Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten evidence from the House Builders Association and the Planning and Development Association


The House Builders Association and the Planning and Development Association welcome the objectives of the proposed NPPF, including its aim of securing economic growth and higher housebuilding output. Both are national economic imperatives.

Its brevity is welcome, but to avoid that becoming a cause of dispute and delay, a suite of guidance documents, many existing but some new, will need to be identified, to enlarge on aspects of the policy.

Sustainable development needs to be more fully defined so that misplaced fears and misrepresentations about the consequences of a presumption in favour of sustainable development can be quashed.

The presumption in favour is principally a process change to make planning more efficient, while a fuller definition of sustainable development will show the continuity of policy and that development that was previously unacceptable has not been made acceptable by this draft.

The greatest weakness of the proposed NPPF is in respect to the duty to co-operate, which will need to be given teeth, by being made a test of soundness of a plan.

The policy will inevitably be appeal-led for a time and, in the absence of RS housing numbers, will rely heavily on political willingness to support the policy. Investor confidence will depend on seeing evidence of that support since, without the objectivity of RS housing numbers, the system is highly discretionary and dependent on political support.

Q1: Does the NPPF give sufficient guidance to local planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and others, including investors and developers, while at the same time giving local communities sufficient power over planning decisions?

The Government has made clear that its intention is to simplify and clarify thousands of pages of existing PPG, PPS and circular guidance into clear principles that can be easily accessed in one place. (NPPF Consultation Paper, paragraph 10) There is always a risk that such brevity will leave too many gaps, resulting in more confusion than that caused by existing guidance, which is far too prescriptive and contains too much, even for professionals, to digest. That risk is worth taking, however, provided that there is an appropriate suite of accompanying guidance documents; that some of the existing guidance is simplified and provided Government is ready to make amendments to the NPPF quickly, if particular aspects of guidance were to prove to be a source of frequent dispute, could not be successfully interpreted by the Inspectorate or led to frequent applications to the Courts. If, as a result of such amendments, the document grew to even 100 pages over a 5–10 year period, it would still remain a far more concise document than current guidance. It does, however, need some clarification in key areas of policy, which will result in some lengthening of the text.

There is a list of existing guidance in the Consultation Paper on the NPPF, Part 5, paragraph 21 and generally speaking, that list is appropriate. We propose the that there should be a further consultation to identify a key suite of essential pieces of guidance and to rank less essential ones accordingly. While some of this guidance may be adequately and properly produced by third parties, Government must remain the key actor in producing some, and must always sign-off any that are produced by third parties, where they expect local authorities and Inspectors to rely on that guidance. While we generally support the retention of those listed in the Consultation Paper, Part 5, paragraph 21, the most important subjects on which guidance is required are:

Calculating housing numbers—In the absence of clear advice in the draft itself on how to calculate housing numbers and in support of paragraphs 14, 23, 27, 28 and 111, SHMAs and SHLAAs must be retained. The SHMAs must retain guidance on the information needed to meet the requirement of paragraph 109 of the draft NPPF to use “an evidence base to ensure that their local plan meets the full requirements for market and affordable housing”. However, we would strongly urge a shortening, de-cluttering and simplification of that existing advice, so that it is less prescriptive of methodology and concentrated more on outputs.

viability and how to assess it, to deliver the aims of paragraphs 39–43. Although there have been references to viability scattered through existing guidance, this comprehensive new requirement is the major innovation in the NPPF and it is surprising it did not feature amongst the Committee’s questions. The emphasis on viability is a welcome, new and potentially game-changing requirement. As such, CLG must take full ownership of the guidance, which will be required by local authorities and the Inspectorate, and must be fully aware of its implications. It is therefore not acceptable for it to rely on HBF and LGA agreeing advice, while playing no role in its formulation. While it is right that the key players in housebuilding and local government, RICS and the professions should be fully involved, there will inevitably be disagreements on objectives that Government must resolve in favour of delivery of its own policy. Either in that guidance or in the NPPF, there should be more advice on what local authorities should do if sites allocated in their plan do not come forward for development because changes in the market have made them non-viable. For example, should they carry out a site specific review of all the policy requirements attaching to the permission/allocation and review these or should they allocate other sites that will deliver, treating the non-implementable sites as pert of the 6–15 year supply, rather than the five year?

