On 24th July the Government published the new national planning policy framework, presenting it as "fundamental to strengthening communities and to delivering the homes communities need . This article considers the validity of these reforming claims against a document that appears to signal the demise of neighbourhood plan policies in the decision making process and the resurgence of regional policies in their place.
“Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise”: the shift towards localism
In 2010 the newly elected Coalition Government criticised the existing suite of planning policy documents on the basis that they were unwieldy and created an incoherent policy position. The new Framework produced in 2011 included within its three ‘fundamental objectives’ a proposal “to put unprecedented power in the hands of communities to shape the places in which they live”, while the Foreword said that exclusion would be addressed by “dismantling the unaccountable regional apparatus and introducing neighbourhood planning.”
By the time the 2012 Framework was adopted, both of these changes were well underway.
On 6th July 2010 Eric Pickles, the then Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government announced that the government planned to revoke Regional Strategies with a view to returning decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils. He claimed that the new planning system would be “clear, efficient and will put greater power in the hands of local people” with the aim of making the planning system “simpler, more efficient ….firmly rooted in the local community”. The validity of the decision was confirmed in subsequent case law  and formally enacted in Section 109 of the Localism Act 2011.
The Localism Act also introduced a new regime for neighbourhood planning. The Bill was introduced to Parliament on 13th December including proposals for Neighbourhood Development Plans made by communities rather than local authorities, and described by politicians as a “triumph for democracy over bureaucracy" .
Neighbourhood planning has proved much more problematic in practice than in theory. Friends of the Earth were concerned that neighbourhood plans would produce a planning postcode lottery  while some academics went further, prophesying “an uneven geography of representation in favour of the better educated, well-off and more vocal social groups”.  The changes have been implemented in a piecemeal fashion, with one judge agreeing that the provisions could aptly be described as a "statutory thicket" . The Chief Executive of the British Property Federation raised concerns about how neighbourhood plans would interrelate with existing plans  and there has been significant case law on this issue, mostly resolved in favour of the neighbourhood plan.
The Government has continued to promote this part of the planning system: on 30th January 2018 the then housing minister Dominic Raab stated that “We will continue to protect neighbourhood plans in national policy" . However, the final version of the Framework contains key changes, most of which were not included in the original consultation document, that suggest a fundamental change in the policy hierarchy away from local in favour of strategic, even regional, plan policy making.
“Busily seeking with a continual change”: the 2018 Framework
The main changes in the new Framework are familiar to most, and were part of the original consultation draft document:
- Housing Needs Assessments: In order to determine the minimum number of homes needed strategic policies should be informed by a local housing need assessment, conducted using the standard method in national planning guidance – unless exceptional circumstances justify an alternative approach.
- A new definition of Affordable Housing: The definition of Affordable Housing now includes Starter Homes and Discounted Market Sales. One post-consultation change is that the definition of Affordable Housing for Rent now includes Social Rent.
- Small Sites: Local planning authorities will need to identify land to accommodate at least 10% of their housing requirement on sites no larger than one hectare unless it can be shown that there are strong reasons why this cannot be achieved.
- Viability appraisals to be standardised and publically available: Applicants will have to justify the need for viability assessments at the application stage and viability assessments will need to reflect the recommended approach in national planning guidance.
- A new presumption in favour of sustainable development: The old paragraph 14 has become the new paragraph 11. Likely to be just as controversial, the new wording limits the main exception to the presumption to where certain limited NPPF policies only “provide a clear reason for refusing development”.
- The introduction of the Housing Delivery Test. If over the previous three years, actual delivery of housing falls below the LPA’s annual requirement, the LPA will have to prepare an action plan ( if delivery is below: 95%); add a 20% buffer to its housing requirement (if delivery is below 85%) and a presumption in favour of development will apply (when delivery is less than 75% of the requirement).
- An amended test for soundness: The test for soundness has been amended to make it clear that the plan must provide “an appropriate” strategy which as a minimum seeks to meet the area’s objectively assessed needs.
There are also some small scale but interesting changes that show how planning adapts to its environment.
- Paragraph 82 recognises the need to provide for technological change in terms of 'making provision for clusters or networks of knowledge and data-driven, creative or high technology industries;
- Paragraph 95 acknowledges that terrorism is now part of the range of issues that planning must consider with its recommendation that planners take account of all possible malicious threats in the design of places where people congregate;
- Those with an eye for the implications of Brexit on the planning system will paragraph 107 and the introduction of overnight lorry parking as an important consideration in planning decisions;
“A strange fashion of forsaking”: the shift towards strategic policies
There is another cluster of policy changes, introduced in the final version of the Framework, that seem to signal a move away from neighbourhood and back towards regional strategic plan making.
The adopted Framework includes new definitions of Strategic Policies described as “policies and site allocations which address strategic priorities" while non-strategic policies are defined as “Policies contained in a neighbourhood plan, or those policies in a plan that are not strategic policies”. In addition:
- The term ‘strategic plan’ is replaced with a reference to ‘strategic policies” in paragraph 11, 60, 73, 117, 135, 136, 138, and 156;
- Paragraph 18 refers to neighbourhood plans that contain 'just non-strategic policies” and paragraph 30 seems to suggest that neighbourhood plan policies will only have precedence over non-strategic policies in a local plan, however recently they were adopted;
- Paragraphs 25-27, 65 and 67 replace references to 'plan making’ authorities with ‘strategic policy making authorities’.
Strategic policies are further defined in the Glossary with a reference to section 19 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, that in turn allows London Borough Councils, Mayoral development corporations, and local authorities within Combined Authority Areas to have strategic policies that are not part of their development plan documents. It cannot be entirel y coincidental that the Combined Authorities (Spatial Development Strategy) Regulations 2018  were laid before Parliament just before the new Framework was published and came into force just afterwards. These regulations allow the mayoral combined authorities of Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and the West of England to produce and amend spatial development strategies, mirroring the powers that the Mayor of London already has to produce and amend the London Plan.
“All is turned”
Although these changes have not been mentioned previously, or formed part of any consultation, the Government’s position is clear – for now. There is a new hierarchy of planning policies – with some labelled strategic and others not. Neighbourhood Development plans will continue to be part of the development plan once adopted but their policies will have only non-strategic status. And 8 years and 18 days after Regional Spatial Strategies were “abolished” we have a Framework supporting strategic policies that may be made by regional authorities with policies that may have strategic status even where they are not part of the development plan.
 “They flee from me that sometime did me seek” (1535) Thomas Wyatt
 HCWS 924 July 2018 Col 75WS
 Cala Homes (South) Ltd, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government & Anor  EWCA Civ 639 (27 May 2011) URL: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2011/639.html
Cala Homes (South) Ltd v Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government (Rev 1)  EWHC 97 (Admin) (07 February 2011) URL: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2011/97.html
Cala Homes (South) Ltd v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government & Anor  EWHC 2866 (Admin) (10 November 2010)URL: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2010/2866.html
 Friends of the Earth Press Release, Localism Bill fails vital green test, 13 December 2010
 Simin Davoudi & Paul Cowie ‘Are English Neighbourhood forums democratically legitimate?’ Planning Theory and Practice Vol 1 No. 4 562
 Kebbell Developments Ltd, R (on the application of) v Leeds City Council & Anor  EWHC 2664 (Admin)
 BPF Press Release, Property industry welcomes publication of Localism Bill, 13 December 2010
 Westminster Hall Debate “Town and Village Plans” 30 January 2018 column 338