The arrival of the updated NPPF – what are the changes and what will the implications be for development?

20 December 2023

The new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) finally arrived on 19th December bringing with it a raft of questions; what changes does it introduce? When does it take effect? What does this mean for the development industry? See our summary below on some of the most significant changes and what this could mean for development.

1. What is the NPPF?

The NPPF contains the national planning policy for England and Wales. It covers topics such as housing, the green belt and heritage.

It sets out how local plans should be made and how planning applications should be determined. It is not law, but as national policy it is given significant weight in planning decisions, meaning that it is one of the most important planning documents for applicants to consider when devising their schemes.

2. What are the main changes?

A. There is a requirement for preparing and maintaining up to date plans which should be seen as a priority in meeting the objective of providing sufficient housing.

B.     Removal of the requirement on councils to demonstrate a rolling 5 year housing land supply if (a) their local plan is less than 5 years old and (b) the plan when adopted demonstrated a 5 year supply. Interestingly this is only relevant to planning applications submitted after 19 December 2023.

C.    If the local plan is more than 5 years old, but their new emerging local plan has reached regulation 18 stage, the council will only need to demonstrate (and update annually) a 4 year supply.

D.     Reaffirmation that the standard methodology for housing need is only an “advisory starting point” and so councils do not necessarily have to follow it when making their local plans.

E.     The “Urban Uplift”, prioritising development on brownfield land, is applicable to certain cities as set out in National Planning Guidance. However, development does not need to be permitted in such areas if it results in the increased density being wholly out of character with the existing area.

F.    Paragraph 70 now sets out that local planning authorities should seek opportunities to support small sites to come forward for community-led development for housing and self-build and custom-build housing.

G.     If housing delivery in a borough/district falls over the previous 3 years, the following happens:

  • Falls below 95% of need: an action plan needs to be produced;
  • Falls below 85% of need: a buffer of 20% is added to the land supply requirement and an action plan is required; and
  • Falls below 75% of need: the presumption in favour of sustainable development applies in addition to 20% buffer and action plan.

H.     No requirement for green belt boundaries to be reviewed or altered. This has been one of the most controversial changes, fuelling concerns about future local plans delivering less, not more housing.

I.  Continued emphasis on beauty which comes as no surprise. The reference to mansard roofs is still very much present.

3. When do these changes take effect?

Subject to a few limited exceptions, the changes take place immediately, so any planning applications being decided from 19 December 2023 onwards will need to consider the changes.

In the short-term the Secretary of State has indicated that the government will not hesitate to intervene where local planning authorities have failed to put a plan in place. 

4. What does this mean for LPAs and the development industry?

With advisory targets, the urban uplift watering down, and no need to review green belt, it is difficult to see where the much needed new housing will come from. The new NPPF has been branded a “NIMBY’s charter” by the HBF and The Times has taken things further, calling it “a death warrant for a party with precious little to offer the hardworking young”.

The updated NPPF provides the clarity that some authorities have been waiting for ahead of progressing their plans, particularly those with large areas of Green Belt. However, the deadline of 30th June 2025 for submission of plans under the current system is looming. All plans submitted after this deadline will need to be prepared in accordance with the new system. For those authorities who are unable to meet this deadline there is still a level of uncertainty surrounding the new system of plan-making, and the role of National Development Management Policies (NDMPs), and therefore, a risk of delay in these authorities preparing updated plans.

5. What happens next?

Gove mentioned a raft of other items in his speech, including:

A. Potential measures to speed up planning decisions such as the removal of the ability to agree extensions to determination deadlines, to encourage councils to determine applications quickly;

B. A group of experts is looking at whether the London Plan is to blame for the shortfall in housing delivery in London. It is to report back in the next few months and Gove may intervene in the London Plan as a result;

C. Another attempt to fix nutrient neutrality if the Tory’s win the general election;

D. DLUHC is looking at planning judicial reviews and how they are holding up delivery. An announcement on judicial review challenge will be made next year;

E. A review into the role of statutory consultees to see if they are helping or hindering the planning process; 

F. The government remains committed to bringing in the Infrastructure Levy;

G. Emphasis on Cambridge as a growth area.

H. Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects will be speeded up by 5 months; and

I. More local authorities have been put in special measures for either not producing a local plan or for poor performance in timescales.

6. Looking to the future – a new system of plan making

The government published details of the proposed new system of plan-making in both the December 2022 consultation and a further focused consultation in July 2023. Between these consultations and the government’s now-published response to the 2022 consultation, we now know about the new system:

A. All plans submitted after the deadline of 30 June 2025 will be need to be prepared in accordance with the new system; 

B. The regulations, policy and guidance for the new system should be in place by autumn 2024. 

C. Plans under the new system should be:

  • Simpler to understand and use;
  • Prepared more quickly and updated more frequently; and,
  • Make the best use of digital technology;

D. Plans will focus on only ‘locally important’ matters, with other matters covered by the National Development Management Policies.

E. There will be a 30-month timeframe for planning authorities to prepare and adopt a local plan, and the process will become more standardised with three new ‘gateway’ assessments prior to examination.

F. ‘Supplementary plans’ will be available to help planning authorities react quickly to changes in their areas.

G. The amount of evidence required to develop a plan and defend it at examination should be reduced.

There is still much change afoot and it certainly sounds like it will be a busy 2024 for Mr Gove and his department. Whether any of this makes a difference to housing delivery and economic growth will depend on how much of it is taken forwards and who is in charge this time next year.

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