For all the criticism, the NPPF has, in reality, worked quite well. It could lead to a significant increase in supply overall – and that is something we can all feel optimistic about
The new NPPF, published last week, is unashamedly about homes, and, crucially, how more of them can be built. Rather than making dramatic changes, the new policies are more about marginal gains - a series of relatively small changes that the government hopes, in aggregate, will make a big difference.
There are three main themes to the changes:
There’s an obvious - and deliberate - attempt at clarity. The original NPPF tried to slim down thousands of pages of policy, resulting in ambiguity and a profusion of court cases debating what the policies actually meant.
By tightening up the wording, the government will be hopeful the new NPPF avoids many of those pitfalls. For example, the list of sites which are exempted from the presumption in favour of sustainable development (the famous “Footnote 9”), used to start with the qualifier “for example”, leading to an inevitable debate about what else could be included. The new drafting provides a definitive list of exempted designations, avoiding any debate.
Much-needed clarity is also provided around the calculation of housing targets. The new “standard method” for those assessments has numerous failings – not least the loss of any link to economic growth aspirations – but it does at least have the benefit of being definitive. Currently, one of the main delays in the Local Plan process is argument about housing targets and the different outcomes produced by the multitude of methods that can be employed. This change should stop that happening. There is still likely to be debate about how far housing targets need to be integrated with economic ones, though, and it seems probable that there will be a court case seeking to clarify that point at some stage.
In development terms, clarity reduces risk and increases the speed of delivery - both of which are crucial factors if more homes are to be built.
Despite concerns over some of the specifics, the general thrust of these changes is positive.
June’s Letwin Review concluded that the way to increase build rates is to deliver a greater variety of product. The new NPPF, whether by accident or design, provides several policy mechanisms for delivering that increased variety.
For example, 10% of new local plan allocations are to be of less than 1ha to encourage SMEs. Entry-level homes will be allowed on sites outside settlement boundaries provided there is an unmet need, an addition to the old rural exception sites, which are retained. Elsewhere, encouragement is provided for sub-dividing large sites, while referring to Garden City principles as just one way in which the largest sites can be developed provides more flexibility in how they can be designed and delivered.
There is a whole new chapter, too, on “making effective use of land” which requires councils to be proactive in identifying land which is suitable for development and to use their full range of powers – including compulsory purchase- to help ensure sites can deliver., It also requires councils to consider alternative uses on allocated sites, and to allocate more land for development as part of five-yearly plan reviews where needed.
Some of these initiatives are likely to be more successful than others. Demonstrating a need for entry-level homes seems likely to be challenging, for instance, while there is no recourse if councils don’t proactively try to facilitate developments.
Ultimately, the new NPPF is about delivery – ensuring those homes actually get built. Some old favourites, like the importance of maintaining a five-year supply of deliverable housing land, remain, but have been supplemented by additional ways of monitoring progress.
The most fundamental of those is the new Housing Delivery Test. Whereas five-year supply tries to forecast what will be built in the future, the Housing Delivery Test looks at what has actually been delivered. Where targets have been missed over the last three-years, a variety of consequences will apply depending on the severity of the shortfall. These range from preparing a simple action plan through to the presumption in favour of sustainable development being engaged (and so local plan policies being over-ridden).
This looks set to be a vitally important change. The crystal ball-gazing nature of five-year supply calculations makes it difficult to arrive at a definitive position. The actual five-year supply is a source of much debate, and it is not unknown for local authorities to try to justify higher and higher future delivery rates to allow them to claim a five-year supply. This new approach will be clear and unambiguous – it should put pressure on councils to make sure that sites truly are deliverable.
None of these new policies are game changing in themselves; instead they represent an evolution of the original version of the NPPF.
That is neither a surprise nor a problem. For all the criticism, the NPPF has, in reality, worked quite well – the number of homes granted planning permission has almost doubled since it was introduced. Yet even small numbers of extra homes from each source could add up to a significant increase in supply overall – and that is something we can all feel optimistic about.
Paul Smith, MD, Strategic Land Group