08 January 2024

Shortly before Christmas, on 19 December 2023, the Government published its long-awaited revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework (“NPPF”), following a year-long process of consultation. The revised NPPF sets out the Government’s planning policies and how these will be applied.

The biggest change is that the revised NPPF introduces various reforms to housing delivery. The revised NPPF also includes new drafting on protection from “out of character” residential development, Green Belt alterations, energy efficient building improvements and allocation of agricultural land for development.

The key changes are set out below:

1. Reforms to housing delivery

The Government’s intention with these changes is to increase the delivery of new housing, by giving local planning authorities a strong incentive to update their Local Plans, amidst a supply shortage in many areas of the country.

Changes to the five-year housing land supply and delivery requirements

  • Under the previous version of the NPPF, all local planning authorities in England were required to continually demonstrate a deliverable five-year housing land supply.

The updated NPPF states that local planning authorities will not need to meet this requirement as long as their adopted plan is less than five years old, and that it identified “at least a five year supply of specific, deliverable sites at the time that its examination concluded”.

  • There is also a reduced requirement for some local authorities with an ‘in-progress’ Local Plan, i.e. where a Local Plan has been consulted on (under Regulation 18 or 19) or submitted for examination.

If the draft Local Plan includes a policies map and proposed housing allocations towards meeting housing need, those authorities will only have to demonstrate a four-year housing land supply. This particular change only applies for two years from the publication date, until 19 December 2025.

As a result of these changes, it is estimated that 40% of local planning authorities will no longer be required to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply.

The reason that this is important is because if a local authority cannot demonstrate a five-year housing land supply, then in the process of decision-making, the presumption in favour of sustainable development applies.

That presumption means that planning permission should be granted for sustainable development (unless the application of NPPF policies to protect assets or areas of particular importance provide a clear reason for refusal, or the adverse impacts significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits). This presumption (also known in shorthand as the “tilted balance”) changes the exercise of assessment that the decision-maker must carry out, and in general terms increases the prospect of planning permission being granted.

This means that those authorities who are no longer required to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply will be better protected against unplanned or speculative development, because the “tilted balance” will not apply.

Practically, the changes provide an incentive to local planning authorities to keep their Local Plans up to date so that they do not continually need to demonstrate a five year land supply.

Changes to the assessment of housing supply

Under the previous version of the NPPF, all local planning authorities were required to build a buffer of 5% (by default), 10% or 20% into their calculations on five-year housing land supply. In the updated NPPF, the 5% and 10% buffers have been removed but the 20% buffer has been retained, where delivery falls below 85% of the requirement over the previous three years.

In addition, historic oversupply can be accounted for in the five-year housing land supply calculation and further guidance on this will follow. The expectation is that the removal of 5% and 10% will simplify the five-year land supply calculations for local authorities. There is a concern, however, that their removal will reduce a key incentive for local authorities to keep delivering housing supply and maintain accountability where delivery exceeds the 85% threshold.

Greater flexibility for local authorities in assessing local housing need

New text has been added to the NPPF at paragraph 60, clarifying that the overall aim of local authorities, in the context of delivering homes, should be to “meet as much of an area’s identified housing need as possible”.

Under paragraph 61, the revised NPPF also states that the standard method for calculating housing need, to establish the number of homes required, is now considered as an “an advisory starting point”. Under the previous NPPF, the standard method was not classified in this way and there was no similar explanatory text.

As a result of these changes, local authorities have greater flexibility to plan for fewer or higher number of homes than the standard method indicates, and where there are specific local circumstances that justify an alternative approach to assessing housing need, that is now explicitly supported.

Alteration of Green Belt boundaries

New paragraph 145 of the revised NPPF provides that local authorities may choose to (but are not required to) review and alter Green Belt boundaries (in the event that they consider that they cannot meet housing need) during the plan-making process, where exceptional circumstances are fully evidenced and justified.

The changes do not explicitly describe how Green Belt boundaries are expected to interface with housing supply and do not represent a substantive change to the policy position.

