On Tuesday 27 March, the Government published its new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for England and how this new guidance should be applied.
The Government says this really is a framework. It’s up to local people and their councils to produce their own distinctive local and neighbourhood plans, which reflect the needs and priorities of their communities.
The NPPF has been cautiously welcomed in principle by several key conservation and recreational organisations, although not by all. Now the long process of understanding the fine print is under way.
At the heart of the NPPF is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which, in the Government’s words, should be seen as “a golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking”.
This means economic, social and environmental gains should be sought jointly and simultaneously through the planning system.
It also means new planning restrictions in areas of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, land designated as Green Belt, Local Green Space, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Heritage Coast and inside National Parks.
This has come as a relief to many organisations, including the BMC, the Campaign for National Parks and the Campaign for Rural England, who were concerned that earlier drafts did not recognise the intrinsic value of all of our countryside and there was too much of an emphasis on development at all costs.
The NPPF outlines 12 core land-use planning principles, which should underpin both plan-making and decision-taking. These include managing patterns of growth to make the fullest possible use of public transport, walking and cycling, and focus “significant” development in locations, which are or can be made sustainable.
Tourism and transport
The NPPF says a lot about rural economies, stressing “the need to support sustainable rural tourism and leisure developments that benefit businesses in rural areas, communities and visitors, and which respect the character of the countryside.”
In particular, the NPPF recognises the need to promote sustainable transport and give people a real choice in how they travel. It also gives priority to pedestrian and cycle journeys, and demands that rural populations have access to high-quality public transport facilities.
Access to open spaces
Section 8 of the NPPF, Promoting healthy communities, outlines plans to deliver social, recreational and cultural services the community needs. That includes access to open spaces for sport and recreation, and the need to enhance access provision.
The NPPF acknowledges that access to open spaces and opportunities for sport and recreation can make an important contribution to the health and wellbeing of communities.
Planning policies, it states, should be based on of the need for open space, sports and recreation facilities and opportunities for new provision. The BMC welcomes this.
Existing open space, the NPPF says, sports and recreational buildings and land, including playing fields, should not be built on unless it’s clearly shown to be surplus or is being replaced by at least equivalent facilities.
Planning policies should protect and enhance public rights of way and access. Local authorities should seek opportunities to provide better facilities for users, for example by adding links to existing rights of way networks including National Trails, an area that has suffered badly from a lack of investment.
Local Green Space designations
Section 8 of the framework also provides details of Local Green Space designation: “By designating land as Local Green Space local communities will be able to rule out new development other than in very special circumstances.”
However, it adds: “Local Green Space designation will not be appropriate for most green areas or open space.” These specific proposals have frustrated the Open Spaces Society.
It believes that under NPPF it will be difficult for communities to make use of the Local Green Space designation. There is no explanation of the process, and local people will have a limited opportunity to use the new provision, since the space can only be designated when a local or neighbourhood plan is prepared or reviewed.
The BMC welcomes the inclusion of policies to enable local authorities to combat light pollution, by encouraging good design and planning and the need to identify and protect areas of tranquillity.
To help increase the use and supply of renewable and low carbon energy, local planning authorities should now also recognise the responsibility on all communities to contribute to energy generation from renewable or low carbon sources.
They should have a positive strategy to promote energy from renewable and low carbon sources and design their policies to maximise renewable and low-carbon-energy development – while ensuring adverse impacts are addressed satisfactorily, including cumulative landscape and visual impacts.
NPPF says great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty. The conservation of wildlife and cultural heritage are important considerations in all these areas, and should be given great weight in National Parks and the Broads.
Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest.
When determining planning applications, local planning authorities should provide for the maintenance of land banks of non-energy minerals from outside National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage sites, Scheduled Monuments and Conservation Areas
NPPF also advises local authorities to recognise the small-scale nature and impact of building and roofing stone quarries and the long duration of planning permissions they require. This could affect larger mineral workings in some rural areas and in our National Parks.
In addition, local planning authorities should ensure, in granting planning permission for mineral development, that there are no unacceptable adverse impacts on the natural and historic environment, human health or aviation safety, and take into account the cumulative effect of multiple impacts from individual sites and/or from a number of sites in a locality.
How all these policies will be put into practice remains to be seen. Will local councils have the resources to produce effective and meaningful plans?
Many of the planning aspirations set out in the framework promote access, recreation and the protection of the environment. But the NPPF still places significant weight on delivering economic growth.
The real battle starts now.
View the National Planning Policy Framework