Zen & The Art Of Very Special Circumstances

“The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality. The tree that you are aware of intellectually, because of that small time lag, is always in the past and therefore is always unreal. Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality.”

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig is a powerful but infuriating book, part fictionalised roadtrip autobiography, part philosophical discourse. Back when I was prepared to read something I didn’t really understand without first having an engagement letter in place, I absolutely loved it.

The book has become an unlikely cultural icon.

As has the green belt, which might have been treated in the book something like this:

What is the green belt and why do people write it as “the Green Belt”? He explained that the green belt is not singular but plural; it was originally described as a girdle rather than a belt, and is better described as a series of urban containment zones. Much of the land within the green belt is not green; much greenfield land (which can include land which is brown but not brownfield) is not within the green belt, and beyond the green belt was originally white land, which was of course never white. To pronounce land to be green belt is so powerful that many people sense that to refer to it as green belt rather than Green Belt is somehow inadequate or disrespectful, notwithstanding usual grammatical rules (a phenomenon which we also experience with references to Inspectors and Inquiries, and, oddly, Counsel).

How do I find the green belt? He sighed. One cannot find it by looking. Its defining features are present by their absence. Instead its existence can only be determined by opening up the relevant development plan, or rather, because the plan is not a plan, the policies map which is not part of the plan (and indeed the green belt around York is defined by an abolished plan which has no map with defined boundaries). Its quality of openness indeed has been determined by the Supreme Court [proper noun] as a quality which can not necessarily be seen.

He sighed again. Green belt was the yin and new towns were to be the yang.

A local planning authority may only make changes to a green belt boundary if there are “exceptional circumstances” and may only grant planning permission for inappropriate development in the green belt if there are “very special circumstances”. The qualifying adjectives are uncalibrated, so the courts have had to make the best of it (my 27 January 2018 blog post Expletive Deleted: Revising Policy was all about these sorts of linguistic problems). We have of course the Calverton ruling on “exceptional circumstances” and Dove J’s more recent ruling in the Guildford local plan case (covered in episode 6 of Heather Sargent’s planning law video podcast series Planning Law Tea Break and in Zack Simons’ #planoraks blog post Guildford’s Local Plan and “exceptional circumstances” (29 March 2020)).

As Dove J made clear in the Guildford case,

“Exceptional circumstances” is a less demanding test than the development control test for permitting inappropriate development in the Green Belt, which requires “very special circumstances.”

He can only derive this from the policy context though, not the words. Is something exceptional less rare or valuable than something which is very special? My policy test calibrator, part-constructed in the garage, would have a dial to 10. Overcoming a normal presumption is anything over 5. Exceptional is, what, about 7, maybe 8, depending on circumstances? Where do you place very special? 8.5 or 9? Of course this is largely nonsense but people trot out the tests, and understandably ask, as if there is an actual answer.

More basically why don’t we have a formulation such as “wholly exceptional circumstances” rather than “very special circumstances”? After all, we do when it comes to heritage (see the contrast between NPPF paras 194(a) and (b)). Well only because the original 1955 ministerial Circular used the term “very special circumstances”:

“Inside a green belt, approval should not be given, except in very special circumstances, for the construction of new buildings or for the change of use of existing buildings for purposes other than agriculture, sport, cemeteries, institutions standing in extensive grounds, or other uses appropriate to a rural area”.

Slightly embellished (particularly in relation to limited infilling and the redevelopment of previously developed land), this language is still recognisable in NPPF para 145.

There is a second level of uncertainty with the use of these tests: not only is the linguistic calibration imprecise, but it is for the decision maker to determine, with adequate reasoning (which may be very basic and not really susceptible to challenge), whether the circumstances are sufficiently “exceptional” or “special”.

Of course the reality is that the fuzziness is deliberate. It allows decision makers, whether the Government or local planning authorities, some necessary wriggle room.

Some recent decisions on “very special circumstances”:

North of Boroughbridge Road, York – inspector’s decision letter 23 October 2019

In finding “very special circumstances” the inspector appears to have relied upon the fact that the site did not fulfil any of the green belt “purposes”, was identified for release for housing in the emerging local plan and that the site would deliver 266 market and affordable homes. The housing land supply in York is well under 5 years (although of course the tilted balance does not apply in relation to green belt proposals).

Since former planning minister Brandon Lewis’s 17 January 2014 ministerial statement we have been wary about relying solely on housing need:

“I also noted the Secretary of State’s policy position that unmet need, […] for conventional housing, is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt and other harm to constitute the “very special circumstances” justifying inappropriate development in the green belt.”

The statement has not formally been revoked, so, back to that deliberate fuzziness, here “unlikely” is still the get out word in that it allows for exceptions (where is “unlikely” on the policy test calibrator?), or identifying something other than solely housing need to throw into the scales to assist the “very special circumstances” argument.

Seashell Trust – Stanley Road, Cheadle Hume, Stockport – Secretary of State’s decision letter 22 April 2020

“The Secretary of State considers the need for the redevelopment of the Special Educational Need school carries substantial weight, the housing benefits overall carry very significant weight, and the provision of employment and community benefits each carry moderate weight.

The Secretary of State considers that the above benefits clearly outweigh the harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness and any other harm, and so very special circumstances exist to justify this development in the Green Belt.”

Oxford Brookes University – Wheatley Campus, College Close, Wheatley, Oxford – Secretary of State’s decision letter 23 April 2020

“The Secretary of State considers that the significant visual benefit to openness over a wide area of the South Oxfordshire Green Belt [by removal of a tower and other large, unsightly structures on the site] and the delivery of up to 500 houses, 173 of which would be affordable, are both considerations that carry very substantial weight.”

West Midlands Rail Freight Interchange DCO – Secretary of State’s decision letter 4 May 2020

“67. The Secretary of State agrees with the Examining Authority that the strategic benefits of the Proposed Development in contributing to an expanded network of SRFIs would assist in achieving and promoting a modal shift of freight from road to rail, thereby playing an important part in the move to a low carbon economy. These benefits are such that they outweigh the adverse impacts identified in relation to the construction and operation of the Proposed Development (ER 9.3.1).

68. The Secretary of State notes and agrees with the Examining Authority that the national and regional need for the proposed development outweighs any harm. He therefore agrees with the Examining Authority that the very special circumstances needed to justify a grant of development consent have been demonstrated (ER 9.2.4).”

Recommended further media:

⁃ My 30 March 2018 blog post Green Belt Developments (although this was before the Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeal in the Samuel Smith “openness” case)

Five circumstances ‘exceptional’ enough to justify green belt release in local plans, Stuart Watson, Planning (7 May 2020, £)

⁃ 50 Shades of Planning Podcast – Green Belt. Sacred Cow (22 April 2020)

⁃ (As always) John Grindrod’s book Outskirts. (Now, Mr Pirsig, that’s how you write a part autobiography, part treatise on the history of the green belt, life and everything.)

Simon Ricketts, 9 May 2020

Personal views, et cetera

Great Buddha of Kamakura, Japan.

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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