Increasing planning approvals have demonstrated the NPPF is working, but there will be more reform for 2014


2013 was the year in which housing really came up the political agenda – with considerable cross-party consensus about the need to get more houses built.  For the coalition, it was the year in which the National Planning Policy Framework and the planning reforms rolled their sleeves up and got on with the job. The number of planning permissions is increasing, starts are on the up, and mortgage lending is rising. And we’re seeing a marked increase in the success rate at appeal for major housing schemes where local authorities are not able to demonstrate a five-year supply of housing land. 

So far, so good.

But there’s a lot more to do yet to achieve the delivery of over 200,000 dwellings a year, which is widely regarded as the measure of need across England alone. 

Plan-making remains a challenging task. Those local authorities who are looking to set reduced targets in their emerging local plans are finding it difficult to make progress: there has been a clear trend throughout the year of inspectors taking a hard line in judging the legal compliance and soundness of emerging plans. A string of new plans have foundered as a result, including Coventry, Hart, Mid Sussex, and Brighton and Hove. 

The pace of planning reform certainly hasn’t slowed. During the year we have seen:

  • draft National Planning Policy Guidance: this was released in August as a draft on-line resource and in “beta” form.  The final version is now expected in January 2014 and seems set to put further pressure on local authorities to boost housing supply;
  • revisions to the permitted development rights, introducing most significantly a right for a three-year period only to change the use from offices to residential without the need for planning permission – but nevertheless with the need to check with the local planning authority whether prior approval is required. Sadly, this is more complex than it first seems and the jury’s out whether this will add much to housing supply;
  • two sets of revised Community Infrastructure Levy Regulations, the most recent of which will delay the introduction of CIL more widely until spring 2015. That’s helpful – but there are dark clouds looming for those authorities that can’t complete local plans and therefore have no real basis for setting their CIL;
  • ideas from the planning minister, Nick Boles, for still further change, including revisions to the Planning Act to provide for deemed approved if the local planning authority doesn’t deal with applications to discharge planning conditions in good time. This is a laudable idea – provided it doesn’t leave councils to issue pretty-well automatic refusals as a way of staying in control.

Not to be left out of the equation, the Labour Party is starting to shape up its approach to planning, with proposals for:

  • strengthened cross-boundary powers – much needed if our present major towns and especially our existing new towns are to grow, but fraught with problems regarding the ability of one council to seriously plan in another’s area. (Who decides the planning applications, for instance?);
  • a “use it or lose it” threat to housebuilders thought to be land banking. Frankly, this won’t work since housebuilders do not really “land bank” ready-to-go sites. As I’ve said previously, the risk is that it simply deters landowners and strategic land companies from playing a role in the planning system
  • the possible reintroduction of development corporations to lead the development of a new string of new towns or new garden cities. The Woolfson Competition is seeking to explore other ways of bringing forward garden cities (from the opposite side of the political perspective) but it has to be said that development corporations and the use of central powers of land purchase are the only proven model of delivery for whole new communities.

So is everything in the planning garden rosy? Well of course not: as with all fresh approaches, some things work and others don’t work quite so well. You really never know until they have been allowed to run for a while (which is why it’s a shame the Regional Spatial Strategies weren’t given more time to take effect).   

But to end on a positive, it is quite clear that the NPPF is working well.

So in this season of goodwill I say to Nick Boles, “Keep going, Nick!” - and to all, “A Merry Christmas and A Happy, Prosperous, Successful – and Well Housed - New Year”.

Ian Tant is a senior partner in Barton Willmore