The Supreme Court’s judgment in Suffolk Coastal District Council v Hopkins Homes and Richborough Estates v Cheshire East Borough Council, handed down on 10 May 2017, has been keenly anticipated but what does it mean for the development industry?
The issue at stake is subtle but crucial for promoters of residential development in areas that cannot show five years’ supply of deliverable housing sites. In such circumstances, paragraph 49 of the NPPF advises that “[r]elevant policies for the supply of housing should not be considered up-to-date” meaning that what is called the “tilted balance” in the second part of paragraph 14 applies: planning permission should be granted unless:
* “ any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole; or
* specific policies in this Framework indicate development should be restricted”.
Footnote 9 of the NPPF gives examples of “specific policies”, such as green belt policies or policies relating to particular environmental designations.
There have been various attempts by the courts to resolve what the phrase “relevant policies for the supply of housing” actually means:
* Should it be given a narrow interpretation, limiting it to policies that deal with the quantum and distribution of new housing, or a wider interpretation, including policies whose effect is to restrict housing development in certain parts of the authority’s area, for example gaps between settlements or land subject to particular landscape designations?
* Once those “relevant policies” have been identified, are they to be given limited weight, or no weight?
The two cases
The Supreme Court (as did the Court of Appeal previously) had before it two separate cases raising these issues.
The Cheshire East case had first come before Lang J in the High Court. Richborough Estates had appealed against Cheshire East Borough Council’s non-determination of its planning application for 170 (later reduced to 146) homes between Willaston and Crewe. The inspector allowed the appeal. He concluded that the council was unable to demonstrate five years’ housing land supply and that policies in relation to “open countryside”, “green gap” and “housing in the open countryside” were relevant policies for the supply of housing to be given reduced weight by virtue of paragraph 49. Lang J quashed the decision, on the basis that the inspector had erred in treating the “green gap” policy as subject to paragraph 49.
The Suffolk Coastal case had first come before Supperstone J in the High Court. Suffolk Coastal District Council had refused planning permission for a development of 26 houses in Yoxford. The developer, Hopkins Homes, had appealed and the inspector dismissed the appeal. Notwithstanding a relatively up to date local plan, the inspector had found that it was “very unlikely that a five years’ supply of housing land could now be demonstrated”. He considered that none of the policies in the plan relating to the boundary of settlements, landscape, townscape, settlement hierarchy and the character of key and local service centres were “relevant policies for the supply of housing”. He also found that the proposal would have an unacceptable effect on historic parkland. Supperstone J ruled that the inspector had erred in thinking that paragraph 49 only applied to “policies dealing with the positive provision of housing” and also considered he had failed properly to assess the significance or otherwise of the historic parkland as a non-designated heritage asset.
The Court of Appeal
Both cases came before the Court of Appeal in January 2016 at a conjoined hearing. Lindblom LJ gave the judgment of the court on 17 March 2016 and found for the developers in both cases. He gave the phrase in paragraph 49 the “wider” interpretation, construing the words as meaning relevant policies “affecting the supply of housing”. He considered that it was then for the decision maker to determine the weight that should be applied to these policies, deemed out of date.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court only hears cases that raise points of law of general public importance and this was the first time that issues concerning the NPPF had come before it, Sullivan LJ having granted permission on 1 May 2016. The case was heard by five Supreme Court justices, Lord Carnwath, Lord Neuberger, Lord Clarke, Lord Hodge and Lord Gill, at a hearing on 22 and 23 February 2017. Lord Carnwath gave the lead judgment for all of the justices save for Lord Gill who gave a separate judgment.
Lord Carnwath and Lord Gill are the two justices most familiar with planning law south and north, respectively, of the border. Lord Gill indeed has been editor of the Scottish Planning Encyclopedia. This was his last case before retirement. His separate judgment provides a wider commentary on the proper role of the planning system in delivering sufficient housing, alongside that of Lord Carnwath, himself a former leading advocate at the planning bar. Carnwath, Gill, Sullivan, Lindblom: these are judges who understand our subject area and its particular complexities.
As set out by Lord Carnwath at the beginning of his judgment, the appeals provided the opportunity for the court “not only to consider the narrow issues of interpretation of para 49, but to look more broadly at issues concerning the legal status of the NPPF and its relationship with the statutory development plan.”
