Levelling up and Regeneration: The consultation that will shape the future of UK planning and development

A consultation exercise that will impact the future of development in the UK for decades to come is currently under way. Here’s what developers need to know.

When it comes to what you can build, where and how, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is one of many vital considerations for planners, developers, local authorities and lawmakers. Now, in what could lead to the biggest shake-up of planning for decades, the UK Government is seeking views on its plans to update the framework. This consultation includes a call for views on the Government’s proposed approach to preparing National Development Management Policies, how policy can support the process and theory of ‘levelling up’ communities, and how national planning policy is accessed by users.

One of the driving forces behind the legislation is the ‘Journey to Net Zero’ – a raft of measures and targets aimed at meeting the UK’s targets to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Read more about that in our blog.

The Government has already published a proposed text of revisions to the NPPF and has invited responses with a deadline of March 2, 2023. A Government response to the consultation is expected by Spring 2023 with the aim of implementing any changes that are carried forward, as soon as possible. However, some of the biggest anticipated changes are not yet in the revisions and the Government is inviting views on those – for example, among the questions is an invitation to comment on how a carbon impact assessment could be conducted.

It is just a consultation at this stage – the resulting legislation may differ and there be more changes to the NPPF in due course – but the document does give us a good heads up about what may lie ahead and how this may affect developers, including the following:

A focus on cleaner, greener developments

In contrast to current legislation, and closely tied to the Government’s Net Zero commitments, the proposed framework sets out clearly that protecting the environment and tackling climate change will be a major focus. An entire chapter of the consultation document (Chapter 7) is dedicated to this theme, beginning by noting that “leaving the environment in a better state and tackling climate change are two of the greatest long-term challenges facing the world today.”

It goes on to reiterate the importance of the environment at the heart of planning policy, saying: “The planning system should, as a whole, reflect the government’s ambition to help business and communities protect and enhance the environment for future generations, build a net zero carbon future, and adapt to the impacts of climate change. National planning policies and guidance, spatial development strategies and local plans should all contribute to this core objective of planning.”

It goes on to list proposed measures including: the protection an creation of wildlife habitats; promoting development designs which reduce pollution; a requirement that all developments produce a biodiversity net gain of at least 10%; and measures to reduce flood risks and pollution including seeking to address the nutrient neutrality issue which has amounted to a de facto ban on housebuilding in multiple areas of the country.

There is also a chapter in the consultation document (Chapter 8) devoted to green power generation, focusing on onshore wind. This is in support of the Government’s stated target to ‘a fully decarbonised’ power generation by 2035 and also reinforces the opportunity for farmers and landowners to diversify into wind farm and renewable energy schemes.

A major proposed change is that planning conditions could become much more favourable to onshore wind power schemes, which could in future go ahead on sites that have not been designated in the local plan.

Less pressure on green belt land

In the residential development sector, a tension exists between the need for local authorities to meet housing targets and the desire to protect green belt land. This has in the past led to uncertainties about the protections afforded to designated green belt land, with some feeling that the balance was in favour of more homes.

The draft changes to the NPPF could shift the pendulum back the other way – stating that authorities would not need to review the use of green belt land within their jurisdictions’ green belts, even if meeting housing need would be impossible without a review. This could remove the need for local planning authorities to review and alter green belt boundaries to meet housing need, and assessments of housing need are much more likely to favour the need to avoid uncharacteristically dense development over the need to meet housing targets.

More decision-making power for local authorities

Another constant tension familiar to planners and developers is the need to balance local interest over national planning priorities and targets. The draft revisions allow more leeway for local authorities in formulating their local plans – softening the test of ‘soundness’ that currently applies to local plans.

The draft NPPF revisions replace the requirement for local plans to be ‘justified’ with a more nuanced assessment of whether the local planning authority’s proposed targets meet need ‘so far as possible’ while taking into account other policies in the Framework.

A clampdown on developers who sit on planning permission

Proposed changes to the NPPF are designed to address frustrations with landowners or developers who obtain planning permission and then fail to deliver schemes within a reasonable about of time. Local authorities will be empowered to take into account ‘past irresponsible planning behaviour’ by applicants when determining their current applications. For example, applications could be refused for an applicant “persistently breaching planning controls or failing to deliver their legal commitments to the community’.

Measures to stop developers ‘cheating’ Biodiversity Net Gain

Developers are increasingly under pressure not just to mitigate the effects of their activities on the environment, but also to deliver an environmental net gain as a result of their schemes. The current Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) requirement calls for a 10% increase in biodiversity for any development, and this can be achieved by (in order of preference): measures on site; measures in the local area; or through the use of BNG credits schemes.

The Government fears that developers may be getting wise to this and taking action before planning applications are submitted to minimise their obligations – for example by clearing trees from a site before planning permission is applied for. The NPPF proposes to stop the ‘gaming’ of BNG rules in this way by reviewing provisions for BNG “to reduce the risk of habitat clearances prior to the submission of planning applications, and before the creation of off-site biodiversity enhancements”.

The above are just a handful of the proposals being consulted on in a mixed bag of options which make development in easier in some ways, yet impose more stringent conditions in others – especially those which relate to the natural environment.

So far, the consultation has received a wide range of positive and negative reactions. Victoria Hills, chief executive of The Royal Town Planning Institute, said the consultation was a "much anticipated and welcome opportunity for planners to inform how government planning reforms intend to deliver levelling up in more detail". However, the Town and Country Planning Association feels it doesn’t go far enough on green issues, describing it as a “missed opportunity to take action on climate change”.

Whatever your view, it’s important that people involved in all aspects of planning, development and the built environment have their say – and also to stay informed about changes to the NPPF that will affect current and future developments.

The Thrings Clean Energy and Environment and Development of Land teams are experienced specialists in all aspects of the built environment, working with landowners, developers, planners and construction businesses. Get in touch.

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