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The new draft NPPF and neighbourhood planning?

Henry Peterson, Convener, Neighbourhood Planners.London

Reaction to publication of the new draft has been mixed. Commentators have pointed out that a revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and the accompanying consultation on ‘Supporting Housing Delivery’ are unlikely to change the business model of the volume housebuilders. Nor do they answer how land value can be captured for the public good. Changes in planning rules will have some impact, but problems of a dysfunctional housing market lie deeper.

For neighbourhood planning, the new NPPF is good news. The document embeds neighbourhood planning as a core part of the English planning system, and no longer a novelty.

In the current NPPF, drafted in 2012 at the same time as implementation of the Localism Act, we neighbourhood planners had to read our way to paragraphs 183-185 to find the key assurances underpinning this new part of the planning framework. Over the past six years, it has felt as though many planning officers in London never read this far. Neighbourhood Planners.London’s 2017 survey of Local Plans across London showed that many of these documents made little or no reference to neighbourhood planning. The new draft NPPF signals from the start that neighbourhood plans are as much a part of ‘plan-making’ as Local Plans.

Local planning authorities (LPAs) are reminded that ‘as a minimum’ they ‘must ensure that there is a plan which addresses the strategic priorities for their area’. The succeeding paragraphs 18 and 19 make clear that LPAs are now not the only part of the system to take matters further. These state:

‘Where more detailed issues need addressing, local policies may be produced for inclusion in a local plan, or in a neighbourhood plan prepared by a neighbourhood planning group (a parish or town council, or a neighbourhood forum).

It is the combination of these statutory plans, produced at the strategic and local levels, that makes up the ‘development plan’ for a particular area’.

This does not change the statutory position set down by the 2011 Localism Act. But it is a further shift of emphasis towards devolved plan-making. Civil servants at MHCLG recognise that across England there are now more ‘made’ neighbourhood plans than there are adopted Local Plans. London Boroughs cannot continue to treat this layer of the planning system as an irrelevance or an irritant.

The wording of the new NPPF is clear that what it terms ‘Local Policies’ can emerge from neighbourhood plans as much as from Local Plans (paragraphs 31-33).

The new NPPF is also clearer than before that ‘Plans should make explicit which policies are ‘strategic policies’. These should be limited to those necessary to address the strategic priorities of the area (and any relevant cross-boundary issues), to provide a clear starting point for any local policies that may be needed. Those local policies may come forward either as part of a single local plan or as part of a subsequent local plan or neighbourhood plan. Strategic policies should not extend to detailed matters that are more appropriately dealt with through neighbourhood plans or other local policies (our emphasis).’

Who should be plan-making and at what level?

In most planning departments across London (including the two Mayoral Development Corporations) planning officers see themselves as centre stage in policy making, whether ‘strategic’ or ‘non-strategic’. Few Boroughs take the trouble to distinguish between the two, despite this being a requirement of the current NPPF (Forums and Examiners need this information to establish whether the requirement of the Basic Conditions for ‘general conformity’ is met).

This is top down planning ‘for’ rather than ‘with’ citizens. This is a criticism which Neighbourhood Planners.London has levelled at the authors of the new Draft London Plan in our submission.

The new NPPF concept of a Local Plan which confines itself to ‘strategic’ policies and leaves space for detail to be filled in via neighbourhood plans and SPDs, is not one currently gaining acceptance in London. The new Draft London Plan is more detailed and prescriptive than the present version. The document hints that Boroughs should sit back and let City Hall policies prevail, to avoid ‘duplication’ (paragraphs 0.0.21-0.0.24).

At the very local level, neighbourhood plans are only beginning (in London) to gain a foothold in determining land use policies and site allocations. The new London Plan fails to recognise that this process is happening at all.

Although short staffed in many parts of London, Borough planning departments look unlikely to surrender territory or control to either of these other two layers of plan-makers, above and below. Londoners can only hope that friction and contested space, within what is now a three-tier planning system in the capital, will not soak up too much energy and capacity in years to come.

Place making at neighbourhood level

Several Local Plans across London include detailed sections or chapters on policies for individual ‘places’ at neighbourhood level. These may be welcomed by the public when prepared with good quality engagement and consultation. Or they may be resisted as the imposition of top down proposals on neighbourhoods with very different ideas of what makes their area special, and what development they would like to see located where.

As in the recent Neighbourhood Planners.London response to the new Draft London Plan we continue to argue that neighbourhood forums and plans have much to contribute to ‘Good Growth’ in London. Identification of small housing sites is one aspect, recognised at paragraph 70 of the new NPPF. Ensuring good design is another.

It is encouraging that the new NPPF recognises what neighbourhood forums and amenity groups can do on ensuring good design – through early engagement and widened pre-application discussions. The whole arena of pre-application dialogue between developers, planners and the public needs much more debate in London. Neighbourhood Planners.London will be trying to make this happen in the coming months.

While the new London Plan preaches the virtues of ‘we know best’ design review by experts and professionals, it is encouraging to see the new NPPF state at paragraph 124 ‘Design policies should be developed with local communities so they reflect local aspirations, and are grounded in an understanding and evaluation of each area’s defining characteristics. Neighbourhood plans can play an important role in identifying the special qualities of each area and explaining how this should be reflected in development’.

Housing targets for neighbourhood areas and plans

As trailed in previous announcements, setting neighbourhood housing targets for neighbourhood plans is a further part of the Government’s efforts to improve housing delivery. Paragraphs 66 and 67 of the NPPF state:

‘Strategic plans should set out a housing requirement figure for designated neighbourhood areas. Once the strategic plan has been adopted, these figures should not need re-testing at the neighbourhood plan examination, unless there has been a significant change in circumstances that affects the requirement.

Where it is not possible to provide a requirement figure for a neighbourhood area, the local planning authority should provide an indicative figure, if requested to do so by the neighbourhood planning body. This figure should take into account factors such as the latest evidence of local housing need, the population of the neighbourhood area.’

No further detail is provided on how this process should work in practice although the accompanying draft Planning Practice Guidance does leave some wriggle room for changes to the housing number on the basis of additional evidence being provided. In a London context, how should a planning authority work out disaggregated figures for each neighbourhood area? We will need to see how LB Camden and Westminster City Council, as boroughs with extensive neighbourhood area coverage, approach this task. Who arbitrates between LPA and neighbourhood forum if there is disagreement? How can a forum challenge a LPA’s assumptions on when brownfield land might come forward, particularly in Opportunity Areas with major infrastructure challenges? What sanctions might apply to non-achievement of a neighbourhood housing target?

Responding to the consultation on the new NPPF

Consultation on the draft text of the new NPPF runs until May 10th. Neighbourhoood Planners.London will circulate a draft response. Views and suggestions for inclusion in this would be welcomed.

Draft Local Plans will continue to be examined under the current NPPF for a further six months after a final version of the new NPPF is published.

In the meantime, neighbourhood forums across London can take heart from the direction of the new draft NPPF. If planning officers in London Boroughs (or at City Hall) are dismissive of neighbourhood plan proposals, or slow to discuss these, the idea that neighbourhood planning might prove to be a 5 year experiment doomed to fail has been laid to rest.

Far from backing away from the original principles of this most localist layer of our planning system, the new NPPF consolidates and entrenches these more firmly. Now all we need to do is to get this message across to London’s planning authorities.

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