The new National Planning Policy Framework, published six days before Christmas, was accompanied by a flurry of initial reactions from across the industry, us included.
Six weeks on, now the dust has settled, Executive Director Sarah Hamilton-Foyn sets out her reflections on the most significant changes and the implications they’re likely to have on the development industry.
Four Observations About the New NPPF
No Significant Changes to the Standard Method
There has been a lot of debate over the Government’s intention to make the method for calculating housing need advisory.
But, in fact, the Planning Practice Guidance makes clear that the use of the Standard Method was only ever advisory. If an authority deviated from the use of the Standard Method, then clear justification must be presented at a local plan examination.
So, what is the situation now?
Well, LPAs can still choose to deviate from the Standard Method, and they must still justify their decision at examination.
Importantly, LPAs can – as before – choose to go for a housing requirement figure that is higher than the Standard Method as well as one that is lower.
And that means there is still scope at a local plan examination to have that debate. When it comes to local plan housing requirements, we’re confident that we will still be able to present our clients’ views robustly and make a strong case for increasing housing requirements, where there is a case for it.
Changes to Housing Land Supply – paragraph 226
Since the new NPPF was published there has been much discussion about the interpretation of paragraph 226.
At the time of writing the supporting paragraphs within the PPG have not been updated to reflect the December 2023 NPPF and the requirement for some authorities to only demonstrate a four-year housing land supply of deliverable sites (4YHLS). There is, therefore, no supporting guidance upon the interpretation of NPPF paragraph 226 and it’s too soon to have case law available. The industry is left grappling with an important question over whether a 4YHLS should be calculated against a 4-year or 5-year requirement. Although we may not have long to wait as DLUHC announced on Friday 26th January that they will be publishing guidance shortly to resolve confusion over the new four-year housing land supply target.
Interpretation one: Calculating against a 4-year requirement
The first approach is that the supply is calculated on the basis of the 4-year supply against a 4-year requirement, rather than a 4-year supply against a 5-year requirement. This appears the logical conclusion from a simple reading of paragraphs 77 and 226. Arguably had the Government not intended a 4-year supply to be demonstrated against a 4-year requirement then wording similar to that used for neighbourhood plans in the previous iterations of the NPPF could have been used.
Paragraph 14c of the September 2023, July 2021, June 2019 and July 2018 NPPF all clearly identified that in relation to appropriate neighbourhood plan areas a 3-year supply was to be demonstrated against its 5-year supply. Stating:
“…the local planning authority has at least a three year supply of deliverable housing sites (against its five year housing supply requirement, including the appropriate buffer as set out in paragraph 73)…”
Paragraph 14c of NPPF September 2023, July 2021, June 2019 and July 2018
The Government had, therefore, already set out such a principal and this had been part of the decision-making process for well over 5-years prior to the publication of the December 2023 version of the NPPF. It could therefore be that the interpretation is, that the wording in the NPPF should be read in its simplest sense and that the 4-year supply should be measured against a 4-year requirement.
Interpretation two: Calculating against a 5-year requirement
However, the contrary view is that a 4-year supply should be measured against a 5-year requirement. The assertion in such arguments is essentially that the December 2023 NPPF is poorly drafted. This is based upon the perceived intent within the associated Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) which accompanied the initial publication of the December 2023 NPPF on 19th December 2023. This stated:
“…We are also rewarding local authorities at an advanced stage of plan making. Some local authorities have paused plan making in recent months. That is not good policy, lets communities down and we have warned of the consequences. Local plans at examination, Regulation 18, or Regulation 19 stage with a policy map and proposed allocations towards meeting housing need only have to demonstrate a four-year housing land supply (as opposed to five years) for a period of two years for decision making purposes. That protection is not afforded those who have dragged their feet…” WMS published 19 December 2023
The indication that the Government was ‘rewarding’ local authorities has been considered, by some, to suggest that a 4-year supply should be measured against a 5-year requirement. This argument is bolstered by the fact that the definition of ‘Deliverable’ in Annex 2 Glossary has not changed between versions of the NPPF, and still requires that deliverability is assessed over a five-year period.
