Wednesday, 5th September 2018

Noise implications from the revision of the National Planning Policy Framework

The National Planning Policy Framework has been revised and condensed with the primary driver behind the revision being to boost delivery of housing via a planning led system. Along with the focus on housing, the revised NPPF includes consideration of a range of environmental factors including noise generating and noise sensitive development.

Good design was “the golden thread” that ran through the previous version of the NPPF. However, the new version of the NPPF is tightly edited and the phrase good design appears only once, and the whole section in the previous version dedicated to “requiring good design” has gone. However, this doesn’t mean that the emphasis on good design has changed. Instead the NPPF now pithily states in paragraph 124 that:

“The creation of high quality buildings and places is fundamental to what the planning and development process should achieve. Good design is a key aspect of sustainable development, creates better places in which to live and work and helps make development acceptable to communities. Being clear about design expectations, and how these will be tested, is essential for achieving this. So too is effective engagement between applicants, communities, local planning authorities and other interests throughout the process.”

So, what does this mean in terms of acoustics and noise? The answer is that essentially the aims of the policy framework have not changed and “good acoustic design” is still required. The aim of “good acoustic design” is central to the Professional Practice Guidance (ProPG) published in 2017 jointly by the Institute of Acoustics, the Association of Noise Consultants and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. This document describes good acoustic design as being about more than the numbers. It is a holistic design process that creates places that are both comfortable and attractive to live in, where acoustics is considered integral to the living environment. Good acoustic design can involve, for example, careful site layouts and better orientation of rooms within dwellings. Good acoustic design does not mean “gold plating” or significantly increasing costs. Instead it represents a process that results in design outcomes that are proportionate and reasonable in the circumstances of each development site. Good acoustic design seeks to optimise, within the constraints of scheme viability and sustainability, the use of methods other than the sound insulation of the building envelope to achieve suitable internal and external acoustic conditions; and only rely on the sound insulation of the building envelope when other methods have are unable to achieve this goal. All the while balancing the potential negative impacts on other design elements important for development that promotes health and well-being e.g. ventilation and control of overheating.

Although there are fewer words in the revised NPPF and some use of language has changed, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government believe this hasn’t fundamentally altered the aims and meaning of policy. However, there will be those who take a more forensic approach and argue the revision has shifted policy. For example, Paragraph 180, part a) has reordered the hierarchy of aims so that mitigating and minimising potential adverse effects of noise comes before avoiding the significant adverse effects. This appears to set the minimisation of adverse effects as the primary aim, not just avoiding significant effects.

Noise directly features in paragraphs 170 and 180, however other paragraphs are important as they set the context in which noise is considered in the NPPF e.g.

Paragraphs 7 & 8 – The core principle of sustainable development and the three elements of economic, social and environmental objectives all apply to noise generating and noise sensitive development.

Paragraph 91 – Planning policies and decisions should aim to achieve healthy, inclusive and safe places which: c) enable and support healthy lifestyles……

Paragraph 99 – The designation of land as Local Green Space through local and neighbourhood plans e.g. to protect tranquil areas valued for their recreational and amenity value.

Paragraphs 124 to 127 – Achieving well-designed places e.g. using good acoustic design to promote health and well-being, with a high standard of amenity for existing and future users.

Paragraph 130 – Permission should be refused for development of poor design.

Paragraph 182 – Introduces the “Agent of Change” principle – whilst the control of noise from existing sources affecting noise sensitive development proposals is a long established principle of planning, there have been cases where this has been overlooked and the Government has now formally articulated the concept that the developer of noise sensitive schemes must integrate such schemes with existing businesses and community facilities that emit noise by incorporating noise mitigation into their proposals to avoid these established noise generators being faced with unreasonable demands to curtail their operations or undertake expensive noise control measures.  A reason why the revised NPPF has calibrated the “Agent of Change” to planning objectives rather than the legal concept of nuisance, could be its emphasis on plan making as the solution to the housing crisis with a target of 300,000 homes a year. Particularly as the distribution of housing need will be important. It’s speculated that 45% of England’s need will fall to London and the South East, with London accounting for the bulk of that need. If so, pressures to release land near existing industrial, commercial and leisure noise sources will inevitably increase and application of the “Agent of Change” principle will become more common. However, the standards and guidance that are routinely used for acoustically protecting noise sensitive development are fundamentally based on transportation noise and the responses to industrial, commercial and leisure noise can be very different, and in some cases adverse reactions are normal at lower levels. Furthermore, to what extent will a noise maker have the right to emit noise? The policy seeks to avoid unreasonable burdens on existing businesses due to nearby changes to noise sensitive land use, but does this infer that noise generators can be expected to undertake reasonably practicable measures to control and manage their noise emissions and the developer of noise sensitive schemes should incorporate mitigation in their scheme to deal with any shortfall required to avoid significant effects? Or, do noise generators have carte blanche to emit as much noise as they wish thereby sterilising adjoining land from noise sensitive development at no cost to them, but potentially at cost to the adjoining land owner and developers, and to society overall which desperately needs more homes? No doubt these questions, along with others, will be soon aired although not necessarily well ventilated, at public inquiry and judicial review.

Written by Dani Fiumicelli, Technical Director