The National Planning Policy Framework was a missed opportunity for cities

A generic picture of some houses under construction. Image: Getty.

Some weeks ago, the government published its revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which will act as the new rulebook for planning in English cities for the foreseeable future. The draft version – which we at the Centre for Cities responded to in March – has remained largely intact, and most of the edits have tweaked the emphasis and scope of particular policies.

Nevertheless, there have been two changes which have particular implications for the cities across the country.

Reducing the required quota of small sites in local development plans

Originally the government proposed that 20 per cent of development in local plans should be to small sites of less than half a hectare, to help small builders develop cheaper homes.

This has now been changed to 10 per cent for sites smaller than one hectare, responding to criticism – including ours – that the proposed quota was too high. We feared that increasing demand for small sites risked pushing up the prices of small plots of land, therefore making it difficult for small builders to actually deliver cheaper housing; so this change is a positive step by the government

Giving cities more flexibility over high street planning

The government has also acknowledged that planning for high streets and town centres needs to be more flexible than it initially suggested. As such, it has removed the need to define primary and secondary frontages for retail and leisure uses – giving places more scope over whether high street commercial space is used for shops, or for restaurants, cinemas and other types for business instead.

The new flexibility is welcome, but we shouldn’t expect it to have a huge impact in cities which have struggling high streets. As our recent report Building Blocks shows, the key challenge for these kinds of places is increasing demand in their city centres for other uses, and particularly knowledge-intensive businesses. This will make the biggest difference in bringing people into city centres and increasing footfall for retail and leisure. Ultimately, the most important factors in that respect will be addressing skills gaps and improving infrastructure and transport links.

More broadly, cities remain neglected in the NPPF. Urban areas make up 54 per cent of the population and 60 per cent of jobs, but only 8 per cent of the UK’s land. As a result, how we plan the use of valuable land in cities is the most important way planning affects national productivity, the economy, and the standard of living.


Yet despite the presence of two separate sections for rural housing and the rural economy, no such sections have been written for cities. The word ‘rural’ appears 27 times in the NPPF, compared to 11 mentions for ‘urban’: of these, 6 refer to how the green belt should interact with urban areas.

The omission of cities has consequences not just for the economy, but also for our environment. For instance, the section on climate change covers how construction and planning for renewable energy can reduce carbon emissions, but neglects to mention how city living and denser communities reduce the inefficient use of energy and commuter journeys by car. This lack of attention on cities is a missed opportunity.

It may well be that James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, is planning to focus more on urban planning issues in the upcoming Devolution Framework (due to be published in the autumn). One step he should consider is to extend spatial strategy powers to the remaining metro mayors who lack them (Tees Valley and West Midlands) and to clarify the role of planning when it comes to cities. The influence of metro mayors in decision-making over the built environment will need to be enhanced if they are to be leaders of their cities.

More generally, cities should have the powers to plan across the whole of their economic geography, while government retains an important policy role for setting the objective of the planning system, and as a watchdog.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.

The four key recommendations Centre for Cities made to the NPPF can be found here.

 
 
 
 

A brief history, and the murky future, of Britain’s almshouses

The Hibbert Almshouses in Clapham, south London. Image: David Curran/Flickr/Creative Commons.

On a slightly meandering walk through south London, I was surprised to stumble across a row of almshouses. I thought these institutions had been left in Dickens’ London, abandoned in the rise of social housing during the 20th century, yet there I was admiring the striking line of terraced homes that is the Hibbert Almshouses.

London is in fact dotted with similar such buildings. Long before social housing became a responsibility of the state, it was almshouses that provided a home for the most vulnerable members of society.

We know the tradition stretches back over a thousand years, with St Oswald’s Hospital in Worcester, the oldest almshouse still in existence, established in 990. Having originally had deep connections to religious institutions, the almshouses took a battering during the dissolution of the monasteries. Yet they were always needed, meaning benefactors would ensure some could stay open.

It was during the Georgian and Victorian eras, when the UK underwent rapid urbanisation, that these institutions really developed. Some 30 per cent of the country’s almshouses were built in this time.

Usually set up at the behest of wealthy donors, they were a direct answer, along with the more notorious workhouses, to the rampant urban destitution of the time. Of course the donors would then bag the glory by lending the almshouses their name; the Hibberts, for example, were two sisters, local to Clapham, who named the houses after their father.

Often there were eligibility requirements imposed; the Hibbert Almshouses were built solely to house elderly impoverished women, but as the years have passed these requirements have somewhat relaxed. But not entirely.

Most almshouses still require people to be from the local area and over the age of 60, which is very understandable. More worryingly some still have requirements of religious beliefs, which you can imagine was far less problematic in the 19th century than in the multi-cultural society in which we live today. Despite the best intentions in the world, the fairly opaque selection process involving a board of trustees and relying on constitutions established in a different era, means government-organised social housing will most likely be more egalitarian.


The country’s current tapestry of almshouses is patchwork at best. Around 1,600 individual charities run 35,000 homes – each with their own management structures. The smallest charities run one or two dwellings, while the largest, the Durham Aged Mineworkers’ Homes, owns 1,700 in the north-east of England. The Almshouse Association unifies these groups, offering advice and lobbying for policy change through the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Almshouses.

The number of almshouses may appear small compared to the four million social houses provided by local authorities and housing associations, but they are still an important contribution to the texture of the UK’s social housing landscape, as well as being an important aspect of the country’s heritage (over 30 per cent of almshouses are listed buildings).

Pretty buildings aside, in the face of a housing crisis that is magnified in regards to social housing, almshouses offer an essential home to thousands of people in need. The failing in governance of the individual charities were identified in an independent report as one of the key threats to their longevity.

A more involved Almshouse Association could not only ensure the survival of these important housing providers, but also insist on fairer eligibility requirements: bringing this ancient and valuable institution into the 21st century whilst ensuring its future.