“Mind blowing decisions causes head on collisions
Mind blowing decisions causes head on collisions”
The Secretary of State’s 6 April 2023 decision to refuse planning permission for Berkeley Homes’ proposed development of 165 new dwellings in Cranbrook, Kent (a decision in fact taken by planning minister Rachel Mclean on behalf of the Secretary of State) = a head on collision for sure.
Tunbridge Wells Borough Council had resolved to approve the scheme but Natural England, concerned as to the prospect of harm to the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, secured its call in by the Secretary of State.
The council has slightly less than five years’ housing land supply. The scheme included 40% affordable housing: 50/50 rented and shared ownership.
To cut a long story short (read the decision letter and inspector’s report), the Secretary of State disagreed with the inspector’s recommendation that planning permission be granted.
On the main issues:
⁃ AONB: “Overall the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector at IR823 that there would be some harm to the HWAONB, which would be limited, and that the harm to the landscape and scenic beauty of the HWAONB attracts great weight.”
Tucked within his conclusions on AONB this turns out to be a crucial passage in the decision:
“The Secretary of State recognises that both the HWAONB Management Plan and the High Weald Housing Design Guide emphasise that housing development in the HWAONB should be landscape-led. Whilst he agrees with the Inspector that the proposed development would deliver landscape enhancements (IR826), he does not find the proposal to be of a high standard which has evolved through thoughtful regard to its context (IR723). Overall, he does not find that the scheme is sensitively designed having regard to its setting. He finds that the design of the proposal does not reflect the expectations of the High Weald Housing Design Guide, being of a generic suburban nature which does not reproduce the constituent elements of local settlements. He also considers that the layout of the scheme does not respond to its AONB setting. Rather than being a benefit of the scheme, as suggested by the Inspector, the Secretary of State considers that the design of the scheme is a neutral factor in the context of paragraphs 176 and 177 of the Framework and the planning balance.”
Not “sensitively designed”? “… of a generic suburban nature”? It’s worth looking at the scheme drawings, design and access statement etc on the council’s planning portal. I would disagree. More fundamentally, there is something very odd about a minister (and civil servants) arriving at a conclusion like this, in the face of the elected local planning authority and hands on consideration, site visits and so on conducted at that stage and in the face of the conclusions reached by an inspector after many inquiry days and a site visit. And in the face of Government assertions that it still wants to see 300,000 homes built annually. Frankly why bother with all that if this is the outcome?
⁃ Air quality: “…there would be very limited harm to air quality, and he affords this very limited weight in the planning balance.”
⁃ Site allocation strategy: Whilst he agreed with the inspector that the local plan policies should be treated as out of date because of the lack of five years’ housing supply, because the shortfall was slight he disagreed with the Inspector’s assessment that both the policies and the conflict with them carry limited weight.
⁃ Historic environment: “For the reasons given at IR767-774 the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector at IR773 that the proposed development would not harm any significant historic landscape resource and all of the individual features which could be of potential interest would be retained.”
⁃ Sustainable transport: “For the reasons given at IR790-793 the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that the development would promote sustainable transport in the terms of the Framework and accord with relevant development plan policy in that regard (IR794).”
Turning to the benefits of the scheme:
⁃ Housing delivery: “For the reasons given at IR763-764 the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that there is a clear need for both market and affordable housing in the Borough and that the proposed development would make a significant contribution to the delivery of both (IR764).”
⁃ Biodiversity: “…the proposed development would secure significant BNG such that it would accord with the Framework, including paras 174, 179 and 180 and development plan policy, as well as the eLP, in this regard (IR747).
