December 2014
Operation of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF)



The Communities and Local Government Select Committee (appointed by the House of Commons) published its report on the ‘Operation of the National Planning Policy Framework’ on 16 December 2014. Two-and-a-half years on from the publication of the NPPF, the report is intended to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the Framework, its effectiveness in delivering its intended objectives and to make recommendations for future changes, both to the Framework itself and to the way it is applied in practice.

The recommendations of the Committee fall into four broad categories which, in the main, reflect the concerns raised by local communities who consider aspects of the NPPF to have had a detrimental impact on their local areas. In particular, the NPPF is criticised for:-

  1. Failing to deliver sustainable development, with too little weight being given to its social and environmental dimensions in favour of economic considerations;
  2. Failing to facilitate an expeditious process for Councils to secure the adoption of local plans;
  3. Fostering inappropriate housing development by creating “loopholes” and uncertainty with respect to housing land supply, a lack of clarity with respect to housing need and limiting the scope of Green Belt review through the local plan process;
  4. Giving insufficient protection to town centres.

A summary of the issues associated with each of the above categories and the potential implications of the Committee’s recommendations are outlined below:-

Delivering Sustainable Development

The Committee raises specific concerns over whether the economic, environmental and social dimensions of sustainable development set out in the NPPF are being equally applied in practice. The report, somewhat unfairly, recommends that the Government takes appropriate steps to ensuring that the Planning Inspectorate and Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) give equal weight to each dimension of sustainable development when determining applications. In HOW’s experience, decision makers on the whole fully appreciate the dimensions of sustainable development and tend to come to balanced views taking into account economic, environmental and social factors.

The recommendation to simplify the Government’s definition of sustainable development to that on page 2 of the NPPF alone, rather than paragraphs 18 to 219 inclusive, is broadly welcomed in the interest of clarity and removing ambiguity.

Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL)

CIL has been poorly adopted by LPAs on the basis that some Councils consider section 106 agreements to be a more effective means of securing infrastructure contributions from developers.  This has led to calls for the Government to revoke its decision to limit to five the number of planning applications that can be pooled until the proposed 2015 review of the CIL. This recommendation is welcomed as it provides developers and LPAs with greater flexibility in the negotiation of contributions related to the overall viability of development proposals.

Local Plans

Despite the NPPF making clear that local plans are the starting point for decision making, the report highlights that the performance by LPAs in getting plans adopted has been worryingly slow. Approximately 40% of Councils do not have an adopted plan and of those that do have one, only 21% have been adopted since the NPPF came into force. The Committee considers that the NPPF will not achieve its full potential until each LPA has an up-to-date local plan. The Committee has therefore called on the Government to consult on proposals to place a statutory requirement on Councils to have an adopted local plan within three years of legislation coming into force. This would be enforced by possible penalties, such as restrictions on New Homes Bonus receipts, should LPAs fail to comply with additional resources provided to the Planning Inspectorate to increase capacity and ensure Examination delays are avoided.

In order to achieve this the Committee identify planning as a front line service which should be afforded proper priorities and adequate resources to ensure that Councils are not letting their communities down by surrendering their ability to influence the future development of their local area. This recommendation is strongly welcomed, not only to expedite the decision making process but to ensure that the needs of the local areas are adequately provided for through the strategic plan.

The approach of some developers is questioned by the Committee for utilising the NPPF to promote unsustainable development on greenfield sites against the wishes of the community and deliberately undermining the local plan process. The report calls for the NPPF to include a section setting out the expected responsibilities of developers. However it is important to note that the overall emphasis of the NPPF is to reiterate the Government’s key objectives of facilitating economic growth, securing sustainable development and boosting housing supply. Developers operate within the context of the existing planning framework which gives significant weight to the provisions of NPPF where local plans are absent, silent or relevant policies are out-of-date. HOW therefore consider that a developer concordat is not necessary and that efforts should instead be directed to ensuring that LPAs update their local plans as a matter of priority.

Neighbourhood Plans

The Committee is supportive of neighbourhood plans as a means of giving power to local communities. However, there is concern that the neighbourhood planning process “does not become the preserve of the middle class” with more plans produced in affluent areas than deprived ones. Developers are encouraged to work with communities rather than object to plans. Clarification is sought, however, on the relationship between neighbourhood plans and local plans with one suggestion being that neighbourhood plans are not adopted until a local plan is in place. Local Plans adopted post NPPF are based on up-to-date evidence and provide a strategic framework for development in the authority area. To produce Neighbourhood Plans before a Local Plan is adopted often seems to be premature.

