In this article I look at how the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) affects consideration of landscape and the possible implications for Local Plan preparation and development management.
Overall, there has been a rationalisation of the structure of the NPPF, a change in order and a reduction of, and some changes to, the 2012 wording. The central thrust of presumption in favour of sustainable development remains. Whilst committing to the plan-led system, the new wording seeks to strengthen the facilitation of the rapid delivery of housing and other development through ensuring that sufficient land of the right type is available in the right places. Land outside nationally designated areas is the target for the vast majority of development. Therefore, getting the landscape evidence base right to support policies and site allocations in these areas is even more crucial than before.
The test for sustainable development has been modified for both plan-making and decision-making (paragraph 11). Now, strategic policies should, as a minimum, provide for the assessed needs for housing and other uses unless the policies in the Framework that protect ‘areas or assets of particular importance’ provide a strong reason for restricting the overall scale, type or distribution of development . This is in addition to the test of adverse impacts of development which would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits. The areas or assets of particular importance are defined as Green Belt, Local Green Space, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a National Park (or within the Broads Authority) or defined as Heritage Coast, designated heritage assets and other heritage assets of archaeological interest which are demonstrably of equivalent significance.
Strategic policies in local plans should make sufficient provision for development and the conservation and enhancement of the natural, built and historic environment, including landscapes and green infrastructure, and planning measures to address climate change mitigation adaption (paragraph 20).
Thus, for plan-making, the protection of national designations and Green Belt is confirmed. Outside these areas sufficient land should be identified where the effects of development would not significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits. In my view, this means that appropriate landscape and other evidence should look for opportunities to give adequate scope and flexibility to allocate potential sites whilst being robust in areas of constraint.
Core Planning Principles
There are no longer twelve core principles (previously paragraph 17). The paragraph taking account of the different roles and character of different areas has been removed. The role of certain areas of landscape which act as a buffer between settlements may therefore be less protected if a green wedge or area of restraint policy does not apply. However, policies and decisions should still recognise the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside (paragraph 170b).
The wording in relation to ‘valued landscapes’ was a contentious issue in applying the previous NPPF. The wording now reads that planning policies and decisions should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by protecting and enhancing valued landscapes, sites of biodiversity or geological value and soils (in a manner commensurate with their statutory status or identified quality in the development plan) (paragraph 170).
This ties in with, and reinforces, paragraph 171 which distinguishes between the hierarchy of international, national or locally designated sites and which is similar to the previous Framework wording in paragraph 113.
‘Valued landscapes’ are still not defined as such but appear to be an overarching term which includes ‘areas of particular importance’. The additional wording points towards these statutory designations and those areas or assets which are referred to in local plans. These may include local landscape designations.
The landscape character approach coupled with national designations only has been adopted by many LPAs, and encouraged by Natural England. However this may not be enough to protect vulnerable areas from inappropriate development outside nationally designated areas under this Framework. In order to strengthen a Local Planning Authority’s (LPA’s) case in protecting the special qualities of these landscapes, Local Landscape Designations may need to be considered. These may be Special Landscape Areas which generally would cover larger areas and for which there is a fairly established method. However, there may also be a need for identifying Local Landscape Areas which may be smaller but still have special qualities worth conserving. These may have particular characteristics or features such as interesting topography or vegetation patterns or may be associated with heritage assets, extending beyond the usually tightly defined heritage setting. They may also derive from Neighbourhood Plans which may define areas which are locally valued.
Landscape sensitivity studies can be complementary to local designation studies, identifying value as well as susceptibility at a detailed level around settlements. They do have the benefit of being focussed on areas where development is most likely to occur- thus underpinning the Framework’s approach (see evidence requirements below). They need to be referred to in the policy supporting text and evidence base to be given due weight. Landscape character assessments may also be helpful at a contextual and broader brush level referring to the components of value such as scenic beauty, tranquillity, condition/quality and cultural associations.
Relevant and up-to-date evidence should still be collected in the preparation and review of plans (paragraph 31). This should be adequate and proportionate (as previously stated) but also focused tightly on supporting and justifying policies concerned. The new Framework does not go into the same depth as the previous Framework on what evidence should be collected on the natural or historic environment. Landscape character and landscape sensitivity assessments (previously paragraph 170) are no longer specifically mentioned. However, in my view, the reference to landscape throughout the Framework, which needs to be considered as a whole, means that appropriate focused landscape evidence is still needed, and indeed is possibly now more important to identify opportunities for site allocation as well as constraints.
Policies should be reviewed and updated at least once every five years (paragraph 33). This means that the evidence informing these policies should also ideally be reviewed at this frequency in order to ensure that it is up-to-date and in line with the Framework and good practice.
LPAs should now approach decisions on proposed development not only in a positive but also a creative way (paragraph 38). As before, there is an emphasis on pre-application engagement to resolve issues as far as possible before planning applications are made. The use of landscape architects’ advice in the LPA team dealing with a developer team becomes more important to ensure that a creative approach can be taken which responds to the landscape context at an early stage.
The creation of high quality places is now considered fundamental to the planning and development process. This strengthens the wording from the previous wording of design being indivisible from good planning. As to whether this constitutes a stronger reason for refusal which would be upheld at appeal is open to question.
Landscape setting is now specifically referred to. Planning policies and decisions should ensure that developments are sympathetic to local character and history, including the surrounding built environment and landscape setting, while not preventing or discouraging appropriate innovation or change (paragraph 127).
The provisions for protecting Green Belt land remain very similar although there are a few changes. A key new provision is that once established, boundaries should only be altered where exceptional circumstances are fully evidenced and justified (paragraph 136). This is reinforced by the requirement for the LPA to be able to demonstrate that boundaries will not need to be altered at the end of the plan period (paragraph 139e). This indicates the need for robust, up-to-date assessments.
There is also a new paragraph on the need for the LPA to demonstrate it has examined all other reasonable options to accommodate development before making changes to Green Belt boundaries (paragraph 137). Within the Green Belt, land which has been previously developed and/or is well served by public transport should be given first consideration for release for development (paragraph 138).
Burial grounds and allotments have been added to the list of appropriate developments within Green Belts (paragraph 145b).
Veteran Trees and Ancient Woodland
The protection of ancient and veteran trees has been strengthened. These are now all classed as irreplaceable habitats alongside ancient woodland. Now, development resulting in their loss or deterioration should be refused unless there are a wholly exceptional reasons (paragraph 175c) e.g. nationally significant infrastructure projects.
Planning Practice Guidance
The Natural Environment section including Landscape has not been updated to reflect changes in the Framework- presumably because it is not considered necessary. It is still dated 2 October 2014. The guidance refers to the NPPF core principles which have been removed as a block of text in the NPPF, albeit with some relevant text dispersed in other parts of the new document e.g. recognition of the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside.
The guidance still states that local plans should include strategic policies for the conservation and enhancement of the landscape in designated landscapes but also the wider countryside. Landscape character assessment is mentioned as a tool to help understand character and local distinctiveness with a link to Natural England guidance on landscape character assessments and seascape character assessments. This link also mentions that LCAs can be used to inform sensitivity and capacity studies, local council studies and green infrastructure assessments. Overall, therefore, these tools do have a hook in policy.