The publication of the first major revision to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is a significant moment for anyone working in the built environment. These are the rules that govern what’s going to get built, where, and how, for the foreseeable future, so they matter. Redwood has looked at the NPPF, and the responses to the government consultation, to see what the changes mean – and what the process can tell us about public policy, and the approaches from the public and private sectors.

Housing delivery

The headline the government wants people to take away is that it is doing its utmost to get more houses built. A new ‘housing delivery test’ is a key part of this. Previously, councils have been judged on whether they’ve identified enough sites for housing for the next five years; they will now also have to demonstrate that they have built enough (not just approved them) over the last three years.

If they are delivering less than 75% of what they need, a presumption in favour of sustainable development will kick in that will make it very difficult to turn down applications for housing. It’s interesting to note that local authorities feel this removes too much discretion, with only 9% backing the idea; the private sector was strongly in favour, with 52% backing it and 39% feeling the 75% threshold was too lenient. It’s likely to be a point of contention in the years to come.

Design to succeed

It is not a charter to build at all costs, though. The Secretary of State has been clear that he expects design to be a key part of the planning assessment. ‘Great weight … should be given to outstanding or innovative designs’, while ‘Permission should be refused for development of poor design that fails to [improve] the character and quality of an area and the way it functions’. It will be interesting to see if local councils take the government’s lead on this, and if a clearer national approach to design standards emerges.

Pressure on planners

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that planning departments are under unprecedented pressure. The government is clear: it wants planners to work with developers and bring forward sustainable development. Planning departments have lost more than 50% of their funding in real terms since 2010, and only just over half of councils have adopted a Local Plan that complies with the old NPPF. Those overworked planners now have a new set of rules to learn and apply. Be patient with them.

In an interesting related point, the complexity of the changes is demonstrated by the fact that there is a specific exemption for the London Plan. It is to be examined against the previous NPPF, to try to speed up its adoption. The government is applying the stick, as well as offering carrots, though: James Brokenshire has written to Sadiq Khan with a number of criticisms of the draft plan that he wants to see addressed, and a reminder that it will need to be reviewed as soon as it is adopted to ensure it reflects national policy on housing need.

Viability assessments

Viability assessments often represent a point of contention between planners and applicants, and give rise to a lot of misunderstanding. We should begin to see fewer of them. The new framework makes clear that planning applications complying with an up-to-date Local Plan will be assumed to be viable, and that applicants would need to justify any further assessment. They will also be required to publish all viability assessments, with much less scope to argue that figures are commercially sensitive. Unsurprisingly, the private sector wanted to see more detail on this, with 60% of respondents to the government consultation calling for clarity about when a viability assessment will be permissible.

Ministers have been clear that they do not consider the price paid for land an acceptable reason to fail to comply with planning policy – for example, on affordable housing. Where assessments are carried out, the government will base them on ‘EUV+’: that is, existing use value for a site, plus a ‘reasonable premium’ to provide an incentive to sell the land for development. Don’t expect changes overnight, as it will be some time before we have adopted Local Plans with that ‘baked in’ viability assessment. But in the medium term, we should see a change to the way the property sector considers land value, and in how planners talk about bringing sites forward.

Build to rent

As trailed earlier in the year, the NPPF now recognises build to rent (BTR) as a vital part of the housing mix in the years to come. It also makes clear that the affordable housing element of BTR developments will be expected to be in the form of affordable private rent units within the same development, rather than off-site or other alternative provision.

Consultation and engagement

The government has looked again at the language on pre-application consultation and engagement, and amended it to emphasise how important it is to talk to communities about plans before they are submitted. It has added a reference to engaging with statutory and non-statutory consultees before applications go in, and concluded emphatically that, ‘Applications that can demonstrate early, proactive and effective engagement with the community should be looked on more favourably than those that cannot.’ At Redwood, we see time and again that local residents and other stakeholders appreciate this early, honest and open engagement, so the firm support from central government is very welcome.

The first major revision to our national planning rules in six years is the government’s chance to look at how the system is working, and make adjustments to change the trajectory of our built environment. It has used the opportunity to signal ambitions for greater housing delivery and higher design quality, along with a number of tweaks to try to keep up with changes in the market. We, along with many others, will be watching closely to see if they have the desired effect.