Lively debate sparked by draft planning policy

Chris Wilmshurst, an associate at Vail Williams LLP, writes about the draft National Planning Policy Framework.

The twelve week consultation period for the draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) ended on 17 October and with some significant changes being proposed, a wide range of views are being gathered. The Department for Communities and Local Government reduced more than 1,000 pages of planning policy into a 52 page document that will provide national guidance for new development throughout England.

However, its publication has led to a war of words between those seeking to protect the countryside and those wanting new development. On the green side lie organisations such as the National Trust who believe reforms will destroy England’s countryside. On the brown side lie the British Property Federation and the Homebuilders Federation who see the new guidance as vital in supporting economic growth, providing new homes and allowing communities to protect valuable open space.

The spark that has ignited this debate is the presumption in favour of sustainable development contained within the NPPF. So what are the key changes and what do they mean?

· The presumption in favour of sustainable development would require councils to grant permission where a “Local Plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or, where relevant, policies are out of date”. The default decision on development taken by Councils should therefore be “yes” unless this would compromise key sustainable development principles.

This is generally supported by the development industry as pro-growth although it doesn’t necessarily mean that all development will be allowed. The Government argues that there are plenty of other checks in place to restrict unacceptable development.

· Councils must currently identify and allocate five years worth of land for housing.  But in addition to this, the draft NPPF would require Councils to boost these existing housing pipeline sites by a further 20% to create competition and choice in the land market, creating a rise in housing supply targets.

This move is generally welcomed by the building industry to enable house building to increase. Many Councils are already worrying that they are being asked to provide more housing than they need, even though house building is at its lowest rate for years.

· The NPPF remains committed to the protection of Green Belts from inappropriate development, as well as areas such as National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This gives no change to current Green Belt restrictions.

· The draft NPPF requires Councils to produce a single Local Plan for its area avoiding the need for unnecessary duplication of advice. The Local Plan should plan positively for the development and infrastructure required in the area. In the absence of an up to date Plan, planning applications should be determined in accordance with the Framework, including its presumption in favour of sustainable development.

This is a very welcome simplification of the planning process, streamlining documents and removing bureaucracy.

· Sites for development identified in the Local Plan should not be subject to such a scale of obligations and policy burdens that their ability to be developed viably is threatened.  This means that the costs of any requirements likely to be applied to development, such as affordable housing and infrastructure contributions, should still provide the developer with an acceptable return to enable to the development to take place.

This is a welcome move to encourage development with a recognition that development will only occur without burdensome requirements.

The NPPF document has a twelve week consultation period and the Department for Communities and Local Government is committed to adopting the Framework by April 2012. There are many proposals made in the document that are creating a lively debate. Views so far have been polarised and the Royal Town Planning Institute has called for an informed debate. The Government says it remains committed to the pro-growth measures in the Framework, but the strength of the opposition may lead to some changes being made. The overall changes to the Framework are likely to stimulate an increase in planning and development activity and so seeking professional advice will be crucial for all parties involved.