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A New NPPF, but what has changed?

We had a new NPPF arrive on our collective doormats and screens a few weeks ago, accompanied by the usual comments from the usual parties: CPRE assuring us that this will signal the end of our green and pleasant land, politicians telling us that it is the game changing contribution to solve the housing shortage, consultants advising on the minutiae of wording changes.

There is undoubtedly significant change from the 2012 version, in particular with regard to urging Councils toward allocating more housing land, hopefully the desired results will be achieved.

But………change is much less significant for other sectors and it continues to be the case that those politicians and their advisors who believe (and tell us) that changing NPPF makes the attainment of planning permissions easier and quicker are deluding themselves. It remains my abiding impression that none of these politicians or advisors have ever tried actually using the planning system.

Politicians of all stripes may huff and they may puff, the NPPF and Ministers can threaten Councils with all manner of sanctions, but none of that helps if Councils do not have the resources, or the desire, to fulfil their duties and whilst the system seems to be constantly made more elaborate and demanding.

I hope they do not mind, but a poor nameless (to protect the innocent) Council in the south recently took 5 weeks to validate a relatively straightforward application we had submitted – I am sure they would much prefer to have validated it on the day we submitted (as we used to decades ago when I was a Council Planning Officer) – but they clearly do not have the resources - now we are agreeing to a time extension as almost the first step in the process. Despite our own frustration, we can see that it is not the Council’s fault and that they are by no means alone. The NPPF and Minsters can say what they like but our application is not going to be dealt with in the remaining 3 weeks of the statutory period.

NPPF may say what it likes about applications needing only to supply proportionate and necessary information packages but a lot of Councils are not listening - this is where my sympathy for their plight begins to run a bit thin. There continues to be a seemingly insatiable appetite for information, often of questionable usefulness - not only do we have to write this stuff, applicants have to pay for it and, presumably, Council Officers have to read it and then summarise it in their reports.

NPPF may urge us all to make full use of the Pre-App enquiry process, but bouncing the simplest of enquiries into the system is a plain nonsense. We act for clients seeking to change the external cladding on some of their buildings, we will do all we can to get the appearance and finish as close as possible to the previously approved external materials - all we wish to do is upgrade the specification of cladding panels. In response to precisely the same enquiry we have had one south eastern Council immediately agree this could be a Non Material Amendment and then deal with the NMA with exemplary expedition, whilst another Council responded to the enquiry by saying they could only respond whether the application could be NMA via a formal paid Pre-App process.

Recently, one of my colleagues struggled with a Council insisting that a building was Listed when this was plainly not the case and then only accepting the obvious after wasting weeks of delay and hours of time that the applicants have had to fund.

If the Minister, or his advisors, were to have greater experience of the practicalities of the system, perhaps using the “mystery shopper” technique, maybe, just maybe, we might see more progress and less need for huffing and puffing.

Article by Stephen Brooker

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