The Government has now published the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF 2) following the consultation of the draft in March 2018. It retains the ‘town centre first’ principle and the two key policy tests of sequential approach to site selection and impact. The majority of the changes identified in the NPPF2 Draft Consultation document relating to town centres have been carried through to the final version:
A positive approach to town centre growth, management & adaptation
Both policies and decisions should take a positive approach to town centre growth, management, and adaptation. The revised document differs slightly from the draft in its reference to diversification, alongside ‘adaption,’ and its requirement of town centres to “diversify in a way that can respond to rapid changes in the retail and leisure industries.”
No longer a requirement for local plans to meet the needs ‘in full’ over the Plan Period
Given the uncertainty in forecasting long-term retail trends, policies only need to look at least ten years and not necessarily over the full plan period when allocating sites to meet the ‘likely’ need for town centre uses.
Town centre boundaries should be kept under review
Town centre boundaries should be kept under review, where necessary, so that anticipated needs can be accommodated.
Sequential approach and the test of ‘availability’
An attempt is made to provide clarity over the much-debated definition of 'availability’ of potential sequentially preferable sites. NPPF 2 states that a sequentially preferable site is to be
considered available if it is “expected to become available within a reasonable period.” The
definition of a ‘reasonable period’ will no doubt be subject to further debate. The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has confirmed to us that they do not intend to provide further clarity in an amended Planning Practice Guidance (PPG), as the Government believes this should be decided at a local level, given that circumstances differ in each location.
Sequential approach and the test of ‘suitability’
NPPF 2 retains the requirements for applicants and local planning authorities (LPA) to demonstrate flexibility on issues such as format and scale. It also emphasises the need to fully explore flexibility opportunities to utilise suitable town centre or edge of centre sites (paragraph 87).
Design Year for impact testing
The policy test for retail and leisure proposals outside town centres, which do not adhere to an up-to-date plan regarding the impact on town centre vitality and viability, has been amended to remove reference to assessing impact up to five years or ten years (subject to size of scheme). Notwithstanding this deletion, more refined guidance on the design year for impact testing is currently set out in the NPPG (Ensuring the Vitality of Town Centre, paragraph 17):
"The design year for impact testing should be selected to represent the year when the proposal has achieved a ‘mature’ trading pattern. This is conventionally taken as the second full calendar year of trading…”
Office developments outside town centres no longer subject to impact test
The Government deems the approach to office development outside town centres to be “covered sufficiently” by the sequential approach.
However, we note that the following changes proposed within the draft NPPF 2 Consultation Document have not been incorporated:
The draft NPPF 2 Consultation Document noted that planning policies should support diversification and changes of use where town centres are in decline, as part of a clear strategy for their future. This approach was not carried over to the final version.
The draft NPPF 2 Consultation Document identified that LPAs should, when defining the extent of town centres and primary shopping areas, "identify primary and secondary frontages" and make clear which uses will be permitted in such locations. The NPPF 2 drops this approach in favour of defining uses for primary and secondary frontages. MHCLG has, however, confirmed to us that the removal does not preclude LPAs from doing so where their use can be justified.
MHCLG identifies that the changes in the new NPPF 2, including the deletion of the above two policy requirements, are to encourage a more positive and flexible approach to planning for the future of town centres, due to the rapid changes taking place in the retail and leisure industries.
MHCLG has confirmed to WYG that planning practice guidance pertaining to town centre use planning policy will be updated “in due course.” Whilst it’s helpful to know guidance will be updated, the timescales are rather vague.
Finally, where plans are being prepared under the transitional arrangements set out in Annex 1 to NPPF 2, the policies in NPPF 1 (2012) will continue to apply, as will any guidance which is superseded after the publication of the revised framework.