National Planning Policy Framework

Yesterday (27 March) the government published the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Having approached the planning system as if it was a messy desktop, it has tidied up what it regarded as an unsightly pile of papers, binned most of them, and slipped the remainder into a single slim sheath.

But if you’re like me, what starts as a tidy desk soon starts to get messy again. And so too, I predict, with the NPPF. The reasons that led to multiple bits of planning guidance to clarify matters haven’t disappeared, despite the good intentions of cutting 1000 pages to around 50.

Before it was even published the completeness of the NPPF as a single document for guiding planning was knocked off course when the government announced separate new guidance on planning for traveller sites on the Sunday – yes, Sunday – prior to the launch of the NPPF.

The golden thread of the new system (and let’s not forget, the old system too) is sustainable development. Local authorities know a thing or two about trying to make sustainable development happen: from Local Agenda 21 strategies in the 1990s through to sustainable community strategies, they have first-hand experience of trying to reconcile economic, environmental and social priorities.

You might argue that one of the reasons that planning guidance ballooned was that local authority planners needed plenty of advice to help them make these difficult decisions. One of the criticisms of the draft NPPF was that it failed to include a definition of sustainable development. It’s logical that the final version of the NPPF does now include the government’s accepted definition of sustainable development, but it doesn’t make the balancing act go away.

The revised NPPF includes a 12-month ‘implementation period’ (no longer called transitional period) for local planning authorities to put in place an up-to-date local plan. After this (ie from 27 March 2013), the NPPF states that:

“due weight should be given to relevant policies in existing plans according to their degree of consistency with this Framework (the closer the policies in the plan to the policies in the Framework, the greater the weight that may be given).” (para 215)

This looks neat on paper, but it too is likely to get messy in practice.  It’s hard to see how the 40 per cent of local planning authorities without an adopted plan are all going to get this resolved in the next year. Even if they prepare the plan, there is still the consultation, examination and so on. I’d be interested to get reader views on how realistic you think this timetable is.

Perhaps the most radical aspect of the government’s NPPF is its desire, along with the Localism Act, to put more power into the hands of local people through tools such as neighbourhood planning. I know from speaking at LGiU events in recent months that many elected members have had concerns about how the neighbourhood planning process fits into existing democratic systems.

The NPPF clarifies a confusing aspect of the draft, which had appeared to say that both local plans and neighbourhood plans had primacy. The revised NPPF states that:

“Neighbourhood plans must be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan… Neighbourhood plans and orders should not promote less development than set out in the Local Plan or undermine its strategic policies.” (para 184)

It goes on to say that:

“Outside these strategic elements, neighbourhood plans will be able to shape and direct sustainable development in their area. Once a neighbourhood plan has demonstrated its general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan and is brought into force, the policies it contains take precedence over existing non-strategic policies in the Local Plan for that neighbourhood, where they are in conflict.” (para 185)

I think this confirms the primacy of the local plan, while also opening up the possibility of communities putting forward ideas for development that the local authority hadn’t considered. Don’t forget, though, that neighbourhood plans should be outlining development to support growth; they are not forums for NIMBYs.

There are big questions still about the success or otherwise of neighbourhood planning. Involving communities to the point where they will own a process (and, to use the government’s narrative, welcome more development locally) takes time, energy and resources. Having criticised planning for being a drag anchor on growth, the government has introduced a potentially very time-consuming element to the system. Neighbourhood planning could improve design quality and allow people to redress overlooked local needs – both of these would be excellent outcomes. But it’s not going to speed up the process, and it won’t lead to more growth in the short term, which was the justification for such a substantial overhaul of the planning regime.

The NPPF came into force immediately on publication. At one level the uncertainty for councils is over as we now know what the NPPF contains. But how easy it will be to put into practice is much less clear: as The Guardian and other planning commentators have observed, implementation of the NPPF may well be guided by what happens in the courts rather than in planning committees, and that doesn’t sound like a speedy way forward for anyone.  

Andrew Ross is an LGiU Planning Associate