2023 National Planning Policy Framework highlights, Russell-Cooke news 2024

Planning reform or storm in a tea cup? 2023 National Planning Policy Framework highlights

Catherine Knight, Senior associate in the Russell-Cooke Solicitors, real estate, planning and construction team.
Catherine Knight
5 min Read

The Secretary of State announced a Christmas surprise in the form of a long-awaited new 2023 NPPF which includes a few major changes from the NPPF consultation version. The question is: are they tweaks or real directional changes to current policy?

Green Belt is the first, and one which provoked numerous comments in the consultation draft NPPF where it contained the proposed reform that: “Green Belt boundaries are not required to be reviewed and altered if this would be the only means of meeting the objectively assessed need for housing over the plan period.” The language in the December 2023 NPPF, paragraph 145, may be seen as continuing to provide protection to the Green Belt to the point of effecting little consequential amendment with the former NPPF or the December consultation version. The December consultation version states: “Once established, Green Belt boundaries should only be altered where exceptional circumstances are fully evidence and justified, through the preparation or updating of plans where exceptional circumstances are fully evidenced and justified.”

The updated text in the December NPPF states: “Once established, there is no requirement for Green Belt boundaries to be reviewed or changed when plans are being prepared or updated. Authorities may choose to review and alter Green Belt boundaries where exceptional circumstances are fully evidenced and justified, in which case proposals for changes should be made only through the Plan making process." 

“No requirement for Green Belt boundaries to be reviewed or changed”

The main point to note in the above is that whilst the new text in paragraph 145 continues to make clear that there remains “no requirement for Green Belt boundaries to be reviewed or changed”, it does not explicitly state that this trumps meeting housing need.

Based on the Ministerial written statement, it appears the Secretary of State's intention is to clarify a local lock on any changes to the Green Belt boundaries. This statement, one may say, is reinforced in the National Planning Policy Guidance (NPPG) where a new paragraph has been inserted: "When can development take place on brownfield land in the Green Belt? The National Planning Policy Framework sets out the policy on proposals affecting the Green Belt. Where previously developed land is located within the Green Belt, the National Planning Policy Framework sets out the circumstances in which development may not be inappropriate. This includes limited infilling or the partial or complete redevelopment of previously developed land, subject to conditions relating to the potential impact of development on the openness of the Green Belt. The Framework indicates that certain other forms of development are also ‘not inappropriate’ in the Green Belt provided they preserve its openness and do not conflict with the purposes of including land within it. This includes the re-use of buildings provided that the buildings are of permanent and substantial construction".

Small sites policy

Small sites policy has been expanded to require Local Authorities to make policies and decisions that support the bringing forward of small sites for the community-led development of housing, self-build and custom build. While self-builders will welcome this clarification, it remains to be seen whether the amendment will actually make any difference to the ease with which self-build is enabled, and to housing supply figures.

"Meet the identified needs for housing of older persons"

The December NPPF also brings a positive clarification that plan-makers must meet the identified needs for housing of older persons.

The Secretary of State’s statement is that: “The Government will also encourage the delivery of older people’s housing, including retirement housing, housing with care and care homes by requiring these to be specifically considered in establishing need.”

Soundness Test

The soundness test, however, has not been amended in the December NPPF, which is of relevance to Local Authorities proposing new Local Plans. In the end, Central Government has agreed with most consultees that the idea to include the requirement that ‘local plans be justified’ with reference to ‘proportionate evidence’ added yet another layer and has not been included.

Although perhaps the most interesting point, is what has not changed from the Consultation.

Standard method for assessing local housing need

Firstly, the standard method for assessing local housing need at paragraph 61 now includes the phrase “as an advisory starting point” which states: “ … the outcome of the standard method is an advisory starting point for establishing a housing requirement for the area” and continues to state that it “may be departed from in exceptional circumstances, including relating to particular demographic characteristics of an area, which justify and an alternative approach ..”  The implications when read with the surrounding paragraphs relating to ‘Delivering a sufficient Supply of homes’ are that the alternative approach must reflect demographic characteristics of an area market signals – however, it can be departed from in “exceptional circumstances”. Consequently, one may consider that there is very little change as plan-makers have always been able to depart in “exceptional circumstances” and the starting point does not change. 

Demonstrating a five year housing supply

A second, highly-discussed is a couple of changes to demonstrating a five-year housing supply:

  1. Before December, the NPPF included the well-known need to demonstrate a deliverable five year housing supply. There appears to be no requirement to maintain a five-year housing supply if a local plan is less than five years old and identified a five-year supply at the local plan examination. In the assessment of a planning application there is an important note that this policy is only applicable to planning applications made after 19 December 2023.
  2. Additionally, a four-year housing supply target may be applicable where a local plan has either been submitted for examination or reached regulation 18/19 stages of the process including proposed site allocations to meet housing need.

The question is whether these changes will favour developers and hopefully the NPPG will assist to resolve any outstanding confusion.


And finally, the word 'Beauty', which is featured throughout the paragraphs of the December NPPF. Below are just a few examples:

  • “Achieving sustainable development means the Planning System has three overarching objective … b) a social objective … fostering well-designed, beautiful and safe places .. . (Para 8)
  • Strategic policies should set out an overall strategy for the pattern, scale and design of places (to ensure outcomes support beauty and placemaking) (para 20)
  • Planning policies and decisions should aim to achieve healthy, inclusive and safe places and beautiful buildings which … (para 96)
  • Chapter 12 – Achieving well-designed and beautiful places:
    The creation of high quality, beautiful and sustainable buildings and places is fundamental to what the planning and development process should achieve … (para 131)
    Design guides and codes provide a local framework for creating beautiful and distinctive places with a consistent and high quality standard of design. (Para 133).”

The question we are left with is: what does ‘Beauty’ add (if anything) to the NPPF and, perhaps more importantly, the next question - what does ‘Beauty’ mean? Is it in the eye of the beholder, or will the Courts be able to find a clear criteria from which we are able to discern a definition?

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Briefings Real Estate, planning and construction Planning law Catherine Knight National Planning Policy Framework Green Belt National Planning Policy Guidance Small sites policy housing of older persons Soundness Test local housing need