The following points may be of particular interest:
Legal status of the NPPF
There was some debate at the hearing as to the legal status of the (non-statutory) NPPF and as to the source of the Secretary of State’s power to issue national policy guidance as to the determination of applications and appeals, which could have led the court in an unanticipated direction. However’ despite the lack of any statutory basis (in relation to the determination of applications and appeals, as opposed to his role in relation to plan-making), the court pragmatically held that he did indeed have the power, which arose “expressly or by implication, from the planning Acts which give him overall responsibility for oversight of the planning system.” (Lord Carnwath, paragraph 19)
Interpretation of the NPPF
The court stressed that it is important not to overstate the scope of the Secretary of State’s policy-making role. The NPPF is no more than “guidance” and is no more than a “material consideration” for the purposes of section 70(2) of the 1990 Act: “It cannot, and does not purport to, displace the primacy given by the statute and policy to the statutory development plan. It must be exercised consistently with, and not so as to displace or distort, the statutory scheme”. (Lord Carnwath, paragraph 21)
The distinction between interpreting the meaning of words (a matter for the courts) and the application of guidance (exclusively a matter for the planning authority and inspectors) is stressed in Lord Gill’s separate judgment.
The interaction of law and policy
The Supreme Court had previously determined in Tesco Stores Limited v Dundee City Council (2012) that “policy statements should be interpreted objectively in accordance with the language used, read as always in its proper context”. This has led to concerns (expressed by counsel appearing in these proceedings) “about the over-legalisation of the planning process, as illustrated by the proliferation of case law on paragraph 49 itself…This is particularly unfortunate for what was intended as a simplification of national policy guidance, designed for the lay reader”. (Lord Carnwath, paragraph 23).
The court made it clear that “it is important that the role of the court is not overstated”. There was a specific development plan policy under consideration in Tesco and “some policies in the development plan may be expressed in much broader terms, and may not require, nor lend themselves to, the same level of legal analysis”. (Lord Carnwath, paragraph 24). “It must be remembered that, whether in a development plan or in a non-statutory statement such as the NPPF, these are statements of policy, not statutory texts, and must be read in that light…Furthermore, the courts should respect the expertise of the specialist planning inspectors and start at least from the presumption that they will have understood the policy framework correctly” and the courts have “cautioned against undue intervention” in policy judgments within specialist tribunals’ areas of competence. (Lord Carnwath, paragraph 25). Applicants for judicial review should “distinguish clearly between issues of interpretation of policy, appropriate for judicial analysis, and issues of judgement in the application of that policy.” (Lord Carnwath, paragraph 26).
The meaning of NPPF paragraph 14
The court drew the analogy with a policy for the supply of employment land which may become out of date because of the arrival of a major new source of employment in the area. Whether it is out of date, and what should be the consequence, are matters of planning judgement, including any effect on other related policies, for example for transport. Other competing policies may need to be given less weight, but “again that is a matter of pure planning judgement, not dependent on issues of legal interpretation”. (Lord Carnwath, paragraph 55). This should also be the approach in relation to housing policies deemed “out of date” under paragraph 49. “It also shows why it is not necessary to label other policies as “out of date” merely in order to determine the weight to be given to them under paragraph 14. As the Court of Appeal recognised, that will remain a matter of judgment for the decision-maker”. (Lord Carnwath, paragraph 56).
This is vital stuff! It changes what has been the orthodox approach to the paragraph 49/14 conundrum, rendering less important the analysis of which policies are “relevant policies” and bringing us back to a sensible balancing of the issues and allowing the need to secure an adequate supply of housing land to be taken into account in determining the weight to be applied to a policy, even for those policies not specifically caught by paragraph 49.
Lord Gill’s separate judgment stresses the importance that the NPPF places on boosting the supply of housing. “The message to planning authorities is unmistakeable”. (Lord Gill, paragraph 77). He refers to “the futility of authorities’ relying in development plans on the allocation of sites that have no realistic prospect of being developed within the five year period”. (paragraph 78).
In passing it should be noted that Lord Carnwath and Lord Gill both read into the footnote 9 examples of protective designations in the NPPF, references to the related development plan policies. Lord Gill notes that the “rigid enforcement of such policies may prevent a planning authority from meeting its requirement to provide a five-years supply” (paragraph 79).