SEAs—Surprisingly, the need for plans to be subject to an SEA is not specifically mentioned in the NPPF (despite references to the Birds and Habitats Directive), which only has a vague reference as a qualifying requirement of neighbourhood plans as well as a reference to compatibility with relevant EU obligations at paragraph 8. The need for a sustainability appraisal is contained in PPS12, which is to be cancelled, and in PPS11 which, apparently, is not. However, SEAs were produced assuming the central role of RSSs in the system, while the Core Strategies required provision of lesser Sustainability Assessment, to demonstrate conformity with the EU law test. The guidance will need to be re-drafted to ensure that an SEA is produced as part of the local plan as opposed to the regional level, with a proportionate evidence base, in line with the capacities of local authorities as opposed to regions. Moreover, this should be the subject of a reference in paragraph 48, dealing with soundness.

Q2: Is the definition of “sustainable development” contained in the document appropriate; and is the presumption in favour of sustainable development a balanced and workable approach?

The Brundtland Commission definition in paragraph 9 is too vague, produced in different circumstances for global objectives and is not fit for purpose in this guidance. As noted in Part 5, Summary of Suggestions, paragraph 6 of the consultation paper, a number of bodies from the development sector suggested the definition in paragraph 69 of PPS 3 be used in relation to anticipated outputs from planning policy on housing. We reiterate that preference and would argue that this definition of what is appropriate, even if not specifically called “sustainable development”, is established, is understood, that it contains tests and there are precedents to support its application. In a wider context, “sustainable development” is defined and the anticipated outputs are explained in paragraphs 6 and 13(1) of PPS1, General Principles. Using a new and (in this context) untried definition, containing no precision whatsoever, risks creating a policy vacuum for no reason and of raising unjustified fears about the kind of development the proposed presumption in favour of sustainable development would permit.

The above definitions and statements of policy are tried and tested, and we believe the inclusion of an amalgam of them in NPPF would calm many of the exaggerated claims that have been raised about the extent to which the NPPF will allow unbridled development. While we do not read the guidance in that way, nevertheless the retention of these definitions would settle matters and make it clear that currently unacceptable development will remain so and that fundamental principles of land use have not been changed by the NPPF.

It is important to emphasise that the presumption, thus explained, would retain most of the existing protections and would not lead to the result claimed by those opposed to economic growth and development. In practical terms, we regard the presumption as no more than a process improvement, requiring local authorities to speed up the grant of permission for development that is in plans or is acceptable under current policy, but it does not change policy on what is acceptable. The planning system was based on a presumption in favour of development from 1947 to 1991, so the concept of a positive default position is not as revolutionary as is sometimes claimed.

The draft says, quite correctly, that it must be read and interpreted as a whole, (paragraph 8). Many of the criticisms made of it are the result of “cherry- picking” paragraphs and sentences out of context, particularly the presumption and ignoring all the many caveats and safeguards throughout the document. Many of the attacks on it are the result of the emphasis it gives to economic growth. This is no more than a re-statement of existing guidance in PPS1, which sets out its priorities as economic development, defined as producing “a strong, stable and productive economy that aims to bring jobs and prosperity to all” (paragraph 23), clearly itself a definition of economic growth, alongside social inclusion, the protection and enhancement of the environment and prudent use of natural resources.

Moreover, given that the central political and economic concern of the day is achieving economic recovery and growth, against the background of the worst global and financial reverse since the 1930s, it would be strange indeed if planning policy was not required to assist economic recovery. It therefore appears to us that the NPPF is a properly balanced and appropriate statement, both in principle and for the times.

Q3: Are the “core planning principles” clearly and appropriately expressed?

We consider that the draftsmen have done a highly commendable job in summarising the core principles of the existing, extensive guidance, without greatly changing or losing much of consequence from existing guidance, if anything. Planning policy guidance needs to be stable, to evolve only as shown to be necessary or to achieve a new and different policy objective, as PPS 3 did in 2000, when it introduce the radical “brownfield first” policy, but with such highly unsatisfactory results that had to be effectively cancelled by PPS 3 in 2005. While NPPF may quite legitimately and properly, in our view, be seeking more effective process and outputs, in reality it is not changing policy much, if at all, and we welcome that; indeed we argued prior to its publication that existing policy was the result of many iterations, painful compromises over time and was largely accepted and understood by all affected and therefore should not be significantly changed. However delivery of what is acceptable should be quicker and cheaper, which is this could be achieved by the NPPF.

