In December 2022 the government published proposals to reform the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and asked for responses. There were nearly 60 questions, covering a wide range of local authorities’ planning responsibilities. Just before last Christmas, the government published a summary of the responses it obtained from various bodies with a stake in housing and planning, including local councils, developers, professional associations and also private individuals.
I found this document quite helpful in explaining some of the decisions the government has just recently taken relating to the NPPF and local authority housing plans. In this blog piece, I look at consultation questions on councils’ responsibilities when drawing up
Sarah Green (above left) won Chesham and Amersham for the LibDems, overturning a 16,000. Tory majority. LibDem leader Ed Davey blamed ‘planning reforms which will give so much power to developers and take away from communities’. (Above right) Building site in Buckinghamshire.
their local plan. I focus on those that ask whether the respondent agrees with a specific government proposal to revise the NPPF. In these cases, the government’s consultation response document gives us percentages of (dis)greement with what was being proposed, so we can tell how well-supported it was. The document then summarises which categories of respondents tended to agree or disagree with the proposal. Finally, the document spells out the decision the government took in response to each point being consulted on.
Five-year land supply
The first three questions concerned the duty a planning authority has had up to now to maintain a rolling five-year supply of building land during a planning period. The government proposed to modify three aspects of the five-year rule. First, they suggested dropping the rule where the adopted local plan is less than five years old: 60% of respondents agreed. The government have gone ahead with the proposal, with the proviso that the local authority must have demonstrated a five-year supply when that plan was adopted.
The second point relates to housing number ‘buffers’, expressed as percentages, that the previous NPPF required to be added to the 5-year land supply, so as to improve the prospect of achieving the planned numbers. The government proposed dropping buffers, and 75% of respondents agreed. The government’s decision was to keep only a buffer of 20% where a council had previously substantially under-delivered on housing.
The third proposed change to the five-year rule was for a council to take an over-supply of homes early in a plan period into consideration when calculating a 5-year housing land supply later on. 65% of respondents agreed with this. The government says it ‘will make clear in the National Planning Policy Framework that past over-supply can be taken into account when calculating a 5-year housing land supply’. Despite this statement in the consultation response document, there is nothing in the December 2023 NPPF itself that clarifies this point. However, the consultation response document promises additional Planning Practice Guidance ‘in due course’, offering ‘further clarification on how this can be done’, so perhaps councils will soon be able to see what exactly the government wants.
The next item relevant to the local plan update, and featuring a specific proposal, is Question 9. Here the government draughts(wo)man has bundled together three distinct questions, which is very unusual for this consultation. The question reads: ‘Do you agree that national policy should make clear that Green Belt does not need to be reviewed or altered when making plans, that building at densities significantly out-of-character with an existing area may be considered in assessing whether housing need can be met, and that past over-supply may be taken into account?’ Unhelpfully, a single percentage figure of 51% agreement is given for the whole multi-part question. Fortunately the document does separate out the government’s responses to the three different points.
The Green Belt question is effectively just a suggestion to clarify policy, which the government undertakes to do. On the second part of the question the text makes clear that the government’s proposed change related to the character of urban locations. I would think building thousands of houses in a rural location is bound to be out-of-character with the existing area, but this argument against development won’t work, it seems. The third part of Q 9 asks whether over-supply of houses in a previous plan period should be taken into account when drawing up a new housing requirement. The government says it has ‘carefully considered [the] responses, and as a result has decided not to take forward this change at this time’. There was apparently ‘little support’ among respondents for taking past over-delivery of housing into account.
This negative decision has a significant impact on us in Wokingham. The proposed change to planning policy that the WBC Executive have been looking forward to will not happen: there will be no reduction in the housing target number on grounds of previous over-supply. The lack of support for the proposal may have been because Wokingham is very unusual among local authorities in having built more houses than required. Fair-minded though the proposal seems, in practice there weren’t many other bodies that had anything to gain from it.
Q 16 is the last one provided with percentage response figures that relates to local authority plan-making. It asked whether ‘emerging’ local plans, that is new plans being revised prior to submission, should be subject to a 4-year rolling land supply requirement, instead of five years: 45% agreed. The government decided to adopt the proposal and apply it to local plans at planning inspector examination, Regulation 18, or Regulation 19 stage. This decision would apply to a council such as WBC, whose local plan is between the Regulation 18 and Regulation 19 stages. Whether it will be in force when WBC’s LPU gets to the planning inspector examination stage remains to be seen, however.
Who wanted change and who didn’t
The NPPF, as drawn up and implemented under successive Conservative Housing Ministers, was all about putting local authorities under pressure, pressure to build more houses. The Whitehall-devised ‘standard method’ of calculating housing targets was imposed, in a way that forced more housing on areas with high house prices. Extra numbers were added in the shape of ‘buffers’ to allow for any undershoot on housing targets. A council was supposed at all times to have a 5-year supply of building land lined up for development. When local authorities remonstrated with the government, they were threatened with losing their planning powers. This added to the pressure on all councils to comply with Whitehall’s demands.
The consultation response document lets us see very clearly who wanted things left like that, i.e. councils should be obliged to impose more housing on residents regardless of their or residents’ wishes. On all four questions relating to the five-year land supply, the same view was taken by developers and what the Government refers to as ‘private sector organisations’. (This category wasn’t defined, but an earlier version of the NPPF says it included ‘house builders, housing associations, businesses and consultants’.) Developers and private sector organisations wanted all the existing requirements left in place, i.e. they were very strongly in favour of keeping the pressure tightly on councils.
Clockwise from top left:- Justin Sullivan, Construction Industry Council Chairman (to June 2023); Sue Bridge, Royal Town Planning Institute President; Neil Jefferson, Home Builders Federation MD; Ann Gray, Royal Society of Chartered Surveyors CEO. All four organisations opposed planning reforms, especially changes to the 5-year land supply requirement.
Professional bodies, such as town planners and surveyors, were more divided in their opinions, but a majority also opposed change.
On the other hand, local authorities, as well as town/parish councils, overwhelmingly supported the proposed changes to the 5-year land supply, modest in scope though they are. Voluntary groups and individuals, where mentioned in the document, were in agreement too. They all wanted the pressure on local authorities to be relaxed, at least to the limited extent suggested by the government proposals.
Responses to the NPPF consultation confirm what was admittedly common knowledge already: developers, builders and consultants want councils to be kept up to the mark, and provide all the housing land required of them by central government under existing policies. But the responses have also told us that all other respondent categories see the case for giving councils the small amount of leeway the government proposed:- no need to update the 5-year land supply in the first five years of a plan period, and only 4 years’ land supply now required in the last phase of a plan period. These changes are certainly limited in scope, but they’re better than nothing.
The new NPPF may not differ much from its predecessors, as regards planning, but in one respect the consultation has certainly been worth it. It has clearly shown us where the line of conflict lies: the construction industry versus everyone else.