The draft National Planning Policy Framework may give the planning system the “teeth” developers have been looking for

Perhaps it was the hyperbole-riddled stories trailing the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), or perhaps it was the increasing level of concern over the lack of economic growth – I was expecting the document, released on Monday, to be rather more radical than it was. In fact, in much of the document – superficially at least –  many of the themes adopted by the previous government remain. The green belt, for example, is still sacrosanct, despite providing far more sustainable sites for development than areas more distant from cities and transport links.

The emphasis has, nevertheless, shifted, and none too subtly. While the environmental and social aspects are given lip service, it is evident that the pursuit of economic growth has become the trump card. As the document itself states, early on, “the government is committed to ensuring that the planning system does everything it can to support sustainable economic growth.”

And more interestingly, this is where the really significant change emerges – the now famous “presumption in favour of sustainable development”. If the local plan is absent or out of date, consent will have to be given for any application as long as it does not infringe the wider national priorities. This has been called many things in the national press, but my interpretation is that it provides the ‘teeth’ that the previous government’s target-based system never had.

For example, local authorities have to anticipate future housing demand, provide appropriate amounts of land and plan for the required numbers of housing, all using “objective” data. So while the targets have gone, the methodology that produced them remains – predict future housing demand and provide the land. Local authorities that do not use household projections to plan for housing will risk not having their plan approved, leaving them open to the “presumption in favour”. Councils will be given a choice between planning for what they might perceive to be a high number of homes – or losing control over development in their area almost entirely.

Much of the document reads sensibly but the devil will be in the implementation, particularly around this issue. The definition given here for sustainable development – that it does not affect future generations’ ability to provide for their needs – would seem rather vague and open to several different interpretations. It could mean building several million homes over the next decade or none whatsoever, depending on your assumptions and outlook.

This could lead to lengthy court battles, undermining one of the primary purposes of the NPPF, to streamline the system. Moreover, there is a lot of requirement here for studies and “expert opinion” on areas such as housing or transport (such as the Strategic Housing Market Assessment needed to ascertain future housing needs). This could place significant demands on already stretched local authorities, and lead to even more calls on planning inspectors’ time – or on court judgments on how the ‘presumption in favour’ will be implemented.

While few would disagree that the system needs to be streamlined and made more pro-development, a free-for-all would benefit nobody. Land is a complex economic good and what benefits landowners or developers of an individual site might disadvantage wider society or inhibit growth elsewhere. Moreover, no-one would wish for an outbreak of ugly, isolated housing schemes – the sort of thing that has desecrated the Irish landscape over the past decade. The contrast between Belgium’s uncontrolled sprawl and the Dutch government’s promotion of humane, planned urban extensions should also show policymakers which planning strategies produce happier and richer societies.

It will be interesting to see whether pressure groups who oppose the NPPF – such as the National Trust or the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England – will be able to inspire public outrage over the next few months and derail the system the Coalition is trying to introduce. Nevertheless, one thing is clear – localism, at least in its original form, appears to have virtually vanished. Local authorities, and even neighbourhoods, may have even less power than under the previous system. When economic growth is as anaemic as it is at present, it is clear where the government’s priorities lie, or, indeed, which departments truly wield power.

Jon Neale is director of residential research at Jones Lang LaSalle