“I am clear that quantity must never compromise the quality of what is built”
James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government
Planning and housing policy has rarely been further up the news agenda or the list of national priorities. Even as every issue must fight for oxygen with the omnipresent beast of Brexit, the term ‘housing crisis’ has in the last 4 years become entrenched in our national discourse. A never-ending trudge of politicians of all stripes have toured television sofas and radio studios saying that we need to build many more homes at a much faster rate.
It is in this context that the government published its revisions of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) on Tuesday. These new rules are designed to make sure that in the collective clamour to build the homes we need we do not lose sight of the things that will make these homes worth living in. The publication of the NPPF follows a comprehensive public consultation which was launched earlier this year.
Fostering quality design is at the centre of the revised NPPF. The new guidelines encourage councils to use innovative community engagement strategies at early stages of the design process, which will allow residents to see how plans fit into their local area and complement surrounding architecture. New technologies mean that the public can see designs brought to life at much earlier stages of the planning process. In this way plans can more accurately mirror community’s expectations and desires. The new framework states clearly that ‘applications that can demonstrate early, proactive and effective engagement with the community should be looked on more favourably than those that cannot.’
Moreover, the new rules embolden councils to reject applications that are poorly designed or fail to enhance the character of an area. At the same time, it instructs councils to give great weight to innovative and sustainable plans which fit into and improve their surroundings. It is clear then that quality architecture and design is at the heart of the revised NPPF.
The environment too is central to the new rules and guidelines. There are new protections for wildlife and trees as well as a greater focus on air quality when considering development applications. The framework is closely aligned with Defra’s 25-year Environment Plan which is Michael Gove’s response to the ever-growing public clamour for a comprehensive government strategy to protect the environment. Since Sadiq Khan’s Mayoral campaign focused on London’s toxic air quality and David Attenborough’s Blue Planet launched an overnight war on one use plastics, it is fair to say that environmental issues are in the national zeitgeist and the new framework attempts to respond to this.
However, many will be dismayed to see the green belt has being given the same protection as ever. Siobhan McDonagh (MP for Mitcham and Morden) recently expressed her frustration that sections of green belt land in outer London which provide little environmental or community benefit can’t be used to build the homes we so desperately need. Many of these plots of land are shrub land, abandoned petrol stations or golf courses, of which London has 61. The new framework states that developing green belt land can only be considered in exceptional circumstances when all other options are exhausted. This is a kick in the teeth to all of those, like Mrs McDonagh, who believe that the continued protection of all green belt land is a key cause of our housing crisis. However, this policy will probably not come as a surprise to any politically minded observers as the Conservative Party continues to rely on vast numbers of rural voters who consider protection of the green belt as an article of faith.
The framework sets out a new way for councils to calculate housing need, including provision of retirement homes and it is hoped it will help to direct house building to areas where it is needed. This could tackle the affordability crisis in certain parts of the country. However, Lord Porter, chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA) has criticised the framework for not doing enough to liberate councils to build new homes. The LGA would have liked to have seen greater powers for councils to ‘ensure homes with permission are built’, allow them to borrow to build and keep 100% of right to buy income.
In November of this year the Secretary of State will publish the Housing Delivery Test results for each local authority in England. Based on these numbers councils will be held to account on how many homes they deliver rather than how many are planned. Councils will also be able to challenge developers who fail to meet their commitments. It is hoped that being clearer at an early stage about what is expected of both developers and councils and then enforcing the commitments they make will drive up the number of homes actually built.
In summary, the revised NPPF has updated the rules and guidelines which our planning system in England will be based on in the years ahead to better suit the concerns and issues of the moment. It has put design and the environment at the forefront of planning policy and it has tried to tackle the challenges the system has encountered since the last publication in 2012. Developers will be held accountable for their commitments and councils will have to meet robust targets.
However, many will still see this as a missed opportunity for a radical new planning policy to tackle the housing crisis. There has been no change on green belt policy which has the potential to provide millions of homes on the edge of our cities and it has failed to provide councils with new powers to build thousands of new council houses at social rents. The harshest criticism of the new framework is that it simply tinkers around the edges. It is too afraid to rock the boat at a time when people are crying out for radical new solutions to seemingly intractable problems like the housing crisis. No one can know what the political future has in store but we can be sure that any future Corbyn led government would carry out a much more wholesale reform of the planning system. Whether these reforms would have the desired consequence remain to be seen.
For now, this new framework is being poured over in town halls and planning offices all over the country and the true test of its policies will be how they are implemented at the local level across England.