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Contracts and Law

National Planning Policy Framework

by Philip Moren

The new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for England was published by the government on 27 March 2012, following a statement in the House of Commons by Planning Minister, Greg Clark. It supersedes the controversial draft that was issued in July 2011, which provoked an outcry from many quarters, including the Daily Telegraph, National Trust, and various environmental groups who claimed the document as a developers' charter that would lead to the destruction of the countryside. This article looks at the main changes in the final document and considers its likely impact.

Generally

With some exceptions, the NPPF simply restates existing planning policies in a much clearer and more concise way. Apart from policy on waste, which is excluded from the framework and continues to be found in Planning Policy Statement (PPS) 10, all previous planning policy statements and planning guidance notes issued over the last two decades have effectively been cancelled, together with Circular 05/2005 on planning obligations and a number of other government advisory letters. These 44 documents, which contained around 1300 pages of planning policy and guidance, have been replaced by a single document that is a mere 59 pages long. The policies in the new framework need to be applied from the date of its publication.

The NPPF is accompanied by technical guidance that deals with flood risk and mineral planning matters. Other guidance (such as a companion guide to a PPS or on urban design) that is not expressly cancelled by the NPPF, and has not been cancelled previously, remains extant, and so can still be used where relevant. The government will be reviewing all such guidance to consider what continues to be needed. This exercise will involve practitioners and other related parties. In some cases, revised guidance may not necessarily come from government.

Presumption in favour of sustainable development

The final version of the framework is much more moderate and balanced in tone that last year's draft, although the need for positive planning continues to be emphasised. At first blush, it addresses most of the concerns raised by critics, who have generally welcomed the document. And while the much-debated presumption in favour of sustainable development has been retained, the apparent priority given to economic considerations over social and environmental factors has disappeared, as has the default answer to development proposals being 'yes'.

How the presumption in favour of sustainable development will operate in practice is yet to be seen. However, paragraph 6 of the document explains that "The policies in paragraphs 18 to 219, taken as a whole, constitute the government's view of what sustainable development in England means in practice for the planning system". And at paragraph 8 it says that "to achieve sustainable development, economic, social and environmental gains should be sought jointly and simultaneously through the planning system". The ministerial foreword puts it more succinctly. It is about change for the better, and not only in the built environment. In other words, whether a proposed development can be considered sustainable will very much depend on its particular circumstances and the local context. Inevitably, this will result in many disputes.

Plan-led system

The NPPF reinforces the government's commitment to the plan-led system, and to its localism agenda and neighbourhood planning. In his ministerial statement, Greg Clark made it clear that the local plan will be the "keystone of the planning edifice".

On decisions on planning applications, the NPPF explains that local authorities should:

  • Approve development proposals that accord with the development plan without delay
  • Where the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out-of-date, grant permission unless:
    • Any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in the framework taken as a whole; or
    • Specific policies in the framework indicate development should be restricted.

This is the new decision-making test that we must all become familiar with and doubtless the lawyers will be picking over and debating on appeal.

Despite planning authorities having already had eight years to prepare new style plans under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, only around half have done so. Nevertheless, transitional arrangements give them a further year to complete or adjust their emerging plans or to prepare new ones. During this period, weight can be given to existing and emerging policies in accordance with the degree to which they are consistent with the new framework. The application of the transitional arrangements is a matter that has already caused concern for many local authorities, although the Planning Advisory Service is currently working on a 'tool' to assist them with determining whether their planning policies are compliant with the NPPF.

The framework explains that neighbourhood plans must be in general conformity with the strategic policies of the Local Plan and that neighbourhoods should plan positively to support them. Neighbourhood plans and orders should not, it says, promote less development than set out in the Local Plan or undermine its strategic policies. Many local communities will undoubtedly be concerned to learn that the new neighbourhood planning regime cannot be used to block the strategic development aspirations of the local authority.

Main changes

Aside from the introduction of the presumption in favour of sustainable development, the most significant changes from previous planning policy may be summarised as follows:

  • Removal of small-scale rural office development from the 'town centre first' policy
  • For major town centre schemes where full impact will not be realised within 5 years, impacts should also be assessed for a period of up to 10 years
  • Removal of the maximum non-residential car parking standards for major developments
  • Removal of any national brownfield target for housing development, although the preference for development on brownfield sites is retained
  • Certain changes to "boost significantly the supply of housing", including requirements for local planning authorities to allocate and update annually a 5-year supply of housing sites with at least 5% buffer (moved forward from later in plan period) and 20% buffer (moved forward from later in plan period) where a record of persistent under delivery. However, the express presumption in favour of housing proposals where a planning authority cannot demonstrate a five-year housing land supply has been removed
  • Removal of the national minimum site size threshold for requiring affordable housing to be delivered
  • Increased flexibility for the delivery of rural housing to reflect local needs
  • Increased protection for community facilities
  • Encouragement for better design. As the ministerial foreword to the framework says: "Our standards of design can be so much higher. We are a nation renowned worldwide for creative excellence, yet, at home, confidence in development itself has been eroded by the too frequent experience of mediocrity"
  • Relaxation of Green Belt policy in relation to the redevelopment of existing buildings
  • Greater flexibility in the manner in which local planning authorities meet local requirements for decentralised energy supply
  • Encouragement for local planning authorities to map areas for commercial scale renewable and low carbon energy development opportunity, and then to apply these criteria to other applications
  • Requirement on local planning authorities to take strategic approach in Local Plans to the creation, protection, enhancement and management of networks of biodiversity and green infrastructure
  • Recognition of designation within Local Plans of locally designated sites of importance for wildlife, geodiversity or landscape character
  • Recognition of the intrinsic value and beauty of the countryside, whether specifically designated or not
  • Clarification of which wildlife sites should have same protection as European sites
  • Removal of requirement to set criteria and select sites for peat extraction.
Concluding remarks

Listening to the questions from MPs that followed the ministerial statement by Greg Clark, it was evident that most speakers were concerned over how the framework could assist local communities in resisting development within the Green Belt and the proliferation of travellers' sites and windfarms, rather than on how it will help to deliver the homes and jobs that are required. This does not appear to bode well for the new era of localism. Indeed, a fundamental weakness of the NPPF is that, in the absence of top-down central targets on new homes and jobs, following the abolition of regional strategies, it is still unclear as to how exactly the need for these will be determined and implemented.

The NPPF and associated documents may be viewed here: http://www.communities.gov.uk/planningandbuilding/planningsystem/planningpolicy/
planningpolicyframework/
.

Philip Moren BA(ons) MRTPI is a planning consultant and regular writer on planning matters. He is co-author of the RIBA Good Practice Guide: Negotiating the Planning Maze. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own.

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April 2012

 

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