What the National Planning Policy Framework really means for local authorities PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 06 October 2011 19:07

The debate about the National Planning Policy Framework has arguably generated more heat than light. Karen Cooksley and Colette McCormack explain its impact on local authorities.

On 25 July 2011, the Department for Communities and Local Government published its draft National Planning Policy Framework. Comments on the draft can be submitted through the DCLG’s website until 17 October. The document can be downloaded here.

What it aims to do

The Framework aims to simplify planning policy with a view to promoting economic and housing growth, making Local Authorities more accountable for their own plan making and decision taking and ensuring that decisions are made on the basis that there is a presumption in favour of sustainable development. The Framework attempts to reduce and clarify more than 1,000 pages of complex and often inconsistent policy to 52 pages of more easily-understood text.

The guiding principle: presumption in favour of sustainable development…

In his foreword to the Framework, Planning Minister Greg Clark sets out the challenges that form the context for the new system: "Development means growth. We must accommodate the new ways by which we will earn our living in a competitive world. We must house a rising population, which is living longer and wants to make new choices. We must respond to the changes that new technologies offer us.”

However, he goes on to stress that these challenges must be met in a way that safeguards the natural and built environment for future generations – and that the purpose of planning is to help achieve sustainable development. He explains: “Sustainable development is about positive growth – making economic, environmental and social progress for this and future generations.”

…balanced with growth

The Framework seeks to balance this commitment to sustainable development with a focus on supporting and facilitating growth. Starting from the position that a presumption in favour of sustainable development should be a ‘golden thread’ running through plan making and decision taking, the Framework explains that delivering sustainable development encompasses:

  • Planning for prosperity (an economic role) – using the planning system to build a strong and competitive economy.
  • Planning for people (a social role) – using the planning system to promote strong, vibrant and healthy communities.
  • Planning for places (an environmental role) – using the planning system to protect and enhance the natural, built and historic environment.

Taking into account the aim of delivering sustainable development, each local planning authority will be required to produce a shorter and clearer Local Plan that is "aspirational but realistic". This new Local Plan will need to be based on up-to-date evidence about the area’s economic, social and environmental characteristics and prospects, covering areas including housing, business and infrastructure.

Importantly, the Framework stresses that the primary objective of development management is to foster the delivery of sustainable development, not to hinder or prevent development. With this in mind, local planning authorities need to “approach development management decisions positively – looking for solutions rather than problems”, and to “attach significant weight to the benefits of economic and housing growth”.

In line with this new and more proactive approach, the relationship between development management and plan-making should be made seamless, with local planning authorities taking steps to encourage early, pre-application engagement that improves the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning application system for all parties.

What the Framework means for different stakeholders

Key messages

In assessing the implications of the Framework for you and your organisation, we believe there are four overarching messages to bear in mind.

  1. While the Framework may change in nuance when it is reviewed and revised following consultation, it is unlikely to change in its fundamental nature. This document reflects what Ministers have been saying since the coalition took office and – as with the Localism Bill – they clearly mean what they say.
  2. Therefore local authorities, developers and other stakeholders should use all the available time prior to adoption of the Framework – likely to be some time in the autumn, so it is effective when the Localism Bill is enacted – to ensure that they are geared up to work within its context, and can hit the ground running.
  3. The presumption in favour of sustainable development and growth will be pivotal to the new system, and will be accorded strong prioritisation and weight in plan making and decision taking.
  4. There is a strong emphasis that – in the absence of sound reasons to the contrary – the default position is ‘yes’ on planning applications. So local planning authorities and communities will find themselves less able to harness national planning policy to support a ‘nimby’ agenda.