The meaning of NPPF paragraph 49
The meaning of “relevant policies for the supply of housing” on this analysis becomes less important. The court preferred the “narrow” interpretation, namely “housing supply policies”. “However, this should not be seen as leading, as the lower courts seem to have thought, to the need for a legalistic exercise to decide whether individual policies do or do not come within that expression.” If there is a failure to provide for a five year housing land supply “it matters not whether the failure is because of the inadequacies of the policies specifically concerned with housing provision, or because of the overly-restrictive nature of other non-housing policies.” (Lord Carnwath, paragraph 59). The shortfall is enough to trigger the “tilted balance”.
Lord Gill puts it like this: “If a planning authority that was in default of the requirement of a five-years supply were to continue to apply its environmental and amenity policies with full rigour, the objective of the Framework could be frustrated”. (paragraph 83).
Application of the principles to the cases
On this basis, the inspector was wrong to adopt a wider interpretation to the policies at issue in the Cheshire East case. However, “that did not detract materially from the force of his reasoning…He was clearly entitled to conclude that the weight to be given to the restrictive policies was reduced to the extent that they derived from “settlement boundaries that in turn reflect out-of-date housing requirements”. The permission was upheld.
On this basis, the inspector in the Suffolk Coastal case had embarked on an “inappropriate and unnecessary” exercise in distinguishing between policies which affected the supply of housing and those which did not. He should not have given the weight that he did to the settlement boundary policy given that it was “to an extent at least, no more than the counterpart of the housing policies.” The decision to dismiss the appeal was quashed and will need to be re-determined.
This is the highest court in the land telling us to be less legalistic about the way we frame our arguments as to the application of national and local policies to development proposals. The exercise is not so much a close technical examination as to whether policies are “relevant policies” for the purposes of paragraph 49 but a weighing up of the consequences of a housing supply deficit against policies which are restricting that supply. In the Cheshire East case it is noteworthy that the court considered that it was right that the green gap policy was given less weight – not because it was a paragraph 49 policy (they found that it was not) but because it reflected out-of-date housing requirements.
We have all perhaps been guilty, spurred on particularly by the Supreme Court itself in Tesco v Dundee, of seeking too often to reduce matters of planning judgment to narrow points of legal interpretation. It is a habit we need to break.
The court stressed the expert role of inspectors. Of course not all decisions are taken by inspectors. Is the same latitude to be given to local planning authorities’ decisions, whether given on or against officers’ recommendations, or to those of the Secretary of State? The point is unaddressed, given that the only two situations before the court were decisions taken by inspectors.
If the advice of the court leads to fewer judicial reviews and statutory challenges, that is surely to be welcomed.
The previous Government has of course been consulting on potential revisions to the NPPF. I would suggest that the new Government reflects on the approach that it should take in the light of this judgment. The amendments that the Government had proposed to paragraph 14 may not give rise to undue concern but shouldn’t more thought be given to whether it is right or not further to complicate paragraph 49 with reference to a three years’ supply safety net where a neighbourhood plan is in place containing defined housing policies, as proposed in the December 2016 written ministerial statement? Isn’t this precisely the over-prescriptive approach being deprecated by the court – and one driven perhaps by a concern that communities were seeing local designations in some way “switched off” or automatically being given less weight through being treated as “relevant policies”? This should no longer be feared. Instead, a sensible balancing exercise will need to be undertaken.
Lastly, the relationship, in the statutory presumption, as between the adopted development plan and other material considerations, has been sought by some judges to be rigidly applied, in a way which does not sit well with this ruling. I am thinking particularly of Green J’s judgment in East Staffordshire Borough Council v Secretary of State and Barwood Strategic Land (22 November 2016) an appeal against which is due to be heard by the Court of Appeal (probably again with Lindblom LJ as the lead judge) on 25 May 2017. It will be fascinating to see this early application of the Supreme Court’s thinking.
Simon Ricketts 10.5.17
Personal views, et cetera
(Town Legal LLP acted for Richborough Estates in this case. Special personal thanks from me to Christopher Young and James Corbet Burcher, both of No 5 Chambers, and to my colleague Ricardo Gama).