission (planning and legal processes, remediation and construction constraints and financial/business strategies). Certainly the recent suggestion that an authority could consider the past completion records of a developer during the determination of an application would be entirely against one of the fundamental principles of the planning process – the applicant should not be a determining factor.
Whilst the Draft Revisions to the NPPF seek to take some important steps toward trying to push housing land supply and delivery, they have failed to deal with the most significant elephant in the room – The Green Belt.
Previously the Government has been keen to highlight that Britain is not an overcrowded nation with just 10% of land having been built on. Nevertheless, the Draft Revisions to the NPPF remains with the existing mantra for developing brownfield sites and for these to be used more effectively through strategies to increase housing density. The Draft Revisions to the Green Belt elements of the NPPF appear to flip between making brownfield sites (in the Green Belt) easier to develop and emphasising that strategic releases should only be seen as a ‘last resort’. This is by no means a wholesale review of the Green Belt strategy that some (and we would) insist is the only way to achieve the housing numbers required in the UK.
The construction industry is acutely aware that development of large brownfield sites is becoming ever more onerous and that large urban sites are in much shorter supply than a couple of decades ago. Indeed, a number of authorities (including those covered by the Black Country Core Strategy), openly accept that there are insufficient brownfield sites within the settlement boundaries to meet their housing needs and that Green Belt release is the only option. Given that the majority of these authorities are tightly constrained by both their administrative bounds and the Green Belt, it leaves little option but to either undertake a piecemeal Green Belt Review on a reoccurring basis, which would be contrary to policy, or enter into an agreement with an adjoining authority to accommodate some of their housing numbers through the Duty to Cooperate process. There are also undoubted complications with Duty to Cooperate given that such agreements are generally limited to Housing Market Areas which have similar issues and/or the local plan processes of multiple authorities are not in sync to effectively agree cross border provision.
Given that the newly proposed standard method for calculating housing need = is based around an affordability ratio, this raises a significant question as to whether offsetting housing provision to an adjoining authority would, ultimately, result in a spiralling effect of worsening affordability and further increasing their housing needs in the future. This is certainly a double edged sword for local authorities given the lack of support for wholesale changes to the Green Belt and clearly indicates that these housing need targets under the standard method should be treated as minimums rather than maximums.
There is also the introduction of a Housing Delivery Test which sets out that from 2020 the presumption in favour of sustainable development would apply where delivery is below the 75% of the housing requirement over a three year period. Furthermore from 2018, the Housing Delivery Test will be utilised to identify whether the 20% buffer to the 5 year housing land supply should be implemented for ‘persistent under delivery’; the trigger being delivery below 85% of the housing requirement. The Housing Delivery Test and its clarification on when the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ and ‘persistent under delivery’ would be triggered are welcomed and should bring some uniformity in decisions and direction from planning inspectors.
The Draft Revisions also contain a Planning Practice Guidance for Viability which seeks to bring forward a standardised approach to calculating the viability of a development and reduce potential inconsistencies in developer contributions and affordable housing provision. Nevertheless, even with this standardised approach, there will always be some debate as to how particular elements of any viability calculation are based.
Finally, the Draft Revisions contain a change in tact for the use of planning conditions. Pre-commencement conditions are to be avoided unless there is a clear justification for their inclusion, whilst authorities could consider imposing a planning condition requiring development to begin within a timescale shorter than the relevant default period provided it did not threaten its deliverability or viability.
Whilst such a condition is aimed at speeding up delivery, it is doubted that authorities would be so bold as to impose this type of condition on larger strategic sites, especially where they form part of their 5-year housing land supply. This type of condition is likely to only be imposed on mid-size and smaller housing sites which are rarely built out by the national housebuilders which are supposedly land banking and slowing the delivery rates. It is also a long way from the ‘use it or lose it’ approach which was suggested by ministers previously.
Beyond the elements outlined above, much of the amended document essentially amounts to a re-ordering and rephrasing of existing national policy which will have limited affects for authorities or developers going forward. Even so, other key points to take from the Draft Revisions are outlined below:
Sustainability - There is an increased emphasis on decentralised low-carbon energy generation, but not requiring applicants to demonstrate the overall need for renewable or low carbon energy;
Design - The inclusion of a need to counter ‘malicious or natural threats’ which should be considered by architects and masterplanners during the design process;
Highways - Further emphasis placed on sustainable travel and early consideration of transport issues, whilst severe impacts to road safety are now also included as a reason to refuse or prevent development on highway grounds (previously residual cumulative impacts only);
Landscape - Some status given to landscapes of ‘identified quality’ which indicates that the value of landscape is not just tied to a designation and could lead to debate on landscape and visual impacts;
Green Belt - increased potential for the redevelopment of brownfield sites within the Green Belt for particular forms of development provided they do not result in ‘substantial harm’ to the openness;
Ancient Woodland - The position with regard to Ancient Woodland has been hardened, further emphasising that development which results in the loss or deterioration should be ‘wholly exceptional’;
Hydrology - In certain circumstances where a site has been previously allocated, the Exception Test will have to be ‘reapplied’ and the requirement to incorporate sustainable drainage systems in major development has now been incorporated to reflect the December 2014 Written Ministerial Statement.
Ecology - The loss of irreplaceable habitats is now ‘wholly exceptional’ and there is further emphasis on ensuring net gains for biodiversity which will require consideration during the design process;
Noise - Expansion of the requirement that existing businesses should not having unreasonable restrictions put on them due to changes in the vicinity and for the applicant of the new development to secure suitable mitigation before development has been completed;
Amenity - There is no longer a suggestion of control via condition where a proposed site would be subject to other separate pollution control regimes planning should focus on if development is an acceptable use of land, assuming that these other regimes will operate effectively; and
Air Quality – There is an emphasis on the planning system bringing forward embedded mitigation rather than utilising post permission conditions which will require further design consideration up-front, whilst ‘Clean Air Zones’ are now also referenced.
In a piece published in November 2016 entitled ‘Britain’s Housebuilding Scandal’ - A disturbing return to the blame culture for a lack of housing delivery?' Elle Cass (Technical Director, Planning) discussed her thoughts on the Government's approach to the housing crisis. You can read Elle's full article here.
Please do not hesitate to contact SLR should you wish to discuss the Draft Revisions to the NPPF in more detail, gain further technical understanding on particular elements or assistance with the preparation of representations to this process. Edward's contact details can be found below.