NPPF 2021 Amendments - Climate Change

Poundbury, Dorset. Will developers be expected to build faux-Georgian estates as per Prince Charles’ vision?

Tepid NPPF amendments will have little meaningful impact on climate change

Climate crisis

Climate change is the biggest crisis we face. Most of us understand, on an academic level at least, the dire consequences which we face as a species if drastic action is not taken to reduce our emissions. The reality is more difficult to get our heads around, beyond localised instances of unsettled and extreme weather. The UK has some of the most ambitious targets in the world to reduce carbon emissions, with a commitment to cut them by 78% by 2035. This sounds impressive – but means very little without the step by step changes, and of course funding, required to achieve it.

Clearly, development has an incredibly important role to play in setting standards and helping to meet these commitments. You might expect the most recent version of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), as the vanguard of planning policy in England from which all other policy cascades, to set clear, implementable policies in relation to reducing emissions. Instead, the most recent iteration, released on 20 July 2021, introduced amendments that can be described as tepid at best. Since the zero carbon homes policy, intended to kick in from 2016, was scrapped in 2015 to much consternation, there has been a lack of direction and bite to the government's climate targets, particularly as they relate to the development industry.

NPPF amendments relating to climate change amount to a passing reference in paragraph 7 to the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development which members of the UN, including the UK, have signed up to, and a tweak of the wording in paragraph 11, which sets out the presumption in favour of sustainable development. This now includes a directive that plans should mitigate climate change (amongst other requirements). This is a particularly muted response to the climate crisis.

…and housing crisis

Given the timidity of the NPPF changes, the impact on the country's oft-cited housing crisis is also likely to be lukewarm. Many headlines were generated from the 'Planning for the Future' white paper released last year, which suggested wholesale reform of the planning system, with broadly land categorised into developable and protected categories The outcry and handwringing this provoked appears to have frightened away the government's appetite for radical reform – and it now seems likely that if and when reform does come it will be feeble attempt.

The lack of real change in the NPPF seems like a presentiment for a watered down approach to planning reform. As an example, the Green Belt is often raised by would-be solvers of the housing crisis as a retrograde policy which no longer serves its original purpose and is stymieing growth. A strategic re-think of the Green Belt, ensuring it protects open space which is actually valuable and serves a legitimate purpose, rather than allowing it to be nibbled away at on an ad hoc basis by speculative developers, would be a truly powerful tool to tackle the housing crisis and keep the focus on plan-led development. There is no hint of such strategic thinking in the amended NPPF, with only the most minor two-word textual change to the chapter on Green Belt.

So what has changed?

Of some interest are changes to the paragraph which relates to Article 4 directions, which can be used by Councils to remove permitted development rights in certain areas. The language which seeks to preclude the over-use or blanket use of these by Councils, who for example might not like some of the new permitted development rights which allow shops and cafes to be converted into homes or allow extra storeys to be added to buildings, has been beefed up and now clarifies that the directions should only apply to "the smallest geographical area possible". (Although this hasn't stopped Westminster from pressing ahead with their consultation on attempting to remove permitted development rights to convert Class E (business, commercial and service) premises into residential use across the majority of the local authority area.

The vast majority of the changes relate to the government's current pet focus on design and "beauty" (not defined, probably reasonably). That the UK has an issue with, kindly, uninspiring design, particularly on its large modern housing estates, is obvious. Rows of identikit suburban house types with little regard for their surroundings are a common sight.

Whether the National Design Guide, or the local design codes which overstretched local authorities have been asked to draw up, will solve the problem remains to be seen.

The updated NPPF has liberally sprinkled new references to design and beauty throughout, making it clear that this is now a key priority for local authorities. Additional directives require that "significant weight" now be given to reflecting local and national design policies makes it more likely that reasons for refusal on design grounds will be put forward and successfully defended.

However, with the national design guide only giving the most high-level and generic advice, and with Councils already overstretched, it is not clear whose taste is going to inform the new "beauty" objective, and whether it will actually lead to more attractive and varied development.

The new NPPF requires all new streets to be tree lined

The most clear-cut amendment to the NPPF, beyond vague promotions of "good design" and "beauty", is the new pronouncement that new streets must be tree-lined (paragraph 131). This has been widely trailed, but the practical implications are likely to take longer to emerge. For example, whilst tree lined streets are a nice idea and will be attractive to planners, will highways departments refuse to adopt them, meaning they may not be able to be implemented or maintained for the long term?

Overall, some nuggets of interest, the ramifications of which it will be worthwhile keeping an eye on. Mostly, however, the new NPPF is truly conservative with a small "c". Clearly improving the "beauty" of new development is the government's new pet project, although the thought of who might be the arbiter of this is deeply concerning.

Whilst the new wording will lead to more developments being refused on design grounds, and potentially these refusals being upheld on appeal, what is not clear is how more innovative and exciting design will actually be achieved. If more expensive design features are required of housebuilders, what will be pushed out on viability grounds? Affordable housing or open space?

Most importantly, the tools to actually achieve the cutting edge carbon neutral or carbon positive design required have not been given the precedence the climate crisis demands. 

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