To my mind, the problems with neighbourhood plans that I listed in my 19.2.17 blog post haven’t gone away.
In fact, two changes to the neighbourhood plan process that were switched on from 19 July 2017 by the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 (Commencement No. 1) Regulations 2017 will just bring the issues to the boil at an earlier stage:
– section 1 of the 2017 Act gives decision makers a duty to have regard to neighbourhood plans as a material consideration once they have been examined, prior to their having been approved in a neighbourhood referendum or finally made (ie ‘adopted’ in local plan language).
– section 3 of the 2017 Act requires decision makers to treat a neighbourhood plan as part of the statutory development plan once they have been approved by a referendum (unless the local authority then decides not to make it).
In the meantime, the last few weeks have seen various rulings from the High Court and decision letters from the Secretary of State that demonstrate the complexities, uncertainties and tensions that are arising.
Farnham Neighbourhood Plan
Bewley Homes Limited v Waverley District Council (Lang J, 18 July 2017)
The claimants, Bewley, Wates and Catesby, were three development companies unhappy that their respective development sites were not allocated for development in the draft Farnham neighbourhood development plan.
The case illustrates the real difficulties that arise both with grappling with detailed issues during the examination process and seeking to assert, when the report has been published, that the examiner’s reasoning is deficient.
The claimants’ first line of attack was that the examiner was wrong to conclude that the draft plan complied with the basic condition of being in conformity with the strategic policies of the 2002 local plan.
Lang J sets the bar very low in terms of the extent of the examiner’s duty to give reasons for the conclusions in his report: “I consider that an Examiner examining a neighbourhood plan is undertaking a function which is narrowly prescribed by statute and he is subject to a limited statutory duty to give reasons. It is distinguishable from the function of an Inspector determining a planning appeal, where the duty to give reasons is expressed in general terms.”
Secondly, she makes clear that the requirement that the neighbourhood plan must be in general conformity with strategic policies in the relevant local plan is pretty loose in practice: “The authorities establish that the phrase “in general conformity” is a flexible test which allows for some differences. The plans do not have to match precisely. It was a matter of planning judgment for the Examiner to decide whether the degree of the differences was such that he could not properly find that “the making of the [plan] was in general conformity with the strategic policies in the development plan”, as required by paragraph 8(2)(e) of Schedule 4B. For that purpose, he was required to consider the plan as a whole.”
The judge found that it was sufficient that the examiner referred to his consideration of Farnham Parish Council’s Basic Conditions Statement, from which it could be taken that he accepted Farnham’s Basic Conditions Statement as the basis for identifying the strategic policies in the Local Plan 2002.
Lang J noted that even if the reasoning had been flawed, in the light of the Court of Appeal’s ruling in DLA Delivery, “the Examiner could lawfully have adopted a different route, holding that the strategic policies restricting housing development had become time-expired in 2006 and were now redundant, and could be disregarded.”
The claimants’ other grounds of challenge arose from detailed evidence and submissions that they had made on issues relating to SANGS land and relating to a landscape study on which a key policy in the draft plan was based. It is clear that the developers had approached both issues in some forensic detail. However, the judge was satisfied with the light-touch way in which the matters had been addressed in the report:
“It was sufficient that the Examiner recorded at paragraphs 2.4, 2.7 and 2.8 that he had considered all the written material submitted to him, together with the discussions at the public hearing, all of which provided him with sufficient information to enable him to reach his conclusions. The main points raised by the Claimants were adequately addressed in the report and the Examiner’s conclusions were made sufficiently clear.”
“The Claimants invited me to infer that the Examiner did not consider the Wates’ material because he did not refer to it. However, given the limited scope of his examination, he was not required to refer specifically to the evidence and representations presented by the Claimants, and the points raised therein. There was a large volume of evidence and these were not principal documents. It was sufficient that the Examiner recorded that he had considered the representations. He also stated at paragraphs 2.4, 2.7 and 2.8 that he had considered all the written material submitted to him, together with the discussions at the public hearing, all of which provided him with sufficient information to enable him to reach his conclusions.”
Faringdon Neighbourhood plan
Hoare v Vale of White Horse District Council (Deputy High Court Judge John Howell QC, 7 July 2017)
Here policy 4.5B in the draft plan sought to safeguard Wicklesham Quarry for employment uses following completion of quarrying and restoration activities on the site and to support such development on it provided that there is a demonstrable need for it, no other suitable site closer to the town centre is available and certain other conditions are met.
The claimant was a local resident objecting to the allocation.
The court took a similar approach as in Bewley to complaints as to the lack of general conformity with strategic policies in the local plan:
“The phrase “strategic policies” is, like “general conformity”, inherently imprecise, and it is not one in my judgment to which the court should seek to give a spurious degree of precision. Which policies in a development plan warrant that classification will inevitably involve a question of planning judgment that will be framed (but not necessarily exhausted) by the objectives of the particular plan and the policy’s significance in relation to their achievement and to the character, use or development of land in the area to which the plan relates which it seeks to promote or inhibit. The more central or important the policy is in relation to such matters the more likely it will be that it may be a “strategic policy” in that plan. Its identification as “strategic” or as part of the “strategic policies” in that plan may well provide a good indication of its significance. But the fact that it is not so identified does not necessarily mean that it is not a strategic policy and its identification as such does not necessarily mean that it is.”
