The exercise of the Secretary of State’s power to call in applications and recover appeals for his own determination is inherently politically charged.
This blog post focuses on two recent recovered appeals. The other reverse lottery, of call in, is for another day.
The Secretary of State’s policy as to recovering appeals is handily summarised in section 6 of the House of Commons briefing paper Calling-in applications (England).
Wavendon, Woburn Sands
If anyone thinks that the Secretary of State’s intervention in this case did anything other than, at the request of a fellow MP, frustrate or delay the delivery of homes in accordance with national policy, and in so doing place unjustified financial pressure on an SME housebuilder, then do let me know.
This relates to a relatively small proposal for the development of 203 homes at Woburn Sands, Buckinghamshire. The application was made to Milton Keynes Council in July 2016 and refused in December 2016, against officers’ recommendations.
The developer, Storey Homes, appeals. An inquiry takes place over six days in July 2017, with an extremely experienced inspector, David Cullingford.
The proposal is locally controversial, with various objectors appearing at the inquiry, including three councillors. I can only assume that objectors are spooked by the way the inquiry goes because in August 2017 the councillors then ask the then planning minister to recover the appeal for the Secretary of State’s own determination. The request is refused. But they don’t stop there.
As reported at the time in MK Citizen (2 November 2017) local Conservative MP Iain Stewart then writes a billet doux to the then Secretary of State:
“The letter […] starts with ‘Dear Sajid’, and thanks him for his “kind” email on Mr Stewart’s election to the government’s transport committee.
It states: “I implore you to intervene in any way you can to at least delay the announcement of the Inspector’s decision.”
It ends: “Yours ever, Iain”
Anyway the charm works, and the appeal is recovered on 31 October 2017.
There is then an elongated period of post-inquiry correspondence. The most significant issue was whether Milton Keynes Council could show five years’ housing supply or whether the NPPF tilted balance applied. All the evidence points to the position being as shown by the appellant at the inquiry – less than five years’ supply.
It turns out that the objectors were right to be worried by the way the inquiry had gone. When the Secretary of State published his decision letter on 5 December 2018, they could see that the inspector in his 2 February 2018 report had indeed recommended that the appeal be allowed, finding that there was less than five years’ housing supply and that taking all considerations into account he considered “that the planning balance in this case is firmly in favour of the scheme. The benefits of this sustainable housing proposal would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the adverse impacts elicited.”
But hey never mind, babychams all round, Mr Stewart’s intervention had done the job for the objectors because the Secretary of State’s decision was to reject the inspector’s recommendation and dismiss the appeal. On the basis of some not fully explained calculations, the Secretary of State determined that there was indeed five years’ supply: “Taking all these factors into consideration, he considers that on the basis of the evidence put forward at this inquiry, estimated deliverable supply is roughly in the region of 10,000– 10,500. The Secretary of State therefore considers that the housing land supply is approximately 5.9–6.2 years. He notes that on this basis, even if the emerging plan figure of 1,766 were used (1,854 with a 5% buffer added), as the agent proposes, there would still be an estimated deliverable housing land supply of over 5 years.”
This conclusion of course meant that the tilted balance in what is now para 11(d) of the 2019 NPPF did not apply, “the policies which are most important” for determining the appeal were not automatically to be treated as out of date and he could therefore find that the proposal “conflicts with development plan policies relating to development outside settlement boundaries and density. He further considers that it is in conflict with the development plan as a whole.
The Secretary of State considers that the housing benefits of the scheme carry significant weight and the economic benefits carry moderate weight in favour of the proposal.
The Secretary of State considers that the low density of the appeal proposal carries significant weight against the proposal, while the location in unallocated open countryside outside the development boundary of Woburn Sands carries moderate weight, and the impact on the character of the area carries limited weight. He further considers that the minimal harm to the listed building carries little weight and that the public benefits of the scheme outbalance this ‘less than substantial’ harm. The heritage test under paragraph 196 of the Framework is therefore favourable to the proposal.
