Tuesday, 3 July 2012

A plethora of guidance and advice

One of my main objections to the replacement of all the old Planning Policy Guidance Notes and Planning Policy Statements by the NPPF was the loss of a very useful body of practical assistance on all sorts of procedural issues in addition to the exposition of policy. Arguably, the policy is still there in the NPPF, although considerably abbreviated and lacking in detail. Ideally, the NPPF should have been a more substantial document, but the crazy ministerial insistence on keeping it down to around 50 pages has resulted in a somewhat laconic document with some regrettable, and potentially damaging, lacunae.

Clearly the lack of explicit guidance on many practical issues previously dealt with in the body of published ministerial advice has been keenly felt in many quarters, and so we have seen the publication of an increasing quantity of advisory material, both official and unofficial, which attempts to fill the gap. There are several problems arising from this. First, because of the ad hoc and totally uncoordinated nature of these publishing exercises, there is no means of knowing with any certainty what has or has not been published and where to find it. Secondly, where such material comes from an unofficial or only semi-official source, it is impossible to know what weight can be placed on it. Many of these documents, I suspect, if cited to inspectors at inquiries would not necessarily be accepted as authoritative. So one is left to ponder what use such documents may be in practice.

What finally prompted me to put these thoughts in writing was the publication last month of guidance on housing viability, local plans and the national planning framework, aimed at helping planners decide whether development plans satisfy the requirements of the NPPF in terms of housing viability. I understand that at the same time a document has been published on local standards in new housing development. These two documents have been published by the Local Housing Delivery Group, which has official backing from Housing Minister, Grant Shapps.

The advice is very much the sort of thing one would have expected to see in a Planning Policy Statement before these were all summarily withdrawn upon the publication of the NPPF. For example, it recommends that planning authorities should take the residual land value approach (where the difference between the value and costs of development are compared with land values) in assessing policies in development plans. LPAs should assess policies for the first five years of the plan based on current costs and values and use a more flexible approach for the 6-15 year period of a plan, recognising that economic cycles and policy change over time. It also recommends that councils should use a threshold land value based on a premium over current use values to determine the viability of sites, with the precise figure being determined locally. All very sensible, but what bothers me is the multiplicity of different sources from which these miscellaneous publications are coming.

There needs to be a serious re-think about this in government. Until March of this year there had been a continuous series of ministerial policy documents since at least the 1960s, if not before, originally in the form of Development Control Policy Notes, subsequently replaced by a series of Planning Policy Guidance Notes and latterly by an uncompleted series of Planning Policy Statements. Documents such as the two recently published by the Local Housing Delivery Group ought to be published by ministers as official guidance, and form part of a co-ordinated series of technical and procedural guidance on various aspects of the plan-making and development management process. If this would look too much like a U-turn, in view of Eric Pickles’ very public criticism of the volume of ministerial guidance that had previously been published, then a less embarrassing expedient would be to publish the material in the form of departmental circulars – a type of ministerial guidance which mercifully escaped the ill-considered withdrawal of other policy statements.



  1. I had high hope for the English NPPF but it appears to be a bit of an empty vessel.

    Here I sit in Welsh Wales wondering what the Wales Planning Bill will look like.

    Spare a thought for those who operate in all four of the UK planning regimes, confused or what?

  2. I am one of those who does have to operate in all four planning regimes in the UK, mainly England and Wales, and occasionally as a ‘planning adviser’ (but not a solicitor) in Scotland and Northern Ireland. A significant proportion of my work is done in the principality, and the increasing divergence of Welsh planning law from the English version is a cause for concern.

    As for the NPPF (which, of course, applies only in England), a lot of people are beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about. As I have written in another post, its most noticeable effect has been to deprive planning authorities and planning practitioners of much valuable technical guidance on process and procedure. Random attempts are being made to fill the gap, but it really needs a concerted effort from De-CLoG to sort this out.