The draft National Planning Policy Framework was published last week. With its presumption in favour of sustainable development, it could be just what the economy needs

The draft National Planning Policy Framework published on 25 July has provoked some extreme reactions. The National Trust’s response that the framework will lead to “unchecked and damaging” development has been widely criticised. The British Property Federation described the trust’s response as “hyperbole and scare tactics”. What is clear is that the framework represents a bold attempt to encapsulate national planning policy in a succinct document which contains some key messages and a clear indication of the government’s direction of travel, towards an agenda which will have growth and economic development at its heart.

The emphasis on growth is a theme which runs throughout the framework. Central to this is the presumption in favour of sustainable development. The extent of this presumption can be seen in the advice that local authorities should “approve all individual proposals wherever possible”. Decision takers at every level should assume that the default answer to development proposals is “yes”, except where this would compromise the key sustainable development principles set out in the framework.

Local authorities, developers and communities will all have to adjust to this new start point when planning policies are being prepared at a local level and when individual planning applications come forward. It calls for a fundamental change in approach if the presumption is to be properly applied in practice. The desire to facilitate development is similarly reflected in the move away from “development control” to the more positive concept of “development management” whose primary objective is described as fostering sustainable development, rather than hindering or preventing it.

The framework will sweep away planning policy guidance notes and planning policy statements

However, the framework should not be viewed as giving developers a free hand when it comes to promoting schemes. The principle of sustainability will remain as an important check and balance in the system and proposals will have to demonstrate that they meet the important design and locational criteria. Existing constraints on development will continue to apply - for example, very special circumstances will still have to be proved to justify development in the green belt.

Of particular interest in the current economic climate is the emphasis which the framework places on viability. Planning authorities are urged to avoid unnecessary conditions or planning obligations particularly where this would undermine the viability of development proposals.

It is also instructive to consider the impact assessment which accompanies the draft framework. It recognises the risk of more refusals of planning applications and appeals where plans are not up to date and reliance is placed by developers upon the framework. There is every prospect, at least in the short term, of developers returning to planning by appeal when the framework has been published, particularly in areas where local plans are out of date. Lawyers meanwhile will be grappling with the question as to when a plan becomes “out of date”.

The framework will sweep away existing planning policy guidance notes and planning policy statements. The impact assessment recognises the need for further good practice guidance, although in most cases the government expects that guidance to be developed and owned by “relevant external bodies” rather than being specified centrally. This further guidance will be important, in view of the technical issues addressed in existing guidance. For example, what will be the criteria for considering a proposal to develop a major developed site in the green belt when Annex C of PPG2 is revoked? It will be critical that the government gives a clear and early indication of how and when this additional guidance is to emerge.

The consultation on the draft framework closes on 17 October. The impetus offered by the framework, with its emphasis on growth, will be a significant catalyst towards positive planning decisions and greater construction activity. The early months of the framework will be especially interesting. In particular, the development industry will be looking for assurances through the secretary of state’s approach to local plans and appeal decisions that the rhetoric in the framework is carried through in its implementation.

Michael Gallimore is a partner and head of planning at Hogan Lovells International LLP