Support for specific categories of housing

  • Retirement housing need assessment – new paragraph 63 has been added into the revised NPPF which requires local authorities to assess a local need for retirement and care housing provision. Local authorities are then required to reflect this need in their policies. These changes reflect a specific concern identified by the Government; the consultation paper makes clear that they are prioritising sufficient housing supply for an ageing population, and in this context drafting has been included to explicitly and specifically support the provision of that housing.
  • Support for small sites – at paragraph 70(b), the revised NPPF requires local authorities to support (through policies and in their decision making) small sites to come forward for community-led development for housing and self-build and custom-build housing. This reflects an objective of the Government to give greater confidence and certainty to small and medium sized builders, with a view to diversifying the housing market.
  • Support for community-led development – the revised NPPF provides that local authorities should support the development of exception sites for “community-led development” on sites that would not otherwise be suitable as rural exception sites. This reflects the Government’s ambition to emphasise the role of community-led development, with a view to supporting locally-led housing.

The inclusion of express support for these categories of development should, in time, filter down into increased support for each category in Local Plan policies and local planning authority decision-making.

Protection against out of character residential developments

New paragraph 130 of the revised NPPF provides that a significant increase in the average density of residential development in an existing urban area may be inappropriate if it will result in developments which are “wholly out of character with the existing area.”

The effect of this change is to enable authorities to describe “out of character” circumstances in the process of preparing design codes and plan-making.

Support for mansard extensions

The NPPF provides that authorities should “allow mansard roof extensions on suitable properties” where their external appearance “harmonises with the original building”. This reform will offer the ability to enable new housing by extending upwards as long as these extensions are in keeping with the local character and context, particularly in conservation areas.

2. Energy efficiency of buildings

New paragraph 164 in the NPPF requires local authorities, in determining planning applications, to give “significant weight” to the need to support “energy efficiency and low carbon heating improvements” through adaptation of buildings. This represents strong in-principle policy support for energy efficiency.

When assessing applications for energy efficiency improvements, it is important that heritage protection is considered. Paragraph 164 in the revised NPPF provides for this by stating that where the proposals would affect conservation areas, listed buildings or other relevant designated heritage assets, local planning authorities should also apply the relevant policies, set out in detail in Chapter 16 of the NPPF.

3. Allocation of agricultural land for development

At paragraph 181, the revised NPPF requires local authorities to consider the availability of agricultural land used for food production when allocating sites for development. Where significant development of agricultural land is demonstrated to be necessary, areas of poorer quality land should be preferred to those of a higher quality.

It is important that developers take an evidence-based approach towards determining the condition of agricultural land, before a development scheme is proposed. This amendment means that the availability of land used for food production is now explicitly a part of that exercise.

4. Other general changes

  • Planning conditions on design and materials – new paragraph 140 of the NPPF encourages planning authorities to use planning conditions to require clear and accurate drawings/details of a scheme’s design and materials. This is intended to provide greater certainty for those implementing a planning permission on how to comply with the permission.
  • Integration of “beauty” – the latest NPPF revisions mean that “beauty” now features heavily as a consideration across policy. However the NPPF itself does not include substantial detail on how to assess beauty; this exercise will primarily be the role of design codes.

Concluding thoughts

The primary effect of the changes to the NPPF will be to disapply the presumption in favour of sustainable development (or “tilted balance”) for a variety of local authorities, by not requiring them to demonstrate a five-year housing land supply. The absence of the “tilted balance” will reduce the number of planning permissions which would otherwise be granted due to the lack of housing land supply.

The authorities excluded from the requirement include those with up-to-date Local Plans (within the last five years) and those who are partway through the Local Plan process, with significantly advanced plans. The latter category of authorities are only excluded temporarily, for a two-year period, enabling those authorities time to finalise and adopt updated Local Plans.

Excluding a large number of authorities from this requirement may reduce the amount of unplanned development in those authority areas, and authorities are incentivised to retain those benefits by updating their Local Plans. However the NPPF in itself does not address the hurdles which authorities face in undertaking the process of updating their development plans.

This update was co-written by Matthew Tucker and Sofiya Yerokhina. Should you have any queries about the changes to the NPPF or planning generally, please do not hesitate to contact either Matthew or Gary Soloman.

Key contact

Gary Soloman

Gary Soloman Partner

  • Head of Planning and Compulsory Purchase
  • Regeneration and Highways
  • Compulsory Purchase and Compensation

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