Framework review is crying out for resolution, by Bryan Johnston

Easter falls early this year, which will be some small consolation to those in the sector eagerly awaiting the updated National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

Earlier this week, during a Commons select committee hearing, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government permanent secretary Melanie Dawes flagged up "just before Easter or thereabouts" as the new target date for consultation on a revised version of the government's keynote statement on planning policy.

It’s now just over two years since the government’s original consultation on revising the NPPF emerged. Since then, the publication date for the revised version, initially set for the summer of 2016, has slipped time after time.

The official word in September, set out in the Planning for the Right Homes in the Right Places consultation paper, promised a draft "early in 2018", with the update done and dusted by this spring. Government chief planner Steve Quartermain's pre-Christmas letter to local planning authorities revealed that the target date for completion of the revisions had moved back to "before the end of the summer" of 2018. Dawes' comments make clear that the government's understanding of "early 2018" is broad enough to allow a late March publication date.

Of course, there are reasons for the delay, ranging from the hiatus that followed the 2016 Brexit referendum and then last year’s snap general election to the long-running review of the Community Infrastructure Levy, a string of ministerial reshuffles, the diminution of government enthusiasm for the Starter Homes concept and a never-ending slew of further planning reform proposals in successive Budgets and elsewhere.

Whatever the reasons, the NPPF update is now a public policy issue crying out for closure. The framework, originally published in March 2012, has already been under formal review for more than one-third of its lifetime.  During that time, four planning ministers – Brandon Lewis, Gavin Barwell, Alok Sharma and now Dominic Raab, whose planning remit has only just been confirmed – have presided over the exercise. Not good for continuity, but not a good enough excuse for delay on this scale.

Most imminently, this latest knock-back has implications for the government’s planned 31 March switchover date to the proposed standard methodology for assessing housing need. Councils that have been rushing to bring forward plans before the deadline, on the assumption that their housing targets will be less taxing if assessed on the existing model, may decide they can extend the process. Authorities that have put back plan production timescales on the basis that they need official guidance on how the new methodology is intended to operate may now claim justification for holding on even longer.

The signs are that the NPPF revamp is now going to be a good deal more wide-ranging than was envisaged when the review began. It’s reasonable to assume, or at least to hope, that the promised round of consultation after Easter will be short, sharp and focused on new proposals, rather than allowing old differences and debates to be reopened. 

The September consultation made clear that, when the new draft emerges, officials will make sure the wording is "clear, consistent and well understood" – for which read "lawyer-proof". Let's hope they get it right first time, because even the most minor changes of phrasing on such topics as green belt, valued landscape or heritage protection are going to be closely pored over on all sides looking for loopholes that might advance their aspirations.

This article was amended at 14:00 on 23 January 2018 to make clear that, prior to Dawes' comment, the government had already stated - in the chief planner's pre-Christmas letter - that the target date for completion of the revised NPPF would be put back to "before the end of the summer" 2018. However, prior to Dawes' comments, the official word on the target date for publication of the draft revisions was "early 2018".

Bryan Johnston, consultant editor, Planning //

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