The Secretary of State considers that there are no material considerations which indicate the proposal should be determined other than in accordance with the development plan. He therefore concludes that the appeal should be dismissed, and planning permission should be refused.”
Many would have given up this apparent lottery at that point, but all credit to Storey and to their legal team, Peter Goatley and James Corbet Burcher (No 5 chambers) together with Stephen Webb (Clyde and Co). The decision was duly challenged in the High Court and has now been quashed by Dove J in Wavendon Properties Limited v Secretary of State (Dove J, 14 June 2019)
The judge found the Secretary of State’s reasoning to be inadequate in relation to the critical question as to whether there was five years’ supply of housing land:
“All of these factors lead me to the conclusion that the reasons provided by the First Defendant in relation to the figure were not adequate in the particular and perhaps unusual circumstances of this case. By simply asserting the figures as his conclusion, the First Defendant has failed to provide any explanation as to what he has done with the materials before him in order to arrive at that conclusion, bearing in mind that it would have been self-evident that it was a contentious conclusion. Simply asserting the figures does not enable any understanding of what the First Defendant made of the Inspector’s conclusions which he accepted in paragraph 17 of the decision letter, and how they were taken into account in arriving at the final figures in his range.”
“I accept the Claimant’s submission that the need for the range to be in some way explained is not requiring reasons for reasons, it is simply requiring reasons for a conclusion which was pivotal in relation to the application of the tilted balance in this case, and which derived from figures which had not been canvassed as an answer to the question of what the Second Defendant’s housing land supply was anywhere in any of the material before the First Defendant prior to the decision letter.”
In passing, there are two other interesting aspects to the judgment:
1. An analysis of what is meant in paragraph 11(d) of the NPPF, when, separate from questions of five years’ supply, you are considering whether “the policies which are most important for determining the application are out-of-date“. Unsurprisingly, Dove J concluded that this is “neither a rule nor a tick box instruction. The language does not warrant the conclusion that it requires every one of the most important policies to be up-of-date before the tilted balance is not to be engaged. In my view the plain words of the policy clearly require that having established which are the policies most important for determining the application, and having examined each of them in relation to the question of whether or not they are out of date applying the current Framework and the approach set out in the Bloor case, an overall judgment must be formed as to whether or not taken as a whole these policies are to regarded as out-of-date for the purpose of the decision.”
2. The judge’s agreement with the Secretary of State that a section 106 planning obligation by the housebuilder to use its reasonable endeavours to build out the development within five years of the council approving the last reserved matters application was not a material consideration to be taken into account. One to return to, once perhaps we see the Government’s promised green paper on measures to improve delivery and other matters.
Of course the housebuilder is not yet out of the woods. Back the appeal will go to the Secretary of State of the day for redetermination as against whatever the housing supply position, and national policy position, happens to be at that time, whenever it will be. The problem doesn’t just lie in the arbitrary nature of the recovery process (it is particularly wrong that appeals can be recovered even after the inquiry has concluded) but with the glacial pace of appeals (until the anticipated brave new world of Rosewell) which means that no-one ever knows what the policy or housing supply/delivery position is going to be when any decision is finally taken, let alone which minister will be sitting at the relevant desk.
I note that an application by the housebuilder for specific disclosure against the Secretary of State did not need to be determined by the judge in the light of his ruling. No doubt this was for civil servants’ internal recommendations to ministers before those decisions were taken in relation to the appeal, including potentially its recovery in the first place. Now wouldn’t that make interesting reading?
Sainsbury’s, Cambridge Heath Road
Last week we saw another decision by the Secretary of State to dismiss an appeal against the recommendations of his inspector. This was the decision letter dated 10 June 2019 in relation to an appeal by Sainsbury’s following the non-determination by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets of its application for planning permission for “a replacement Sainsbury’s store, an ‘explore learning’ facility, flexible retail/office/community floorspace, 471 residential units arranged in 8 blocks, an energy centre and plant at basement level, 240 ‘retail’ car parking spaces and 40 disabled car parking spaces for use by the proposed residential units, two additional disabled units proposed at Merceron Street, creation of an east-west public realm route from Cambridge Heath Road to Brady Street and public realm provision and enhancements, associated highway works to Brady Street, Merceron Street, Darling Row and Collingwood Street and Cambridge Heath Road“.
