What the new NPPF means for public engagement

On the 24th of July, the government released the new National Planning Policy Framework – a crucial point of reference for the decisions of planners on new development applications.

When the first NPPF was published in 2012, it streamlined various disjointed policies into a single document. Six years on and with Brexit in full swing, the UK is in the middle of substantial economic and political shifts. Neighbourhood planning has taken off, there is more need for appropriate, affordable housing than ever and online services for digital planning are beginning to emerge.

So how does the new NPPF compare with regard to public engagement, housing, and the potential for digitally-enabled planning, and how have priorities changed?

A new focus on planning

While the new NPPF retains its overarching theme of ‘sustainable development,’ the most striking change is a renewed emphasis on plan making, planning process, and delivery of housing. In advance to its publication, organisations such as the Future Cities Catapult, the Ordnance Survey, and the Land Registry have driven discussions around delivering an increased number of appropriate homes in the right places. Programs such as Future of Planning may have helped to move planning processes to the front in the new NPPF⁠, which aims to deliver better efficiency, transparency, and ’the effective use of land’ partly through better processes.

However, previous priorities such as the vitality of town centres, supporting healthy and safe communities, supporting sustainable transport and high-quality communications have been retained.

Implications for community engagement

Let’s look at how this affects community engagement in housing and residential developments:

  • Local plans are key: The document promotes the role of public planning. The NPPF states that “the planning system should be genuinely plan-led”. Thus, the NPPF strengthens the position of local plans in making sure application permits are complementary to the local authority’ objectives.
    The value of digital tools: For local plans, the 2012 NPPF lacked a reference to digital tools, whereas the 2018 NPPF clearly states plans should “be accessible through the use of digital tools to assist public involvement and policy presentation (p. 8).”
  • Clearly articulated early engagement: The 2018 NPPF recognises early participation as beneficial to all parties to avoid costly mistakes. To implement early engagement, the NPPF calls on applicants to coordinate with councils early on in the development of their application. Local councils are compelled to clearly state its information requirements to the applicant, continuing a trend for Statements for Community Involvement with higher specificity. Besides, applicants are encouraged to developing a clearly-articulated approach to public engagement, which would help applicants to revisit their current community engagement practices.
  • Better quality proposals: Local authorities are encouraged to use ”tools and processes for assessing and improving the design of development” to uphold the quality and suitability of new developments, especially for ‘larger’ developments. For example, The NPPF recognises the role of ”workshops to engage the local community, design advice and review arrangements, and assessment frameworks such as Building for Life”. Building for Life is a framework developed by the Design Council Cabe. It provides a list of 12 urban design criteria applicants and councils can use to check the quality of proposals.
  • Stronger engagement with neighbourhood planning: There are now more than 1,500 neighbourhood planning groups across England. In the NPPF, there is a higher drive for local authorities to engage in discussions with neighbourhood planning groups on the question of housing requirements, which is a common sticking point with neighbourhood planning in many local authorities. Paragraph 66 suggests that neighbourhood planning groups should ideally develop a figure of their own. Where this is tricky or impossible, the local authority can be requested to provide an indicative figure to the group. The NPPF avoids mention of a shared evidence base across councils and groups.
  • The right housing in the right places: The NPPF encourages local authorities to develop a clear and up-to-date view of available development land, reinforcing the existing requirement for a current strategic housing land portfolio. There is a call for identifying specific types of sites (such as smaller sites, and sites more suitable for small or self-builders). The new NPPF also requires a greater understanding of the trajectory of housing sites available, developments provided, and when those become available. However, the upcoming housing delivery test will compel local authorities to be more rigorous.

In conclusion, the priorities in the new NPPF suggest a greater focus on delivering suitable and better quality developments in the right places, and one part of this is better direction through the planning system. There is a greater emphasis on the role of plan making and the processes that create good outcomes, such as early engagement supported by accessible, digital tools. The document encourages plan making that is efficient and transparent while delivering better quality or suitability of projects coming forward.

Do you think the planning system can deliver? Send us your thoughts by emailing [email protected].