Housing Land Supply

Whilst accepting that local authorities should be identifying sufficient land in their local plan in order to meet both their immediate (five year) and future housing needs, the Committee expresses concerns regarding how this supply is calculated, with a particular emphasis on the need to avoid short-term approaches which foster “speculative development”. Firstly, it is considered that a longer-term view should be taken towards site deliverability, where all sites with an extant planning permission would count towards an authority’s five year supply. In terms of deliverability, the Committee recommends that viability is assessed over the full five year time period and, accordingly, even if a site is not immediately viable now, it should still be included as part of the five year supply if it could be viable at a later date within the five year timeframe. Secondly, the Committee recommends that larger schemes with build out periods longer than five years should still be included within a Council’s five year supply. The Committee also advises that a fund be established to facilitate the remediation of brownfield sites in order to prioritise development on previously developed land.

Whilst the introduction of funding streams to promote development on brownfield sites is welcomed, the Committee’s assertion that all sites with an extant planning permission should be included when calculating a Council’s five year supply (regardless of immediate viability issues) is more concerning. In particular, sites with multiple permissions, or those which are in imminent danger of lapsing, are highly unlikely to come forward within the five year timetable, with viability being the main reason. The recent recession has also highlighted the dangers associated with future forecasting and the drastic changes in market conditions that can occur over a five year time period. The fact that the overwhelming majority of Councils currently lack a five year housing land supply and, moreover, that the principal reason for this relates to a lack of completions, suggests that deliverability should remain at the forefront of addressing the national housing deficit.

Whilst the Committee takes a sceptical view towards developments which seek to alter Green Belt boundaries through individual planning applications, it recognises the need for Councils to be given more freedom to undertake a strategic review as part of the local plan process where local circumstances justify such an approach. In addition, the Committee advises that the NPPF is amended to state explicitly that development on Green Belt sites allocated in an adopted neighbourhood plan should not constitute inappropriate development, and calls for greater weight to be attached to neighbourhood plans proposing Green Belt release when preparing local plans.

Giving Councils greater powers to undertake a strategic review of their Green Belt boundaries through the local plan making process is welcomed, as is an explicit reference to allowing development allocated as part of a neighbourhood plan. Given the time taken in the preparation of local plans to date it is, however, correct that due consideration should continue to be given to individual applications submitted on sustainable sites within the Green Belt, particularly in authorities where there is a lack of suitable land within the urban area, or where sites are identified in an emerging local plan which has not yet been adopted. LPAs should also expect to be challenged with respect to the areas of Green Belt which they may intend to release.

Retail and Town Centres

The consideration that the NPPF is providing insufficient protection to town centres is one of the key findings of the report. The Committee recognises that the internet in particular has changed the way that we shop and that town centre policy needs to evolve to reflect this. The report calls for a revocation of the permitted development right to convert A1 (retail) and A2 (financial services) uses to C3 (housing) introduced in April 2014. However, the revocation of these permitted development rights does not appear to be based on any evidence of the actual effects of such changes but rather their possible future implications. This change also does not entirely align with the Committee’s recommendation that many town centre shopping areas are too large for current levels of retail demand.

A further recommendation of the Committee is that the Government improve data collection in respect of the operation of the sequential test and the extent to which policy is providing adequate protection to town centres, along with commissioning of research into how changing retail dynamics relate to policy. The report recommends that the Government launch a consultation on how the NPPF should be amended to bring it up-to-date with modern retail habits. No judgement is provided by the Committee as to how current policy is potentially considered to be out of date however.

The Committee agrees with the omission of a specific ‘need’ test from national retail policy as it relates to planning applications on the grounds that it is anti-competitive although consider that establishing the need for new retail development should remain an important part of the plan making process. The Committee advises that retail sites should only be allocated for the first five years of a plan to enable regular reviews of retail needs based on rapidly changing trends rather than requiring needs over the plan period to be met in full.

Whilst is it positive that the Committee is seeking to ensure that the vitality and viability of town centres are protected through National Planning Policy, it is difficult to see how the measures suggested will make a significant difference to the manner in which the NPPF is implemented.


The Committee’s report recognises the need to allow the NPPF to “bed in”, concluding that the concerns raised with its operation highlight the need for adjustment rather than a complete overhaul. There is a clear rhetoric within the Committee’s report which supports the Government’s localism agenda, particularly with regard to speeding up the local and neighbourhood plan process, affording greater flexibility to Councils when considering housing land supply and protecting town centres. However, the Committee’s call in this respect is for greater clarity and guidance rather than fundamental changes to the Framework’s objectives. Nevertheless, it is clear that the report will instigate an ongoing debate concerning the NPPF’s underpinning principle of sustainable development, although it should not be lost that there still remains a significant need for housing in the country, the delivery of which was one of the key objectives of the NPPF.  

To view the Committee's report click here

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