St Albans Loses Hunston Green Belt Case – But Won’t Make a Difference

I was sent the decision which the Court of Appeal handed down this morning.  Ive put it on Dropbox.   All Green Belt authorities have been eagerly awaiting the result as it implied that plans which relied on RSS housing targets, as many GB authorities do, were rendered out of date and objectively assessed need could be considered a ‘very special circumstance’.

In essence the Court held the inspector made a mistake in using revoked RSS figures.  This alone would lead to JR.   St Albans argument that one also had to have regard to constraints and the NPPF as a whole was rejected for the reasons we originally set out on this blog as the reason their case was flawed.  The setting of objectively assessed need is separate from and prior to plan making and the qualifications on NPPF para 47(1_.

“to ensure that their Local Plan meets the full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the housing market area, as far as is consistent with the policies set out in this Framework.”

Were found by the judgement

That qualification contained in the last clause quoted is not qualifying housing needs.  It is qualifying the extent to which the Local Plan should go to meet those needs.  The needs assessment, objectively arrived at, is not affected in advance of the production of the Local Plan, which will then set the requirement figure….

Moreover, I accept Mr Stinchcombe QC’s submissions for Hunston that it is not for an inspector on a Section 78 appeal to seek to carry out some sort of local plan process as part of determining the appeal, so as to arrive at a constrained housing requirement figure.  An inspector in that situation is not in a position to carry out such an exercise in a proper fashion, since it is impossible for any rounded assessment similar to the local plan process to be done.  That process is an elaborate one involving many parties who are not present at or involved in the Section 78 appeal. …

     It follows from this that I agree with the judge below that the inspector erred by adopting such a constrained figure for housing need.  It led her to find that there was no shortfall in housing land supply in the district.  She should have concluded, using the correct policy approach, that there was such a shortfall.  The supply fell below the objectively assessed five year requirement.

It was a pyrrhic victory however as the courts comments implied that the balancing exercise would rarely find the ‘very special circumstances’ test met.  

However, that is not the end of the matter.  The crucial question for an inspector in such a case is not: is there a shortfall in housing land supply? It is: have very special circumstances been demonstrated to outweigh the Green Belt objection?  …

But there may be other factors as well.  One of those is the planning context in which that shortfall is to be seen.  The context may be that the district in question is subject on a considerable scale to policies protecting much or most of the undeveloped land from development except in exceptional or very special circumstances, whether because such land is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Park or Green Belt.  If that is the case, then it may be wholly unsurprising that there is not a five year supply of housing land when measured simply against the unvarnished figures of household projections.  A decision-maker would then be entitled to conclude, if such were the planning judgment, that some degree of shortfall in housing land supply, as measured simply by household formation rates, was inevitable.  That may well affect the weight to be attached to the shortfall….I therefore reject Mr Stinchcombe’s submission that it is impossible for an inspector to take into account the fact that such broader, district-wide constraints exist….

There seemed to be some suggestion by Hunston in the course of argument that a local planning authority, which did not produce a local plan as rapidly as it should, would only have itself to blame if the objectively-assessed housing need figures produced a shortfall and led to permission being granted on protected land, such as Green Belt, when that would not have happened if there had been a new-style local plan in existence.  That is not a proper approach.  Planning decisions are ones to be arrived at in the public interest, balancing all the relevant factors and are not to be used as some form of sanction on local councils.  It is the community which may suffer from a bad decision, not just the local council or its officers.

Where this inspector went wrong was to use a quantified figure for the five year housing requirement which departed from the approach in the Framework, especially paragraph 47.  On the figures before her, she was obliged (in the absence of a local plan figure) to find that there was a shortfall in housing land supply.  However, decision-makers in her position, faced with their difficult task, have to determine whether very special circumstances have been shown which outweigh the contribution of the site in question to the purposes of the Green Belt.  The ultimate decision may well turn on a number of factors, as I have indicated, including the scale of the shortfall but also the context in which that shortfall is to be seen, a context which may include the extent of important planning constraints in the district as a whole.  There may be nothing special, and certainly nothing “very special” about a shortfall in a district which has very little undeveloped land outside the Green Belt.  But ultimately that is a matter of planning judgment for the decision-maker.

Perhaps Hunstan now are regretting the appeal.

Interesting that the Court indicated you cannot approach planning decisions as if they are some form of penalty on poor performers.  Of course the NPPF was designed precisely as such a penalty system, interestingly this underlying objective is not material to the planning balance.


3 thoughts on “St Albans Loses Hunston Green Belt Case – But Won’t Make a Difference

  1. Pingback: Court of Appeal Finds #NPPF Ambiguous and Unclear | Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

  2. Pingback: Ministers – A Dozen Reasons Why Local Plans Take Geological Time | Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

  3. Pingback: Why so Many Pickles Housing Decisions are Being Refused – The 10 Covert Changes to National Planning Policy | Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

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