NPPF: The Sequel

Have you ever watched Titanic 2? No? Me neither.

Apparently, the film is one of the worst sequels ever made. Released in 2010, the film had a budget of $500,000 and the output reflected it by all accounts. The follow up is almost always harder than the original. It is rare you get a hit – although the 1986 smash hit Aliens is a rare exception and is about as good as it gets sequels-wise.

On 25 July, the Government premiered NPPF: The Sequel, in Parliament and finally released the long-awaited follow up to the 2012 planning policy classic. Delayed owing to other pressing political priorities (what could they possibly be?), NPPF 2.0 has provided the UK property industry with plenty of points to digest over a Sangria or two on summer holidays. But the question is, is it a Titanic 2, or an Aliens?

Incremental rather than revolutionary, the document has won praise and criticism in equal measure, perhaps demonstrating the delicate balancing act Government faces when re-shaping planning policy. Subtle changes have been made that are worth briefly discussing.

Engagement and Consultation

In paragraph 128, the NPPF 2.0 says “[a]pplicants should work closely with those affected by their proposals to evolve designed that take account of the views of the community. Applications that can demonstrate early, proactive and effective engagement with the community should be looked on more favourably than those that cannot”.

Of course, the vagaries of Government policy mean no definition of early, proactive and effective engagement is provided and the second half of the sentence will give rise to all sorts of interpretation. However, the tone of the guidance is quite clear – the need to consult with communities affected by development is no longer ancillary to the design development process, it should now form a demonstrable and meaningful part of the process. Of course, this author would say that, but applicants can expect to be interrogated, more fully, on their pre-application consultation and engagement, by officers, councillors and wider stakeholder groups, who will be quickly memorising the aforementioned two sentences, to quote at you if you fall short of their expectations.

Housing Delivery Test

Much to the chagrin of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, who have called it “a speculative developers’ charter and..the death of the plan-led system”, the Housing Delivery Test and an accompanying standardised methodology for assessing housing needs are now policy.

The assessment of each local authority’s performance in respect of housing delivery and the introduction of national policy tools to rectify local policy failure does, undoubtedly, provide additional opportunities for speculative developers to game the system, and profit from municipal incompetence. And why shouldn’t they?

Ultimately, it is incumbent on elected politicians and their officials to ensure local housing need is catered for and the spectre of an embarrassing intervention by Central Government will inevitably sharpen the focus of authorities whose mentality vis-à-vis development is more defensive than the traditional formation employed by a Non-League side visiting Manchester United in the FA Cup 3rd Round. Time will tell if these tools have the desired effect, and it will not be long until the Government faces the implementation litmus test given the structural, and chronic undersupply of housing in England and Wales.

Green Belt Policy

For decades a debate has raged about cockroaches and whether they’d survive a nuclear explosion. Whilst it is not certain whether they would or not, I can tell you now, in a post-nuclear world, England’s Green Belt policy would remain wholly intact, unaffected by contextual factors. Wasteland or not, planners in the new post-apocalypse England would still insist that 12.4% of the land in the country remains sacrosanct, if a little charred, and simply cannot be developed on, unless you can demonstrate exceptional circumstances for doing so.

Giorgio Wetzl of Lichfields, in a staggeringly good blog on NPPF 2.0, does point to minor policy changes contained in paragraphs 136 and 137 that may, in his words, provide “more flexibility and a clearer path for LPAs considering releasing Green Belt in exceptional circumstances”. However, those wishing for revolutionary change on Green Belt policy are left disappointed, once again, with the Government’s tinkering at the margins approach. If you have a site in Green Belt that you are looking to develop, the challenges that existed pre-NPPF 2.0 have not gone away.

And the rest

Of course, there is plenty more to the NPPF. The presumption of sustainable development has been simplified, which is welcome. Viability appraisals will be made public and developers will need to make the case for commercial sensitivity if they wish to withhold information. The idea of social rent has made a comeback in planning policy terms, as has the Garden City principle that the original NPPF was mute about. Build to Rent is now officially recognised as a distinct property class, in recognition of its growing prominence in the marketplace. At least 10% of all new homes will need to be delivered on small sites of less than 0.1ha (down 20% from the consultation document). Objectively Assessed Need now includes a range of sectors not previously included, such as self-build and Care Homes.

So, is NPPF 2.0 a sequel in the mould of Titanic 2 or an Alien, you ask. At this stage, it is hard to say, but it is unlikely to be either. Safe, middle of the road, it won’t light up the policy box-office, but it won’t totally tank either. Whisper this quietly, but there may even be enough legs for a Threequel. And apparently, that makes the production of a sequel look like a walk in the park. Popcorn at the ready.

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Oliver Deed

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