Anything to get excited about? Planning for town centres with the new NPPF

Alexander Arrol and Matthew Black take a look at the impact of the changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), with a particular focus on planning for town centres.

So, what are the changes?

Well in short, there aren’t any. Chapter seven of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) sets out government's aims to ensure 'vitality of town centres’ and the wording between the 2019 edition of the NPPF and the latest revision shows the wording to be near identical. It is worth noting that under paragraph 53, the NPPF expands on the issue of Article 4 directions and how and when these should be used.

Notable among the changes, it states ‘in all cases, an Article 4 must be based on robust evidence, and apply to the smallest geographical area possible’. The NPPF still states that planning conditions should not be used to restrict national permitted development rights unless there is clear justification for doing so.

Why the change?

Government say they aim to provide a boost to the high street and the economy in a post pandemic world and to boost housing delivery. So, what does this mean? Well, previously the wording around Article 4 directives was more vague, only limiting the use of Article 4 directives to where they were ‘necessary to protect local amenity or the well-being of an area’. The latest revisions are now more detailed and explicitly limit these directions to ‘the smallest geographical area possible’.

Why is this important?

Through the changes to the Use Classes Order and the GPDO in 2020/21, Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) have essentially been stripped of their ability to control land uses within their town centres. These latest changes will make it harder for local authorities to employ the one tool they had left at their disposal, Article 4 directives. It is a fundamental shift away from the land use planning system operating in this country since 1948.

To understand the significance of these changes, they must be looked at in the context of the other recent changes to the planning system. The overhaul of the Use Classes Order in 2020 combined a number of previously distinct uses and placed them within Class E, this included retail, financial and professional services, café / restaurants, offices, industrial uses (where they were compatible with residential amenity), gyms, health clinics etc. Changes of use, previously controlled by the LPAs no longer constitute development and are therefore outside of their control.

As well as this, government has announced the formation of Class MA within the GPDO, which would allow the change of use of a commercial premises within Class E to residential. Where previously there were powers under the GPDO to achieve changes of use to residential (Class O and M are two notable examples), the range of units that are now subject to this right has grown exponentially.

If councils have lost the ability to control changes of use within Class E and are limited in their ability to use Article 4 directives, their ability to control land uses in these areas has been hugely diminished.

What is the response to all this?

Thus far, it is our experience that LPAs are not accepting their diminished role in the land use planning process. As such, they are using conditions to restrict changes of use within newly granted Class E floor space, they are continuing to protect individual uses within Class E (offices, retail etc...) through their adopted policies, while failing to recognise that the use could change without planning permission anyway. Also, councils are seeking to establish Article 4 directives to restrict PD rights over large swathes of their land. One London authority is seeking to cover their entire administrative boundary with an Article 4 directive.

What is the outcome?

It would seem that LPAs are on a collision course with central government over these changes which will inevitably be resolved in the courts. In the meantime, the changes that were designed to boost the high street and the economy, are likely to lead to a period of uncertainty, with LPAs taking differing approaches in decision making and inevitably there will be appeals and case law around these issues over time

How did we get here?

In a recent tweet, Dominic Cummings listed planning reform amongst his successes during his time at number 10. When a former Tory MP queried whether this reform would actually come about the response was telling: "Like most in sw1 you haven't noticed the important SECONDARY legislation changes pushed thro last year, which we barely discussed publicly so MPs wdn't get over-excited. That's already improving things regardless of what happens with next phase". (source Planning Magazine 26 July 2021)

Whether there are reasonable moral grounds to query the manner in which these changes came about, they are in full effect and will be seemingly with us for a long time yet.

The planning process, which is meant to become simpler and more accessible, has become more convoluted. The GPDO rights of property owners have been significantly strengthened and the flexibility around land uses for their premises has been increased hugely.

However, given LPAs are resisting, it is important that the planning strategy for each and every application is sound and the case for planning permission should be made in the strongest possible terms. Fall back positions through the GPDO should be spelled out to LPAs, unsuitable conditions restricting PD should be challenged and the evidence base of adopted policies will have to be challenged. As such, we believe the role of expert planning consultants will be more important than ever moving forward.

To talk to us more about the future of our town centres, and the role of planning get in touch with Alec and Matt