During recent months there has been much speculation regarding the emerging National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). If you believe the media hype, then you may well have been led to think that it is now going to be possible to build on any greenfield site anywhere. You will be mistaken.

In truth, there may be self-build opportunities, but it will not simply be a case of popping in an application to your local planning authority (LPA) and obtaining permission, particularly if your proposals are ill-conceived or flimsy.

When you actually read through the 60 pages of the NPPF document, it is apparent that many of the principal planks of policy –?such as green belt – remain unchanged. The commentary and policy references are less prescriptive and in the main not explicit in their direction to local planning authorities (LPAs) — which, I have to say, is perhaps a little surprising, although this may change as the document evolves.

A high proportion of LPAs will not have their Local Development Framework (LDF) documents in place and they will not have adopted their Core Strategies; nor will they have resolved their Preferred Options documents, identifying the site allocations coming forward. In cases like these they will still be reliant on older policy documents, which inevitably will place them in a weaker position, leaving many authorities in the invidious position of having limited policy tools to defend their decisions.

This situation will create a void in the policy provision in many LPAs up and down the country, and to rely on out-of-date Local Plans will leave their communities potentially vulnerable to rogue schemes that nobody really wants. Whereas some LPAs are still in the process of adopting new plans and frameworks, their saved policies will carry less weight and although they will still be a material consideration, the NPPF will, even in draft, carry weight and also be a material consideration.

Whilst it may be perceived as a time to exploit the gaps in policy coverage, I would rather suggest that it is not about exploitation and much more about making a planning policy case that will stand up to scrutiny, demonstrating why a particular scheme should be successful. The NPPF will nevertheless be a material consideration and where an argument can be made that a scheme can demonstrate that there is a need, and that the scheme is sustainable in terms of design and in all other respects, then there will be opportunities for such schemes —particularly where LPAs are having to rely on older policies, which will inevitably carry less weight over time as they become more outdated. This state of affairs should give new impetus to self-builders, as it creates a ‘window of time’ where there may well be an opportunity to contend that their proposals should be considered in the light of the Government’s presumption in favour of sustainable development, as outlined in the NPPF.

The difficulty, therefore, will lie in steering a path through the myriad of policies and trying to work out what in each individual case should be given the most weight. Planning authorities will argue each case on its merits and this will remain the case — the decisions will still be given at local level. However, the draft NPPF’s statement that permission should be granted ‘Where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date’ will certainly create a boost in activity.

The NPPF document is much more open to interpretation; however, it is clear that certain types of development are supported. There is a presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’, although controversially this remains undefined. This, therefore, is something that LPAs will be left to determine. I imagine more specific guidance on the definition will be necessary as the NPPF moves forward, as without these revisions there is a danger that discrepancy and inconsistency will prevail, leaving the planning inspectorate to determine ultimately what the definition of sustainability will be. Until then, however, there will inevitably be many different interpretations of what will comprise sustainability — although from my own experience, most LPAs will have that base covered either with an adopted Supplementary Planning Document or other related policies manifested in the policy armoury, so I do not believe that sustainability in itself is the key hook to hang your planning case on, but instead represents one of a number of layers.

The overarching issue, however, is that the NPPF is a positive tool for you to use. It seems that the amber/red traffic lights have been turned to amber/green, with a positive and upbeat stance flowing from Government. Will the NPPF help self-builders? Yes, and interestingly the NPPF does actually make specific mention for the first time in emerging National Planning Policy of the need to facilitate ‘people wishing to build their own homes’ (page 9 paragraph 28). There is certainly an appetite from Government to embrace self-building and robustly support it as a credible alternative option to mainstream housing provision.

There is no doubt that this is a good time to consider a project. With the right approach – and well-founded planning arguments – the coming months will be a good time for self-builders to apply for planning permission to start a project.

Sally Tagg is the founder of planning consultancy Foxley Tagg Planning (foxleytaggplanning.co.uk)

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