What are the potential impacts of the proposed changes to the NPPF on plan-making in the eastern region?
Date of Article
Jan 20 2023
Planning & development
Get in touch
Colin Brown
Partner, Head of Planning & Development
01223 326826 Email me About Colin

Keep informed

Sign up to our newsletter to receive further information and news tailored to you.

Sign up now

In an early Christmas present, the Government published its long-awaited prospectus for revising the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and its proposed approach to preparing National Development Management Policies on 22 December 2022. The proposed revisions are open for public consultation until 3 March 2023.

What are the key proposed changes to the plan-making process?

  • Proposed additional caveats would allow for lower levels of housing to be planned in situations in which meeting full needs would result in adverse impacts, such as building at densities significantly out of character with the existing area, or where there is clear evidence of past over-delivery in terms of the number of homes permitted compared to the housing requirement in the existing plan. In such cases this over-delivery may be deducted from the provision required in the new plan.
  • No specific changes are proposed to the standard method now, but it will be reviewed to take account of the standard method of new household projections data (based on the 2021 Census), which is due to be published in 2024.
  • Green Belt boundaries would not be required to be reviewed and altered if this would be the only means of meeting the objectively assessed need for housing over the Plan period. It will be a matter for the individual local planning authority (LPA) as to whether such a review takes place.
  • The duty to co-operate would be replaced by a future ‘alignment policy’, and plans will no longer be required to be ‘justified’.
  • Supplementary Planning Documents (SPDs) would be abolished in the revised planning system. Instead, LPAs would be able to prepare Supplementary Plans that would be afforded the same weight as a local plan or minerals and waste plan. Existing SPDs will remain in force for a time-bound period only until the LPA is required to adopt a new-style plan. Current SPDs will automatically cease to have effect at the date authorities are required to have a new-style plan in place.
  • Some LPAs with well advanced Local Plans will only need to demonstrate 4 years’ housing land supply instead of 5 years’ for a period of two years from the point that the proposed changes to the Framework take effect.
  • There will be a further consultation on how National Development Management Policies (NDMPs) are implemented.
  • Strategic policies will need to ensure outcomes support beauty and placemaking.

What are the key timelines?

  • The policy changes to the Framework are expected to take effect in spring 2023.
  • The reformed plan-making system is intended to be introduced in late 2024 and to include a requirement for LPAs and minerals and waste planning authorities to start work on new plans by, at the latest, 5 years after adoption of their previous plan, and to adopt that new plan within 30 months. 
  • Plans which will become more than 5 years old during the first 30 months of the new system (i.e. while the LPA is preparing its new plan), will continue to be considered ‘up-to-date’ for decision-making purposes for 30 months after the new system starts.
  • 30 June 2025 will be the deadline for submitting ‘old-style’ local plans, neighbourhood plans, minerals and waste plans and spatial development strategies for independent examination.
  • By 31 December 2026, all independent examinations of local plans, minerals and waste plans and spatial development strategies must be concluded, with plans adopted (published for a spatial development strategy). These plans will be examined under the current legislation.
  • October 2026 is the earliest date that the first new-style examinations commence.
  • 31 December 2026 is the final date for any old-style local and minerals and waste plans to be adopted (or in the case of Strategic Development Strategies, published).
  • In April 2027, the first new-style plans will be able to be adopted.
  • 31 December 2031 is the latest at which LPAs must begin the new style plan-making process (if their previous plan was adopted on 31 December 2026).

What has been happening to plan-making in the Eastern Region?

Despite the Welwyn Hatfield Local Plan being submitted for examination in May 2017, its progress has been glacial due to the unwillingness of its councillors to make difficult choices. As a result, its Main Modifications consultation only commenced in January 2023. Similarly, the North Hertfordshire Local Plan was submitted for examination back in June 2017, before finally being adopted in November 2022. These two examples demonstrate the inadequacies of the current plan-making system in terms of examining local plans in a prompt and timely manner in order to avoid the need for numerous and costly evidence base updates as time elapses.

Brentwood, Colchester, Ipswich and Tendring are examples of local authorities that have successfully managed to get new local plan documents adopted over the course of the past year.

Unfortunately, there have been several other authorities in the region that decided in the face of local opposition to abandon local plans, including when they were already extremely well advanced in the plan-making process. 

