On the East Bergholt Case and Local Needs

An important case but only confined to footnote 9 areas, as any restriction to local (village based) needs only outside these areas and in villages with access to facilities and jobs would be contrary to the NPPF – i.e. the local plan would be out of date and any such policy would be classed as a ‘housing’ policy.

24 Housing

A parish council has a won High Court fight against its district authority that could decide the future for rural house-building in England.

East Bergholt Parish Council, Suffolk, brought a test case against Babergh District Council over home plans in the parish that inspired one of Britain’s greatest artists.

Today (Dec 9) the High Court ruled the district council’s planning decision to allow 10 homes to be built in East Bergholt, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, was flawed as it did not take account of the village’s needs – as set out in Babergh District Council’s own local plan.

Permission for the development was quashed.

Speaking after the case, David Bowman, a senior associate at law firm Royds Withy King, who acted for East Bergholt Parish Council, described the win as “decisive and strategic.”

“The judge decided that Babergh District Council had made a number of material legal errors, including misrepresenting to councillors what “local housing needs” means in the context of the local plan.

“Councillors had been told that they needed to take into account the needs of the district as a whole, when in fact they had to take into account only the needs of the core village and its immediate environs.

In reaching a decision the judge agreed with the Parish Council’s interpretation and evidence that the needs of the local area are different to those of the wider district.

He also agreed the council had failed to carry out the correct exercise in deciding whether this development on land within the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty had an exceptional reason to overrule the ordinary prohibition on development.

The judicial review was heard at the High Court earlier this week.

East Bergholt was an inspiration to landscape artist John Constable.

A separate decision by Babergh District Council to allow 144 homes to be built on another site in the same village is being reconsidered – but campaigners believe it is unlikely to be given the green light following today’s High Court decision.

Another development now in the planning process for over 75 homes at another site in the village is also affected.

Overall, the development of more than 415 houses in rural parts of Suffolk depended on the outcome of this case.

This decision is seen as a major setback to Babergh District Council’s plans to grant permissions for more housing developments in the rural villages within its district and could have a significant effect on its financial position given its reliance on the Central Government funds granted under the New Homes Bonus.

BACKGROUND: The East Bergholt homes case

The  case went to the High Court as a judicial review of a planning decision – pitched as a test case with potentially far-reaching implications for housing developments in rural England.

Evidence would examine whether a decision by Babergh District Council to allow a housing development in East Bergholt was lawful.

The case, brought by East Bergholt Parish Council, concerns the building of 10 homes in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

David Bowman, a senior associate in the Dispute Resolution team at Royds Withy King – representing East Bergholt Parish Council – said a number of parish councils across rural England would be waiting the outcome of this case because the judgment would clarify how local housing needs should be met in rural locations in view of the ever increasing pressure on local planning authorities to allow residential development.

At least three judicial reviews are currently being brought by rural parish councils against Babergh District Council.

The dispute arose after Babergh planners backed two separate applications to build a total of 154 homes in East Bergholt when the parish council’s neighbourhood development plan was still being finalised.

A third development of an additional 75 houses in the village, is now going through the planning process.

Neighbourhood planning is a right introduced through the Localism Act 2011, enabling communities to shape developments in their area in response to their local needs.

Neighbourhood development plans become part of the local plan and the policies contained within them are used to help determine planning applications.

East Bergholt’s plan was nearing completion when the two planning applications were approved.

The permissions were in sharp contrast to the majority of residents’ vision for the organic development of the village and the building style wasn’t in keeping with other houses or its setting within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

That vision for the future of the village was approved by 94% of the villagers who voted in a referendum held in September.

In addition, the court case raised concerns over the extent to which this District Council’s planning decisions have been influenced by the government’s New Homes Bonus which provides income to cash-strapped local authorities as a reward for authorising development.

Babergh District Council has reported a shortfall of over £2m which they have indicated they will look to fill through allowing more development in the district.

The judicial review considered three key points of law:

  • How much weight a local planning authority should give to Neighbourhood Development Plans which place limits on development and which are at an advanced stage but not yet finalised
  • Whether the New Homes Bonus awarded by the government to councils as an incentive to develop more houses is capable of creating an undue pre-disposition towards authorising development or even outright bias
  • To what extent housing policy should be interpreted in relation to the needs of the whole district or the particular needs of the local area where the development will take place.