NPPF changes risk delivery of sustainable communities, by Richard Garlick

The government's proposals for revising the National Planning Policy Framework were slipped out earlier this week with little fanfare, and a relatively short consultation period ending on 25 January.

Nonetheless, the changes they propose are significant. Local authorities in which delivery of new housing fails to match the levels promised by the local plan over a sustained period may be forced to allocate additional sites. Planners will be forced to treat discounted market housing as affordable housing, even if it is not subject to any restrictions to ensure it remains affordable in perpetuity. And the tests that local authorities will have to meet to justify reserving unused sites for employment, when they could be used for housing, are planned to get much tougher.

The overall effect is to further loosen planning authorities' grip on development in their areas. There are aspects of this that may be justified. There is a widespread belief that some planning authorities hold onto certain employment sites long after they have ceased to be likely development options. Pushing councils to accept higher densities around commuter hubs makes sense at a time of rocketing housing demand, and may be helpful to counter some members' suspicion of high density development.

But there is a danger that the changes go too far in removing local authorities' hands from the controls. The definition of affordable housing is already sufficiently flexible to include properties way out of the league of average earners, and broadening it to include discounted market homes threatens to make the term even less meaningful. Perhaps more importantly, the definition change will make it harder for local authorities to plan for mixed income communities.

Similarly, if the new test for retention of a site for employment use in the face of a planning application is too unforgiving, then authorities' ability to plan mixed use communities will be very much compromised. In its wholehearted pursuit of more housing, the government risks dismantling some of the machinery needed to build sustainable communities.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning

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