The new calm before the next storm of the NPPF

For a government that last week got a roasting for the presentational failure of its Budget - trying to pass off a £3bn pensioner tax hike as a mere “simplification” of the system - it played a blinder this week with its planning reforms. Reading the papers the day after the launch of the planning rule book on Tuesday, it was hard to find a dissenting voice - developers, environmentalists and local councils all professed themselves pleased with the final outcome, which was deemed to have taken on board many of their criticisms without losing its basic pro-development stance. After all, getting all those people singing with one voice is no mean feat.

Some might say it was about time the message had got through, given the deeply unimpressive way the communication of the original draft was handled last summer. It was this that set in motion the bandwagon of public opposition just when ministers were off on holiday.

What the government has achieved is a deeply political compromise which gives just enough to every special interest to allow them to claim victory - the Telegraph was always going to want to say its Hands Off Our Land campaign had saved the English countryside.

Once local authorities realise the presumption in favour of development is already in effect, don’t expect this week’s political consensus to last too long

But look a little deeper and the reality is more complex. First, some of the positive reaction is due to the fact that parts of the document just seem to be more clearly drafted. Ideas that, previously, had been left implicit - such as favouring brownfield land - have now been made crystal clear.

The final version leaves no doubt, too, that when a local plan is up to date and adopted, it has primacy over the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). More detail on design is welcome, and cutting the line that “the default answer to development should be yes”, while frustrating to developers, is only to be expected in a democracy that has to balance everyone’s interests. Similarly the beefed-up definition of sustainable development merely puts it in line with existing government policy.

Of more concern to housebuilders will be the backtracking on the proposal in the original draft that councils put forward land for six years’ worth of housebuilding, as well as the insertion of the generic new protections for the countryside, with its explicit recognition of the “intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside”. On both of these fronts it will take time to see what the real impact will be.

Most troubling of all, however, is undoubtedly the confusion over how the NPPF will be implemented (see this week’s detailed analysis). Councils so far seem to have failed to notice that those that don’t have post-2004 plans will not be able to take advantage of the year-long transition period to the NPPF. For them the presumption in favour is already in effect, and developers will understandably look to take advantage. Once local authorities realise this, don’t expect this week’s political consensus to last too long.

The implementation arrangements seem so unclear that a huge amount of court time is all but inevitable. This is ironic, because the one thing the publication of the NPPF was supposed to do was end the two-year planning hiatus we’ve seen since the government ripped up the previous system. Unfortunately, as the lawyers rub their hands over the ambiguities, an end to that hiatus seems far from likely.

Joey Gardiner, assistant editor