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08/03/2018

Legal landscape: Does the planning system work for all?

A revised National Planning Policy Framework could bring clarity to planning, says Michael Bedford, but he fears government will avoid difficult decisions about green belt and neighbourhood planning

[Please note: This piece was written and published in The Planner before the publication of the new draft revised NPPF on Monday 5 March]

Six years since the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which saw 1,300 pages of planning regulations condensed into just 65, the government has confirmed its intention to publish a consultation draft of the revised framework this spring. The review will be welcomed by planners, developers and local authorities.

A lot has changed since 2012 and it’s time for national planning policy to catch up. The proposals in last year’s white paper Fixing Our Broken Housing Market (pdf), the written ministerial statements on small sites and housing land supply, and the growth of neighbourhood planning all need to be integrated into the framework.

The revised NPPF will no doubt also be a key tool in the government’s efforts to fulfil its pledge to deliver a million new homes by 2022. This is the chance for the government to have its say on contentious issues surrounding the interpretation of the current NPPF. Is the presumption in favour of sustainable development really intended to be a ‘golden thread’ running through the whole of the framework, or just paragraph 14? What are “relevant policies for the supply of housing”?

Interpretation has thus far been left to the courts, but it is now time for the government to let us know its views and intentions. The hope is that doing so will bring much-needed clarity – although, of course, some may say that a revised document will merely bring another round of arguments about what those new policies really mean.

A major change is likely to be the introduction of a standard methodology for the calculation of objectively assessed housing need, following the government’s consultation late last year. The adoption of a standard method will introduce a new level of predictability, transparency and certainty to the process, which many will see as desirable. Certainly, the current system whereby individual local authorities can choose how to estimate housing need isn’t working.

However, many commentators have suggested that the method proposed by the government will lead to large regional disparities in objectively assessed need, with big increases in the South East and reductions in some parts of the North. It also doesn’t appear that local authorities will be obliged to plan for the full figure arising from the new methodology, with the indication being that some sort of cap on any increase in housing numbers over that in the current plan is likely.

"Where diversity issues were relevant to the decision they could be expected to be picked up when addressing other material considerations"

One issue that seems unlikely to be addressed is the contradiction in policy between the focus on increasing the numbers of houses being built and the supposed ‘strong focus’ on maintaining protection for the green belt. There seems little acknowledgement from ministers that a more sensible policy on the green belt is necessary if the housing crisis is to be tackled.

Many of the local authorities experiencing the greatest demand for housing also find themselves constrained by large areas of green belt. Many of the most sustainable locations for homes to be built are in fact within green belt. The answer should lie in a sensible reappraisal of the function and purpose of the green belt, together with a limited release of suitable land for development. Sadly, politics seems to have trumped economics on this issue.

Similarly, the contradiction between the expansion neighbourhood planning and the imperative to increase housing numbers is also set to deepen. Although the government claims that neighbourhood development plans boost housing supply, many in the development industry are sceptical. Those with direct experience often find that the effect is to stymie rather than encourage the building of homes. Continuing to increase the importance of neighbourhood plans is likely to exacerbate that effect.

We can only hope that the government chooses to take the bull by the horns and address some of these long-standing issues. An update to national policy is sorely needed. The development industry will be watching and waiting with interest.

Michael Bedford QC is a specialist in planning, local government law, environment and infrastructure with Cornerstone Barristers.

Image credit | iStock

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