Welcome back after that fabulous long hot summer. Whilst here at Planning Ventures we celebrate the launch of the new school year, we’re also braced for a fresh start in the Planning calendar, just as you were all escaping for your fortnight of downtime, July 24th saw the release of the long-awaited revised National Planning Policy Framework.
The revised Framework follows a public consultation launched by Theresa May earlier this year to ‘provide a comprehensive approach for planners, developers and councils to build more homes, more quickly, in places where people want to live’. Lauded by the Government as ‘the new planning rulebook’, it reflects Ministers’ ambitions to achieve 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s.
Maintaining the fundamental presumption in favour of sustainable development and with an expectation that local housing needs will be accommodated unless there are strong reasons not to, the Government document seeks to focus on 4 key areas of development delivery. Its barely had time to hit our desks and we’re still getting to grips with what it means for our clients and projects, but here are a few of the headliners that stand out on first reading.
Promoting High-Quality Design of New Homes and Places
Re-focusing on the quality and design of proposals, the revised Framework requires plans to set out a clear vision and expectations for design so that applicants have as much certainty as possible about what is likely to be acceptable (and Council’s have more power to refuse where these are not met). Additional emphasis is placed on the importance of pre-application design discussions and great weight is now given to outstanding or innovative designs that promote high levels of sustainability or help raise design standards generally in an area.
To maximise the use of land, policies and decisions must now make more intensive use of existing land and buildings, especially where it would help to meet housing need. The use of under-utilised space such as service yards, car parks, and lockups is to be promoted, whilst support will be given for upward extensions above existing residential and commercial premises for new homes. Low-density housing developments are to be avoided (and can be refused for such), and a flexible approach is now to be taken to the application of daylight and sunlight standards. Overall, substantial weight is being placed on the value of using suitable brownfield land within settlements for homes and other identified needs.
Stronger Environmental Protection
At the same time as addressing the need for more homes, the revised Framework sees the planning system align more closely with Defra’s ’25 Year Environment Plan’, providing further protection for biodiversity (‘irreplacable habitats’ are now a national constraint that would limit the application of the presumption), as well as ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees. Greater importance will also be given to air quality when determining development proposals.
As anticipated, the Governments commitment to the protection of the Green Belt remains sacrosanct, and Council’s will be expected to demonstrate they have exhausted all other reasonable options for development before looking to alter a Green Belt boundary. Where it is necessary to change boundaries, offsetting the loss may be considered through compensatory improvements to the quality and accessibility of Green Belt land. Amendments to boundaries can now be made through neighbourhood plans (as well as Local Plans).
Building the Right Number of Homes in the Right Places
The Government seeks to tackle housing need with a requirement for all Councils to adopt a standardised method of local housing need calculation (unless exceptional circumstances justify an alternative approach) and for plan policies to disaggregate need into particular types of housing (including families with children; affordable, self-build and custom-build; student accommodation; travellers who have ceased to travel; private rented sector and build to rent; and, housing for older people).
The affordable homes definition has also been widened to include discount market sales housing or other routes to homes ownership, and as per the Ministerial Position from 2014, affordable housing should still only be sought in major developments (other than in designated rural areas where a lower threshold of 5 units or fewer may apply), where a minimum of 10% provision will be expected.
Greater Responsibility and Accountability for Housing Delivery from Councils and Developers
The housing delivery policies are inevitably the most significant. At least 10% of a Council’s housing requirement should be met on sites of 1 hectare or less (small to medium sites), and from November this year, a Housing Delivery Test will be introduced which will oblige all Local Planning Authorities to measure performance and set out actions to boost delivery where necessary – the focus is on delivery and not how many homes are planned for. Council’s will also need to have a 20% buffer on top of their 5 year supply of deliverable housing sites (where delivery in the previous 3 years was less than 85%), and from 2020, the presumption in favour of sustainable development will apply where delivery dips below 75%. In a further bid to boost the more affordable end of the market, exception sites for entry-level homes on unallocated sites outside existing settlements will now also be allowed.
Finally, to try and tie together infrastructure and housing delivery, the revised framework introduces a new approach to viability, through which Plans must set out the developer contributions expected with development (levels and types of affordable housing, the infrastructure required for education, health, transport, flood management etc). This negates the current need for viability assessments with applications, and in theory, should afford developers more certainty over what is expected of them up front (and conversely Council’s more authority to hold them to these commitments). An accompanying new PPG has been released with further details on this which can be found here.
So, there is a lot to take in. On the face of it, it would appear that the national housing crisis is finally starting to drive the direction of planning policy – but obviously now it’s all about the application and delivery. We’re encouraged that there are some proactive measures in here, particularly the Housing Delivery Test and the new approach to viability which should both bring some focus and clarity to the obstacles to development. But we’re still unconvinced that there’s enough flexibility in the revised framework, or the resources in our public sector, to really bring about the extent and speed of change in the industry that is necessary. We’ll be reporting back on our experiences of the ‘new rules’ as they start to take effect.