The National Planning Policy Framework - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

7  Transition to a new system

120. The Department for Communities and Local Government's target date for publishing the National Planning Policy Framework—and presumably bringing it into force—is April 2012.[232] The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) warned that experience of previous planning reforms had shown that unless the transition period was carefully managed, lack of certainty would in fact act to slow down development.[233] Stuart Hylton of the Planning Officers Society explained that

    every major change to the planning system since the war has been followed by a couple of years of downturn in development activity while the new system beds in. If we are talking about introducing the biggest change to the planning system in 50 years in the middle of the biggest recession in the national economy in 50 years, then the consequences could be very serious indeed.[234]

121. The NPPF Impact Assessment notes that around half (47%) of councils do not have a published Core Strategy[235] at present, and fewer than a third (30%) have one which has been formally adopted.[236] The poor coverage of adopted Local Plans has given rise to a great deal of concern about the precipitate introduction of a system, through the NPPF, which guides local planning authorities to grant permission to developments whenever a plan is "absent, silent, indeterminate, or where relevant policies are out-of-date."[237]

122. Conservation bodies and others feared that inappropriate, unwelcome or even unsustainable development could be imposed on areas without an adequate plan.[238] The Institution of Civil Engineers suggested that, when the NPPF was introduced, the limited coverage of Local Plans would encourage developers to submit applications that perhaps would not be approved were an up-to-date plan to be in place.[239] The National Trust speculated that "a national document [the NPPF] will in effect determine many planning decisions for years to come",[240] and Roger Harding of Shelter predicted "a flurry of potential court judgments or applications brought forward while local authorities adjust to the new system that might not be in keeping with the long-term needs of the community and the NPPF itself."[241]

123. Even those areas currently covered by adopted plans may not be insulated from uncertainty. Several witnesses told us that, because no already-adopted plans include the changes of policy set out in the NPPF, in the words of RTPI President Richard Summers, "if the button was pressed on the NPPF tomorrow morning, as it is currently drafted, every Local Plan in the country would be immediately out of date. There needs to be a transition period to ensure that there is a smooth handover."[242] A particular concern is the requirement for plans to identify 20% more housing land than is indicated by their assessments of need, a requirement which few, if any, current plans will have incorporated.[243]

124. Sir Simon Jenkins, Chair of the National Trust, told us that, since the publication of the draft NPPF, some transitional problems had already become apparent. Sir Simon alleged that Inspectors were already making decisions on the basis of the draft Framework in the absence of a Local Plan, so that "at the moment, you have an extraordinary state of affairs in which the Inspectorate is interpreting this document as, in effect, a green light for any sort of plan or any sort of development."[244] In September 2011 the Planning Inspectorate issued advice to the effect that the draft NPPF "is capable of being a material planning consideration, although the weight to be given to it will be a matter for the decision maker in each particular case."[245] Given the Minister's indications that significant changes will be made to the document before it is finalised, this appears to be a very unsatisfactory interim position.

125. Because of these concerns, many organisations have called for transitional arrangements to be determined and clarified as a matter of urgency. The Local Government Association argued that

    it is vitally important that councils have a realistic chance of getting up-to-date plans in place before the presumption [in favour of sustainable development] comes into force. The process and timescales for having plans approved or certified in conformity with the NPPF must be simple and streamlined.[246]

The NPPF Impact Assessment states that one of the reasons for the introduction of the presumption in favour of sustainable development is in fact to provide an incentive for local councils to get up-to-date plans in place.[247] Business and development representative bodies welcomed this as a way of addressing the "serious frustrations" and uncertainty caused by local authorities taking several years to complete or publish plans.[248] Others pointed out that councils have an additional incentive in the form of the Community Infrastructure Levy; without a Local Plan in place they will not be able to develop a tariff for charging developers under the CIL proposals.[249]

