What are the implications of the suggested revisions to the NPPF for the masterplanning and environmental assessment and design aspects of the development industry? As I have been at the sharp end of the debates about interpretation of the current document at multiple public inquiries, (my very dog eared 2012 copy is heavily annotated with barristers’ comments and judgments) I thought it worth sharing my initial reactions.
We have no Ministerial Foreword attached to the emerging draft – that can be a critical piece of information. Greg Clarke’s for 2012 was very clear in setting out the need for growth and the presumption in favour of sustainable development. It was a very positive overall approach – “Planning must be a creative exercise in finding ways to enhance and improve the places in which we live our lives.”
Paragraph 10 of the Draft perhaps reinforces this by stating “So that sustainable development is pursued in a positive way, at the heart of the Framework is a presumption in favour of sustainable development.” Couldn’t be clearer than that.
The emphasis throughout the document is pro development …”plans should positively seek opportunities to meet development needs…” “Strategic plans should as a minimum, provide for objectively assessed needs for housing and other development, as well as any needs that cannot be met within neighbouring areas…” (Paragraph 11).
Footnote 7 has however somewhat upgraded those “areas and assets of particular importance” which might prevent development. It has added “irreplaceable habitats including ancient woodland; aged or veteran trees”. We need to clarify this latter point, as the definition of an “aged” tree is far less precise than that for a true veteran.
Surprisingly, the former Paragraph 17 Core Planning Principles with the 12 bullet points which we have turned up repeatedly and debated at Appeals have gone, only partially replaced by the new Paragraph 20 and a catch all single bullet f.
Under the heading of Identifying Land for Homes, Paragraph 73 is very positive in relation to “new settlements or significant extensions to existing villages or towns.” Paragraph 80 reinforces the village growth aspect – “Plans should identify opportunities for villages to grow and thrive…”
The guidelines for determining Local Green Space set out at Paragraphs 100 – 102 remain consistent with the 2012 NPPF. Unfortunately, the vexed definition of what constitutes a “valued landscape”, so often the topic of debate at appeal, is not dealt with at all. It doesn’t even feature in the Glossary of terms. (Features such as Green Infrastructure and Stepping Stones Habitats are!) So this bone of contention will continue to be wrestled over at Inquiries, with the final judgement left to the individual Inspector to decide. However, there is a worthwhile addition at Paragraph 168a, setting out that protection of valued landscapes should be “in a manner commensurate with their statutory status or identified quality.” Bullet b reiterates the previous emphasis on “recognising the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside” rather than the wholesale protection. Minimising impacts and providing “net gains” are the key objectives.
With regard to designated landscapes such as National Parks and AONBs, Paragraph 170 maintains the stance that protection applies only to land within them. There is no suggestion that development beyond their boundaries should be restricted.
In contrast to this, Paragraph 173 relating to SSSIs does specify that harmful development beyond the boundary should not normally be permitted. Once again, the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, such as ancient woodland, is identified as a reason for refusal. How one defines “deterioration” might become another bone of contention.
Paragraph 177 raises the topics of potential noise and light pollution, and requires LPAs to identify and protect tranquil areas if they are prized for their recreational and amenity value.
Section 12, ‘Achieving Well-designed Spaces’, puts the onus on LPAs to be clear about their design aspirations. Helpfully it advises that these should be “grounded in an understanding and evaluation of each area’s defining characteristics.” This is in tune with our normal “ground up” approach to masterplanning in any event.
Finally, in relation to the Green Belt, the 2012 Paragraph 81 which required LPAs to “plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt…” has been scrapped, presumably because it was undeliverable.
So, at this interim stage, there do not appear to be any major concerns about the emerging revised NPPF from a masterplanning perspective. The thrust remains, and has perhaps been strengthened, for the positive delivery of sustainable development across the board. As always, there will continue to be room for heated debate at Inquiries over precise interpretation.
We need to monitor carefully how the ongoing consultation process affects the final document.