⁃ Other benefits: “The Secretary of State agrees for the reasons given at IR774, IR720 and IR811 that the proposed reinstatement of hedgerows along historic boundaries and of the shaw in the southern fields would be beneficial to the time-depth character of the HWAONB (IR774). Furthermore, the proposed re-creation of Tanner’s Lane would also be beneficial in heritage terms as it would reinstate a historic feature in the local landscape (IR774). The Secretary of State agrees for the reasons given at IR720 and IR811 that the new woodland planting and management of existing woodland would be to the benefit of the environment and landscape. He further agrees for the reasons given at IR786 that the proposed highway works may result in improving highway safety. In addition, for the reasons given at IR811 the additional footpaths and substantial new publicly accessible amenity space would enhance recreational opportunities.”
Overall conclusion on benefits:
“The Secretary of State has had regard to the Inspector’s view at IR824 as to weight attaching to the benefits of the scheme, and notwithstanding his conclusion at paragraph 36 below that there is not a ‘very compelling case’ for the need for development of this type and in Cranbrook, overall he agrees that the combined weight of the benefits is substantial. However, he does not agree with the Inspector’s characterisation at IR826 that it constitutes ‘a package of exceptional benefits’.”
So “the combined weight of the benefits is substantial”….
Application of policies in the NPPF relating to development in the AONB:
⁃ Great weight should be given to conserving and enhancing landscape and scenic beauty in AONBs – conclusion that limited harm but that harm should be given great weight.
⁃ Planning permission for major development in the AONB should be refused unless there are exceptional circumstances justifying the development, and where it can be demonstrated that the development is in the public interest – no exceptional circumstances, not in the public interest.
“Weighing in favour of the development are the need for and delivery of housing, the Biodiversity Net Gain, enhanced recreation opportunities, improvements in highway safety, heritage benefits to the historic landscape and landscape benefits by way of woodland planting and management, which collectively carry substantial weight.
Weighing against the proposal is the harm to the landscape and the scenic beauty of the HWAONB which attracts great weight. There is further harm by way of conflict with the spatial strategy which attracts moderate weight, harm to air quality which is afforded very limited weight and harm to the plan making process through prematurity which is afforded very limited weight.
The Secretary of State has concluded for the reasons given above that exceptional circumstances do not exist to justify the proposed development in the AONB and that the development would not be in the public interest. Therefore, paragraph 177 of the Framework provides a clear reason for refusing the development proposed and as such under paragraph 11(d)(i) of the Framework the presumption in favour of sustainable development is no longer engaged.
Overall, the Secretary of State’s conclusion on section 38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 is that the conflict with the development plan and the material considerations in this case indicate that permission should be refused.”
The decision appears to have been the final straw for housebuilders, already riled by the overtly anti-housebuilding theme of the proposed amendments to the NPPF (final version soon to emerge). See for example Builders lambast Michael Gove after he blocks plan for ‘generic’ homes in Kent (The Times, 15 April 2023 – behind paywall).
There were no costs applications in this decision but I do note that costs applications and awards appear to becoming more frequent. Often of course these are in favour of appellants where the case against grant of planning permission simply has not been made out by the relevant local planning authority (particularly where the decision to refuse was against officers’ recommendations) – e.g for one example amongst many this decision letter dated 20 April 2023, plus accompanying costs decision letter in relation to a student housing scheme in Bath.
But it’s not just appellants who achieve costs awards. Did people see this recent costs decision letter where Mid Suffolk District Council achieved a full award of costs against the appellant, arising from flooding and access issues which led the inspector to conclude that the appeal had no reasonable prospect of success? Proceed with caution.
By way of reminder (ok gratuitous plug), if you sign up to our free Town Library appeal decisions service you get a list each week of the most recent major planning appeal decisions (namely all those arising from inquiries as opposed to hearings or the written representations process) with links to the decision letters themselves.
Oh finally, another mind blowing decision: the Government continuing to press on with the proposed Infrastructure Levy. Truly a terrible proposal. You may have logged on to our recent clubhouse discussion (hopefully soon to emerge as a 50 Shades of Planning podcast), ahead of the 9 June deadline for responses to the Government’s current technical consultation. If there is anyone out there who can articulate why IL would be an improvement over the current system I would love to hear from you.
Simon Ricketts, 22 April 2023
Personal views, et cetera