The claimant also submitted that Policy 4.5B is about a “county matter”, which is a category of “excluded development” that cannot lawfully form part of a neighbourhood plan; and that the District Council erred in treating the quarry as “previously developed land” for the purpose of the NPPF.
The deputy judge held that the policy was not about a county matter, given that it sought to safeguard the Quarry for employment uses following the completion of quarrying and restoration activities on the site: “The provision which is excluded from a neighbourhood plan is not any provision about any development in respect of land which is the subject of a restoration condition or an aftercare condition. It is any provision about development which “would conflict with or prejudice compliance with” such a condition. There may be operations or uses that can be carried on on such land without doing so. Moreover there is nothing to preclude a neighbourhood development plan making provision about a development that may be carried out on land subject to such conditions but only after they have been complied with. That may in fact be desirable in order to provide guidance about the future use of the land. Thus in my judgment the mere existence of such conditions applicable to an area of land does not mean that no provision about that land may be made in a neighbourhood plan.”
The deputy judge agreed that the council had indeed been wrong to categorise the site as previously developed land, given the restoration condition. However, he did not consider that the error was material to the outcome of the plan and declined to quash the plan on that basis.
Not easy to challenge a neighbourhood plan, is it?
Central Milton Keynes Business Neighbourhood Plan
The Secretary of State issued his decision letter on 19 July 2017, granting planning permission to Intu Milton Keynes Limited for extension of the Intu Milton Keynes shopping centre. The application was supported by Milton Keynes Council but had been called in by the previous Secretary of State Greg Clark in November 2015, who indicated that for the purposes of determining the application he wished to be informed as to “the consistency of the application with the development plan for the area including the Central Milton Keynes Business Neighbourhood Plan”.
The Central Milton Keynes Business Neighbourhood Plan was England’s first business neighbourhood plan. Central Milton Keynes Town Council objected to the application. As part of its objections it sought to portray the proposals as contrary to policies of the Neighbourhood Plan seeking to protect semi-public open space in Midsummer Place and seeking to retain Central Milton Keynes’ classic grid pattern.
However, the Secretary of State agreed with his inspector’s conclusion that the application was “in accordance with development plan policies, including those in the Neighbourhood Plan, and is in accordance with the development plan overall”.
The inspector indicated that her finding was “based on a balanced interpretation of Policy CMKAP G3. Had I taken an absolute approach to the policy, the reduction in the quantity of semi-public open space, would have resulted in a breach of the policy. Nevertheless, the proposed development would have been consistent with the development plan as a whole. In the final instance the considerable benefits of the proposal would have been material considerations sufficient to indicate that it should be determined other than in accordance with the development plan”.
Buckingham Neighbourhood Plan
The Secretary of State declined to follow his inspector’s recommendation and, by his decision letter dated 17 July 2017, refused planning permission to Bellway Homes for a development of 130 dwellings in Buckingham. The inspector concluded that the neighbourhood plan was silent as to the proposed development of the application site. The Secretary of State disagreed:
“the larger housing sites, representing both the acceptable location and level of housing, are specifically identified and allocated in the BNDP. Both larger sites and the smaller windfall sites being confined to within the settlement boundary (HP7). The application site, being both unallocated and outside the settlement boundary, falls within neither category above and, as a consequence, the Secretary of State considers the proposals are not policy compliant. This is a policy conflict to which the Secretary of State attaches very substantial negative weight in view of the Framework policy (paragraphs 183-185) that neighbourhood plans are able to shape and direct sustainable development in their area and that where an application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan, planning permission should not normally be granted (paragraph 198).”
Barnham and Eastergate Neighbourhood Plan & the Walberton Neighbourhood Development Plan
Yet another application called in so that the Secretary of State could consider whether development proposals (for 400 dwellings as well as commercial development in Fontwell, West Sussex) were consistent with (here two) neighbourhood plans. The Secretary of State granted planning permission, by his decision letter dated 13 July 2017, finding that the proposals were indeed consistent, “subject to careful consideration at the reserved matters stage”.
In relation to each of these applications, call in by the Secretary of State on neighbourhood plan grounds has been directly responsible for significant delays, of at least 18 months. In each of the applications there has been significant debate, argument and uncertainty as to the meaning of neighbourhood plan policies – perhaps no surprise given the light touch, difficult to challenge, nature of the neighbourhood plans examination process.
Isn’t it time for a proper review of the costs and benefits of the neighbourhood plans system as it is currently operating?
Simon Ricketts, 22 July 2017
Personal views, et cetera