Revised National Planning Policy aims to boost house building

UK Government wants to reach target of 300,000 new homes a year

Local authorities will be expected to make more land available for housing

April 18th 2018

Since the Housing and Planning Bill became the Housing and Planning Act in May 2016, the UK Government has produced a number of documents that focus on measures to expedite house building. [1] Those documents include a housing White Paper, published in February 2017; a consultation paper titled Planning and Affordable Housing for Build to Rent, also published in February 2017; and a further consultation paper, titled Planning for the right homes in the right places, published in September 2017. A consultation paper was also published in December 2015, prior to the Housing and Planning Act, which dealt with changes to national planning policy associated with the measures contained in the Act. The Government is now holding a further consultation on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which reflect the results of those previous consultations, as well as further changes to policy, “beyond those consulted on previously, to help ensure that more land is brought forward for development and that permissions are turned into homes as soon as possible.” [2] The consultation on the revised NPPF opened on March 5th 2018 and will close on May 10th 2018.

The revised National Planning Policy Framework

The consultation paper explains that the National Planning Policy Framework, which was first introduced in 2012, “brought together around 1,000 pages of planning policy and guidance into a single document. Critically, and in line with the Government’s housing ambitions, it established a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.” As well as changes to policy, the revised NPPF also includes structural changes, the main change consisting of a division of the document into clearly defined chapters. The chapters are:

Chapter 1 Introduction
Chapter 2 Achieving sustainable development
Chapter 3 Plan-making
Chapter 4 Decision-making
Chapter 5 Delivering a wide choice of high quality homes
Chapter 6 Building a strong, competitive economy
Chapter 7 Ensuring the vitality of town centres
Chapter 8 Promoting healthy and safe communities
Chapter 9 Promoting sustainable transport
Chapter 10 Supporting high quality communications
Chapter 11 Making effective use of land
Chapter 12 Achieving well-designed places
Chapter 13 Protecting the Green Belt
Chapter 14 Meeting the challenge of climate change, flooding and coastal change
Chapter 15 Conserving and enhancing the natural environment
Chapter 16 Conserving and enhancing the historic environment
Chapter 17 Facilitating the sustainable use of minerals

The Government has set itself the target of delivering 300,000 new homes a year. Introducing the reasons for the proposed changes to the NPPF, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government states:

“This country does not have enough homes. For decades the number of new homes has not kept pace with rising demand. That has created a market that fails to work for far too many families, resulting in soaring prices and rising rents. The Government is clear that the country needs radical, lasting reform that will allow more homes to be built. The housing White Paper ‘Fixing our broken housing market’ set out a comprehensive strategy to tackle these failures. This comprised planning for the right homes in the right places, building homes faster, diversifying the market and helping people now. Further detail on a number of these reforms was set out in ‘Planning for the right homes in the right places’ in September 2017. Budget 2017 built on this strategy to put us on track to reach 300,000 net additional homes a year. It included additional proposals to change planning policy and legislation to bring forward more land in the right places…”

“Making the most of existing spaces”

The proposed changes to the NPPF place a great deal of emphasis on making the most efficient use of the space available, which applies both to land and to existing buildings. The consultation document says that the revised NPPF “recognises the importance of making the most of existing spaces, making clear that plans should seek more intensive use of existing land and buildings and include minimum density standards in town and city centres and around transport hubs.” The document continues:

“The Government does however recognise that there are locations where meeting needs through more effective use of urban land will not be possible, and in these instances there will be a need to find extra land to deliver the homes needed locally. Where this is the case the Government wants to ensure that these developments deliver the right homes and that the value generated by releasing land is supported by local infrastructure and communities. To this end, the Government is exploring wider measures to support farm diversification and housing in the rural economy.”

To make the most of existing spaces, the Government wants to extend the use of permitted development rights to include upwards extensions to existing buildings, both residential and commercial premises. The document explains:

“The use of permitted development rights to create new homes has played a vital part in increasing housing delivery in recent years. Since April 2015, permitted development rights have created over 30,000 new homes through changes of use from offices, agricultural, retail, and other buildings. The Government is interested in finding more solutions to making the most of the spaces we have in delivering the homes we need in the right places. The Written Ministerial Statement of 5 February 2018 made clear that planning policies and decisions should allow the use of airspace above existing residential and commercial premises to create new homes. This approach makes sure that we are using the space we have available efficiently and reduces the need to build out. The Government is exploring what opportunities there are to further support this approach through a new permitted development right for upwards extensions for new homes where existing buildings are lower than the prevailing roof line. This would be subject to engagement with neighbours. A future consultation will seek views on where best this permitted development right should be applied.”

