09 Mar 2018

In 2012 the coalition government reshaped national planning policy by producing the NPPF. This was loudly proclaimed to slim down and simplify the planning system. It abolished a host of planning policy guidance documents as well as the then supposedly unpopular top down Regional Development Strategies. Localism was paramount. For some time however the current government has recognised that this new planning system has failed to deliver the requisite number of homes in the right places. The turning point was the Housing White Paper in February 2017. 

As a result of the failure of the 2012 NPPF to satisfy the need for housing in England, the now conservative only government has proposed a number of key changes be made to the NPPF. The revised NPPF has clearly been drafted as a direct response to the current housing crisis in England and contains a number of strategic proposals intended to alleviate the massive shortage of homes. It has therefore been drafted in a very different context to the 2012 NPPF (which had a focus on the viability and deliverability of housing as a result of the last recession) and thus seeks to take English planning policy in a new direction toward maximising house building efficiency. 

We are now entering a new chapter with more policy documents than just the NPPF. Four planning policy documents were published in draft on 5 March 2018 for consultation: a revised NPPF, a Housing Delivery Test, Viability Assessment Guidance and a Reforms to Developer Contributions document and with more national guidance to follow. Each of these policy documents deal with important topics which impinge on the planning system such as an update on the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), where and how viability assessments fit into the planning system and housing delivery targets for local authorities with penalties for not meeting those targets.

This briefing considers the revised NPPF, fleshing out the main ingredients which are relevant to the residential development sector. There are five key policy areas that the overhaul of the NPPF primarily addresses: 

  • affordable housing
  • plan making including the housing requirement
  • determining planning applications
  • green belt and brownfield development
  • housing delivery. 

Affordable housing

As trailed in previous proposals the definition of affordable housing has been extended to cover affordable rent at 20% below local market rents or in accordance with Government rent policy, Build to Rent schemes, Starter Homes, Discounted Market Housing, and other "housing provided for sale that provides a route to ownership for those who could not achieve home ownership through the market". 

The revised NPPF continues the current policies which provide that development plan policies are to include the number of affordable homes required, the developer contributions to affordable housing and a requirement, in the main, for on-site provision. Developments of 10 dwellings or more are to have at least 10% affordable homes, but with exceptions such as Build to Rent.      

Plan making

As of January 2018, 53% of English local authorities did not have an up to date post 2012 NPPF local plan. The new NPPF focuses heavily on revising the development plan making process making plans more streamlined and strategic, and encouraging authorities to work together to meet their communities' needs. Plans will need to identify strategic and local policies separately in a local plan with local policies often being appropriate for neighbourhood plans. Individual authorities or joint authorities may prepare development plans which deal only with strategic matters and these are referred to as strategic plans. The proposed updated NPPF includes:

  • Retaining the principle that plans should apply a presumption in favour of sustainable development by positively seeking opportunities to meet the development needs of the area. They should be flexible, adapt to change and as a minimum provide for the objectively assessed needs for housing as well as needs that can't be met within neighbouring authorities
  • To ensure that authorities work together to meet the needs of all neighbouring authorities, every authority will be required to publish annual statements of common ground on strategic cross boundary issues such as housing and infrastructure so that it is clear  where they agree and disagree on requirements and on distribution
  • Introducing a new plan-making framework which allows for local authorities to plan for defined strategic priorities in the most suitable way. It also introduces the requirement that local authorities review plan policies at least once every five years
  • Placing an emphasis on local authorities taking a pro-active approach to bringing sufficient land forward for development.
  • Amending the tests for a 'sound' local plan so that the plan is no longer required to be 'the most appropriate strategy' but rather 'an appropriate strategy'
  • Ensuring that development plans clearly state the expected developer contributions in connection with particular sites and types of development. The expected contributions must not make development unviable and there must be supporting evidence so viability assessments of key sites in the development plan are to be undertaken. This means that viability assessments for individual planning applications are not appropriate unless provided for in the plan.

As expected, the new NPPF also proposes to introduce a standard methodology for assessing housing need which was originally outlined in the September 2017 consultation. The new NPPF states 'in determining the minimum number of houses needed, strategic plans should be based upon a local housing need assessment, conducted using the standard method in national planning guidance'. The standard method places a high priority on the affordability ratio of each area so that where there is a shortage of housing and thus higher prices, the plan will need to provide for more housing in its housing requirement.

Determining planning applications

As with plan making, the principle underlying the decision making process has been retained. Decisions should apply a presumption in favour of sustainable development by approving development proposals that accord with an up-to-date development plan without delay. 

Where there are no relevant development plan policies, or the policies which are most important for determining the application are out-of-date, then permission should be granted unless (i) important policies to protect areas or assets are impediments or (ii) adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits. 

If a local authority is unable to evidence a five year housing supply "or where the housing delivery test indicates that delivery of housing has been substantially below the housing requirement over the previous three years", the presumption in favour of sustainable development is triggered as outlined in paragraph 4.2 above. Also proposed is a mechanism which would allow the five year land supply requirement to be agreed for a one year period subject to a 10% buffer which would take into account 'any fluctuations in the market during that year".

Green Belt and brownfield development

The Government's 300,000 new homes target in England per year aspiration provides for difficulties in maintaining the protections currently given to the Green Belt against the need to ensure greater housing delivery. Whilst the revised NPPF seeks to increase the protection afforded to the Green Belt by prioritising the development of brownfield sites and pursuing higher-density housing in accessible locations, there is scope for the development of brownfield land in the Green Belt to be used for affordable housing, where there is no substantial harm to openness.

Authorities are urged to work proactively with developers and use new planning tools such as the brownfield register to encourage development on brownfield land. 

Maintaining strong protections of the Green Belt through ensuring that boundaries may only be amended in exceptional circumstances through strategic policies in a development plan and when local authorities have exhausted all other available options.

Housing delivery

In order to increase and better regulate housing delivery in England, the new NPPF proposes to:

  1. Introduce a Housing Delivery Test to ensure Local Authorities are held accountable for the undersupply of housing.
  2. Strengthen policy to further support small site development to help meet the housing requirement of an area and to further diversify the housing market.
  3. Encourage a greater supply of new housing through the requirement that local authorities monitor progress in the building out of sites and the preparation of action plans to assess causes of under-delivery. To advance this, local authorities should also consider imposing a planning condition which states that development must begin within a shorter timescale than the relevant default period.

What happens next?

Consultation on the new NPPF will run until 10th May 2018 with the government intending to produce a finalised NPPF in the summer of 2018  

It is also proposed that a transitional period of 6 months will run from the publication of the new NPPF. During this time the previous NPPF will continue to be applied when assessing development plans. At the end of the transitional period, the new NPPF is proposed to come into full effect in England.