On 27 March, the UK Government published its final version of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which sets out the Government’s planning policies for England and how they should be applied.
The final NPPF is an improvement (for nature conservation) over the initial draft that went out for consultation in 2011, however there are still some concerns.
There is still a clear “presumption in favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking” (Para 14). This presumption is not as strong as in the initial draft, as there is now also reference to the economic, social and environmental roles of sustainable development being mutually dependent on each other and therefore should not be viewed in isolation (Para 8). However, Local Plans should still “plan positively for development” (Para 157), “decision-takers at every level should seek to approve applications for sustainable development where possible” (Para 187) and “in assessing and determining development proposals, local planning authorities should apply the presumption in favour of sustainable development” (Para 197).
There is still no clear definition for sustainable development, although the NPPF does now include the UK Sustainable Development Strategy’s five guiding principles of sustainable development (Box pg 2), namely:
• living within the planet’s environmental limits;
• ensuring a strong, healthy and just society;
• achieving a sustainable economy;
• promoting good governance; and
• using sound science responsibly.
The Government has now included a statement to “encourage the effective use of land by reusing land that has been previously developed (brownfield land), provided that it is not of high environmental value” (Para 17).
With regard to protecting the natural environment, there is still the reference to planning enhancing the natural environment and where possible providing net gains for biodiversity, but the importance of ecosystem services and soils is now also noted specifically (Para 109).
In addition, “development proposals where the primary objective is to conserve or enhance biodiversity should be permitted” and “opportunities to incorporate biodiversity in and around developments should be encouraged” are also included (Para 118). Also, the “presumption in favour of sustainable development (paragraph 14) does not apply where development requiring appropriate assessment under the Birds or Habitats Directives is being considered, planned or determined” (Para 119).
The draft NPPF had no consideration for undesignated nature conservation sites. The final version corrects this to some extent by encouraging planning policies to “minimise impacts on biodiversity and geodiversity by identify[ing] and map[ing] components of the local ecological networks, including the hierarchy of international, national and locally designated sites of importance for biodiversity, wildlife corridors and stepping stones that connect them and areas identified by local partnerships for habitat restoration or creation” (Para 117).
The Government continues to recognise the importance of good evidence and data for decision-making (Paras 158 and 165-167), but fails to recognise the need to support either data management or ecological competence.
There is now repeated reference to early engagement with all necessary stakeholders, including expert bodies (Paras 167 and 188-192).
Regarding information requirements, “local planning authorities should publish a list of their information requirements for applications, which should be proportionate to the nature and scale of development proposals and reviewed on a frequent basis. Local planning authorities should only request supporting information that is relevant, necessary and material to the application in question” (Para 193).
• The policies in the NPPF apply from the day of publication, i.e. 27 March 2012 (Para 208).
• The policies in Local Plans (and the London Plan) should not be considered out-of-date simply because they were adopted prior to the publication of the NPPF (Para 211). However, the NPPF policies are material considerations which local planning authorities should take into account from the day of its publication. The NPPF must also be taken into account in the preparation of plans (Para 212), which may need to be revised and which should be done as quickly as possible (Para 213).
• For 12 months from the day of publication, decision-takers may continue to give full weight to relevant policies adopted since 2004 even if there is a limited degree of conflict with the NPPF (Para 214). This however is only relevant to local development plans and the London Plan.
• Following the 12-month period, due weight should be given to relevant policies in existing plans according to their degree of consistency with the NPPF (i.e. the closer the policies in the plan to the policies in the NPPF, the greater the weight that may be given) (Para 215).
• Advice for local planning authorities will be available immediately and free of charge from a support service provided by the Local Government Association, the Planning Inspectorate and the Department for Communities and Local Government (Para 217).
Jason M. Reeves AIEEM, Policy and Information Officer, Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management