Implications for local authorities

  • As highlighted above, local authorities are going to be required to attach “significant weight to the benefits of economic and housing growth” in determining planning applications – a requirement that fundamentally changes the planning landscape.
  • With enactment of the new system likely to be only a few months away, authorities need to gear up now for the changes they need to make to their local plans. The new plans will require careful drafting, as they need to be shorter, clearer and provide more certainty than before as to the authority's position. Not having a new plan consistent with the framework will risk the application of the presumption in favour of sustainable development having to be applied at local level – or being applied by the Secretary of State on appeal.
  • The requirement for plans to be shorter is reinforced by the fact that it is not expected that there will be additional plan documents without clear justification. Also, Supplementary Planning Documents should only be produced where they will "help bring forward sustainable development at an accelerated rate" – and at no additional cost to the developer.
  • The idea of local planning authorities being required to make their plans simpler, clearer and more certain resonates strongly with the message Ministers have been giving to local planning authorities for months: that they are accountable for what happens in their area, and will no longer be allowed to refuse permissions by hiding behind central government or cherry-picking from a complex and inconsistent web of national, regional and local policy.
  • Many local authorities will need to review their human and financial resourcing, to ensure that their officers as well as politicians have the skills and mindset needed to approach their tasks in a way that reflects the strong policy guidance around the default position being ‘yes’, and the primary objective of development management being to foster sustainable development, not to prevent or hinder it.
  • Authorities will also need to have an evidence base that supports both policy making and decision taking. Plans must be based on "adequate, up to date, and relevant evidence about the economic, social and environmental characteristics and prospects of the area". This evidence-gathering and analysis will require substantial resource, and will need to support policies along a 15-year timeline.
  • Authorities will need to publish a list of their information requirements to provide clarity to applicants in advance of making applications. Also, requirements must be proportionate to the scale and nature of development, and the supporting information required should be “relevant, necessary and material to the application in question”. All of this requires forethought and care on the part of authorities, and something they should begin working on now, if it is not already in place.
  • Where practicable, authorities should bring forward their proposals for the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) so that they are "worked up and tested alongside the local plan". The CIL should support and incentivise new development. Importantly, the Framework says that this should be done by “placing control of a meaningful proportion of funds raised in neighbourhoods where development takes place”.

Implications for developers

  • Under the planning system envisaged in the Framework, it will be vital that developers get involved in plan making at all stages – and especially at the start, as part of the community and stakeholder engagement. Coming in at a later stage to submit a planning application simply will not work in many cases. The Framework’s strong advice about early community engagement sends an unequivocal message.
  • It is equally important to take account of the presumption in favour of sustainable development. When submitting an application, developers must ensure that their development has good sustainability credentials. It will be dangerous to presume that the new system is pro-development without the sustainability element.
  • In their community engagement, developers should give local people and communities choices wherever possible, and should take care to explain what can and cannot be done in relation to a given site or scheme.
  • Developers have learnt to explain their schemes better in terms of sustainability – and they must continue to do this, because poorly designed development that does not take account of the Framework sustainability objectives will not benefit from the presumption in favour
  • Developers should also analyse and explain clearly the direct and indirect economic benefits of economic and housing growth in terms of jobs during construction and operation, effects on local and other suppliers, and the economic contribution of their company and industry. Housebuilders in particular have not explained this clearly or with sufficient confidence in the past. However, it will be important to do so going forward as the Framework tells local authorities that they are to “attach significant weight to the benefits of economic and housing growth” in determining planning applications.

Implications for countryside protection lobby groups

  • In response to the publication of the Framework, the National Trust issued a press release voicing its ‘grave concerns’ over the Government’s planning reforms, and warning that the proposed changes “could lead to unchecked and damaging development in the undesignated countryside on a scale not seen since the 1930s”.
  • Despite these comments, there is however considerable protection and support for natural and heritage assets, both in the Framework and via other policy mechanisms.
  • In particular, the Framework is very robust in its restatement of the protection of Green Belts. It also states that development likely to have a significant effect on sites protected under the Birds and Habitats Directives “would not be sustainable under the terms of the presumption in favour of sustainable development”.

Karen Cooksley is Head of Environmental Planning and Colette McCormack is a partner at Winckworth Sherwood. Karen can be contacted on 0207 593 5296 or by email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Colette can be reached on 0207 593 5000 or by email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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