“Local authorities will be expected to have a clear strategy for using land”

The emphasis on making the most of the land and space available is reflected in Chapter 11 of the revised NPPF, “Making effective use of land.” Local authorities will be expected to have a clear strategy for using land when drawing up local plans. They will also be expected to make more land available for housing, especially in areas of high demand; to make more intensive use of existing land and buildings; to give substantial weight to the value of using suitable brownfield land within settlements for homes; and to take “a flexible approach to policies or guidance that could inhibit making effective use of a site.” Further changes make explicit the need to make more effective use of empty space above shops, “with the proposed policy widening this to refer to other situations where under-utilised land and buildings could be used more effectively.” The proposed changes make it easier to convert retail and employment land to housing where this would be a more effective use. The revised NPPF also says that local authorities should reallocate land where there is no reasonable prospect of an application coming forward for the allocated use, and should also set out “how alternative uses should be considered ahead of a plan review taking place.”

On housing density, local authorities will be expected to avoid building homes at low densities in areas of high demand; and to pursue higher-density housing in accessible locations, “while reflecting the character and infrastructure capacity of each area.” Additionally, the revised policy says that minimum density standards should be used in town and city centres and around transport hubs. The new policy applies this principle to areas where there is a shortage of land for meeting identified development needs, extends the principle to town centres, and indicates that “standards should seek a significant uplift in prevailing densities, unless this would be inappropriate.” The revised policy also proposes that minimum densities should be considered in other parts of the plan area.

A further significant change proposes that “local planning authorities should refuse applications which they consider fail to make effective use of land, in areas where there is an existing or anticipated shortage of land for meeting identified housing needs.”

Local Authorities and Local Plans

As well as the emphasis on effective use, the revised NPPF requires local authorities to take a number of other new factors into account when drafting their local plans. Firstly, Chapter One says that endorsed recommendations of the National Infrastructure Commission may be material when local planning authorities prepare plans or determine planning applications. Chapter Three of the revised NPPF (“Plan-making”) requires local authorities to review their local plans every five years following the date of adoption, “with updates, if necessary, to reflect changing circumstances.” This latter change reflects changes to the Town and Country Planning (Local Planning) (England) Regulations 2012, which came into force on 6 April 2018.

Chapter Five (“Delivering a wide choice of high quality homes”) introduces a new standard method for the calculation of local housing need, and also states that local authorities should adopt clear policies for addressing the housing requirements of groups with particular needs – “students and travellers have been added to the list, as have people who rent their homes.” On affordable housing, Chapter Five includes a requirement that at least 10% of homes on major sites should be available for affordable home ownership, with certain exemptions. Chapter Five also reflects the announcement in the 2017 Budget that “the Government would consult on allowing the development of exception sites to provide entry-level homes suitable for first-time buyers, where a local need is identified.” As a further boost to house building, Chapter Five encourages local authorities to make greater use of small sites, “in order to diversify the opportunities for builders and increase the number of schemes that can be built out quickly.” On the definition of a small site, the revised NPPF proposes that local planning authorities should ensure that at least 20% of the sites allocated for housing in their plans are of half a hectare or less, but the Government says it is open to suggestions on these figures.

On technical matters, Chapter Three (“Plan-making”) reflects a new approach to viability, “through which plans are expected to be clear about the contributions expected in association with development,” while Chapter Four (“Decision-making”) “makes clear that where a proposed development accords with all relevant policies in the plan there is no need for a viability assessment to accompany the planning application.”

Town and Country

Some of the changes in the revised NPPF are specific to towns and rural areas. Chapter Six (“Building a strong, competitive economy”) stresses the importance of supporting business growth and improved productivity, “in a way that links to key aspects of the Government’s Industrial Strategy.” It includes a section on the rural economy and the need to support rural businesses. The new NPPF recognises “the potential need for planning policies and decisions to accommodate sites for local business and community needs outside existing settlements, in ways which minimise the impact of such sites and exploits opportunities to make such locations more sustainable.” The Government says that this approach reflects the fact that the availability of sites to accommodate appropriate development in rural areas may be limited, particularly within existing settlements.

Chapter Seven is concerned with “ensuring the vitality of town centres.” The revised NPPF says that local authorities should look at least ten years ahead in allocating sites to meet the need for town centre uses (“though not necessarily over the full plan period, if longer, given uncertainty in forecasting long-term retail trends”). Chapter Seven also says that town centre boundaries should be kept under review so that identified needs for town centre uses can be accommodated. However, “out of centre sites should be considered only if suitable town centre or edge of centre sites are unavailable or not expected to become available within a reasonable period. ” Additionally, Chapter Seven “removes the expectation that office developments outside town centres are subject to an impact assessment, where the development is over a certain floorspace threshold.”

