There have been a number of headline grabbing announcements on planning matters in recent months, culminating in last week’s budget extension of granting “suitable” brownfield land automatic planning permission (whatever that may mean). Previous announcements include a virtual moratorium on wind turbine developments; allowing barn conversions to residential use without the need for formal planning permissions (alongside a dizzying array of permitted development changes); and removing affordable housing requirements on smaller residential sites.
All in all the system, which is infamous for being outdated, glacial in its rate of change and bureaucratic to the point of exasperation, has become distinctly more dynamic. Let’s not forget recent changes build on the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), now over 3 years old and mooted at the time as being one of the biggest changes to planning in living memory.
Behind the scenes of the headline announcements, the Government have introduced a powerful tool in their influence of the planning system. The National Planning Policy Guidance (NPPG) is the much less talked about sidekick to the NPPF, the Robin of guidance to the Batman of planning policy if you like. Introduced in 2014, it is described as “an indication of the Secretary of State’s views”. Note the singular person reference in the Secretary of State, perhaps playing the part of the Joker?
Unlike true planning policy, there is no formal requirement to carry out consultation on the content of the NPPG and the Government clearly see it as a way to quickly and decisively moulding the planning system into their own mould. A useful tool on their utility belt in their crime fighting crusade for planning good perhaps? A number of the recent announcements have been issued through Ministerial Statements, then finding their way into the NPPG. The consequences, as anyone with a wind turbine project approaching planning will tell you, can be dramatic.
But is this power being abused? Well possibly. There is talk in planning circles of legal challenges to some of the reforms being introduced and Governments have caught a cold before on introducing planning changes without due powers. It remains to be seen whether the Robin is acting out of turn and needs to take more of a back seat in the Batmobile.
In the meantime, the planning landscape has changed and will continue to do so. Some sympathy has to lie with local authorities trying to set local plans amongst the shifting sands but one thing is for sure that anyone thinking of entering the planning system needs to be alert to influences from all channels and act on up to date information.