There are a number of clarifications that are require in terms of wording, but most of these will not fundamentally affect what is intended and are entirely normal in this type of consultation eg it is fairly but not precisely clear how the 20% buffer of deliverable land relates to the 6–15 year supply, but clarifying that will not affect the obvious aims of the draft. Nevertheless, clarification is necessary, because any ambiguity will provide fruitful grounds for legal challenges, which are a significant source of delay in the planning process.

Clarification that Local Plans take precedence over Neighbourhood Plans is also required. Paragraphs 50–52 are very muddled and need to express the hierarchy of plans more clearly.

Q4: Is the relationship between the NPPF and other national statements of planning-related policy sufficiently clear? Does the NPPF serve to integrate national planning policy across Government Departments?

The very brevity and simplicity of the document should give all Government Departments a clear reference point as, indeed, it should to local authorities. However the point to remember about planning policy guidance is that it is just that. Its effect depends on how far it is observed and enforced and, as far as different Government Departments are concerned, it will be down to Ministers, collectively and individually, to make sure it is observed and not used as the basis for turf wars. In particular, to retain the integrity of the objectives, other Departments such as DEFRA should consider carefully how far further policy and guidance on complementary matters are really necessary or whether they can be left to local plan policies, as seen fit, at local level. However, whatever relevant advice there is from whatever Department, some kind of comprehensive route map to where it all can be found would help all users of the system.

Q5: Does the NPPF, together with the “duty to cooperate”, provide a sufficient basis for larger-than-local strategic planning?

The duty to co-operate is the least effective part of the Localism Bill and of the NPPF. There are parts of the country where the soon-to-be-abolished regional mechanisms brought about a measure of cross-boundary co-operation never previously seen. Their abolition is likely to result in the resumption of non-co-operation, particularly on the perennially difficult issue of distributing housing growth across a major conurbation. We are pessimistic as to the outcome in these situations and there might be a role foe LEPs to bang heads together, and “name and shame” non-co-operating authorities. However, we propose strengthening the NPPF to make it clear that evidence of effective cross-boundary co-operation, where there are issues requiring it, should explicitly be made a test “soundness” of a Local Plan.

The effect of that would be that if an Inspector found that there had been no effective co-operation across market areas on housing requirements and a refusal to accept wider responsibilities, despite paragraph 47 of the draft, the Plan would be found unsound. The presumption in favour of sustainable development would kick-in and permit developers to bring forward sustainable sites, until such time as a sound plan was produced. Too often in the past, planning guidance has been ignored because there were none or only weak sanctions against ignoring it. This would be an extremely effective sanction and would quickly re-establish the plan-led system and the certainty about what development is going to take place, to local people. The need for co-operation between counties on transport issues does not seem to have been adequately considered, at all.

Q6: Are the policies contained in the NPPF sufficiently evidence-based?

The question is incorrectly framed. It should be, “Does the NPPF require policies in Local Plans to be properly evidence based?” There are a number of very clear references in paragraphs 14, 23, 27, 28, 109 and 111 to the need for an evidence base. In turn, in relation to new housing, the retention of the requirement to undertake SHMAs means that the same processes as were used under the previous/current system will have to be completed, involving the collection and evaluation of evidence. In addition, NPPF suggests strengthening the market related evidence base (paragraphs 19 and 27) including house and land prices. Moreover the abolition of RSs does not abolish the evidence base used to calculate their housing numbers. These are likely to be given weight as material considerations for the next few years, being based on the most recent and up-to-date evidence. The evidence base requirements will need to be reviewed and kept up-to-date in the medium-to-longer-term, to ensure they remain relevant. It is unfortunate therefore that the Government saw fit to precipitously abolish the National Planning and Housing Advice Unit (NHPAU), although it is interesting that they still refer to its figures, in terms of the housing objectives the NPPF seeks to achieve. (RIA, page 48, first paragraph)

Overview of Fitness for Purpose

The draft National Planning Policy Framework should both be read as a whole and be considered in its wider context. The Coalition has said that it wants to see an increase in new housebuilding and that is, itself, welcome because there is now, finally, cross-party agreement on this issue, after many years of controversy about whether higher levels of housebuilding is required.