Protecting (and redefining) the Green Belt

The Government says that the revised NPPF “maintains the strong protections of the Green Belt and retains a high bar before Green Belt land may be released.” Chapter Thirteen, “Protecting the Green Belt,” includes the policy that “certain criteria should be satisfied before ‘exceptional circumstances’ are used to change Green Belt boundaries.” The chapter also says that, where Green Belt is released, prime consideration should be given to land which has been developed previously or which is well-served by public transport.

However, the revised NPPF also makes it clear that “neighbourhood plans may amend detailed Green Belt boundaries, once the need for a Green Belt change has been demonstrated,” with the proviso that the plans are also expected to set out how the impact of removing land from the Green Belt can be offset. A further change allows brownfield land in the Green Belt to be used for affordable housing, “where there is no substantial harm to openness.” This change broadens a previous proposal to allow brownfield land in the Green Belt to be used for ‘starter homes’, “so that, subject to Green Belt protections, all residential developments that contribute to meeting an identified local affordable housing need can use brownfield land, allowing local planning authorities to use this land more flexibly in response to local circumstances.”

The consultation document says that “current policy allows buildings in the Green Belt in association with uses such as outdoor sport and cemeteries, but does not allow material changes in the use of land for such purposes, even if there would be no harm to openness.” The revised NPPF says that material changes of use that preserve openness should not be regarded as inappropriate development in the Green Belt, which would allow for a more consistent approach. Additionally, the revised NPPF says that facilities for burial grounds and allotments, rural exception sites, and development brought forward under a Neighbourhood Development Order, should also not be regarded as inappropriate development in the Green Belt.

Taking into account the Government’s 25 year Environment Plan

Chapter Fifteen of the revised NPPF, “Conserving and enhancing the natural environment,” has been updated to reflect the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, which was published earlier this year. [2] It includes additional policy on strengthening existing habitat networks, taking air quality fully into account, clarifies that development within National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty should be limited, and also clarifies the implications for policy on areas defined as Heritage Coast. The revised NPPF also “strengthens protection for ancient woodland and other irreplaceable habitats, by making clear that development resulting in their loss or deterioration should be wholly exceptional.” Additionally, the policy “maintains a high level of protection for individual aged or veteran trees found outside these areas.” The Government says that this policy strikes a balance between protecting these important natural assets, while allowing development to proceed in the very limited circumstances where it would have significant public benefits, “but we welcome views on this during the consultation period. In particular, we are interested in views on how best to protect aged and veteran trees without preventing those important development schemes which are in the public interest.” The concern for veteran trees is also reflected in Chapter Two, “Achieving sustainable development.” The Government says that the current NPPF includes examples of policies that provide a specific reason for restricting development; these examples will be replaced in the revised NPPF with a defined list, “which includes ancient woodland and aged or veteran trees.”

The 25 year Environment Plan is also reflected in Chapter Sixteen of the revised NPPF, “Conserving and enhancing the historic environment.” The updated policy acknowledges that “World Heritage Sites are recognised internationally for their Outstanding Universal Value” – this international recognition “forms part of their significance and should be taken into account.” The revised policy also says that when considering the impact of a proposed development on a designated heritage asset, “decision-makers should give great weight to the asset’s conservation irrespective of whether the potential harm to its significance amounts to ‘less than substantial harm’, ‘substantial harm’, or ‘total loss of significance’.”

Responding to Climate Change

Chapter Fourteen of the new NPPF is titled “Meeting the challenge of climate change, flooding and coastal change.” Among the changes, the chapter refers to the risk of overheating from rising temperatures and “makes clear that planning policies should support measures to ensure the future resilience of communities and infrastructure to climate change.” In particular, the new policy says that local plans should have regard to the cumulative impacts of flood risk, “rather than just to or from individual development sites.” It also clarifies the policy on the exception test that may need to be applied when considering development in locations at risk of flooding. Additionally, a paragraph has been added on sustainable drainage systems in major developments, which incorporates a “Written Ministerial Statement of 18 December 2014.”

Some changes are associated with the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy, which “sets out the Government’s plans for consulting on energy performance standards in Building Regulations later this year.” [3] The consultation document says that local authorities can play an important role in improving the energy performance of buildings in line with the ambitions of the Clean Growth Strategy; this role “will be considered further as the Government develops its consultation proposals.” Policy changes in Chapter Fourteen reflect the fact that “local planning authorities are tied to national technical standards, and there is limited scope to extend local ambition.”

