The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) - an Introduction

Key facts
  • In general, the National Planning Policy Framework aims to improve and update the plan-making process.
  • Planning guidance in England works from the top down. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) sets out a broad agenda of 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 for development 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 a 75-page single document. The new streamlined planning document gives detailed guidance on a broad range of topics including 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 makes to it.

What is the role of the National Planning Policy Framework?

Planning law in the UK states that any application for planning permission is determined in accordance with the National Planning Framework. Through this principle, the government can use the Framework as planning control to steer land development in the direction that it wants. 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 government believes that sustainable development can play three critical roles in England. In line with these three roles, the NPPF has set their broader agenda objectives as:

  • An economic development objective: The amounts of various types of land, the distribution of that land and the ease with which new types of land can be developed, all either cause or prohibit economic growth. The current housing minister aims to progress the government's ambitious agenda by creating 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 of increasing the supply of housing 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 aims to add to the number of safe communities by steering planning in other ways, such as looking after the vitality of town centres and increasing the number of affordable homes in development land
  • An environmental objective: the government uses the Framework to move development in a direction that fits its Green Infrastructure Strategy, and conservation agenda. Using the Framework, the government attempts to address the challenge of climate change and increase the level of affordable housing, and generally improve the population's quality of life.

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). The local agenda, 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 also 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.

At the decision-making stage of the application, minor applications can be 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 adjustment in response to the housing crisis 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, access to sites 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. The NPPF is in no way supposed to act as a barrier to building, 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-making (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 National Planning Framework 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 supply of homes than those not such as infrastructure projects.

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 following a technical consultation, updated in 2019, and 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 natural environment, as well as to 'improve biodiversity'.
  • The presumption of sustainable development has been given a greener focus with an emphasis on climate action, 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. Stronger protection is to be given to building projects that 'reflect local design policies, government guidance' and, more generally, have beautiful, sustainable and life-enhancing designs.'
  • Paragraph 131 has emphasised 'the importance of trees' in development proposals, requiring new streets to be tree-lined in an attempt to bring the beauty of the 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 to protect the intrinsic character of the natural environment, especially the securing of measurable net gains - potentially a prelude to the coming implementation of biodiversity net gain credits.

For further detail and planning practice guidance on the updates and amendments to the NPPF and the legislation that affects it, visit the policy and guidance page on the Planning Portal. To gain an even deeper understanding of the framework the government website offers an accessible version of the latest updates to the NPPF document.

Published: 05 October 2021
Last updated: 22 June 2023

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