What does the Housing White Paper mean for the planning system?

The Government's long awaited Housing White Paper was published yesterday and contains a range of measures which the Government says will help deliver more housing. 

DHA have summarised some of the proposed changes for the planning system. Most of these measures will be subject to consultation and so may be amended further before coming into force, largely through an updated National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The list below includes some of the more interesting proposed changes to the NPPF and related guidance.

Relaxing requirements for Local Plans

Whilst all authorities will be required to have a Local Plan in place (and they will have to review them every 5 years), changes are proposed to what this means in practice. Authorities will only have to provide strategic policies in their Local Plans. Other more detailed policies and allocations will become optional. As now, these can be provided in more focused Development Plan Documents, but the Government is also encouraging these to be included in Neighbourhood Plans instead. The tests of soundness for Local Plans will be relaxed so that authorities only need to demonstrate that the Plan contains “an appropriate strategy”, not “the most appropriate” one as at present. A more proportionate approach will also be taken to the evidence required to support a sound plan. 

A standard approach to assessing housing requirements

A standardised approach to assessing housing requirements will be introduced from April 2018, however this won’t be mandatory – authorities can still use other methods if they can justify them. Local Plans will also have to include policies on meeting specific housing needs, such as those of the disabled and elderly.

Encouraging co-operation between authorities

Neighbouring authorities will also be required to produce a Statement of Common Ground setting out how they will work together to meet housing requirements. The Secretary of State will also be able to direct groups of authorities to work together to produce joint plans.

A new Housing Delivery Test

Councils will have to show how many houses are being delivered each year. If delivery falls below certain criteria, various penalties will apply including adding a 20% buffer and relevant policies being considered out of date. Developers will have to provide estimated start dates and build out rates on application forms, and will be required to regularly update on progress once permission has been granted.

Better information on Five Year Housing Land Supply

Clearer guidance will provided on how to calculate the Five Year Supply. Authorities will also be “given the opportunity” to have their Five Year Supply agreed annually and fixed for a one year period, to avoid unnecessary debate at appeals. Again this is not compulsory, and authorities taking up the offer will need to provide a 10% buffer on their Five Year Supply and assessments will need to be made in consultation with developers and will need to be agreed by the Planning Inspectorate. 

Tweaks to the new “Three Year Supply” approach

In December 2016, the Government introduced a new policy whereby Councils only have to demonstrate a Three Year Supply where there is a made Neighbourhood Plan in place. This approach will be written into the new NPPF but it will only apply where neighbourhoods can show their allocations/supply policies meet their share of need AND the local authority can demonstrate that they meet a certain delivery rate across their whole authority area.

Ensuring the delivery of housing

The White Paper contains various measures to ensure the delivery of housing, including reducing the life of permissions to two years (unless this would hinder viability). It is also proposed to make it easier for Councils to issue Completion Notices, to dissuade developers from making a token start to keep permissions alive.

Protection for the Green Belt

The Government has tightened the rules on when Green Belt boundaries can be amended. Authorities must first have fully examined all other reasonable options including maximising brownfield land, estate regeneration, surplus public sector land, optimising densities, and exploring whether neighbours can meet some of the identified need. Authorities must also look first at brownfield land in the Green Belt and land around transport hubs. Where land is removed from the Green Belt, the impact must be offset by compensatory improvements to environmental quality and assessment, whilst higher contributions will be sought from Green Belt sites. Development will be allowed on brownfield sites which remain in the Green Belt but only where it contributes to starter home delivery and there is no substantial harm to the openness of the Green Belt.

A stronger role for Neighbourhood Plans

The Government will make it easier for Neighbourhood Plan groups to obtain housing requirement figures for their area, to allow them to identify and allocate sites for development. Neighbourhood Plans will also be allowed to set Green Belt boundaries, but only where the Local Plan has already demonstrated a need for boundaries to be amended. Neighbourhood Plans (and Local Plans) are also encouraged to contain design policies, with design not to be used as a valid objection to schemes where it accords with these policies.

Clearer reasons for restricting development

The revised NPPF will require housing needs to be met in full unless the NPPF provides “strong reasons for restricting development”. NPPF footnote 9 will be amended to list exactly what these strong reasons are, namely where land is protected under Birds/Habitats Directive; SSSIs; Green Belt; Local Green Space; AONBs; Heritage Coasts; National Parks; Ancient Woodland; designated heritage assets; and flood risk/coastal erosion areas.

Encouraging brownfield development

The revised NPPF will place “great weight” on using brownfield land within settlements for homes. Estate regeneration will also be encouraged. Low densities are to be avoided, whilst plans should address the scope for higher density housing in urban locations. Councils will need to keep “brownfield registers” from Spring 2017.

Encouraging the delivery of smaller sites

Local Plans must support the delivery of small windfall sites. The new NPPF will place “great weight” on delivering small (less than 10 unit) schemes on undeveloped sites within settlements. At least 10% of all Local Plan residential allocation sites must be 0.5ha or smaller. However, a previous proposal for authorities to maintain a Small Sites Register have been dropped.

Affordable housing and starter homes

The NPPF definition of affordable housing will be expanded to include affordable private rent and starter homes. The latter will only be eligible to people below a specified income level and to those buying with a mortgage, to avoid speculation. The previously announced statutory requirement for starter homes has been dropped, but in general all sites of 10 units or more must make a contribution of at least 10% affordable housing. Employment land which has been vacant for five years must also be considered favourably for starter home development.

Higher planning fees and a new fee for appeals

New fees will be introduced for appeals – up to £2,000 for a public inquiry, which would be refunded if the appeal is successful. Planning application fees will rise by 20% in summer 2017, but only where authorities ringfence the additional income for their planning departments. Authorities which are delivering their housing need may also be allowed to add a further 20% increase.

Infrastructure funding

The £2.3billion Housing Infrastructure Fund announced in the 2016 Autumn Statement, will be targeted at areas in the highest housing need. When major new infrastructure is funded, local authorities will be expected to identify additional development opportunities which may arise.

Changes to Conditions and Developer Contributions

The Government will ban conditions that don’t meet policy tests, whilst pre-commencement conditions will only be used where agreed by applicants. Proposals to reform the development contributions system will be made in the Autumn 2017 Budget.

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