126. Nevertheless, the process of adopting or updating Local Plans will not necessarily be a swift one, especially because it must include robust community consultation and examination by a planning inspector.[250] Representing the LGA, Cllr Gary Porter pointed out that under the new system, councils will have to take a considered view on many aspects of policy which were previously determined nationally or dealt with on a regional level, such as the duty to co-operate, housing density requirements, or even car parking standards.[251] Local authorities whose plans assume the presence of a regional tier of planning, and the full suite of guidance that is currently in place, may also find that under the new system there are important gaps in their policy coverage.[252] These factors can be expected to add significantly to the time needed to prepare plans. Furthermore, while the burden of producing plans may be greater under the new system, the resources councils have to devote to the process are in many cases diminished, or at least under greater pressure.[253] Stuart Hylton commented that:

    Many authorities have gone through 20% or 25% cuts in their planning policy staff as part of the budget savings, but at the same time they are being asked now to plan at three different levels. They have their day job of doing the Local Plan borough-wide; they have the hand-holding that they are asked to do with neighbourhoods who want to produce Neighbourhood Plans—and I know from experience that is a hugely resource-intensive task for local authorities—and they are also being asked to act up strategically and fill at least part of the gap that has been left by the demise of the regional tier. So they are being asked to do a lot more with a lot less, and I think we need to be realistic about what will be able to be delivered within what timetable.[254]

127. A measure of concern was also expressed about whether the Planning Inspectorate would have sufficient capacity to examine a large number of new planning documents in a short period of time.[255] Demand will be particularly acute because, unlike with previous revisions of the planning system (such as the requirement for district-wide local plans after 1991), there has been no indication from the Government that plans prepared under superseded regulations will be allowed to continue and to carry weight in decisions, at least until their original end dates. There is likely, therefore, to be a glut of new documents as councils rush to catch up with the new system.

128. London Councils suggested there should be a one-year period of transition before the NPPF takes effect in order to allow local authorities that do not have recently adopted Local Development Frameworks to catch up by preparing, publishing and scrutinising their plans and getting them approved by the Secretary of State.[256] The National Trust suggested a grace period of two years, and this was supported by the Planning Officers Society on the basis that this would match the timetable for the introduction of the Community Infrastructure Levy.[257] John Slaughter of the Home Builders Federation told us:

    The starting point is that there cannot be a gap. If you are looking to develop, then we need to have a manageable transition so that, where you have a reasonable application to put forward, there is going to be a basis on which it can be determined fairly. You are clearly going to have a range of situations. Where there are authorities that already have adopted core strategies, that is one thing. Where they are close to adoption, that is slightly different. Where they are a long way from adoption, that it is different again. I do not think it would be reasonable to have an indefinite period when the aspects of the Planning Framework did not apply.[258]

129. The need to take account of the different stages that local authorities find themselves at was stressed by Hampshire County Council, which argued that

    to cast the many recently adopted or published core strategies on the scrap heap and require a planning system to be built from scratch across the whole country cannot be a sensible way forward. A way must be devised of creating a period of transition between the primacy of plans based on the old suite of guidance to allow the creation of new plans based on the NPPF.[259]

Oxford City Council suggested that any adopted Core Strategies should automatically be assumed to be in compliance until their next review is due, potentially up to five years.[260] The Environmental Audit Committee recommended that there be a transition period during which "local authorities should be able to judge planning applications on the basis of any existing plans potentially rendered 'out of date' by the NPPF and by the relevant legacy policies in the revoked Regional Strategies."[261] Adrian Penfold, author of the Penfold Review of Non-Planning Consents, argued that some policy changes would be more difficult than others for local authorities to incorporate in their plans—pointing out that changes to Planning Policy Statements have often been introduced without a transition period—so transition could be nuanced accordingly.[262] Mike Holmes of the Planning Officers Society stated that review of plans "has in the past been too cumbersome a process because what has happened is you have had to review the whole of the document", rather than discrete sections of it which had changed.[263]

