National Planning Policy Framework puts pressure on local planning authorities

— Steve Kemp is a chartered Town Planner with over 30 years’ experience. A Director of Lincoln-based Globe Consultants, he held senior positions at the City of Lincoln Council’s planning department before leaving in 1999. He continues to live in Lincoln and is the Royal Town Planning Institute’s spokesperson for Lincolnshire.

Following much controversy when the draft was published last year, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) published by the government on Tuesday is the latest in a series of fundamental reforms to the planning system.

The Royal Town Planning Institute’s (RTPI) president, Collin Haylock has welcomed the new policy guidance, saying that “overall, the government has listened to the RTPI and others and the NPPF is a significant improvement on the draft.

“In particular we welcome the strong emphasis on local decision-making to achieve the three aspects of environment and social aspects of sustainable development and to do this through up to date plans. The challenge for all us is to make this work with constrained resources.”

I am sure there will be a lot of quibbling over the meaning of particular phrases in the days, weeks – probably years – to come, but my own first impression is that a pretty good job has been done.

To start with, being able to read through a reasonably succinct yet thorough statement of national planning policy in around an hour must be a good thing!

It’s also good — to my mind — that the government has resisted the pressure to define “sustainable development” too tightly and has stuck to its guns in insisting that the whole NPPF is the definition.

Some will no doubt criticise this as too open. My own opinion, though, is that it would have been naive and ineffective to opt for a single phrase to define such a complex yet vitally important concept.

The essence of our planning system is balance: balancing often competing needs, expectations and aspirations. This comes through very clearly when the NPPF is read in its entirety, rather than taking phrases out of their total context.

Of course, there will be plenty of scope for argument and counter argument based on bits of the NPPF and when there are appeals the planning inspector’s job may not be made any easier by the need to see things more holistically, but time will tell and the system should become more reliable and transparent as a result.

For local planning authorities, the pressure is on to bring local plans up to date within a year from now or see their weight in decision-making greatly reduced.

For some that’s not going to be an easy task, but understanding that the new-look plans must be succinct and capable of regular review and updating should help to make the task a little less daunting. This may also mean that they can give a bit more much-needed help to local communities wanting to press ahead with Neighbourhood Plans.

For many developers and property owners, now is the time to be reviewing assets and existing permissions and thinking about effective engagement with local communities to see what working in partnership can achieve. It will be a new world, requiring fresh attitudes and strategies.

For everyone involved in planning and development — and from whatever viewpoint — the first task should really be to take an hour out and read the NPPF for yourselves (it is really quite readable!). Then you’ll at least be in a position to ask the right questions even if the answers are still not as clear as some might like them to be.