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20

Jan 2020

High Court sanctions release of green belt land for housing development

Metropolitan Green Belts are precious but, in an era of escalating housing demand, they cannot be viewed as sacrosanct. The High Court made that point in opening the way for the release of swathes of Green Belt land for construction of thousands of new homes over a 15-year period.

The case concerned a local authority area 89 per cent of which was protected by Green Belt policies. The need for more housing in the area, particularly affordable homes, was acute. Pursuant to the recommendations of an inspector following a public examination, the council adopted a local plan which involved the release of large tracts of Green Belt land for development.

The inspector calculated that 562 homes needed to be built in the area every year until 2034, equating to a total of 10,678 homes over the plan period. That rate of development far exceeded historic levels, but the inspector also recommended a buffer of about 4,000 homes, bringing the total to 14,602.

Emphasising the pressing need for more affordable homes in the area, the inspector found that the buffer was required to take account of unexpected contingencies, including slippage or non-delivery of development projects. There were exceptional circumstances justifying alterations to Green Belt boundaries which would not cause widespread harm to the openness of the area.

A local campaigner joined two parish councils in challenging the plan. They argued that the inspector’s assessment of future housing need was irrational. His adoption of such a substantial buffer meant that thousands more homes would be built over the plan period than the council objectively needed.

Dismissing their complaints, however, the Court emphasised the consequences that would arise if none of the sites in issue were released from the Green Belt and allocated for housing. That would, over the plan period, produce a shortfall of 6,295 homes when measured against the inspector's target figure of 14,602.

There was nothing illogical in the inspector’s conclusion that a significant buffer was needed and its size was a matter for his planning judgment. He had justifiably concluded that the circumstances were exceptional, in that there was no prospect of the area’s employment, business and housing needs being met over the plan period without releasing parts of the Green Belt for development.

Council ‘Seriously Misled’ Into Granting Residential Planning Permission

Official decision-making is only as good as the advice on which it is based. The High Court succinctly made that point in ruling that a local authority was seriously misled into granting itself planning permission for a residential development.

The case concerned a countryside meadow owned by the council, which was said by objectors to have been used for generations for community pastimes – including maypole dancing, dog walking, children’s play and Sunday school outings. After the council granted itself permission to build a large house on the meadow, a local campaigner mounted a judicial review challenge.

The council based its decision on a planning officer’s report which stated that the proposal, whilst conflicting with some local planning policies, was acceptable and would cause less than substantial harm to the conservation area in which the meadow was located. Any such harm was said to be outweighed by the public benefits of constructing a well-designed dwelling.

In quashing the permission, however, the Court noted that the report failed to make any mention of two key local countryside protection policies. The report’s assertion that the proposal complied with the local development plan, when read as a whole, was thus seriously misleading.

The Court also identified an unexplained inconsistency between the decision and previous resolutions of the same council to refuse planning consent for two similar developments. Had councillors received correct advice, the Court found that they might well have reached a different decision.

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