Phil Villars of Indigo Planning shares his thoughts on the proposed changes to the NPPF
Phil Villars, Managing Director at Indigo Planning, has been discussing the recent revisions to the NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) with our Director of Heritage Consultancy, Chris Thomas. Here they consider what impact the revisions will have on housebuilding and heritage policy.
Q. How can local authorities, when preparing local plans, gain economic, social and environmental improvements without losing the ability to build substantially more?
In my view it requires a top down approach with housing numbers assessed at a regional level and planned accordingly across the respective region. Each local authority could be told what target to meet. Equally, Council planning departments have to be properly resourced. A 20% increase in application fees is not enough. Planning Performance Agreements (PPAs) can help but better direct funding is a necessity.
Q. Is there a conflict between heritage policy and its role in ‘sustainable development’ and the Government’s aim of substantially increasing housebuilding?
Good planning should help housing delivery. However, consecutive governments have failed to deliver. It is why we are in, as the Prime Minister has recently accepted, a housing crisis. One area to note, however, is the shifting of emphasis in terms of heritage matters. NPPF says ‘hands off’ to housing on greenfield land in the Green Belt. I feel there needs to be a wholesale Green Belt review. This, together with densification of cities and towns, and urban extensions beyond the Green Belt, can help meet the housing need. The recent publication of the revised NPPF is a move in the right direction, containing a new method of assessing housing need and monitoring delivery.
Yes, if the Government’s aim of building more than 200,000 homes per year is to be achieved, then all constraints on development, not just heritage, are going to be tested further than they have been to date. The Green Belt has remained largely unchanged in the last 40 years and so does need a thorough review. Clearly, the sustained building of significant numbers of new homes for many years to come will constrain the ability to preserve heritage assets, whether they are archaeological sites of interest, conservation areas or the settings of designated assets. The private sector will need to continue to take heritage seriously and the public sector will need to be more flexible if we are to achieve the government’s housing targets.
Q. To what extent do the proposed changes in the revised NPPF make a difference to heritage policy?
Changes to the heritage section of the NPPF have been minimal; the principal change appears in the new paragraph 193. It says: ‘When considering the impact of a proposed development on the significance of a designated heritage asset, great weight should be given to the asset’s conservation (and the more important the asset, the greater the weight should be). This is irrespective of whether any potential harm amounts to substantial harm, total loss or less than substantial harm to its significance.’ This change has been made to align policy with recent case law and certainly tightens up the language.
Q. Can planners, heritage professionals and local authorities come to any consensus on what constitutes ‘substantial harm’ and ‘less than substantial harm’?
The old paragraph 133 and 134 of the NPPF (now 195 and 196) have engendered much debate in the heritage industry around what constitutes ‘substantial’ or ‘less than substantial’ harm. The Planning Practice guide states that ‘…substantial harm is a high test, so it may not arise in many cases’. The guide offers little other practical advice.
Whilst it is inevitably true that each site will have a different set of circumstances, it would be helpful if there were more guidance on what constitutes ‘substantial’ and ‘less than substantial’. It would be to everyone’s benefit if the heritage sector - both public and private - could agree on a broad set of principles and guide government policy accordingly.
Q. How might local authorities and heritage bodies reconcile heritage conservation with Permission in Principle?
Permission in Principle has been of concern to the heritage industry for some time. At present, it can only be applied for in certain circumstances and where sites are relatively small or where a site has been entered onto the Brownfield Register by the local authority and then still subject to limitations. In addition they still require technical details to be agreed before consent is actually granted. Nonetheless, local authority archaeologists in particular, are concerned that Permission in Principle may restrict their ability to preserve archaeological remains in situ.
We will have to see how this policy develops over the coming years. Planning conditions can still be attached at the grant of technical details stage and applications can still be refused at technical stage so local authority archaeologists will still have the powers to preserve heritage. If there are too many refusals, however, one wonders whether government will be prepared to sit back and watch their policy fail to deliver.
Obviously none of us yet know what the NPPF will deliver in practice. Development plans and planning applications will need to work their way through the system before we can understand how decision makers are interpreting the document, how much weight is being given to these changes, and whether the housing needed by so many can be delivered within this planning system. It is now up to central government and local authorities to make the case and help delivery.