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NPPF: impact of planning policy reforms on housing delivery questioned

Changes made to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in England are unlikely to deliver “any material increase” in new housing, according to one planning law expert.

Jamie Lockerbie of Pinsent Masons made the comments after the government published a revised NPPF (78-page / 652KB PDF) on Tuesday, alongside its formal response to a consultation on targeted reforms to the framework which it had staged last winter.

The NPPF was last revised in September to soften what had been seen as a de facto ban on onshore wind development in England. With the latest changes, the government seeks to drive up the delivery of new housing amidst a supply shortage in many areas of the country, with particular focus on increasing the volume of new housing available in urban areas.

Planning minister Lee Rowley confirmed in a statement in parliament on Tuesday that the government will “publish a new local authority performance dashboard in 2024” as a means of highlighting how the authorities are performing in delivering against housing need.

One change that the government has applied concerns the way in which housing need is assessed in England.

Since 2018, there has been standard method – a formula – that each local planning authority has had to apply to assess local housing need in their area. However, in its consultation paper, the government highlighted concerns relating to the rigid application of the standard method.

Concerns included confusion over the extent to which local plans could be brought forward if they did not make provision for all the housing need calculated under the standard method formula because, for example, of local constraints such as the green belt.

A further concern was that housing need in urban areas was essentially being outsourced to neighbouring local planning authority areas, despite policy advocating for the development of brownfield land and for new housing in areas with sustainable transport links and infrastructure.

To address the concerns, the government proposed changes to NPPF provisions on local housing need and the housing delivery test, as opposed to the standard method formula itself. However, some respondents to its consultation warned that the changes could negatively impact on housing delivery.

In response, the government has decided to update the NPPF to specify that the standard method for assessing local housing need is merely “an advisory starting-point for establishing a housing requirement for the area” – and that local planning authorities can take “an alternative approach” in “exceptional circumstances”.

Further changes to the NPPF seek to strengthen the application of an “urban uplift” in the identification of housing need, while ensuring new development is in character with the area. The ability for the urban uplift requirements to be met via “voluntary cross boundary redistribution agreements” is provided for in the framework.

In relation to housing need in London specifically, housing minister Michael Gove has commissioned a review of mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s London plan, pledging to ensure it delivers the housing required in London if Khan “cannot do what is needed” in that respect.

Under the previous version of the NPPF, all local planning authorities were required to build a buffer of 5% or 10% into their calculations on five-year housing land supply. That requirement has now been dropped from the framework.

The government had also consulted on removing the need for authorities to build a 20% buffer into their calculations on five-year supply of deliverable housing sites in the event that they had been found to be delivering less than 85% of identified housing need over the previous three years, under the housing delivery test. However, the government decided to retain that requirement in the revised NPPF.

“Removing the 5% and 10% buffers, but retaining the 20% buffer, strikes a balance between simplifying the five-year housing land supply policy and reducing the risk of speculative development, while still maintaining an important mechanism for boosting housing delivery,” the government said.

Other changes to the NPPF made by the government include specific reference to the need for retirement housing within the context of requirements around how local planning authorities should establish housing need in their area.

The government also revised the NPPF to make clear that local planning authorities are not required to review green belt boundaries in the event that they consider that they cannot meet housing need. The strengthened wording does leave it open for the boundaries to be altered “where exceptional circumstances are fully evidenced and justified”, but only where those changes are considered in the context of long-term, strategic, planning.

Despite “strong support for carbon impact assessments being incorporated or required as part of the planning and development process”, the government has decided against imposing such requirements in the revised NPPF. It reiterated its intention to “review national planning policy in due course to make sure it contributes to climate change mitigation as fully as possible”.

Lockerbie said: “This latest update to the NPPF was largely as expected following the consultation earlier in the year. Sadly, it is unlikely that the changes will result in any material increase to housing delivery.”

The changes to housing need assessment provide cover to those authorities who wish to plan for less housing than they actually need, which surely at its heart is a political move,” he said.

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