Developers await solution to planning policy conundrum

By: Richard Heap
Published: 15 July 2011

Leaked draft of National Planning Policy Framework offers hope to developers

BBC sitcom I'm Alan Partridge depicts its eponymous protagonist bamboozled in a hotel room by a Corby trouser press he has dismantled but is unable to reconstruct. The government has spent the last year deconstructing the planning system. Will it find itself in a similar situation?

The government aims to publish the last main plank of its new planning regime, the National Planning Policy Framework, by next Tuesday. It believes it can streamline the labyrinthine system of planning policy statements with a single document.

A group of experts, the Practitioners Advisory Group, in May published its own recommendations, which have been the basis of government thinking, but next week will bring the first official announcement.

Earlier this month, a leaked draft "version 4" of the plan, dated 13 June, was made public. Much of its wording is the same as the Practitioners Advisory Group draft. This shows government has adopted a pro-development stance that will change the way councils and communities deal with planning applications.

Pete Andrews, director of land and planning at Taylor Wimpey and member of the group, describes the government's framework as "the most significant planning document for a long time", because it aims to fundamentally change councils' approach to planning.

It makes development easier to happen and it has taken away some policies that local authorities and communities could hide behind by refusing development," says Andrews. No longer will councils be able to refuse planning consent on the basis that local plans have not been concluded.

Now, areas that do not have up-to-date core strategies and local development frameworks will have to assess schemes using the presumption in favour of sustainable development. This presumption is controversial because people believe it will allow unfettered development in the green belt.

But Andrews warns that the new system would take a few years to bed in and that councils do not yet understand their responsibilities. At present, councils only take into account demand for affordable housing when drawing up their assessments of how much housing they need in their area. Under the new system they will be required to consider wider housing demand too.

"Local authorities are going to need to understand what is not only a need, but a demand for that area, and then satisfy that need through their local plans and allocating sites," he says.

He adds that the group tried to balance a more positive attitude to development with concern for the environment while ensuring that development is economically sustainable.

However, the leaked draft reflects an even stronger presumption in favour of sustainable development, which will become the default position when a plan is absent, indefinite or out of date.

Planning experts are confident that government will bring in its pro-development policy, even though tilting planning in favour of developers may prove controversial. Duncan Field, partner at SJ Berwin, does not expect big changes to the version put forward by the Practitioners Advisory Group, as government wants to encourage growth by making planning more developer friendly.

"I think it will make it through pretty much unscathed. This is about redressing the balance that has been lost in the last few years," he says. But he adds that developers should not get too excited in thinking that the National Planning Policy Framework means they need to spend less time planning schemes. "I don't think it's necessarily going to get an awful lot easier," he warns.

Mike Gallimore, head of planning at Hogan Lovells, disagrees. He also does not expect big changes but says the framework should make the process easier. "This should actually, for once, speed things up. If you stick with clear principles, and that is approved in line with the framework, then that should lead to quicker decisions and more certainty."

And Stuart Andrews, head of planning at Eversheds, is even more supportive, describing the document as a "delight" and a "masterpiece". "This is clear, focused and really directed at the important points," he enthuses.

The framework is the last significant element of the government's planning reforms. Now it needs to prove that its plans will work, rather than go the way of Alan Partridge's Corby trouser press.