In March 2022, Basildon Borough Council withdrew its Draft Local Plan 2014-2034, which had been submitted to the Secretary of State for examination on 28 March 2019.

Soon afterwards, Castle Point Council which despite having its Draft Local Plan being found sound by its Examination Inspector, decided in June 2022 that rather than adopt it, it would immediately withdraw it. In doing so, it declared that it would start work on a new Local Plan that ‘reflects the central government stated aim to protect and preserve the precious Green Belt in our local area’ and that will include a lower housing target that will prioritise brownfield development.

In January 2022, Hertsmere’s Draft Local Plan was shelved after the Council admitted residents had rejected its proposals, including 12,160 new homes in the borough. The draft plan included the intention to build more than 9,000 homes on the Green Belt and 18,000 responses were submitted during the consultation period.

On a more positive note, some local authorities have very recently published committee reports setting out their intention to progress new local plans during 2023.  

For Greater Cambridge there remains an intention to consult on a draft local plan for Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire in Autumn 2023. Key employment sectors have continued to see fast growth, and population growth in Cambridge has been significantly higher than previously estimated. As a result, the updated evidence points to a 14% higher Objectively Assessed Need (OAN) for jobs and a 17% higher need for dwellings during the plan period than had previously been envisaged. The councils’ position is that the Greater Cambridge Local Plan should seek to provide for the identified OAN for housing and jobs, but only so far as this can be provided without unacceptable sustainability impacts. Once the water supply position is fully understood, the councils have said that they will consider the environmental, social and economic impacts of the alternatives of either meeting or not meeting their OAN for homes and potentially also jobs in full.

King’s Lynn and West Norfolk is currently mid-examination and South Kesteven is committed to an early review in 2023/24. In West Suffolk there has as yet been no obvious derailment to the ongoing production of a replacement development plan.

Huntingdonshire District Council’s Cabinet meeting on 24 January 2023 is being asked to agree to the preparation of a full update to the current Local Plan, which was only adopted in May 2019 and covers the period to 2036. It is refreshing to see a local authority taking a proactive approach to ensuring that its Local Plan is kept fully up to date and able to facilitate a continuous pipeline of development allocations being maintained over the long-term.  

Whilst the above recent commitments from these Cambridgeshire authorities are welcome, they were made prior to the very recent publication of the proposed changes to the NPPF. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether their proposals and timescales will be amended. 

What are our key concerns?

With regard to the proposed revisions as a whole, as other commentators have remarked, there is a notable lack of vision or obvious planning related purpose to the changes. If the changes are driven by electioneering interests, as seems possible, then it is hard to picture how any widescale meaningful benefits to society might be delivered by such short-term impulses.

Regrettably, there is a long history of local authorities being set local plan production deadlines by successive governments, which have then been badly missed. In the absence of any real ministerial commitment to punish any unreasonable delays with specific sanctions, it must be highly doubtful that the region’s local authorities will be unduly concerned should they miss the specified target date for compliance. Although, it has to be recognised that in some instances such deadlines having been missed, not through indifference but instead due to the well-documented resourcing issues, that this unfortunately continue to afflict many local planning authorities in our region.

As large-scale developments continue to become more and more complex, it is important to recognise that housing provision is not a tap that can be turned on and off quickly. These concerns are likely to be particularly evident in the case of those authorities that contain significant amounts of Green Belt, and authorities where NIMBY interests are allowed to prevail, who may well feel emboldened to play on the constraints argument when setting their new local plan housing figures. There appears to be a significant danger that the chronic undersupply of housing will continue and indeed worsen within these areas if the proposed changes to the NPPF are implemented. 

Landowners and developers are likely to become more wary of spending significant amounts of money on long-term site promotions if there is increased uncertainty and risk as to the level of housing provision that will be eventually identified within future draft local plans. 

Given the uncertainty regarding the final content of the revised NPPF, there is a clear danger that many local authorities will choose to either pause or slow down the production of their new local plans, thus risking varying levels of plan-making paralysis, whilst we await the final version of the NPPF and move ever closer towards the next general election, which could then result in a very different Government and national policy framework. As ever, political short-termism seems to be the order of the day.