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After some 6 years following the Government’s consolidation of over 1000 pages of national planning policy into less than 50, the updated version has just been published–2

Despite the original outcry that accompanied the arrival of NPPF 1 in 2012, and the many challenges and litigation of the past 6 years, the document has remained broadly intact.  However, there are some changes and clarifications that will have an impact on projects as we go forward, not least in relation to some of the environmental aspects that are relevant to our professional remit.  In this brief note, we have sought to summarise and provide comment on these elements.

Housing Market – Delivery

The focus of the changes is the Government’s desire and some would say obsession with a secure supply of new housing.  The principal change within NPPF 2 has been its extension to include delivery.  There is already much discussion around the proposed housing delivery test and how this will be monitored and evaluated.  Environmental factors, not least European Protected Species and in particular bats and Great Crested Newts, are often cited, sometime with good justification, as the cause of many a delay.  It is still to be seen as to how Local Planning Authorities, developers and Natural England as the licencing body will work together to meet this challenge.

The new District Licencing and low impact licences for Great Crested Newts are still in their infancy, but it is certain that they will be suitable for certain projects.  We are already working with clients on the options and will be covering the latest position in a programme of technical workshops.  Keep an eye on our website for dates and booking information.

In addition, we anticipate that the Government’s commitment in their recently published 25 Year Environment Plan[1] to embed an “environmental net gain principle” in development of housing and infrastructure will start to filter through into detailed planning guidance.  The NPPF itself only makes passing reference to environmental net gain, but our assessment is that this will quickly gain importance and therefore a fundamental understanding of the recognised matrices for evaluating net gain will be critical in demonstrating that this has been appropriately considered.

Making Effective Use of Land

In encouraging effective use of land Para 118a now specifically includes reference to habitat creation and improved public access encouraging the provision of multiple benefits with specific reference to rural land.

We are already aware of land equalisation deals including environmentally constrained land and associated features where these areas can be incorporated effectively into masterplans and detailed design, which and will deliver environmentally at the same time as enabling more development on the balance of the site.

Understanding the relative value of these land assets could offer huge opportunities at the same time as facilitating more effective use of the most appropriate land for built development.

Green Belt

The absolute failure of the Government at all levels to address the issue around constraint of development due to the Green Belt designation has led to an increase in inappropriate and uncoordinated revisions to the Green Belt boundaries.  In most cases the exceptional circumstances test has been met based purely on failure to address housing need.

Disappointingly, the response has been to tighten the test to ensure that developers demonstrate “fully evidenced and justified” exceptional circumstances when what is required in our opinion is a fundamental review of Green Belts based upon sound environmental evidence.

It is unclear as to what this change will mean in practice.  However, Para 138 does give some hope for a more strategic approach where local Planning Authorities have concluded that Green Belt land needs to be released.  In these circumstances, arguments that address the true functionality of the Green Belt and can demonstrate real improvements to environmental quality and accessibility of the wider Green Belt ,will carry some weight.

Undoubtedly, an understanding of green infrastructure and the importance of wider interests and opportunities will be of critical importance.

Chapter 15 – Conserving and enhancing the natural environment

This chapter has been reworked to align it with the 25 Year Environment Plan.  Paragraph 169 states that strategic plans should “take a strategic approach to maintaining and strengthening networks of habitats and green infrastructure; and plan for the enhancement of natural capital at catchment or landscape scale across local authority boundaries.

This once again highlights the need to ensure that the green infrastructure of a site and its wider setting is understood and accounted for from the outset.

Paragraph 170a re-established the principle of “protecting and enhancing valued landscapes”, although we are no closer to a policy definition of ‘valued landscapes’ and must continue to rely upon case law.  It is noticeable however, that the protection within Para 170b has been widened to include natural capital and ecosystem services is a further note in the 25 Year Environment Plan.

We have also seen the anticipated strengthening of protection for irreplaceable habitats, at footnote 6 of Para 11, with Paragraph 176c specifically including ancient woodland and veteran or ancient trees.  This new paragraph adds the words “unless there are wholly exceptional reasons and a suitable mitigation strategy exists”.  Essentially this harks back at the old planning concept of over-riding public benefit.

Paragraph 172 reinforces the protection given to National Parks and AONBs, stating that the scale and extent of development within these areas should be limited.

It will be important to see how this is interpreted, but it will be critical to have a clear understanding of these habitats and features at as early a point as possible.

In Conclusion

Clarity and measures to address particular issues were promised, but in our view, the changes still do not address the fundamental issues.  In particular, we are still facing a gradual erosion of the Green Belt will no clear and bold strategic approach to update this policy positively for the 21st century.

On the environmental side, our thought is that environmental net gain will be the norm.  An understanding of the environmental context of a site and its place in the green infrastructure network will be critical and should be at the forefront of thinking at the earliest possible opportunity.


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