130. The Minister, Greg Clark, told us that it had always been the Government's intention to put transitional arrangements in place—an intention, in our view, that could usefully have been expressed in the draft Framework so as to avoid raising so many concerns on this point. He explained that councils which have relevant policies in place, even where those fall short of being a full, up-to-date Local Development Framework, could expect planning applications to be determined in the light of those policies in the transitional period.[264] In the debate on the NPPF in the House in October, the Minister indicated that he was reluctant to pre-empt the Department's consultation response by detailing what those arrangements would be. Nonetheless, he affirmed that "no local council or authority that has developed a plan that expresses the future of its community will be at all disadvantaged. [...] we will safeguard and strengthen the ability of local councils to be in charge of their own destiny rather than the reverse."[265]

131. Local Plans are the foundation on which the planning system should be built. It is in everyone's interests that they are effective expressions of both local needs and local wishes; preparing the evidence base and conducting robust consultation to ensure this will necessarily be time-consuming and resource-intensive. It is right that the Government seek to incentivise the prompt production of plans, but a degree of realism is needed about the time it will take councils to revise and adopt plans that take into account the new policy landscape. We recommend that the Government establish a timetable for a transition period in consultation with local government. We consider that clarity and reassurance are urgently needed by local authorities, communities and developers on the status of existing arrangements for development control during this transition. The Government has several choices on how to achieve this.

132. We recommend that, in the interests of ensuring that authorities put in place Local Plans compliant with the NPPF expeditiously, a strictly limited period is allowed during which the presumption in favour of sustainable development is not applied in cases of absent, silent or out-of-date plans until councils have had a realistic chance of putting such plans in place.

133. We observe that the Government may wish to allow those authorities that have recently adopted or are at present in the process of adopting new plans a lighter touch path to examination and approval of those parts of their plans that require any amendment as a consequence of revisions to national policies introduced through the NPPF.

134. We believe that if Local Plans are to be able to remain at the centre of decision making over a plan period, there needs to be a mechanism by which they can be kept up to date. This will help maximise certainty and minimise challenge. We recommend the adoption of a 'light touch' system of approval for changes to Local Plans to be used at the discretion of the Local Authority as they judge necessary.

135. We further recommend that the Government consider as a matter of urgency whether the resources of the Planning Inspectorate are sufficient to prevent a bottleneck of unapproved plans building up, particularly given the scope for a short term increase in challenge to Development Control decisions.

232   DCLG, Business Plan 2011-15, November 2010, p 26 Back

233   Q 278 Back

234   Q 140 Back

235   Core Strategies are the key compulsory planning documents currently required under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. They will be replaced by, and can be considered to constitute, the 'Local Plans' referred to throughout the draft NPPF. Back

236   NPPF Impact Assessment, table B1.1 Back

237   Draft NPPF, para 14 Back

238   Ev 104; Ev w200 Back

239   Ev w212 Back

240   Ev 108 Back

241   Q 229 Back

242   Q 278; see also Ev 108. Back

243   Ev 154 Back

244   Qq 86, 129 Back

245, letter dated 8 September 2011 Back

246   Ev 116 Back

247   NPPF Impact Assessment, p 23 Back

248   Ev 104; Q 19 Back

249   Q 285 Back

250   Ev w277 Back

251   Q 166 Back

252   Q 140 Back

253   Ev w200 [RICS]; Q 140 Back

254   Q 140 Back

255   Ev w106 [Oxford City Council]; Ev 119 [Local Government Group] Back

256   Ev w295 [London Councils]; Ev w250 [National Housing Federation] Back

257   Qq 128, 140 Back

258   Q 127 Back

259   Ev w46 Back

260   Ev w105 Back

261   Environment Audit Committee, Sustainable Development in the National Planning Policy Framework, HC 1480, para 24 Back

262   Q 302 Back

263   Q 148 Back

264   Q 332 Back

265   HC Deb, 20 October 2011 Col 1085 Back

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Prepared 21 December 2011