Decision taking on applications remains as was, but NPPF revisions to plan-making threaten to lower the bar

16 Jan 24

Iceni will be engaging in the casework that is likely to define the practical impacts of the new NPPF, as well as the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act and Prior Approval changes consulted last summer.

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You’d be forgiven for not noticing, but right before Christmas, the Government published changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Though subtle, they are significant. A summary of the changes can be read here.

After three weeks operating under the new Framework, the policy has already affected casework. Whilst the true impact on the planning system may only be apparent through case precedent, here are our key takeaways on what has happened and how it will affect the system:

  • Decision taking remains as-was on planning applications. Draft changes to the NPPF had proposed to strengthen wording such that material considerations would need to strongly indicate a Plan should not be followed in taking a decision to grant/refuse permission, but this was one subtle change not carried through.
  • The Government is incentivising authorities to produce new Plans, but only by removing or weakening a key stick. The NPPF is elevating the primacy of Development Plans by removing the need to maintain a 5 year housing land supply (5YLS) in those areas with a Plan adopted in the past 5 years. 5YLS was the primary lever that enabled the market to deviate away from an ineffective or failing Plan strategy by triggering a presumption in favour of sustainable development. The market may now have to wait up to 5 years to act, unless the area is badly failing on its Housing Delivery Test. There is also a lessening of the stick for those authorities advancing draft Plans (a 4 rather than 5YLS is required, provided there is a draft Plan that allocates sites on a map). There are no new sticks. The Secretary of State modified a long-vaunted threat of Local Plan intervention for failing authorities, but the threat must ring hollow for the perennially named and shamed offenders, especially as he has only requested that they submit a Local Plan timetable to him by 12th March in the first instance, with a General Election looming.
  • Anti-growth Councillors will likely hold the whip hand over those Councillors seeking to plan positively for growth, especially in those authorities where Green Belt exists. The NPPF now states that the standard method is “an advisory starting point” for establishing a housing requirement, and that “there is no requirement for Green Belt boundaries to be reviewed or changed”. This text is new, it’s explicit and it will undoubtedly provide ammunition for anti-growth Councillors arguing for growth-light plans that don’t get to grips with an area’s issues.
  • All eyes will be on the Planning Inspectorate to pick the bones out of the NPPF changes… and perhaps the Courts thereafter. Ambiguity persists in NPPF policies. With a policy requirement to plan for “sufficient” growth, it will fall upon the Planning Inspectorate to square the circle with the new text on standard method and Green Belt. Their decisions will set a precedent and there is a high probability of them being subject to Legal Challenges, taking Plan Reviews beyond a General Election to a point where there could be another change to national planning policy.

The Government has trailed that its changes are intended to boost growth and housebuilding by encouraging more authorities to produce Plans. But if the changes facilitate plan-making for low levels of growth that avoid difficult decisions, that fail to grasp growth opportunities and close the door on corrective action for 5 years, it’s difficult to see how the changes amount to being pro-growth.

The importance of Local Plans has been strengthened, requiring more scrutiny of growth options through Sustainability Appraisal and in-depth analysis of the demographic, social and economic impacts of alternative growth strategies. Iceni’s Economics Team are ideally placed to assist with this.

Iceni will be engaging in the casework that is likely to define the practical impacts of the new NPPF, as well as the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act and Prior Approval changes consulted last summer. Stay tuned for updates in the coming months.

James Waterhouse Director,Planning