How the recent Planning Practice Guidance revisions change the system

How government planning advice changed this summer, and what it means for you. By Colin Marrs.

The MHCLG offices in central London
The MHCLG offices in central London

POLICY CONTEXT

In late July, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published a raft of changes to Planning Practice Guidance (PPG). In total, 23 sections of the guidance were either revised or introduced. Covering a wide range of issues – from the green belt and housing supply to advertisements and contaminated land – the suite of revisions will have a significant impact on many areas of planners’ work. Below, we look at the most important changes and their implications.

Five key changes

Green belt

How the guidance is changing: An entirely new section on green belt outlines the issues planners should take into account when assessing the openness of the green belt. These include the visual impact of a development, its duration and remediability, and the degree of activity, such as traffic, that would be generated. The guidance states that "openness is capable of having both spatial and visual aspects".

Practical implications: Chris Young QC of No5 Barristers Chambers says the guidance means that local authorities will "need to think more realistically about the fact they will need to allow some green belt releases, especially around major cities". Meanwhile, developers "need to think creatively about how to bring together landowners to create green belt urban extensions and new settlements which involve major new parklands", he adds.

Housing supply and delivery

How the guidance is changing: This guidance note outlines how planning authorities can demonstrate that they have identified sufficient land for new homes in their local plans and includes new wording on what makes a housing site deliverable. It raises the bar for the evidence needed to show that sites are deliverable.

Previous wording that "any progress" made towards application submission or site assessment would be acceptable to demonstrate deliverability has been strengthened to "firm progress". Such evidence of "firm progress" could include a written agreement from a site developer confirming anticipated start and build-out rates, the guidance says.

Similarly, developers must provide "clear relevant information" about viability and site constraints rather than "any relevant information". The guidance removes previous PPG references to authorities gathering evidence themselves on development "lead-in" times and "build-out rates" to justify anticipated delivery rates.

Practical implications: Jonathan Dixon, planning director at consultancy Savills, says the revised guidance "requires more certainty about the information that is to be relied upon". Tim Willis, planning partner at law firm Shoosmiths, adds: "My feeling is this makes it a lot more difficult for authorities to show a site is part of its land supply." Roland Bolton, senior director at consultancy DLP Planning, says the changes were designed to counteract what he sees as the recent tendency of inspectors to accept any information on sites as "clear evidence of deliverability". Adam Nicholls, planning lead at the District Councils Network, says meeting the extra evidence requirements will be time-consuming for many authorities.

Effective use of land

How the guidance is changing: This guidance note includes advice on planning for high-density development and reallocating land that has yet to be developed. The section on high-density housing lists a number of new tools to help determine appropriate densities, including "accessibility measures such as distances and travel times to key facilities, including public transport stops or hubs".

The document contains new wording on assessing the implications of increasing densities for appropriate levels of sunlight and daylight. It says all developments "should maintain acceptable living standards". However, it adds that appropriate levels will vary depending on context and design.

There is also new wording on how councils should decide whether a yet to be developed site should be considered for reallocation to another land use. They should consider "the length of time since the site was allocated in the development plan; the planning history of the site; whether there is evidence that the site has been actively marketed for its intended use for a reasonable period, and at a realistic price; and whether there are any changes of circumstance that mean take-up of the site for its intended use is now unlikely".

Practical implications: Chris Marsh, senior planner at consultancy Evans Jones, says this update was "to some extent a reintroduction of the revoked paragraph 22 of the original National Planning Policy Framework, which warned against the long-term protection of allocated employment sites where these showed very little sign of coming forward".

Housing needs of different groups

How the guidance is changing: The document sets out new advice on how plan-making authorities should identify and plan for the housing needs of specific groups of people, including students, self-builders, those living in rural areas and those who wish to live in private rented sector homes.

The document says "tenure data from the Office for National Statistics can be used to understand the future need for private rented sector housing". Planners "will also need to engage with universities and other higher educational establishments to ensure they understand student accommodation requirements", it adds.

Planners should "assess and review the data" held on self-build and custom housebuilding registers to establish demand, according to the document. Planning authorities "can support opportunities to bring forward rural exception sites by working proactively with landowners and potential delivery partners". The guidance also provides advice on how councils can assess unmet need for affordable housing.