“Designs should prioritise pedestrian and cycle movements”

The above account summarises most of the significant changes to the NPPF. Other changes are concerned with the following:

• “Promoting healthy and safe communities” – Chapter Eight stipulates that policies and decisions should consider the social and economic benefits of estate regeneration, and recognises the role that planning can play in promoting social interaction and healthy lifestyles.
• “Promoting sustainable transport” – Chapter Nine reflects the Government’s expectations that local authorities should identify additional development opportunities arising from strategic infrastructure investment, and that designs should prioritise pedestrian and cycle movements, followed by access to high quality public transport (“so far as possible”), and recognise the importance of creating well-designed places.
• “Supporting high quality communications” – Chapter Ten indicates that local plans should set out expectations in relation to the delivery of high quality digital infrastructure, “which provides access to services from a range of providers. This reflects government support for the further expansion of electronic communications networks, including next generation mobile technology and full fibre broadband connections, and the role that planning can play in this alongside other regulatory frameworks.”
• “Achieving well-designed places” – Chapter Twelve says that “outstanding or innovative designs” should not be given great weight where they are in conflict with local design policies or would not be sensitive to their surroundings.

Regarding Chapter Seventeen, “Facilitating the sustainable use of minerals,” the Government says that “as planning for minerals is the responsibility of minerals planning authorities, the Government is interested in views on whether the revised planning policy for minerals that we are consulting on would sit better in a separate document, alongside the Government’s planning policy for waste.”

Finally, the Government says it will continue to explore options for reforming developer contributions, to be delivered through regulations. The Government is also considering what further planning reforms could support the objective of bringing forward more land for development and ensuring that permissions are turned into homes as soon as possible. As mentioned above, these include a new permitted development right for upwards extensions, and wider measures to support farm diversification and housing in the rural economy, including “more effective ways of bringing agricultural land forward for housing.”

The current consultation on the revised NPPF closes on May 10th 2018.

Acknowledgement

Photograph: Affordable housing, Damson Way, Suckley, Worcestershire, 2008 © Copyright Peter Whatley and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The Government’s definition of affordable housing was broadened in the Housing and Planning Act 2016, which caused much controversy when the bill was scrutinised in the House of Lords. Peers expressed concerns that starter homes were included in the definition of affordability, pointing out that starter homes were still unaffordable to many people, and that the starter home initiative would lead to a reduction in other forms of affordable housing. See the ENA article: “The Housing and Planning Act 2016 – A Review”.

Notes

[1] See the ENA article: “The Housing and Planning Act 2016 – A Review”. Further articles on housing and planning can be found by using the search facility on this website.

[2] The consultation paper National Planning Policy Framework: Consultation proposals is a PDF document which can be downloaded from the GOV.UK website by clicking here. In chronological sequence, the previous consultations and papers that have fed into the revised NPPF are as follows:

a) National Planning Policy: consultation on proposed changes (December 2015). The consultation sought views on specific changes to national planning policy aimed at supporting the delivery of new homes. The changes covered the following areas: broadening the definition of affordable housing “to expand the range of low cost housing opportunities”; supporting the delivery of starter homes; increasing the density of development around commuter hubs to make more efficient use of land in suitable locations; supporting sustainable new settlements; supporting development on brownfield land and small sites; and supporting the delivery of housing allocated in local plans.

b) The housing White Paper Fixing our broken housing market (February 2017). The White Paper set out the Government’s plans to boost the supply of new homes in England. It included measures “to ensure we plan for the right homes in the right places; build homes faster; diversify the housing market; and help people now.” The consultation also sought views on changes to planning policy and legislation in relation to planning for housing, sustainable development, and the environment.

c) Planning and Affordable Housing for Build to Rent – a consultation paper (February 2017). This consultation sought views on planning measures to support an increase in Build to Rent schemes across England. Key proposals were changes to the NPPF to support and to increase the number of new Build to Rent homes, and the provision of Affordable Private Rent homes as the main form of affordable housing provision in Build to Rent schemes. The consultation also sought to promote the availability of longer tenancies (3 years or more) in Build to Rent accommodation. Local authorities would be encouraged to plan for Build to Rent schemes, with Affordable Private Rent serving as a substitute for other types of affordable housing.

d) Planning for the right homes in the right places: consultation proposals (September 2017). A consultation on further measures set out in the housing White Paper to boost housing supply in England. The consultation set out a number of reforms to the planning system in order to increase the supply of new homes and to increase local authority capacity to manage growth. The proposals included: “a standard method for calculating local authority housing need; giving neighbourhood planning groups greater certainty on the level of housing need to plan for; a statement of common ground to improve how local authorities work together to meet housing and other needs across boundaries; making the use of viability assessments simpler, quicker and more transparent; and increased planning application fees in those areas where local planning authorities are delivering the homes their communities need.”

Links to all of the above documents can be found on the GOV.UK web page “Draft revised National Planning Policy Framework”.

[3] On the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy, see the ENA article: “UK Government publishes ‘The Clean Growth Strategy'”.

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