Again, an experienced inspector, David Nicholson, had recommended approval in a nuanced report, following a lengthy inquiry. There was one issue where clearly he was not convinced by the proposals, namely the location of the affordable housing within the scheme:
“In describing the main entrance to the AH as poor doors, it drew attention not only to the simple design but also to the position of these at the north end of the scheme. Unlike the private units, this would put them at the greatest walking distances from public transport, shops and services. The podium barrier would not only divide the types of tenure, but also separate the amenity and play space areas as well as extend the walking distances (although access to these could be addressed through condition 43). Although more than one witness was questioned on this, no persuasive explanation was given as to why the units were separated in this way.”
The inspector pragmatically recommended that if the Secretary of State were to share these concerns “then he should seek an alternative arrangement through a further s106 Agreement“.
“To a very small extent this concern was addressed by the revised s106 Agreement which would include a few shared ownership units on the other side of the proposed barrier. Nevertheless, the location of vast majority of the AH, including all the rented housing, would be both at the far end of the site and altogether rather than integrated, and this counts heavily against the benefits of the AH“.
The Secretary of State in his decision letter appears to agree with almost all of the inspector’s conclusions but the “poor doors” concern appears to be the tipping point:
“The Secretary of State has further considered the fact that the social rented housing is positioned at the north end of the scheme, at the greatest walking distance from public transport, shops and services, and that the podium barrier would not only divide the types of tenure, but also separate the amenity and play space areas. He notes the Inspector’s comment that no persuasive explanation was given as to why the units were separated in this way (IR11.33). He agrees with the Inspector that to a very small extent this would be addressed by the inclusion of a few shared ownership units on the other side of the proposed barrier, and has taken into account that condition 43 requires the measures for providing access to be approved. Nonetheless the location of the vast majority of the affordable housing, including all the rented housing, would be both at the far end of the site, and all together rather than integrated (IR11.34).
In assessing the implications of this, the Secretary of State has taken into account that the Framework aims not just to deliver raw housing numbers, but to achieve healthy, inclusive and safe places (paragraph 91). He considers that the separation of the affordable housing, amenity and place space areas is not in keeping with the aims of paragraph 91(a) to achieve inclusive places that promote social interaction, including opportunities for meetings between people who would not otherwise come into contact with each other. The Secretary of State considers that this carries substantial weight against the proposal.
The Secretary of State has considered the Inspector’s comment at IR11.33 that if the Secretary of State shares his concerns, then he should seek an alternative arrangement through a further s.106 agreement. However, the Secretary of State notes that previous concerns about this matter which were addressed by a revised s.106 agreement only resulted in the inclusion of a few shared ownership units on the other side of the proposed barrier (IR11.34). He therefore considers that a seeking more fundamental changes via further revisions to the s.106 agreement is unlikely to be successful. He has also taken into account that other matters also weigh against a grant of permission. Overall he does not consider that a ‘minded to allow’ letter would be an appropriate approach in this case.”
He dismisses the appeal.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the proposal itself, was it right not to give the appellant a short opportunity to complete a further section 106 agreement so as to address this concern? On the one hand it could have led to an appropriate form of development that would deliver much needed housing. Or it could all have proved too much for the appellant to swallow, or too complicated without scheme changes, in which case at least the opportunity would have been given.
Presumably the scheme will now be reworked, at significant expense and delaying any start on site.
I thought we were in a housing crisis – more, better, faster? And yes of course the developer could have got the scheme “better” to begin with but no doubt with a hit to viability and therefore potentially the amount of affordable housing to be provided – that’s the balance.
But is there really no room for procedural solutions such as this? Or, in the case, of Woburn Sands, de-recovery?
Simon Ricketts, 15 June 2019
Personal views, et cetera