July 23, 2012

The national planning policy framework: still pro-growth?

On 27th March the Government published the final draft of the national planning policy framework (NPPF) with it taking immediate effect. Keen to address some of the strong criticism previous drafts had attracted from conservation groups, the framework now includes a revised definition of sustainable development which increases the focus on environmental considerations. However, this inevitably reduces the pro-growth rhetoric the policy aimed to encourage.

The NPPF replaces 1,300 pages of planning policy and guidance documents that were previously in place with a consolidated and streamlined document of just 50 pages. For local planning authorities (LPAs) the NPPF becomes the primary statement of national planning policy.

This new streamlined policy aims to reduce bureaucracy in the planning system by:

  • Offering developers greater clarity and facilitating improved outcomes through greater certainty and a reduction in costs and red-tape. 
  • Promoting sustainable economic growth through improved efficiency.
  • Empowering local communities.

Despite these intentions of increased certainty the less detailed NPPF could lead to even less clarity for developers with LPAs awarded greater discretion when interpreting and implementing the policy in their local development plans.

Presumption in favour of sustainable development:

The focus of the NPPF is its controversial presumption in favour of sustainable development. This expressly states LPAs should plan positively for new development in their area and ‘approve all individual proposals wherever possible’.

This presumption comes into effect where a neighbourhood or local plan is absent or unclear, or where relevant planning policies are out of date. Any proposal put forward which complies with the definition of ‘sustainable development’ set out in the framework should be granted consent.

The pro-growth presumption is aimed at speeding-up decisions in planning applications and encouraging LPAs to ensure they have up to date planning policies in place. However there are particular concerns that this pro-growth rhetoric will result in LPAs consenting to poor quality developments, particularly in the face of budgetary pressures and the financial incentives offered by the New Homes Bonus and Community Infrastructure Levies (CILs).

Definition of sustainable development:

Environmental groups concerned by the definition set out in the draft framework believed it placed too much emphasis on economic growth at the expense of the environment, arguing this undermined the fundamental concept of sustainable development.

Following a consultation period the revised definition reduces the focus on development and introduces the five principles contained in the 2005 UK Sustainable Development Strategy: living within the planet’s environmental limits; ensuring a strong, healthy and just society; achieving a sustainable economy; promoting good governance; and using science responsibly.

This refined presumption is broadly defined as having three roles:

Economic – facilitate and contribute towards a strong and competitive economy by making sufficient land of the right type available at the right time, so as to support growth. This is to be achieved through the coordination of development requirements and the provision of adequate infrastructure.

Social – Support strong and healthy communities; firstly, by providing appropriate levels of housing to meet the needs of current and future generations; and secondly, by providing accessible local services which meet the requirements of the local population and its social and cultural well-being.

Environmental – Contribute towards protecting and enhancing our built, historic and natural environment; taking steps to use minimise waste and pollution, use natural resources responsibly and mitigating climate change.

Having revised the focus of the NPPF since its original draft, comment from planning bodies such as the Town and Country Planning Association has been supportive of the more balanced definition of sustainable development contained within it. However, in increasing the focus on environmental considerations, pro-growth campaigners argue there is now a greatly reduced emphasis on driving delivery of development.

Transitional period for aligning local plans:

LPAs have been given only 12 months to bring local plans in line with the NPPF. During this period LPAs and planning inspectors can continue to give weight to ‘relevant’ policies adopted since 2004, even where ‘a limited degree of conflict’ between these plans and the NPPF exists.

It is likely this short transitional period will pose many problems for LPAs who will need to bring their plans in line with the NPPF with little additional support. 

Holmes & Hills has a specialist Planning & Development Team that is recognised as being one of the leading teams of Planning Law solicitors in the country by Planning Magazine (2016).

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