These points do add credence to the argument that the revisions to the NPPF may have suggested that a 4-year supply should be measured against a 5-year requirement; however, the simple fact is neither the WMS nor the December 2023 NPPF explicitly state this.
The case for a 4-year supply to be measured against a 5-year requirement also relies upon the presumption that this was the intention of the ‘reward’ referred to within the WMS. The reference to ‘reward’ is not clarified or described in any greater detail within the WMS. The reward may simply be, as currently written, that the supply need only be considered over a shorter 4-year period. Whilst such a reward may not assist some local authorities there are undoubtedly some, who have a front-loaded housing trajectory, which it will assist.
Given the debate and confusion that has arisen, we keenly await clarity from the forthcoming guidance announced on the 26th January.
Green Belt Protections Increased
For us, one of the most significant changes – and one that is of most detriment to the delivery of successful placemaking – is the change to Green Belt policy.
The new NPPF specifically offers councils a ‘get out of jail’ card when it comes to reviewing Green Belt boundaries when preparing a new local plan.
Further, paragraph 145 makes clear that, even if a local authority will not be able to meet its housing need, local authorities are not required to review their Green Belt boundaries during plan making.
Of course, a council can still choose to review its Green Belt boundaries where exceptional circumstances justify such an approach. But, with the Green Belt being possibly the most misunderstood and politically-charged planning policy, we predict that we’ll see fewer Green Belt reviews being undertaken, at least in the short term.
Yet locations in the Green Belt are often the most sustainable. Our view is that local authorities should undertake a comprehensive review of the Green Belt as part of local plan reviews so that potential development locations are considered against the purposes of the Green Belt to meet future development needs.
If we see fewer reviews of the Green Belt this will, in turn, mean that we are likely to see more local authorities (with land in the Green Belt) arguing for a lower housing requirement than the Standard Method.
What is the implication for developers?
We are more likely to be battling at local plan examinations for increasing the proposed housing requirement figure, and more likely to be working with authorities that have a lower (and therefore, more achievable) housing land supply position.
An Increased Tension Between Density and Character
With a Green Belt review potentially off the cards in those authorities, the local planning authorities will have to focus on opportunities within their urban areas to provide the nation’s much needed housing. A policy that will inevitably increase the density of development in our urban areas.
Indeed, NPPF paragraph 129(a) acknowledges this and supports the ‘significant uplift’ in average densities within city and town centres. And while higher density areas can contribute to good placemaking and sustainable development, we mustn’t forget the importance of providing open space and green infrastructure within our urban areas, both for ensuring quality of life and to combat the impacts of climate change.
But this renewed focus on focusing housing within existing urban areas brings about a new tension within the NPPF. Changing the density of urban areas will inevitably lead to a change in character, something which paragraph 130 warns against. Central Government has repeatedly emphasised the importance to delivering ‘beautiful’ places which, while not incompatible with higher density areas, we expect will become a central point of debate at future local plan examinations/ public inquiries.
The likely result?
We expect to be debating whether a proposal will have an acceptable or unacceptable change to the character of an area at future inquiries in 2024.
Further Uncertainty Won’t Help With Delivery
With significant areas still open to interpretation – in particular surrounding housing land supply – the industry will be waiting to see what changes the government are going to make to the planning practice guidance.
We also know that we will have a general election this year, which raises the question of how long the new NPPF is going to be valid for and what further changes might take place if a new administration comes to power.
Added to that, changes are afoot for national development management policies (for which we are waiting for a public consultation this year) and new local plan regulations are anticipated later in the year to streamline the local plan process to 30 months from start to finish (all while increasing the opportunities for public consultation).
One thing is for sure, there is going to be a lot to consider over the next 12 months and we can expect a lot more uncertainty to come.
There are challenging times ahead for the planning system. But we are braced for what’s around the corner and ready to advise developers and work collectively towards our shared goals of delivering quality places that promote environmental gains and wellbeing.