The National Planning Policy Framework [NPPF] is claimed to be the biggest shake up to planning policy in 50 years. The key word here is policy. This is not a change to the law. This new policy document condenses the old 1000+ page of policy into just 59 pages. I wanted to investigate whether anything has been gained or lost in this translation.
The new policy has 12 Core planning principles. These state that planning should:
- Empower local people to shape their surroundings
- Find creative ways to enhance and improve the places in which people live
- Proactively drive and support sustainable economic development
- Seek to secure high quality design and a good standard of amenity
- Promote the vitality of our main urban areas & protecting the Green Belts
- Support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate
- Contribute to conserving the natural environment and reducing pollution
- Encourage the effective use of brownfield land
- Promote mixed use developments
- Conserve heritage assets in a manner appropriate to their significance
- Make the fullest possible use of public transport, walking and cycling
- Support local strategies to improve health, social and cultural well being for all
The main thrust of these 12 principles is the identification of the need for sustainable development and economic growth. These themes were present in the previous policy but they been restated and reemphasised here. Despite being billed as a ‘shake up’ the biggest change is that the size of the document has be much reduced and simplified. It could be said that the only genuinely new aspect to this policy is the first point: to ‘empower local people to shape their surroundings’. This could be seen by some as an attempt to empower people to shape their surroundings that is inline with the notional of the ‘big society’.
‘Bottom Up’ Policy
The desire to increase public involvement has been stated as one of the driver’s behind the simplification of planning policy:
'By replacing over a thousand pages of national policy with around fifty, written simply and clearly, we are allowing people and communities back into planning.’ - Rt Hon Greg Clark, Minister for Planning
This is intended to be a ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’ policy and is to be achieved through the two tiered system of local & neighbourhood plans which are described thusly in the NPPF:
‘’… local people and their accountable councils can produce their own distinctive local and neighbourhood plans, which reflect the needs and priorities of their communities’
The NPPF encourages local authorities to draw up a Local Development Plan (LDP). (There is a transitional year for their production). The local authority will then define a number of neighbourhoods within its area. It is then hoped that local communities with formulate their own Neighbourhood Development Plans (this is where the ‘big society’ element comes in). The aim of this policy shift is for communities to have more involvement in planning decisions through their Neighbourhood Development Plans (NDPs). These NDPs are then signed off by referendum.
Neighbourhood Development Plan
According to the NPPF neighbourhoods will be able to ‘set planning policies through neighbourhood plans to determine decisions on planning applications’ & ‘grant planning permission through Neighbourhood Development Orders and Community Right to Build Orders for specific development which complies with the order.’ However, the final say will still remain with the planning authority. This could potentially open the planning process up to NIMBY groups with the time and resources to draw up these neighbourhood plans. Paragraph 184 of the NPPF seems to limit the power of potential NIMBY groups: ‘Neighbourhood plans and orders should not promote less development than set out in the Local Plan or undermine its strategic policies’
So the neighbourhood plans can be overridden by the local authority and appear to be intrinsically limited in their scope - ‘Neighbourhood plans must be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan’. If this is the case, what would motivate someone to draw one up? Indeed, what happens if no one draws up one of these neighbourhood plans?
Much-loved areas of the British countryside have their protectors in the form of the National Trust, National Parks etc. but what if one of these local authority defined neighbourhoods lacks such champions? If an area doesn’t have a neighbourhood plan the general presumption in favour of sustainable development is followed according to the NPPF. Does this mean that developers are inclined look at areas that have no neighbourhood plans such as post-industrial brownfield sites? This last outcome, in my opinion at least, would be a positive one but does this example highlight a fundamental issue with the NPPF? This being that the ‘default setting’ of NPPF is for the ‘Development that is sustainable should go ahead, without delay’. i.e. any developer that can make the argument that their intervention is 'sustainable' will go ahead unless the it is at odds with the Local Development Plan. It appears that the Neighbourhood Development Plans will be unable to limit development.
Local Development Plan
If the Neighbourhood Development Plan can be overridden by the Local Development Plan can that be overridden too? Here is this NPPF paragraph 199:
‘Local planning authorities should consider using Local Development Orders to relax planning controls for particular areas or categories of development, where the impacts would be acceptable, and in particular where this would promote economic, social or environmental gains for the area, such as boosting enterprise’
Local Development Orders (LDOs) were introduced with the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. LDOs could be used by a planning authority to override Local Development Plans to pass certain developments should the economic case justify it.
Thinking back, the most heated national planning debate in the past 12 months, would probably be HS2. Projects of this scale would not be dealt with by the NPPF but with a hybrid bill.
If the LDP itself can be overridden doesn’t this just weaken the NDP still further? It seems that NPPF ‘empower(s) local people to shape their surroundings’ so long as it is in accordance with local authority policy, which in turn is subject to 'top down' control. It seems that the only new aspect to this policy (namely the shift to a 'bottom up' approach) is limited unless it aligns with the 'top down' policy. It appears that it is giving power to the 'little people' but only to control 'little things'. Time will tell whether these Neighbourhood Development Plans are merely paying lip service to the (somewhat ill defined) notion of the ‘big society’ or whether they can actually effect real change.
If the effectiveness of the NDPs is in question then what of the other significant change introduced by the NPPF, namely, the condensation of the policy document? It may be the case that ambiguities in policy are the likely result of reducing 1000 pages of policy to 59. Again, time will tell whether the true beneficiaries of the NPPF are the grass roots or the planning lawyers.
Link to NPPF document:
Link to NPPF technical guidance: