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

Conclusions and recommendations

How much planning guidance is needed?

1.  We welcome the fact that the Minister is receptive to specific suggestions for improvements to the NPPF. We consider that there needs to be a clear narrative at the start of the NPPF, stating: where planning policy has stayed the same, but has been simplified or summarised; where new policy has been introduced; where current policy has been changed or removed; and the relationship of the NPPF to other national policy documents, including National Policy Statements and the Natural Environment White Paper. There is no harm in increasing the length of the document moderately, if that results in a more comprehensive and less ambiguous document. (Paragraph 23)

Clarity and terminology

2.  Brevity and simplicity are to be applauded in any document. However, we consider that the NPPF does not achieve clarity by its brevity; critical wording has been lost and what remains is often unhelpfully vague. If the NPPF is to be a document that assists with practical decision-making, rather than a lawyers' charter or an easy-to-read guide to the planning system, its drafting must be more precise and consistent, and sufficiently detailed to enable local authorities to write their own Local Plans. The Government should carefully consider the alternative drafts, submitted by many organisations as part of DCLG's consultation, in order to produce a tighter, clearer document, and should not make a fetish of how many pages it is. Examples of such words and phrases needing tighter definitions in the NPPF include: 'significant weight'; 'great weight'; 'substantial weight'; 'considerable weight'; 'significant flexibility'; 'a high degree of certainty'; 'sustainable economic growth'; 'absent'; 'silent'; 'indeterminate'; 'out-of-date'; 'certificate of conformity', 'where practical'; and 'where reasonable'. (Paragraph 29)

Additional guidance

3.  At least until new guidance is produced, the continuing relevance and force of the body of current planning guidance under the NPPF needs to be clarified and secured. We recommend that once the NPPF is published, all guidance and advice documents be reviewed by DCLG—in consultation with local authorities—item by item, so that the content of the documents that local authorities find operationally and technically useful can be retained for reference in some form, lest councils spend valuable time reinventing numerous wheels. New guidance produced by third parties or groups of practitioners should have government ownership, to ensure consistency of approach. (Paragraph 33)

4.  The Government's documents relating to the NPPF risk creating confusion. Any such ambiguities must be resolved within the document itself, as supporting statements made to explain or moderate its meaning are unlikely to remain reference sources in the years ahead. (Paragraph 37)

Policy topics not covered in the NPPF

5.  We conclude that without lengthening the Framework excessively it should be possible for the Government to allay fears about a lack of detail and omissions from the NPPF, by cross-referencing other documents and by adopting a more inclusive definition of sustainable development. The revised NPPF should also reassure local authorities that they are permitted to take into account in their Local Plans issues that are not explicitly referred to in the Framework. (Paragraph 40)

6.  We do not support the change in the definition of affordable housing represented by the wording in the draft NPPF. We recommend that the current definition of 'affordable housing', contained in Planning Policy Statement 3, be reiterated in the draft NPPF to avoid any confusion. (Paragraph 41)

7.  The NPPF should refer to the role of statutory consultees as a safeguard for community amenities, such as playing fields. We recommend also that the revised Framework should reinstate the requirement for equivalent or improved replacement sports facilities to be provided if they are lost to development, where a deficiency would otherwise result. (Paragraph 43)

8.  The Government should review the NPPF as a whole, to check that there are no other relevant, specific issues that are either omitted or adversely affected by the changes in the Framework. (Paragraph 43)

Spatial planning

9.  There is evidence of concern that the draft NPPF is largely "placeless". While we recognise that it was never the intention of the Government to issue the draft NPPF as a 'spatial' plan, we consider that its impact and effectiveness would be improved if the possibility of differential impacts of its policies on different parts of the country were to be recognised in the Framework and that where a local authority seeks to recognise local variations, the NPPF encourages local authorities to ensure that there is a robust evidence base in place to justify these variations, and thus, that it serves the Government's stated intention to re-balance the national economy. (Paragraph 47)

Conclusions on the definition of sustainable development

10.  Any new definition of sustainable development must contain the following elements:

a)   the clear and identifiable use of wording from the Brundtland report as this is well known and understood;

b)   the restating of the five guiding principles from the 2005 sustainable development strategy; and

c)   an explicit statement of the need to address and to seek to achieve all of the aspects of sustainable development, and not to start by assuming that one aspect can be traded off against another. (Paragraph 66)

11.  We consider that the definition of sustainable development must give a clear indication of what constitutes sustainable development, while encouraging local authorities to apply this definition to their own local circumstances and allowing them the scope to do so. (Paragraph 68)

The presumption in favour of sustainable development

12.  We agree with the Environmental Audit Committee that local planning authorities "need an NPPF which does not push them to regard [the] economic dimension as predominant", and we consider that the NPPF, as currently drafted, does run this risk. We consider that it is reasonable and practical for the NPPF to have as an overarching principle a presumption in favour of sustainable development. However, the draft NPPF conflates the term 'sustainable development' and 'sustainable economic growth', thereby making the document unbalanced; the two terms are distinct and should be kept separate in the Framework. (Paragraph 75)

Default 'yes' to development proposals

13.  The sentence "decision-takers at every level should assume that the default answer to development proposals is 'yes', except where this would compromise the key sustainable development principles set out in this Framework" should be removed from the NPPF. It is weighted too far towards a single interest that the planning system must address, and is inconsistent with both the plan-led system and the more measured presumption in favour of sustainable development. (Paragraph 77)

'Presumption in favour of the Local Plan'

14.  It is sensible that planning should support a presumption in favour of sustainable development as a strategic purpose, but that presumption is not precise enough to be used as a tool for decision making. Where there is an adopted Local Plan in place, the Local Plan should be the starting point for planning decisions. Local Plans should be based on robust evidence, transparent, capable of providing the development needed in an area, reflective of local circumstances, and offering as much certainty as planning reasonably can. The presumption in favour of sustainable development should be redefined as 'a presumption in favour of sustainable development consistent with the Local Plan.' In our view, this will not only firmly anchor sustainable development to local circumstances, but will also provide a spur to local authorities to prepare their Local Plans. (Paragraph 80)

'Significantly and demonstrably'

15.  The phrase 'significantly and demonstrably' should be removed throughout the document; we prefer the simpler test of significance. Indeed, the alternative wording from the Practitioners Advisory Group's version—"this presumption should apply unless to do so would cause significant harm to the objective, principles and policies set out in this National Planning Policy Framework"—encapsulates, in our minds, a clearer, more balanced approach to the presumption in favour of sustainable development. Such new wording should also place the burden of proof of the presumption not causing significant harm onto the developer or applicant, not on the planning authority. (Paragraph 86)


16.  From the definition of 'viability' in the draft NPPF, many have concluded, which we fully understand, that the NPPF would allow unsustainable development to go ahead if measures to make it sustainable were also deemed to make it unviable for the developer. We welcomed the Minister's clarification and we recommend that the NPPF make it clear that calculations of viability presuppose requirements to provide infrastructure and other measures necessary to the development, not simply returns deemed acceptable by the developer. (Paragraph 91)

Illustrating the problem of balance: transport in the NPPF

17.  We consider that the transport section of the NPPF is a good illustration of lack of balance in the document as currently drafted; by the use of such phrases as 'where reasonable', and 'where practical', it gives the impression that the 'sustainable' part of 'sustainable development' can be jettisoned almost at will. Local authorities should be able to expect that they can reject or enforce changes to development on transport or environmental grounds, not just where the impact would be 'severe', but where it would run counter to local priorities and wishes, or where an individual development might contribute to a 'severe' cumulative impact caused by several developments. This example serves to illustrate the difficulties local authorities may have in making a determination on particular applications. (Paragraph 95)

Statutory status of Local Plans

18.  We recommend that the NPPF unambiguously reflect the statutory supremacy of Local Plans, in accordance with the 2004 Planning Act. The prominence given to the presumption in favour of sustainable development risks presenting it as a decision-making mechanism on a par with, or superior to, the Local Plan. In view of the fact that the Local Plan is a keystone of the planning edifice, it is crucial that local authorities have Local Plans in place as soon as possible. (Paragraph 101)

Absent, silent, out-of-date or indeterminate Local Plans

19.  There is a tension between the advice in the NPPF that Local Plans should be succinct, and the need for local authorities, in the absence of national guidance, to produce comprehensive plans tailored to local circumstances. We share the Government's desire for succinct Local Plans, but accept that somewhat longer Local Plans are inevitable because they will fill significant gaps left by the loss of regional plans and by the substantial reduction in detail of national policy. (Paragraph 104)

Tensions between the NPPF, Local Plans and Neighbourhood Plans

20.  The relationship between the NPPF, Local Plans and Neighbourhood Plans needs to be set out clearly and cogently within the body of the NPPF, including the way in which strategic and local priorities are to be taken into account, especially when these priorities conflict. The NPPF must clarify whether the Local Plan or the Neighbourhood Plan takes precedence. It should also define what constitutes 'strategic issues'. The NPPF should confirm that, in all planning decisions, it is a well-evidenced Local Plan that provides the operational expression of the general presumption in favour of sustainable development. (Paragraph 112)

The duty to co-operate and evidence bases for Local Plans

21.  Consistency between local authorities in assembling evidence bases for Local Plans is crucial to the effective functioning of the duty to co-operate. While we understand that the Government believes the Duty to Co-operate contained in the Localism Act 2011 coupled with other developments such as the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships will ensure that spatial planning is adequately addressed, we share some of these concerns. Without consistency, it will not be clear what benchmark the Planning Inspectorate will use for judging the 'soundness' of plans, especially when neighbouring local authorities have been unable to reach agreement about the need for or location of new housing. Therefore we recommend that the guidance being produced by practitioners on assembling an evidence base for housing be officially adopted by the Government. We also recommend that the Government commission groups of practitioners to produce similar, authoritative guidance on assessing needs for other types of infrastructure. (Paragraph 117)

22.  Waiting until and relying upon the Planning Inspectorate's judgement about 'soundness' seems to us an inadequate means of enforcing the duty to co-operate. We consider that the Government should set out an alternative means of ensuring that local authorities demonstrate successful outcomes from their co-operation. This alternative method should be informed by a report from the Planning Inspectorate on the existing degree of co-operation in development plans and, thereafter, by an annual report on the effectiveness of section 110 of the Localism Act in respect of development plans. (Paragraph 118)

23.  Finally, it was clear to us that the absence of Local Plans was a contributory factor to the shortage of homes that have been built over many decades in England, and it is reasonable to expect that a requirement on local authorities to adopt Local Plans based on sound evidence of need will help facilitate an improvement to this situation. (Paragraph 119)

The transition to a new system

24.  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. (Paragraph 131)

25.  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. (Paragraph 132)

26.  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. (Paragraph 133)

27.  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. (Paragraph 134)

28.  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. (Paragraph 135)

Development on brownfield land

29.  We welcome the Government's openness to reinstating the familiar and well-understood term 'brownfield' in the NPPF, whilst recognising that more sophistication is needed in its definition to avoid unintended consequences. There is a danger, nevertheless, that the removal of the brownfield target and the 'brownfield first' policy—in conjunction with the introduction of the presumption in favour of sustainable development and changes to requirements for allocating land for housing—will result over time in less importance being attached to the use of previously-developed land first where possible. This principle should be strongly stated in the NPPF, and reiterated by requiring local authorities to set their own targets for the use of brownfield land. This would allow for adaptation to particular circumstances and would in addition be a useful mechanism for local accountability. (Paragraph 143)

The supply of sites for housing

30.  Asking local authorities to identify six years' rather than five years' worth of sites for housing carries an inevitable risk that the total supply will contain a greater proportion of greenfield sites, which developers will prefer. We recommend that it should be made explicit that local authorities which adopt a local target for the use of brownfield land can prioritise it within their six-year supply, which we urge the Government to confirm and clarify in the NPPF. (Paragraph 149)

31.  We recommend that the Government allow windfall sites to be included alongside identified brownfield land where local authorities can demonstrate a track record of such sites coming forward for development, as this will achieve the aim of satisfying the need for land supply while minimising the need to allocate greenfield sites. The Government should have more confidence in the continuing replenishment of brownfield sites as a source of land for new development. (Paragraph 150)

32.  Some local authorities may, in good faith, be unable to identify six years' worth of land supply appropriate for housing. We recommend that the Government clarify that unsustainable development will not be allowed to proceed as a result of appeals against local authorities which have not allocated the full six year supply. (Paragraph 151)

Town Centre First

33.  The NPPF should reflect the existing Town Centre First policy by bringing offices back within its ambit, in a form that allows exceptions that make a specific contribution to rural sustainability. We recommend that application of the sequential test for development remains a requirement rather than a preference, and developments that fail the sequential test should be deemed unsustainable. We further recommend that the Government clarify the policy position on town centres with respect to arts, culture and tourism uses, to ensure that they are included in the Town Centre First policy. (Paragraph 157)

34.  We recommend that the NPPF include a provision to allow communities, in certain exceptional circumstances, to adopt an absolute protection of a town centre from out-of-town retail development. (Paragraph 158)

Further consultation

35.  We see a strong case for a short consultation to allow practitioners to make comments on the technical aspects of the revised NPPF. This would help avoid confusion at a later date. The Government should also consider carrying out a brief but wider consultation if it makes substantial changes to what might be reasonably regarded as key principles in the final NPPF. (Paragraph 164)

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Prepared 21 December 2011