Yorkshire planning expert Sam Dewar, director at DPA Planning, says that while changes to the national planning framework will be seen as a step in the right direction, an opportunity has been missed to radically affect, or fundamentally change, the way local commercial and residential development is carried out.
Proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework(NPPF) place greater responsibility on local planning authorities to drive up the actual volume of homes built in their area. Developers too will find themselves more accountable for delivering projects, which include affordable housing and the infrastructure needed to support culturally diverse communities.
While planning ‘soundness’ and a review of plans every five years can be positive moves, issues around ‘viability’ will have considerable ramifications for developers, particularly those involved in bringing smaller schemes to the market. The removal of the requirement for ‘competitive returns to a willing land owner and willing developer’ will see hundreds of smaller developers struggle in the face of uncertainties following any shift in emphasis by local planning authorities.
The proposed changes to the NPPF aim to continue to tackle the housing crisis with various policy changes, including assessing financial viability of sites at the site allocation stage rather than waiting for submission of the application. However, these front-loading techniques are extremely optimistic and expect far too much from local planning authorities, whose resources are too often overstretched.
When an application is submitted, the majority of councils are unable to devote the time to it that they once could. While negotiation and cooperation with the applicant is expected it is certainly not that straight forward with increasing centralisation of resources and the inability to speak to many planning officers directly.
This leads to an impersonal approach to the assessment of an application and a general lack of understanding of how the site has come forward. Sadly, the housing crisis is such that there’s an increasing reliance on volume housebuilders to meet our demands, which then puts question marks over the viability of sites less than 100 units. These sites can be brought forward by small to medium housebuilders, but the expectations for on-site and off-site contributions are invariably too much to justify bringing them forward.
But is it a good thing that momentum over viability assessments is shifting back towards planning authorities? Constraints over viability assessments at the planning stage are likely to be seen by developers as lacking the clarity of more detailed assessment at the application stage.
It would have been great to see more strident action around the initial government response to the proposed NPPF changes, specifically around a lack of ambition over tackling the housing crisis and increasing the delivery of affordable homes. More fundamental changes around Green Belt policy are needed if we are to realise the 300,000 new homes in England per year despite the articulation of changes that could help.
While the new-look NPPF will be seen by many as a step in the right direction, there’s a sense of lose – an opportunity has been missed to change our approach to planning. It’s a shame, when there’s an increasing feeling among those involved in residential and commercial property development, that planning’s an increasingly systematic, impersonal process, stifled by budget reductions that restrict ambition, creativity and imagination at a local planning level.
Sam Dewar is a qualified planner. His firm, DPA Planning, based in Leeds, provides services and advice to enable clients to secure town planning needs and requirements. These include turnkey services, involvement part way through a planning application, and planning enforcement support. More at www.dpaplanning.co.uk