A revised planning system: an erosion of plan-led development?

The Government is currently consulting on changes to the planning system. In part one of this long read, Public Policy Officer Laura Mason focuses on three key problems with the proposals.

©National Trust Images/John Miller

A month has passed since the Prime Minister launched a public consultation on a revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and pledged ‘new, fairer, more effective planning rules’.

Back in 2011, when the NPPF was being drafted, we were concerned that the planning system would prioritise economic growth at all costs, risking some of our most precious environments. More than 230,000 people supported our Planning For People campaign for a strong, effective planning system that is led by local people. When the final NPPF was published in 2012, it had effectively balanced out economic, social and environmental needs.

The new proposed changes to the NPPF have been hailed by the Prime Minister as ‘a major overhaul’, but the devil is very much in the detail.

Here at the National Trust we agree that planning policy ‘in the right hands can be a powerful tool with which to shape, regulate and drive the construction of homes in this country’. We support a plan-led system that delivers the well-designed homes we need, whilst helping communities protect the open spaces and historic places that matter to them.

Whilst the revised NPPF has much in it we can welcome, we’re concerned at some measures that seem to undermine a plan-led development system.

We see three problems with the proposals:

  • The new way of calculating how many homes a council needs to build in their area.
  • That more and more exceptions seem to have crept in, potentially giving developers a license to try their luck on sites that wouldn’t make it through the council and community-led allocations process.
  • The changes risk creating a two-tier planning system, where some communities have a diminished say on issues like design.

Let’s take a look at these in more detail.

Housing need calculations: setting Local Authorities up to fail?

We support the principle of a standard methodology for calculating the number of homes councils need to deliver. It has been a real frustration for communities to see their Local Plans challenged when their housing need figures are disputed. This process is a legal and technical maze, with different methodologies producing radically different figures. A standard methodology would give local authorities confidence that the figure it produces is not going to be endlessly challenged by inspectors and developers.

But the methodology proposed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) includes an adjustment for demand and market prices, which we have consistently argued won’t solve the problem.

Only a third of Local Authorities are on course to meet the new targets set by this methodology, but what happens when they can’t? The theory is that where a council can’t accommodate the number of homes, they’ll work with others to allocate the excess.

According to the new methodology, several Local Authorities in the south east of England, will face large increases in housing numbers. Those areas, which contain large areas of protected landscapes, will be under the greatest pressure. We blogged about this issue at the end of last year.

These high targets are accompanied by a new ‘housing delivery test’, designed to ensure that Local Authorities deliver the homes in their Local Plans. We think this unfairly scapegoats local councils and communities for problems that aren’t necessarily their fault.

If a council fails the new housing delivery test, then the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ applies. This means that unless there are compelling reasons to refuse a development, it should go ahead.

Unsurprisingly, Local Authorities, communities and developers often disagree about whether the adverse impacts of a development ‘would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits’. The presumption also shouldn’t apply in designated areas like Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) or National Parks.

In the past, where the presumption has applied because Local Authorities haven’t met their housing need, it has resulted in large developments being approved against the will of local people, often in the open countryside.

Our research on AONBs also showed that the presumption was being incorrectly applied in these areas and special circumstances were not being taken into consideration. In six cases where the Local Authority wasn’t meeting its housing need, the correct tests weren’t applied.

In our blog we argued that the housing need methodology should therefore take environmental designation into consideration, and we’ll be watching carefully to monitor the impacts of these increased numbers.

Exception sites: no longer the exception to the rule?

In rural areas, it’s often inappropriate to allocate large sites for development. Rural exception sites on smaller plots have traditionally been an important mechanism to deliver affordable housing in rural village communities. Land is sold at a below market rate, specifically to facilitate the construction of affordable housing. In 2012, an element of market housing was permitted to cross-subsidise the delivery of rural exception sites. Theoretically, this would enable more sites to come forward.

We’re not sure the proposed new ‘entry-level exception sites’ will deliver the same benefits for communities. These are too loosely-defined as developments that are ‘suitable for first time buyers (or those looking to rent their first home)’. According to the proposed guidelines they should be adjacent to existing settlements and ‘comprise a high proportion of entry-level homes’.

Crucially, these will be allocated outside the Local Plan system – meaning sites that are considered inappropriate for development during this process could come forward as ‘entry level exception sites’ instead.

There would be no threshold on the amount of market housing that can be used to cross-subsidise them, and no limit on their overall size either. The NPPF places considerable weight on these sites, which we fear could limit the ability of Local Authorities to refuse them.

We’re deeply concerned this will undermine the allocations process and will simply cause the price of land to rise and reduce the number of rural exception sites providing genuinely affordable housing for rural communities.

A two-tier planning system?

We’re really pleased to see a new emphasis on strategic planning. As we see the emergence of more elected mayors and combined authorities, there is real scope for more concerted cross-border strategic planning. This could be a powerful tool for dispersing housing need across multiple areas, reducing the pressure on the countryside in areas with a lot of designated land.

However, the proposed new NPPF sets out that local councils should ‘as a minimum, ensure there is a plan which addresses the strategic priorities for their area’. This could be a spatial development strategy. However, it appears there is no requirement to produce a Local Plan to address more detailed issues, despite the revised NPPF stating that strategic plans shouldn’t ‘extend to detailed matters that are more appropriately dealt with through neighbourhood plans or other local policies’.

We think it would be a real shame if this resulted in the emergence of a two-tier system where some communities have a greater say on the design and mix of their housing than others.

We believe the best planning system includes a combination of strategic, local and neighbourhood plans. This gives communities the greatest involvement and provides the strongest protection for environmental and heritage assets. We’ll be making the case for this in the coming months.

So that’s a rundown of three key areas of the proposals that we think need to be reconsidered. In the next blog, we’ll take a look at some of the considerable improvements in the revised new policy.

We’ll be submitting a response to the consultation – and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is encouraging everyone to have their say on the proposals. You can get involved on their website.

Laura Mason, Public Policy Officer, National Trust

For more information about the National Trust’s approach to planning, take a look at our website.

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