The National Planning Policy Framework, the final version of which was published – and comes into effect – today, is good at polarising opinion. As someone who thinks we haven’t built enough homes for a generation, under Governments of both Parties, the apparent determination to build more houses is appealing. A small part of me admires Planning Minister Greg Clark’s willingness to take on some traditional Tory interests in his attempt to do so.
But the NPPF leaves me feeling queasy that it just won’t deliver or it will deliver the wrong things. Where there are local council plans in existence, it leaves too much scope for NIMBY interests. Where there are no local plans, the ‘presumption in favour of development’ seems to me to give developers too much rope and too much power. So the NPPF might just be defining the next battleground between developers and local communities. Quite correctly, the NPPF says development should be plan-led; but combining localism with thrusting commercial interest is like mixing water and oil – they will separate eventually.
My specific concerns are:
First, the stress placed on the individual council area and its plan does not pay sufficient attention to the sub-regional and the regional dimension to development. The principle of cross-boundary co-operation is mentioned but scarcely emphasised. The words ‘region’ and ‘sub-region’ do not appear in the entire document.
Jobs growth may be possible in one area which will add to housing demand in the sub-region, but there is no requirement on neighbouring authorities to help meet it. A growing urban area which is short of land for housing may be landlocked by areas which wish to resist development on environmental and heritage grounds and have a clear plan enabling them to do so.
It is an interesting contrast that in London the Mayor is being given stronger regional planning and housing powers which will improve the ability of London as a region to meet the capital’s housing needs as a whole – recognising that some boroughs have high housing needs but low land supply. This principle should apply equally to other regions and urban areas.
Secondly, the guidance on who homes should be built for is astonishingly weak. Local plans are expected to meet ‘the full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the housing market area’, but housing market area is not defined (not even in the glossary) and ‘objectively assessed needs’ can be a moveable feast – what the Labour council in Hammersmith and Fulham concluded about housing need prior to 2006 is markedly different from what its successor Tory council has concluded in the years since.
Although ‘social rented’ housing is part of the ‘affordable housing’ definition, we have seen from national policy and in particular policy in London as pursued by Boris Johnson, that it is possible to ignore the requirement for social renting almost entirely in favour of other forms of so-called affordable housing. Those skilful people who can write a Strategic Housing Market Assessment to meet local political requirements will in high demand.
Thirdly, I hold the view that even a planning system that is strongly in favour of new building should have a constraint on the use of greenfield land. Leaving aside the Green Belt, which is specifically defined, the NPPF seems to offer little protection to the bulk of greenfield land. Labour’s successful approach of setting a target on the re-use of brownfield land, which put pressure on councils and developers not to go for the easiest option, was sensible but has been abandoned.
Fourthly, where there is a local plan in place, the presumption in favour of sustainable development is constrained by the statement that ‘Local Plans should meet objectively assessed needs….. unless …..any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole’. This seems to offer plenty of scope for some areas to hone their special case arguments and spend endless years in appeals and hearings. I would be concerned about an area where one council adopts a NIMBY plan which makes life hard for developers but its neighbour adopts a ‘growth first’ plan, attracting disproportionate interest from developers, who have a natural tendency to go where the pickings are easiest.
I have a suspicion that the Government’s strongest selling point for NPPF – 50 pages of guidance instead of a thousand – will be gradually undermined as the months go by and sheaves of additional and supplementary guidance are needed to clarify broad phrases used in the NPPF, defining what a housing assessment should contain, and the rest.
The real test of localism, indeed the crunch point of the whole exercise, will come when the Government realises that the total number of homes in local plans adds up to substantially less than is needed in each region and nationally. Because I doubt if the NPPF will be any better than what went before, and, sadly, I doubt if it will get many more homes built.