THE final version of the government's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has been revised for the better, writes Brian Wilson.
The presumption in favour of sustainable development, which has had fairly widespread in principle support, remains the centrepiece of the NPPF. However, many aspects of the document have been revised by the Department for Communities and Local Government, since the earlier consultation version.
From a rural policy perspective those changes seem essentially helpful. They include changes which the Rural Services Network, in concert with other members of the Rural Coalition, had asked for.
The document now contains a more substantive and a more rounded definition of sustainable development (emphasising its economic, social and environmental elements). This is certainly important if decisions are to be based upon the sustainable development concept.
Nonetheless, quite what it means in practical detail seems sure to be tested through planning appeals and court cases over coming months and years.
The NPPF also reinforces the primacy of what is said in Local Plans. In other words, that planning decisions should be plan-led. There is also, of course, the important link to be made with statutory neighbourhood planning.
The much disliked "default yes" in the draft NPPF, which would have applied to a planning application for a site where a Local Plan was "unclear, silent or out-of-date" has been deleted. Instead, the general presumption in favour of sustainable development is to apply to such cases.
The NPPF takes effect immediately, but the Government has agreed there will be transitional arrangements, to give a window for local authorities to complete the production of Local Plans for their area or to update their existing Local Plans.
Some will say that the 12 month window is still short or will note that details of how it works remain to be fleshed out. However, it should ameliorate the fears some had voiced about the many areas which don't yet have a Local Plan.
The Rural Services Network is pleased to see that the section from the draft document which said new housing should not be permitted in places distant from local services has been radically altered. The NPPF now allows for some development if it will "enhance or maintain the vitality" of rural communities.
This is a positive statement about creating sustainable rural communities. The wording in the draft, by contrast, could have made any development in some smaller rural settlements very difficult.
In a similar vein, wording which says that more sustainable transport modes should be pursued, acknowledges that rural solutions may need to be different and that reliance on a car is more likely.
A section on Green Belt policy is also not absolutist. It says that villages within the Green Belt area should not automatically be subject to Green Belt (no development) rules. Local planning authorities can instead opt to have policies allowing limited development within the village envelope.
The Rural Services Network welcomes, too, the fact that the final version of the NPPF (unlike the draft) gives mention to the exception sites policy for affordable housing.
Indeed, it states that they could be cross-subsidised with some open market housing. Having the exception sites policy name-checked in the NPPF gives it more clout.
There is a useful and positive section in the guidance about supporting a prosperous rural economy and the importance of sites for small businesses and job creation in the countryside.
The 'town centre first' policy has been reinstated in the final version of the NPPF, which should prove popular with those seeking to sustain struggling rural and market town centres.
Some will say these changes to the draft do not go far enough and others will worry that having national planning guidance cut down to around 50 pages leaves a lot of uncertainty. Time will tell.
But on balance rural interests should surely see the changes made as helpful and more likely to deliver sustainable development in rural areas.