Planning policy is the key enabling mechanism allowing more housebuilding, assuming that funding is also available. Clearly, since 2007, the credit crunch and continuing financial crisis has restricted both private and public investment and, as a result, housebuilding is at barely half the levels that this and the previous administration would hope to see.

Nevertheless, the current economic hiatus should be used to put planning in order, so that it is fit for purpose and able to respond to any upturn. That means having plans in place that provide headroom to accommodate higher demand and also to put in place a more efficient system for handling planning applications, provided they conform to long-established principles of acceptable development. To some extent, it can be argued that some of the proposals in the NPPF are necessitated, particularly the presumption in favour of sustainable development, because so many local authorities have failed to put in place LDF’s, as required under the 2004 Act. Indeed, two thirds still seem not to have done so.

The NPPF is, however, part of a significant divergence of policy between this and the previous Government on how to deliver those aims. The key element of the 2004 Act was regional housing figures that set targets, to which local plans were required to conform. This was criticized by the Conservative Party, when in Opposition, as being as pointless as Soviet tractor targets. However, although LDFs were being produced far too slowly, meaning that planning applications were too frequently the subject of dispute and uncertainly, the heavily criticised top-down system was starting to work, before the credit crunch reduced effective demand, even if as a “nudge” factor. The myth that regional figures were pointless should be firmly nailed and, indeed, DCLG’s own housing statistical bulletin does exactly that. It states “After falling slightly between 2000–01 and 2001–02, net housing supply increased for six consecutive years, reaching a peak of 207,370 net additional dwellings in 2007–08 before falling to 166,570 in 2008–09. In 2009–10 net supply fell again to 128,680, a decrease of 23%…” 97% of the 2007–08 figure was new build. (Source; CLG Net Supply of Housing 2009–10 England October 2010)

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In those six years, completions grew by some 10,000 or more each year compared with the previous, and by almost 60% in total. But for the credit crunch, which started to affect the market in August 2007, had that trajectory continued and all other things being equal, output was on target to reach 240,000 net additions in 2011–12, in line with that Government’s targets.

Thus the abolition of these targets and a second major upheaval in the planning system within ten years are both to be regretted. We have therefore examined NPPF in the light of:

its prospects of providing a stable framework to permit growth in house building output, if and when the economy recovers;

encouraging the inclusion of appropriate numbers in local plans; and

efficient, consistent and fair processing of planning applications; delivering permissions that are not so encumbered with excessive demands that they are financially non-viable.

We do continue to have concerns that, following the revocation of RS figures, many authorities in high demand areas immediately suspended their existing plans and/or announced their intention to reduce the numbers. This is not an encouraging sign of the new system in operation and the acid test of the NPPF policies is how they will maintain or increase housing output, in line with Government objectives. There is existing advice on how to calculate housing requirements, but whether that will be largely ignored, almost as a challenge to the Government, remains to be seen. If that results in plans being found unsound, then the new policy will be confrontational and appeals-led from the outset.

The degree of objectivity provided by regional plan numbers may have been regarded by some as a top-down imposition, but they performed the invaluable function of giving decision makers, from councillors to the Secretary of State, political cover.

The new system puts those same decision makers squarely in the firing line and that is politically the greatest weakness of the NPPF. We strongly welcome much of what it says (and we try in our response above to de-mythologise what it does say), but it is a policy that will rely heavily, in its initial years, on the Secretary of State of the day being willing to back the Inspectorate so that individual Inspectors have the courage to find plans unsound, when appropriate, and to grant appeals, in the absence of sound plans, where applications are made for sustainable development. The system will inevitably be appeal-led for a time, until plans are put in place.

We find it hard to believe that, as a General Election approaches and given high profile campaigns, such as that being currently run by the Telegraph, which daily excoriate Ministers, they will apply their own policy. The housebuilding industry and other industries and developers need stability and confidence to invest, as do banks, if they are to fund developers.

But the NPPF, in the absence of top-down numbers, is a highly discretionary policy that may not give investors the confidence they need to support the objective of economic growth that underpins the draft. Confidence will only be injected if, despite the politics, some exemplary decisions on Local Plans and appeals are handed down by the Inspectorate and the Secretary of State, at an early stage.

8 September 2011

Prepared 20th December 2011