The Planning system in England remains a recurring play thing of Government, a tool with which to bash recalcitrant local planning authorities and/or developers (depending on your point of view).
This year the Government is avoiding the temptation of squeezing yet further planning legislation into a Parliament which is already far too short of time as a result of Brexit. Instead, faced with an ongoing housing cost and supply crisis, it is looking to be seen to "make something happen" through a review of national planning policy, the associated national planning guidance and by the introduction of measures targeted at measuring housing delivery in plan making areas and unpicking measures around CIL and 106 obligations.
The changes to the NPPF, NPPG and developer contributions seek to implement previously announced policy changes which have been the subject of prior consultation following the publication of the 2017 Housing White Paper and later consultations on housing delivery and the build to rent sector. The Government's press release is clear that it is looking to place "greater emphasis on converting planning permissions into homes". With that aim in mind, in the index to the draft NPPF it is telling that the section previously headed 'Delivering a wide choice of high quality homes' has been simplified to 'Delivering a sufficient supply of homes'. Notwithstanding the proposed measures to improve the involvement of community groups in influencing the look and feel of new housing developments, the catch phrase of the Government is now perhaps clearer than ever: "it's all about supply, stupid!"
There has been a rash of bulletins, updates and analysis of the proposed new changes over the past week. We do not propose to repeat what you can read elsewhere, or glean from a few spare moments delving into the consultation papers (to which you can link through by clicking the highlighted text above). However, from us four themes to note and consider:
Housing delivery, housing delivery, housing delivery.
Yes, it's repeated to emphasise its importance: it really is at the heart of the proposed changes. Taken as a whole, we believe the package of proposed changes is undoubtedly an ambitious attempt at achieving the Government's policy objective of increasing supply. True: the Government can on the one hand be criticised for taking such a scatter gun approach – clobbering landowners, developers and local planning authorities with so many proposed changes, but it is perhaps better politically for the Government to be seen to be doing too much than too little. A few observations from us:
- 5 year supply in adopted plans will need to include a buffer to guard against under delivery which can only be a good thing. How those local authorities that have consistently failed to adopt up to date local plans will deliver on even more ambitious supply targets remains to be seen. We wonder whether the Government really will soon be prepared to sharpen its pencils and step in as promoting authority in local authority areas threatened with special measures? The show of policy rhetoric may very soon need to be backed by action.
- the proposed Housing Delivery Test against which local planning authorities are to be measured against will be heavily debated over coming months. However, all things being equal, its implications for development control are potentially considerable. If a local planning authority is seen to fall behind the 95% delivery target over the preceding three year period might its action plan include, for example, re-evaluating the imposition of planning obligation packages which are fettering scheme viability?
- local planning authorities are to be encouraged to consider a shorter period for implementation of new permissions than the standard default period. However we cannot see how a shorter period can reasonably be imposed unless the applicant agrees. If the market deteriorates, the implications of this proposal for the robustness of numerous conditional contracts is also potentially far reaching.
The status of the Greenbelt in the planning system continues to have an almost religious hold on Government.
With key parts of the popular press continuing to act as self-confessed guardians of the greenbelt (however questionable that aim might be given the quality of considerable tracts of the greenbelt), the Government has again ducked the issue of making substantive changes to greenbelt policy in its proposals, with one important caveat. There is an improved recognition in the draft NPPF that exceptional circumstances can necessitate proposed changes to green belt boundaries in a strategic plan, subject to all other reasonable options for meeting its identified need for development have been exhausted. To do that a local planning authority must have appropriately applied its mind to suitable use of brownfield and underutilised land, density, and cross authority working with any neighbouring authority who may be able to accommodate any identified (but otherwise unmet) need. Whether any local authorities, armed with a suitably strong evidence base, will now dare to propose boundary changes in emerging plans remains to be seen. We doubt it.
It's business as usual for town centre policy, but 'adaption' is the new watchword.
Planning policies relating to town centres need to be forward facing – looking at least 10 years ahead - and targeted at their promotion of vitality and viability through supporting a range of uses. Local planning authorities now need to facilitate the adaption of town centres as part of applying a positive approach to their growth and management. There is a renewed emphasis on housing as part of a suitable mix of town centre uses. With the plight of numerous failing town centres now a key theme in England, and with the recent collapse of a number of high profile retailers and town centre occupiers, the government clearly sees the need to place some of the burden on local planning authorities to ensure they think ahead and shore up their town centres. If that enables the easy release of new housing sites, so much the better.
It is not policy until it's policy.
The noise accompanying the issue of the draft NPPF on 5th March risks elevating its status to that of adopted policy. However, the draft NPPF cannot be given the weight of adopted policy unless and until it has been adopted, and the weight to be applied to it in planning determinations (whether by local planning authorities, or the Secretary of State on appeal) should arguably be very minimal until then. The Mayor of London's office has recently attracted considerable criticism for suggesting the new draft London Plan will be immediately taken into account by the Mayor in decision making, notwithstanding paragraph 216 of the adopted NPPF about the weight to be applied to emerging policy, and the absence, thus far, of an Examination in Public consequent on the close of the public consultation period. That said, whether the Government will play by its own rule book here remains to be seen.
The opportunity to respond to the live consultations ends on 10th May, and we can expect a new NPPF and NPPG to follow this summer, with any secondary legislation to be introduced in the autumn.
The success of the changes will ultimately be measured by improved housing supply – the Government wants to see the delivery of 300,000 new homes a year in England. That is a circa 20% increase on last year's delivery figure. Of course, housing supply is not just an output of the planning system, but is also reflective of the state of the economy and the creativity of the development industry. Whether the new changes therefore have a chance to deliver 'success' remains to be seen. That said, expect the Government to own success if its delivery target is met, but fall back before not too long on further tinkering with the planning system – including possible further legislative measures - if it does not.