Practical implications: Rob Krzyzowski, head of planning policy at Haringey Council and vice-chair of the Royal Town Planning Institute’s England policy panel, says the effect of the guidance could be to effectively reintroduce strategic housing market assessments (SHMAs). "This guidance seems to confirm that authorities will still require SHMA-type evidence to address the different types of need," he says. But he warns that dovetailing this new evidence with calculations made using the government’s standard methodology for assessing housing need could be "tricky".

Plan-making

How the guidance is changing: A previous standalone section on local plans has been withdrawn and merged with the plan-making section. The new section emphasises the benefits of producing joint local plans, which it states "can be an effective way of planning for an area’s strategic priorities, addressing cross-boundary issues through the duty to cooperate, and sharing specialist resources and reducing costs".

Where a joint local plan exists, individual local planning authorities (LPAs) can subsequently also prepare one or more local plans containing non-strategic policies and designations or allocations, the guidance says. However, these must be consistent with the joint plan’s strategic policies, "unless there is specific justification for a variation".

Practical implications:  Ben Simpson, director at consultancy Boyer Planning, says the new guidance is "upping the ante" on joint local plans. "This is broadening the base for strategic planning and saying that cooperation beyond housing market areas is a good thing."

Other important PPG changes

Appropriate assessment This introduces new details of how and when to conduct the "appropriate assessments" that are required when a proposed plan or project is considered likely to have a significant effect on a protected habitats site. Kathryn Jump, joint national head of planning at law firm Shoosmiths, says: "The implication of this for developers and planners will be that more appropriate assessments will be undertaken in full, which of course has a cost and time implication."

Town centres and retail

The new guidance introduces new wording that says local planning authorities "need to consider structural changes in the economy, in particular changes in shopping and leisure patterns and formats, the impact these are likely to have on individual town centres, and how the planning tools available to them can support necessary adaptation and change". Matthew Sobic, planning director at property consultancy Savills, says: "The government has taken a more comprehensive approach that extends beyond traditional retail town centre uses and requires a positive strategy to be put in place."

Housing and economic land availability assessment

The new PPG sets out a new method – including steps and a flow chart – for how a local authority should assess the available land for its five-year housing supply, before it allocates the land. Jump says the move "will be welcomed by developers and planners as it allows local authorities to be held to an expected standard when assessing land". However, she warns that, if land is not included in the assessment early on, it may be harder to get planning consent at a later stage, meaning "landowners need to be ahead of the game and speaking with surveyors and promoters early on to get their sites included".

Noise

The guidance seeks to strengthen the degree to which developers of new sites need to consider noise impact on existing residents and businesses. It states that developers and authorities should assess noise levels from existing development and potential noise new development might bring. Perry says: "This will have an impact on infrastructure projects such as airport expansions. Studies are likely to be required on potential noise levels, all of which have a cost and time implication."

Housing and economic needs assessment

The updates to this PPG encourage cross-authority collaboration on where logistics sites should be located and engagement with logistics developers and occupiers, as well as analysis of economic forecasts to understand whether new sites need to be earmarked for this type of development, or whether current sites need to be expanded. It also encourages clustering of certain industries. Andrew Jackson, head of development economics at Boyer, says: "Logistics operators and developers will be encouraged by the revised guidance, which advocates that LPAs engage with the sector to establish qualitative needs rather than rely upon a formulaic quantitative exercise to identify land requirements."

Natural environment

The revised guidance contains fresh details on how planners can implement "net environmental gain" requirements when assessing development proposals, including new advice on protecting wildlife. Young says: "The requirement to achieve an overall ‘net gain’ is new. That might sound problematic for a new housing development on a greenfield site. But in truth, many such sites are presently intensively-farmed agricultural fields, with little biodiversity present. Biodiversity gains can also be secured off site and secured by way of planning obligations or conditions."

Other parts of PPG where changes were made

  • New town corporations 
  • Strategic environmental assessment and sustainability appraisal 
  • When is permission required? 
  • Historic environment
  • Use of planning conditions 
  • Consultation and pre-decision matters b Water supply, wastewater and water quality
  • Land affected by contamination
  • Land stability
  • Healthy and safe communities
  • Enforcement and post-permission matters
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