The new professional practice guidance on planning and noise for new residential development was finally launched in Birmingham on the 22nd June 2017. This document has been a long time coming – since late 2011 when it became clear that the forthcoming National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) would revoke the previous technical planning guidance for noise (PPG24) and that, despite the technical nature of noise, there would be no technical guidance to replace it.
It became apparent that it was up to industry to draw up best practice guidance for itself across most technical disciplines – a particular problem for noise when it comes to planning for new residential development as, whilst localism is important to allow local authorities flexibility to meet their specific residents’ needs, consistency and certainty is also important for acoustic consultants and developers.
The initial application of the NPPF has been inconsistent across local authorities allowing developments of various quality to gain planning permission and, in some cases, poor quality, unsustainable development (contrary to the aims of the NPPF).
The recommendation of approval for planning applications from a noise perspective is primarily down to Environmental Health Officers. Environmental Health Departments have found themselves increasingly stretched in recent years, just as other local authority services are, and the experience of acoustic matters – and importance attached to them – varies greatly between authorities. It is at least partly down to this reason, whilst there has been no technical guidance available for planning decisions, that inconsistent decisions have been made in respect of what constitutes “sustainable development” – a central theme of the NPPF.
The release of the Government’s Planning Practice Guidance for Noise in 2014 unfortunately did little to alleviate the situation as the guidance document primarily further explained some of the key policy points and did not provide any technical guidance, or signpost appropriate standards or documents that would.
A joint Working Group consisting of representatives from the Institute of Acoustics (IOA), Association of Noise Consultants (ANC) and the Chartered Institute of Environment Health (CIEH) was therefore set up. The aim of the Working Document was to produce industry-led guidance that should provide clear, technical advice to lead to consistent decisions and sustainable development whilst still allowing a degree of flexibility to meet local needs. A difficult task!
What they have come up with draws from current, readily available guidance and should achieve the group’s aim. The hope is that it will be used across the country by Acoustic Consultants and Environmental Health Officers to improve the standard of development from an acoustic perspective.
Central to the ProPG is the theme of “good acoustic design” to enable the best outcome from a noise perspective on a development. This correlates with a central aim of the NPPF to promote “good design”.
The document stresses that “good acoustic design” is not about sealing people into their houses to enable quiet living spaces – it is, in fact, the opposite. Good acoustic design is about considering the layout of a development such that the worst effects of noise are screened and as many properties as possible can enjoy a reasonable internal noise environment with windows open, as well as enjoying relatively quiet external amenity areas. It also stresses that noise is not the only consideration and that some flexibility on the stated noise level criteria is allowed if it allows other elements of good design to proceed.
It is now a question of time as to whether this document will be widely utilised and become the national guidance document it is hoped to be (i.e. the long-awaited successor to PPG24). The Working Group see the next stage is getting Local Authority Planning Officers to buy into the document and, if they can achieve that, they believe that usage of the document will gain real traction.