Part 1: Consultation on revisions to the NPPF
Proposed changes relating to housing need and delivery – a compromise too far?
The NPPF changes are intended to underline the government’s commitments to levelling up, building new homes to increase home ownership, empowering communities to make better places, restoring local pride and regenerating towns and cities.
The proposals on housing reflect however the position in which the current administration finds itself, being forced to make concessions to avoid backbench rebellions on the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. Whilst the commitment to delivering 300,000 homes per year by the mid-2020s through a plan-led system remains, the government intends to give authorities and communities more power to dictate what are acceptable levels of development in their areas.
Plan Making: Housing Need
The NPPF and associated guidance set a standard method for calculating the minimum number of homes which should be planned for in an area, unless exceptional circumstances justify an alternative approach. Any needs that cannot be met within neighbouring areas must be taken into account. How housing need is addressed has proven to be controversial.
- Standard method: The government is not proposing to alter the standard method, but will review the implications of using data from the 2021 Census (to be published in 2024) and provide guidance on characteristics that may justify use of an alternative method. Critically, however, the changes emphasize that the outcome is an advisory starting point only. In addition:
- Where the resulting densities would be significantly out of character with the existing area, this could be taken into consideration, perhaps providing a reason not to meet need in suburban and rural areas.
- LPAs would not be required to review or alter Green Belt boundaries solely to meet housing need in full – the option would still be available, if they could demonstrate exceptional circumstances. How often will there be a political imperative to do so?
- Past “over-delivery” could be taken into account in establishing housing need.
- Uplift & alignment: The 35% uplift for the 20 largest towns and cities is to be retained and clarification given that this is not intended to be exported, except where there is voluntary cross-boundary agreement in place. Brownfield and other under-utilised sites should be prioritised – but this has always been policy. The controversial duty to co-operate is to be removed via the Bill and replaced by an “alignment policy” in the NPPF in due course.
- Examination: The tests of “soundness” are to be amended so that plans do not need to be “justified”. The examination will assess whether the proposed housing target meets need “so far as possible” and the plan will be effective and deliverable. This will reduce the burden at examination. The new tests will not apply to plans that have reached pre-submission consultation, do so within 3 months of the NPPF changes taking effect or those at examination.
Decision Making: Housing Land Supply and Delivery
The NPPF sets requirements for a 5-year rolling supply of housing land, potentially with buffers of 5%, 10% or 20% to encourage LPAs to keep plans up to date. The presumption of sustainable development may apply on decision making if they do not. This underpins some applications on unallocated land - and concern that confidence in the plan-making system is being undermined.
- Housing delivery and land supply tests: It is proposed that, where the plan containing the housing requirement strategic policies is less than 5 years old, a 5-year housing land supply need not be demonstrated and the buffers of 5%, 10% or 20% are to be removed. Historic oversupply can be accounted for in the 5-year housing land supply calculation. These changes are likely to make it harder to obtain permission for unallocated sites in the 5 years after adoption of a local plan, although only around 40% of authorities have adopted a plan in the last 5 years.
- Status of neighbourhood plans: Where a neighbourhood plan is in force, the adverse impacts of conflicting development are currently likely to outweigh the benefits (and permission refused) where the plan is less than 2 years old, contains policies to meet the neighbourhood’s housing requirement and the LPA has a 3-year supply of deliverable housing sites and housing delivery of at least 45% over 3 years. It is proposed to extend the 2 years to 5 years, and remove the LPA requirement for a minimum housing land supply and delivery.
- Slow build out: At present, an action plan is required where housing delivery falls below 95% of target, a 20% buffer is added to the 5 year housing land supply where delivery is below 85% and the presumption in favour of sustainable development applies for delivery below 75%. The 20% buffer requirement is proposed to be deleted and the presumption “switched off” if the LPA has sufficient permissions for deliverable homes to meet their annual housing requirement or, where their plan is over 5 years old, to meet local housing need, plus a contingency proposed to be set at 15%. An action plan will still be required.
The key outcomes appear likely to be more autonomy for authorities to determine whether to meet housing need in their area and to reduce the power of inspectors to challenge authorities’ justification for their approach on examination of plans and applications.
Transitional Arrangements and Plan Making
Where plans are submitted for examination or subject to Regulation 18 or 19 consultation (with a policies map and allocations), then it is proposed that LPAs need only demonstrate a 4 not 5 year housing land supply for a 2 year period from the changes coming into effect.
Assuming the Bill gets Royal Assent in Spring 2023, the government anticipates that plan makers will have until 30 June 2025 to submit plans under the existing legal framework and that such plans are to be adopted by 31 December 2026. Examination of new-style plans would be from October 2026. Where authorities have a plan which is more than 5 years old (and are not working to the above timetable), they will be required to prepare a new plan once the system goes live. Others will not be required to produce a new plan until the existing plan is 5 years old, so the latest date for production of a new-style plan is 31 December 2031.
To encourage continued plan making, the government intends that, where existing local plans become more than 5 years old during the first 30 months of the new system, the plan will be considered up to date for those 30 months. Where a plan has been found sound subject to early review and the Inspector requires submission of the updated plan within 30 months of the new system going live, the deadline will be extended to 30 months after the system going live.
Supplementary planning documents (SPDs) cannot be prepared under the new system – supplementary plans will have the same weight as local plans. Current SPDs are proposed to cease to have effect at the point at which the LPA is required to have a new plan in place.
Although the government is keen to encourage authorities to adopt plans (by streamlining the plan making system and making it harder to bring forward sites which are not in the plan), a number of authorities have (perhaps unsurprisingly) paused work on emerging plans pending further information on the above proposals. There is also general concern as to whether the proposals will simply lead to less homes being planned. Overall, the proposals are likely to be subject to significant scrutiny.