23 August 2019

Planning Practice Guidance – the latest updates

The government published a number of updates and amendments to its Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) on 23 July 2019. Amongst other matters, these include new sections on green belt, effective use of land and housing supply and an updated section on town centres. Planning Solicitor Stuart Lumb has considered the most relevant updates to developers and landowners.

Green belt

This new section provides guidance on a local planning authority’s assessment of how new development affects the openness of the green belt and advises that the assessment requires a judgment based on the circumstances of the case. This states that visual impact, the duration and remediability of the development and the degree of activity likely to be generated (such as traffic) should be considered in this determination.

The amendments also provide further guidance on the National Planning Policy Framework’s requirement for compensatory improvements to be made when green belt land is released for development. The new PPG states that the nature of the compensatory improvements may be informed by “supporting evidence of landscape, biodiversity or recreational needs and opportunities set out in local strategies”. These can include, amongst other matters, new or enhanced green infrastructure, woodland planting, landscape and visual enhancements and improvements to biodiversity, habitat connectivity and natural capital.

Further, the guidance advises that identifying the scope of compensatory improvements is likely to require early engagement with landowners and other interest groups, when the area of land needed for release have been identified. In this regard, local planning authorities are advised to consider land ownership, the scope of works required and use of planning conditions and developer contributions.

This section is likely to be of particular interest to landowners seeking the release of green belt land under a local planning authority’s proposed local plan as it provides clear information on the types of compensatory improvements that they can use to support the release of the land for development.

Effective use of land

The new section on “effective land use” in the PPG includes advice on reallocating land that has yet to be developed and also planning for higher density development.

In respect of land yet to be developed, the guidance advises that when considering whether there is a realistic prospect of an allocated site being developed for its intended use, it may be relevant to take into account factors such as the length of time since the site was allocated in the development plan, the planning history of the site, whether there is evidence that the site has been marketed for its intended use and also whether any change in circumstances mean the take-up of the site for its intended use is unlikely.

In connection with the density of development, the PPG mentions that a range of considerations should be taken into account in establishing appropriate densities on a site. Tools that can assist with this include accessibility measures, characterisation studies and design strategies, environmental and infrastructure assessments and assessments of market or site viability.

Different measures of density can be used to help make effective use of land and these can include plot ratio measures, bedspaces per hectare and dwellings per hectare. The guidance does caution that dwellings per hectare alone can encourage building forms that do not necessarily address local housing needs. For example an apartment building containing one-bed flats can deliver more dwellings per hectare but less bedspaces than a terrace of townhouses on a similarly sized site. It is therefore imperative to consider how housing needs, local character and appropriate building forms relate to the density measures being used.

The government’s recent guidance has supported high-density development in order to increase housing supply, but the new guidance makes clear that a range of issues need to be considered in the assessment of acceptable density. This could potentially be a hindrance to developers proposing very high density developments where other issues indicate this would not be appropriate.

Housing supply

Whether a local planning authority has a five year housing supply can be an important factor in whether planning permission should be granted for residential development and guidance has set out evidence that may be provided in support of this.

The PPG details the evidence that may be considered for a site’s inclusion in a local planning authority’s housing land supply, including progress towards submission of an application or with site assessment work, how much progress has been made towards approval of reserved matters, and preparation in bids for infrastructure funding. Evidence of developable sites may include written agreements that funding will come forward, written confirmation of a developer’s delivery intentions, likely build-out rates on sites with similar characteristics and a site’s planning status.

Housebuilders seeking to submit applications for residential development where a local planning authority’s five year housing supply is questionable may wish to obtain the evidence mentioned above on the relevant local planning authority’s housing delivery. This may be particularly important in appeals where a five year housing supply is being challenged.

Town centres

The new guidance on town centres advises that local planning authorities need to consider structural changes in the economy, in particular changes in shopping and leisure patterns and formats, the impact these are likely to have on individual town centres, and how the planning tools available can support necessary adaptation and change. The revisions state that suitably located complimentary uses can support the vitality of town centres, mentioning residential, employment, office, commercial, leisure/entertainment, healthcare and education.

In particular, the new guidance advises that residential development can play an important part in ensuring the vitality of town centres, as it can provide communities with easier access to a range of services. The guidance also mentions that local planning authorities may wish to consider locating specified housing in town centres or on the edge of centre locations for different groups of persons including older people.

The future of town centres is presently a very topical discussion and the new guidance will be helpful for those developers seeking to progress alternative uses for town centre premises, i.e. for children’s soft play, residential, etc.