The National Planning Policy Framework – a missed opportunity for cities

The Government’s revised planning rulebook focuses too much on rural areas, and not enough on cities

Last week the Government published its revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which will act as the new rulebook for planning in English cities for the foreseeable future. The draft version – which we responded to in March – has remained largely intact, and most of the edits have tweaked the emphasis and scope of particular policies. Nevertheless, there have been two changes which have particular implications for the cities across the country.

  1. Reducing the required quota of small sites in local development plans

Originally the Government proposed that 20 per cent of development in local plans should be to small sites of less than half a hectare, to help small builders develop cheaper homes. This has now been changed to 10 per cent for sites smaller than one hectare, responding to criticism – including ours – that the proposed quota was too high. We feared that increasing demand for small sites risked pushing up the prices of small plots of land, therefore making it difficult for small builders to actually deliver cheaper housing, so this change is a positive step by the Government

  1. Giving cities more flexibility over high street planning

The Government has also acknowledged that planning for high streets and town centres needs to be more flexible than they initially suggested. As such, they have removed the need to define primary and secondary frontages for retail and leisure uses – giving places more scope over whether high street commercial space is used for shops, or for restaurants, cinemas and other types for business instead.

The new flexibility is welcome, but we shouldn’t expect it to have a huge impact in cities which have struggling high streets. As our recent report Building Blocks shows, the key challenge for these kinds of places is increasing demand in their city centres for other uses, and particularly knowledge-intensive businesses. This will make the biggest difference in bringing people into city centres and increasing footfall for retail and leisure. Ultimately, the most important factors in that respect will be addressing skills gaps and improving infrastructure and transport links.

More broadly, cities remain neglected in the NPPF. Urban areas make up 54 per cent of the population and 60 per cent of jobs, but only 8 per cent of the UK’s land. As a result, how we plan the use of valuable land in cities is the most important way planning affects national productivity, the economy, and the standard of living. Yet despite the presence of two separate sections for rural housing and the rural economy, no such sections have been written for cities. The word ‘rural’ appears 27 times in the NPPF, compared to 11 mentions for ‘urban’ (of which 6 refer to how the green belt should interact with urban areas).

The omission of cities has consequences not just for the economy, but also for our environment. For instance, the section on climate change covers how construction and planning for renewable energy can reduce carbon emissions, but neglects to mention how city living and denser communities reduce the inefficient use of energy and commuter journeys by car. This lack of attention on cities is a missed opportunity.

It may well be that James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, is planning to focus more on urban planning issues in the upcoming Devolution Framework (due to be published in the autumn). One step he should consider is to extend spatial strategy powers to the remaining metro mayors who lack them (Tees Valley and West Midlands) and to clarify the role of planning when it comes to cities. The influence of metro mayors in decision-making over the built environment will need to be enhanced if they are to be leaders of their cities.

More generally, cities should have the powers to plan across the whole of their economic geography, while Government retains an important policy role for setting the objective of the planning system, and as a watchdog.

Watch this space for more commentary and analysis on the Devolution Framework over the coming months.

The four key recommendations Centre for Cities made to the NPPF can be found here.

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