Happy 5th Birthday NPPF!

Five years after the launch of the National Planning Policy Framework, and our Planning for People Campaign, Senior External Affairs Adviser Adam Royle takes a look at how successful the NPPF has been so far, and what lies ahead for the Government’s central planning document.

Fowey, Cornwall

Housing development in Fowey, Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (c) National Trust Images/John Miller

On 27 March 2012 the Government put in place a new rulebook for the planning system – the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The NPPF aimed to simplify and consolidate existing Government planning guidance, but also made some significant changes to national planning policy. Controversially, the draft NPPF published in July 2011, proposed creating a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ – or a default ‘yes’ to development – leading many (including the National Trust) to launch campaigns to get the draft revised.

Some 250,000 people backed our Planning for People campaign, and important changes were made to the NPPF as a result. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, wrote to the National Trust to reassure us that ‘our magnificent countryside’ would continue to be protected. He said the reforms would ‘maintain protections for the green belt, for National Parks and Areas of Outstanding National Beauty,’ and would ‘strengthen local participation’. Ministers also claimed to have removed the controversial default ‘yes’ to development, although a presumption in favour of sustainable development still exists in the NPPF.

Progress report

When it was conceived, Ministers wanted the NPPF to help address the pressing need for new homes, while handing power down to local people to deliver well-designed development in their areas through local plans, and protecting our heritage, environment and valued countryside.

How has it delivered against those objectives?

Addressing the need for new homes

Since its adoption in 2012, the NPPF has succeeded in driving up the number of planning permissions granted for new homes – but the figures show us that housing delivery has not increased in parallel. Planning permission has been granted on land for more than a million new homes in the last five years, yet just 600,000 new builds have been delivered over the same period.

Handing power down to local people

Although the NPPF has succeeded in getting more planning permissions out of the system, our evidence shows this has come at a price. In January the National Trust and Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) published a survey of 1,200 ward councillors across England. 72% of councillors said that the system is too weighted in favour of developers at the expense of local communities.  The survey also found that half of councillors believe planning departments are not adequately resourced.

The NPPF also does not appear to be having it’s intended positive impact on design quality – with only 18% of councillors feeling design has improved since the NPPF was drawn up, and just 12% of councillors thinking that the loosening of planning restrictions has had a positive effect.

The NPPF’s presumption in favour of sustainable development is not supposed to apply if a council has a local plan in place – but more than a quarter of planning authorities do not, and, of those that do, research we published in 2014 showed that developers often successfully challenge adopted local plans. The 2017 LGiU research supported this, with half of councillors surveyed saying that development was being approved in their areas that was not in line with local plans.

Protecting heritage, environment and our countryside

Has the NPPF been successful in delivering good quality new housing? Is it directing development to the most suitable locations and preventing harm to special places and unnecessary loss of countryside?

Two years after the NPPF was adopted, in December 2014, the cross-party House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee found that the NPPF needed to ‘do more to protect communities from unsustainable development’, and last year the House of Lords Built Environment Committee said that houses were being built in the wrong places, and to a poor standard.

Research by Shelter and YouGov finds that half (51%) of new home owners say they have experienced major problems with their properties including issues with construction, unfinished fittings and faults with utilities.

We published our own research in 2015 which showed that found that the NPPF contains a good level of protection for our Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but that there were too many examples of these protections not being applied by decision-makers. And research by Sheffield Hallam University published in November (sponsored by the National Trust, CPRE, and the Campaign for National Parks) found that short-term economic priorities are overriding long-established protections and allowing inappropriate development in England’s National Parks.

Protections for Green Belt are also coming under strain. Our LGiU survey from January found that 58% of councillors with Green Belt in their area think that their council will allocate Green Belt land for housing in the next five years.

What next?

This quick look back at five years of the NPPF shows a decidedly mixed picture. In one sense at least, it has done its job. Ministers will be pleased that planning permissions have increased to a level which would support the Government’s drive for a million new homes by 2020.

Yet these permissions have come at a price, sometimes driven through the system against local plans, and, according to two separate parliamentary committees, homes being built in the wrong places and to a poor standard.

And whilst enough planning permissions are being granted, housing delivery is not keeping pace.

The Government has recognised this in its Housing White Paper – published last month and currently being consulted on – which says the housing market is ‘broken’. It places a welcome new emphasis on design, commits to invest more in council planning teams, and to protect the Green Belt with a renewed emphasis on brownfield development.

It also proposes a set of measures to increase housing delivery. With hundreds of thousands of houses permitted but yet unbuilt, it is right that the industry is clearer about timescales and that councils have tools to ensure that housebuilders deliver. We’ll be asking the Government to keep these measures under review and take further steps if they don’t prove sufficient.

Shelter launched a campaign recently calling for a new generation of civic housebuilding to deliver good quality, well-planned homes that meet local needs. If we continue to see under-delivery in the housing market then these and other innovative proposals deserve more consideration.

The White Paper will lead to changes being made to the NPPF later this year – probably in the summer or autumn. The Trust is currently analysing the White Paper proposals and will respond to the Government’s consultation which closes in May.

We’ll want to make sure that Government takes this opportunity to invest in and strengthen the local plan process so that local communities have more say over where development goes, and to reduce pressure on sensitive landscapes.

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