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'Mixed blessings' from amended English planning framework

The government has made further changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for England, following last year's technical consultation on proposed revisions.22 Feb 2019

In particular, the government's response to the consultation confirms that local authorities should continue to use the existing method when assessing housing need. This method relies on national growth projections, and is currently based on 2014 averages. The government had sought views on adopting new figures published in September 2018 by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) containing lower growth projections.

Planning law expert Mike Pocock of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that this "confirmation of the status quo" by the government was disappointing, as it "suggests an inability to take account of real-world changes".

"The recent National Audit Office report on housing supply noted that there were 'weaknesses' in the government's standard method, and that some local authorities could respond by reducing green belt or using flood plains for development," he said. "It would be a real shame if this was the result of this rather stubborn approach."

The NPPF (75-page / 508KB PDF) sets out the government's planning policies for England, and how these are expected to be applied. The revisions take effect immediately.

The revised framework also clarifies the meaning of 'deliverable' sites sufficient to provide a minimum of five years' worth of housing, with a revised definition of that term in the glossary. Both confirm that sites that have only outline consent can be considered deliverable until that permission expires so long as they do not involve major development, or there is clear evidence that homes will not be delivered on that site within five years.

"It will be interesting to see if this clarification achieves the desired result," said Pocock. "Last December's East Bergholt High Court case was concerned primarily with the interpretation of 'deliverable' in the 2012 and 2018 NPPF documents. Mr Justice Cranston simply confirmed that deliverability issues are 'matters of planning judgement', and even the updated definition leaves a lot of scope for arguments about how that judgment should be applied."

The final significant change to the NPPF is at paragraph 177, in response to recent cases on habitats assessments and removing ambiguity on the application of the presumption in favour of sustainable development. The new paragraph makes it clear that the presumption will not apply unless an appropriate assessment of the habitats impact on the site has already concluded that there will not be negative impacts.

Planning law expert Sue Chadwick of Pinsent Masons described this revision as a "positive step".

"Not only does this try to ensure that the recent case law doesn't create issues for the interpretation of the NPPF, it also shows a willingness of the part of the government to amend the framework on an organic basis, facilitating a quicker response to change generally. Whatever form Brexit takes, we are entering an uncertain period and this approach is bound to be helpful," she said.