Last reviewed 8 February 2016

In December 2015, the Government consulted on changes to national planning policy, the first since the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was published in 2012. David Alexander assesses the proposals.

Introduction

The NPPF replaced “over a thousand pages of national policy with around 50, written simply and clearly… allowing people and communities back into planning”. It was heralded as key to planning policies in England, focusing on the central role of local and neighbourhood plans, the promotion of sustainable development and the protection and enhancement of the natural and historic environment.

Specific changes should be measured against the 12 core principles of the NPPF, but instead of a statutory, quinquennial, comprehensive review of its effectiveness, the Government opted for expedient and incremental changes based on sub-agendas for the planning system and with little recognition of their potential impact and/or any unintended consequences of the NPPF as a whole.

Proposed changes are as follows.

  • Broadening the definition of affordable housing to expand low cost housing opportunities.

  • Increasing the density of development around commuter hubs.

  • Supporting new settlements and development on brownfield sites.

  • Supporting development on small sites and delivery of housing as allocated in local plans.

  • Supporting delivery of starter homes.

Affordable housing

Affordable housing should support present and future aspirations of households unable to access market housing, including affordable products for rent and ownership. This will include discount market housing and innovative rent-to- buy property, but may not include “in perpetuity” restrictions.

The current Housing & Planning Bill will introduce a statutory role for local authorities to promote starter homes on all suitable, reasonably sized housing developments. However, not everyone aspires to home ownership and housing needs vary geographically. Widening affordable housing may “downgrade” the number of homes for much needed social rent and shared ownership, as well as remove significant local authority influence in retaining affordable housing in perpetuity.

Commuter hubs

The Government recognises significant benefits from higher density development around new and existing commuter hubs, notably reduced travel distances by private transport, effective use of private and public sector land in sustainable locations, and helping secure wider regeneration and growth. Hubs are defined as public transport interchanges including walking or cycling access, and places with at least 15 minute frequencies during normal commuting hours.

Development must remain sensitive to local context and character and be tempered with in-depth assessments of key consequences. Details are absent, notably the geographical area over which the principle would apply. Should this be within 10 minutes’ walk from home and include a transitional outer zone within which densities are gradually reduced to normal levels? What if the hub core is already at a popular lower density? Do higher densities mean more apartments and can design reflect local distinctiveness, appropriate building materials and character?

Development must not remove important open spaces, nor key garden spaces which are part of biodiversity networks. Protection for historic buildings and archaeological artefacts will remain, as will the perspective of local communities and the wider interests of sustainable development. A distribution map of the potential 680 hubs would set them in context within the broader planning framework.

New settlements and brownfield land

The Government seeks a proactive approach to planning for new settlements, with local planning authorities working more effectively with developers’ proposals. There is no mention of the “garden city” concept supported by the Town & Country Planning Association, nor of specific areas of housing pressure where new settlements might contribute strongly.

Maximum use of brownfield land should drive up housing supply, provided sites are not of high environmental value, through “in effect, a form of ‘presumption’ in favour of brownfield land” (para. 22, page 12). Local councils will set appropriate targets and, through the Housing & Planning Bill, be required to publish and maintain up-to-date registers of brownfield sites suitable for housing. Such registers will allow granting permission-in-principle for new homes on 90% of suitable brownfield sites by 2020, but have local authorities got the resources and expertise to keep them fully up-to-date and effective? A presumption in favour of brownfield sites should be printed in the revised NPPF.

Small sites and housing delivery

The Government believes small sites can deliver opportunities for small and medium-sized companies in the housing market, increase build out rates, boost local jobs and growth, including in rural areas, and make effective use of developable land. These sites are often of local environmental value, including beneficial open space and wildlife/biodiversity networks. While back gardens remain protected from development, the intentions for conservation areas and nationally designated areas such as national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty are unstated. Appropriate local variations of boundary management plans would help ensure protection, while knowing why 13,600 small site applications were refused might assist future acceptance.

There is a significant shortfall between the number of homes needed and those being built, with greater recognition that “developers (rather than planners) can also play their part, and we are discussing with house builders and others what steps should be taken to drive faster build-out”. Where significant under-delivery is identified over a sustained period, action might include a housing delivery test, the failure of which could trigger provision of even more sustainable sites!

Should such a test be aimed at local authority planners who have delivered their permissions, rather than at developers and builders who have not? The focus must be on providing sufficient resources and expertise for existing, approved sites. Reducing planning permission validity, naming and shaming those responsible for non-delivery, and contributions in lieu of rateable value on unbuilt sites are all issues for discussion.

Starter homes

The Government wishes to release unviable or underused commercial and employment land (including previous retail, leisure and non-residential institution uses) for starter homes, unless significant and compelling evidence justifies retention for up to three years. Applications can only be rejected under exception site policy, if there are overriding design, infrastructure and local environmental considerations, including flooding, that cannot be mitigated. More starter homes could be incorporated within mixed use commercial developments, existing rural exception site policy, and among voluntary neighbourhood plans, even within the Green Belt.

While it appears logical to favour residential uses without any reasonable prospect of employment land coming into use, the initial priority should be with unviable brownfield land. However, how interchangeable are commercial and residential uses and how does this affect local plan allocations and sustainable communities with suitable services, facilities and infrastructure?

Pockets of isolated housing must be avoided and bringing starter homes into town centres could provide beneficial advantages, but they should remain in perpetuity. Only 0.1% of brownfield sites within the Green Belt are suitable for housing, but location is vital and likely to be at a premium in areas experiencing significant housing pressures. Mapping within the brownfield register and wider context of the local plan, might better demonstrate the strategic housing pattern of the plan.

Conclusion

The proposed NPPF changes remain piecemeal and could have unintended consequences for core elements including the natural environment; health, social and cultural wellbeing; and an area’s differing roles and character. Will the Government be influenced to opt for an independent and comprehensive review of the NPPF?