Six years ago there was something of a revolution in the world of English planning policy when the former Coalition Government launched its National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which reduced about a thousand pages of policy into a succinct document of less than a hundred pages. There was much controversy about the draft, some of which was chronicled in this blog, suspicion about a document created behind closed doors and, as I recall, little fanfare about its launch.

This week, the atmosphere felt very different. I and a couple of colleagues had a front row seat at an event organised by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Royal Town Planning Institute as the Government published a revised version of the NPPF on Monday. Prime Minister Theresa May herself launched the event with a major speech on housing, followed by Secretary of State Sajid Javid. The audience of several hundred people – planners, housebuilders and others – then spent most of the day in discussions with civil servants to kick off the consultation period.

Housing is clearly important to this Government, and to the Prime Minister personally, and planning is seen as an important tool to deliver it.

By now, if you work in the planning system you’re used to the idea of a succinct NPPF. This version feels more like evolution than revolution. It does a number of sensible things like generally tidying up the text and making it more accessible, but there are a number of significant policy changes.

Many of these have already been flagged up in previous consultations, and it’s no surprise that there’s a focus on increasing housing delivery, or as the Government would put it planning for the right homes in the right places. We’ve previously raised concerns about the environmental implications of loading ever more houses into the south east of England, which is what the new standard housing need method implies (see my blog here).

But what of the environment policies?

It’s good to see that the NPPF responds positively to the ambition of the 25 Year Environment Plan by strengthening policy for biodiversity net gain and ecological networks. There’s a new statement on planning for the enhancement of natural capital at a catchment or landscape scale across local authority boundaries, and also strengthened policy for irreplaceable habitats such as ancient woodland.

Policy for protected wildlife sites, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest, seems essentially the same. This is good news for Lodge Hill, where we are still fighting to protect a SSSI from inappropriate housing development.

There are also new references to the importance of air quality, and the role that green infrastructure can play in improving air quality or mitigating impacts from development.

However, the devil is in the detail. When it comes to the difficult decisions sometimes made by local planning authorities and planning inspectors, words count. Change a single word here or there in the NPPF and the results on the ground can be significant.

Over the next few weeks of the consultation period (we have until 10 May) we’ll be examining the draft in forensic detail to make sure we haven’t missed anything, and trying to spot the unintended consequences of seemingly benign changes.

As well as the biodiversity policies, we’ll be looking more closely at the revised ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’, the implications of the new approach to housing delivery for wildlife, the new chapter on plan-making and more. This is key because, as with the current NPPF, there is potential for pro-development policies elsewhere in the NPPF to undermine good policies for the natural environment.

If you care about the future of special places in England, do have a look at the consultation and respond.

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