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James Joubert B(TRP), of the Stags Planning department, discusses the notable changes put in place to the National Planning Policy Framework in December 2023, along with what is likely to happen going forward.
The National Planning Policy Framework (the Framework), which serves as the main national policy for England, was updated shortly before Christmas last year. This came after a long period of uncertainty about its release after a number of delays and consultations. The updated Framework introduced a number of key changes which will have implications for all planning related matters over the next months and years to come.
The most consequential change in the Framework is the approach to Housing Land Supply (HLS) which is when housing sites are expected to come forward and be built-out over a 4- and 5-year period. Local Planning Authorities (LPA) that are either in the process of updating, or in the late stages of preparing their local plans (Regulation 18, 19 or examination), only need to demonstrate 4 years’ worth of HLS for 2 years. This provides some incentive for authorities to move forward with stalled or in process plans.
LPAs are no longer required to demonstrate a 5-year HLS if their local plan is less than 5 years old; however, when a new plan is adopted a 5-year Housing Land Supply must then be demonstrated. This is only applicable to planning applications submitted after 19 December 2023, date of the updated framework being published. For applications made prior to this date, the requirement for LPAs to maintain a 4- or 5-year HLS remains. If not, the Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development, so called ‘tilted balance’, will be triggered which means that new developments should be approved without delay as stated in the Framework.
Neighbourhood Plans adopted with allocations and policies within the last 5 years have received greater protection against speculative development. This is a significant increase over the current 2-year period protecting against this. It is also another incentive to get Local Planning Authorities and communities to move ahead with Neighbourhood Plans.
The standard methodology for housing need is only an “advisory starting point” which confirms that LPAs do not necessarily have to follow it when making their local plans. This means that it can be deviated from under ‘exceptional circumstances’. This is not defined and will remain open to debate in Local Plan examinations going ahead both for and against housing development.
The use of ‘entry-level exception sites’ has been replaced with ‘community-led developments’, which corresponds to the Governments aims of emphasising the role of community-led and locally supported development of housing. This includes developments for self and custom build housing.
A significant increase in the level of residential density development in existing urban areas may be unacceptable where the resultant development would be ‘wholly out of character with the existing area’. This is in line with the continued and expanded emphasis placed on beauty in the Framework.
Finally, the Framework now requires that Local Planning Authorities consider the availability of agricultural land used for food production when allocating sites for development. This essentially implies that poorer quality agricultural land should be looked at first for allocations as opposed to those of higher quality and will form part of the evidenced approach already undertaken by LPAs in developing Local Plans.
In conclusion, the changes to the Framework will take time to filter into noticeable, on the ground, changes. Local Plans preparation is complex and the changes to the Framework largely aim to push this process forward at a quicker pace and get more Councils to have up to date plans.
Going forward, more changes are expected to the Framework and the planning system as a whole as the government pushes ahead with more reforms, such as shorter plan preparation periods and National Development Management Policies, to name a few. This is all in the context of a general election expected this year, further changes and surprises may lay ahead.