The Government’s new planning reforms (NPPF) will result in a presumption in favour of ‘Sustainable Development’ and present a huge opportunity for commercial developers and house builders, as long as they are able to demonstrate the sustainable credentials of a scheme and a willingness to engage with local neighbourhoods at the planning stage.

Projects that have been previously refused and even dismissed at appeal also promise to be reincarnated, again, as long as the schemes sustainable credentials can be demonstrated as well as, on some projects, a willingness to engage with local neighbourhoods at the planning stage.

Through the production of Neighbourhood Plans, the new planning reforms also promise to give local communities the power to have an unprecedented say over the shaping of their communities and neighbourhoods, with the underlying caveat that that there is constructive dialogue and a presumption in favour of sustainable development.

These reforms therefore offer a huge opportunity for both developers and local communities. The hope is that necessary constructive engagement and dialogue will result in an end to blind ‘nimbyism’, an increased sense of community, more efficient use of our existing infrastructure, re use of our underused and empty buildings ( as well as vastly improved standards in the quality of new developments, in terms of space planning, energy consumption and the environment. 

But What Is It?

Expected to come into force in April 2012 ... probably within the next 8 weeks! The draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) promises to be the biggest reform to the planning system in England in 50 years. It is planned to replace all the existing national planning policy statements and guidance including regional special strategy plans.

“(3) For the purposes of any area [outside of Greater London] the development plan is:

(a) the regional strategy for the region in which the area is situated, and

(b) the development plan documents (taken as a whole) which have been adopted or approved for that area, and

(c) the neighbourhood development plans which have been made in relation to that area.“

The government’s aim is to make the planning system more straightforward, transparent and accountable. The Department of Communities and Local Government have claimed that they are cutting down 1,000 pages of planning guidance into a concise National Planning Policy Framework.

“The Framework will replace the current suite of national Planning Policy Statements, Planning Policy Guidance notes and some Circulars with a single, streamlined document.”

“The Framework condenses the near 900,000 words of national planning policies (over 1,000 pages) into a user friendly and accessible document which can be understood and used by everybody who has an interest in shaping the development of their area.”

Key concept

The extracts below taken from the NPPF clearly demonstrate the key concept behind the new policy is a presumption in favour of sustainable development.

“At the heart of the planning system is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan making and decision taking. Local planning authorities should plan positively for new development, and approve all individual proposals wherever possible.”

“All plans should be based upon and contain the presumption in favour of sustainable development as their starting point, with clear policies that will guide how the presumption will be applied locally.”

The extract below is particularly poignant as it places a requirement on the Local Authority to work with applicants in finding solutions to overcome any substantial planning objections as long as proposals are seen to be sustainable:

“In considering applications for planning permission, local planning authorities should apply the presumption in favour of sustainable development and seek to find solutions to overcome any substantial planning objections where practical and consistent with the Framework.”

Risks, Challenges and Opportunities

In accordance with its other key concept of Localism and ‘Neighbourhood Development Plans’ the NPPF has placed the onus on local authorities and local neighbourhoods to define what constitutes sustainable development in a specific locality/neighbourhood. The NPPF has been criticised by some for not going far enough in clearly defining what constitutes Sustainable Development.

Sustainability is more than just energy efficiency and ‘bolt-on’ renewable technologies. It is also concerned with economic growth, space standards(, transport, community infrastructure, historic context, ecology etc Sustainability must therefore be seen as site/locally contextually specific, and therefore it is appropriate not to adopt a one size fits all but to allow this to be defined at local level.

Developers will no doubt utilise the existing BREEAM and Code for Sustainable Homes Assessment system in conjunction with Energy Assessments, for both residential and commercial developments, to demonstrate a schemes sustainable credentials. However an important point is that the emphasis on sustainable development is much more than the sustainable manner in which a property is constructed. It is also to do with sustainable locations as well. All new development needs to be located such as to reduce reliance on the private car.

However many fear that the new ‘slim-line’ policy framework does not clearly define what sustainable development is and as a result will lead to uncertainty, confusion and a period of planning by appeal.

The clearest definition of sustainable development given within the NPPF is:

“Sustainable development means development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is central to the economic, environmental and social success of the country and is the core principle underpinning planning. Simply stated, the principle recognises the importance of ensuring that all people should be able to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life, both now and in the future.”
Paragraph 8

The key areas of consideration given are as follows:

Planning for prosperity (economic role)
• business and economic development
• transport
• community infrastructure
• minerals

Planning for people (social role)
• housing
• design
• sustainable communities
• green belt planning for places (environmental role)
• climate change
• natural environment
• historic environment

Where local authorities and local neighbourhoods have not produced a Neighbourhood Development Plan and or revised Local Plan, and have therefore failed to create a local detailed framework for planning in their locality, the onus will be on developers to demonstrate ‘sustainability’ using their own definitions. Under these circumstances developers will no doubt still focus on the use of BREEAM, the Code for Sustainable Homes, and SBEM/SAP Energy Assessments, however the level of compliance may well be set fairly low with little thought to wider contextual considerations. This in turn will no doubt lead to objections at local level with a large amount of developments being refused locally and granted at appeal.

“Local authorities should ... grant permission where the [local] plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date.”

“In the absence of an up-to-date plan, planning applications should be determined in accord with this Framework...It will be open to local planning authorities to seek a certificate of conformity with the Framework.”

The onus is therefore most definitely therefore on Neighbourhood Groups and Local Authorities to work closely with Architects, BREEAM/Code for Sustainable Homes Assessors and SBEM/SAP Assessors to get to grips with sustainability issues and set appropriate standards within their own localities.

Importance of Good Design

The importance of ‘Good Design’ is also incorporated as a key consideration within the NPPF and is stated to be inextricably linked with sustainability. This should be greatly applauded and is fantastic news for Architects, Neighbourhood Groups and forward thinking developers.

Considerations such as minimum space standards, access, storage provision, as well as contextually appropriate aesthetics and user convenience and comfort are all to become important considerations. This concern with good design promises to give proactive Local Authorities and Neighbourhood Groups an exciting opportunity to ensure the end of ‘ticky tacky’ box housing developments and soulless inhuman commercial development. It represents an opportunity for local community/neighbourhood groups to have a huge say in defining the architectural character and quality of their area.

“Good design is indivisible from good planning and should contribute positively to making places better for people. The Government’s objective for the planning system is to promote good design that ensures attractive, usable and durable places. This is a key element in achieving sustainable development.”
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Jonathan Braddick – RIBA Chartered Architect Devon