The National Planning Policy Framework - an Introduction

Key facts
  • Planning guidance in England works from the top down. The NPPF sets out the broadest-level goals which then shape how Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) make decisions on planning applications.
  • The 'Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development' is a principle in the Framework that means LPAs should approve most planning applications, unless those applications would compromise sustainable development rules, as set out in the NPPF.
  • The most recent update to the Framework, in July 2021, strengthens commitments to sustainability and protecting the environment, whilst also trying to guide LPAs towards promoting beautiful design in their areas.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is the overarching policy guideline for people trying to develop land in England. First released in 2012, it distils the previous 1,300-page guidance down to 75 and sets out the national government’s economic, environmental, and social planning policies. Crucially, it is the framework that Local Planning Authorities (LPAs) use to design their Local and Neighbourhood Plans, which then dictate the decisions on planning applications. 

As such, it has a huge effect on the land industry. Whether you're a buyer trying to decide on the viability of a site you may have found on or a seller trying to get the best price for your plot, the NPPF will have a major impact on the decisions you make. It can be difficult to track how changes to national policy and design policies can affect the everyday process of planning permission, so here's a summary of the Framework to help you understand the system and keep abreast of the periodic updates that the government make to it. 

What is the role of the National Planning Policy Framework?

Planning law in the UK states that any application for planning permission be determined in accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework. Through this principle, the government can use the Framework to steer land development in the direction that it wants, towards its set goals. To understand the planning process, and the planning guidance that LPAs use to judge your planning application, it helps to know the government's long-term, wide-range objectives. The NPPF sets these out as: 

  • An economic objective: amounts of various types of land, distribution of that land, and the ease with which new types of land can be developed all impact the economy. The current government aims to create a virtuous circle where all of those factors contribute towards a productive, competitive economy, and where that economy helps distribute land in a fair yet profitable way. 
  • A social objective: land is a fundamental part of our communities. The NPPF attempts to fix the broken housing market by increasing housing delivery to meet housing targets. This goal is especially relevant for developers: a streamlining of the planning process was part of the Frameworks' most recent update. Not just with housing, the NPPF seeks to aid communities by steering planning in other ways, such as looking after the vitality of town centres and increase the amount of development land.
  • An environmental objective: the government uses the Framework to move development in a direction that fits its Green Infrastructure Strategy. Using the Framework, the government attempts, planning decision by planning decision, to address the challenge of climate change and increase the level of affordable housing. 

At the very finest level of local government, village or parish councils create Neighbourhood Plans, which allow individual communities to shape the places they live and work in. This neighbourhood planning has to be in accordance with the Local Plan (also known as the development plan), a plan for the future development of a wider area, created by the Local Planning Authority (a district council or London borough). This, in turn, has to be consistent with the NPPF. This alignment, from neighbourhood plans up to the national government, allows policy requirements to be met whilst creating consistency throughout all of English planning. Although the NPPF is not legally binding itself, councils are expected to take it into account. 

How do LPAs use the Framework to guide their decisions? 

The aims of the NPPF are very broad. For many land buyers and owners, the most important thing to know is how it affects their chances of having a planning application approved. Whether applications for planning permission are approved or not will depend on if the LPA thinks they're in line with the Local Plan. The following are considered: 

  • The number, size, layout, siting and external appearance (especially for listed buildings) of buildings.
  •  The infrastructure available (e.g. electricity and water supplies) and proposed means of access.
  • Landscaping requirements.
  • The proposed use of the development.
  • Likelihood of adverse impacts on the surrounding area. 

Minor planning applications are decided by a single planning officer, who takes into account anything that could be a 'material consideration': things such as noise created by the development, parking issues and impact on public transport. More complex applications are referred to a planning committee comprised of elected councillors who'll factor in things like consultation responses, previous guidance, and environmental assessment. If these elements of the application are judged to be in line with the Local Plan (and thus the broader goals of NPPF, such as increasing the 5-year housing supply or protecting the green belt), it will be approved; if not, rejected. LPAs can also approve 'with planning conditions' - these could be restrictions on aspects of development (such as design quality standards) or the site's uses. 

The Presumption in Favour of Sustainable Development 

The presumption in favour of sustainable development is at the heart of the NPPF. In order to achieve its goals, the government's stance is that most planning decisions should be approved, except where doing so would compromise sustainable development principles, as set out in the NPPF. For decision-taking (i.e. whether your application is approved or not), this means LPAs should approve all proposals that accord with Local Plans, without delay. Even in cases where there is no Local Plan, or that Plan is out of date, the presumption is towards granting permission, unless the NPPF provides a clear reason not to, or the adverse impacts of doing so 'would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits'. This principle is to facilitate development in a sustainable way, ensuring there is a sufficient supply of deliverable housing. The presumption is set out in paragraph 14 of the NPPF, and its scope has, in the Supreme Court's legal judgement, been narrowed to apply more to applications relating to the housing supply than those not. 

NPPF update 2021: an emphasis on sustainability, greenery and beauty

The Framework is updated periodically; from its first release in 2012, it was revised in 2018, updated in 2019, and recently revised again in July 2021. These updates are in response to the continuous stream of consultation on planning coming from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The most recent changes are based on conclusions in white papers such as August 2020's 'Planning for Future' and from the findings of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, and lay down the groundwork for future radical change to British planning. 

  • An emphasis on quality design has been added, as has a focus on beauty. In addition to 'well-designed, Paragraph 8(b) has had 'beautiful and safe places' inserted.
  • The wording in 8(c) has been strengthened, requiring planners to 'protect and enhance' the environment, as well as to 'improve biodiversity'.
  • The presumption of sustainable development has been given a greener focus, requiring Local Plans to 'improve the environment and mitigate climate change'.
  • In accordance with the National Design Guide and National Model Design Code, now referenced, design guides should be site, neighbourhood and area-specific. Significant weight is now to be given to developments 'which reflect local design policies, government guidance' and, more generally, have beautiful, sustainable and life-enhancing design.
  • Paragraph 131 has emphasised the importance of trees. requiring new streets to be tree-lined in an attempt to bring the beauty of countryside into cities.
  •  Paragraph 180 restricts development that would cause 'significant harm to biodiversity', is 'within or outside a Site of Special Scientific Interest' or would result in 'the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, such as ancient woodland'. To check your land for any of these, use the environmental map layers in Addland Professional.
  • Paragraph 180 also emphasises the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity, especially the securing of measurable net gains - potentially a prelude to the coming implementation of biodiversity net gain credits.  

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Published: 05 October 2021
Last updated: 19 April 2022

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