What are “very special circumstances” which may justify the grant of planning permission for inappropriate development in the green belt?
Of course there is no definitive answer to that question. As set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (this is about application of national policy, rather than a matter of legislation), it is for the decision maker to determine whether the potential harm to the green belt by way of inappropriate development (the NPPF defines what is “inappropriate”) is “clearly outweighed by other considerations”.
I highlighted the difficulties of calibrating terms such as “very special circumstances” and (the test for changing green belt boundaries by way of plan making) “exceptional circumstances” in my 9 May 2020 blog post Zen & The Art Of Very Special Circumstances and also referred to a number of recent decisions.
We have now had more.
Much has of course been written about the inspector’s decision letter dated 14 June 2021 in relation to a proposed residential development in Colney Heath, Hertfordshire (see eg my 19 June 2021 blog post People In Houses…).
I thought I would briefly point to the following other examples:
Focus School, Stoke Poges
This was an inspector’s decision letter dated 24 May 2021 relating to proposed works to a listed school, comprising “erection of a multi-purpose space and ancillary rooms, removal of existing modular classrooms, creation of a new footpath link with Khalsa Academy, creation of temporary construction access on School Lane and related landscaping, SUDS and other drainage works and associated works to 6 no. TPO trees.”
These were the inspector’s conclusions on “very special circumstances”:
“33. The proposal would be inappropriate development in the Green Belt. The Framework establishes that substantial weight should be given to any harm to the Green Belt, and development should not be approved expect in very special circumstances. In addition, I have found that the scheme would also have a modest adverse impact on the openness of the Green Belt and the significance of the listed building. Very special circumstances will not exist unless the harm to the Green Belt and any other harm are clearly outweighed by other considerations.
34. The other considerations before me are substantial and carry significant weight. I am satisfied that the need for the proposal to provide additional accommodation at the school for exams, assemblies and PE has been clearly demonstrated. Paragraph 94 of the Framework gives great weight to the need to expand or alter schools and pupils at the school are currently severely disadvantaged by inadequate facilities at Pioneer House. I am satisfied that there are no alternative locations within the existing building or alternative development proposals that could satisfy this need but result in less Green Belt harm or other material harm.
35. The harm to the significance of the listed building would be less than substantial, with reference to paragraph 196 of the Framework. Paragraph 193 of the Framework establishes that great weight should be given to the conservation of a heritage asset. The statement of common ground establishes that the Council is satisfied that the harm to the listed building would be significantly outweighed by the public benefits that the proposal would bring to the Academy as an educational facility, through the improved facilities it would deliver and improvements to how the Academy operates, and the experience it provides for its pupils. I see no reason to take a contrary view. I am therefore satisfied that the benefits of the proposal, which are significant benefits of a public nature, clearly outweigh the less than substantial level of harm.
36. I find that the other considerations in this case clearly outweigh the harm that I have identified. Looking at the case as a whole, I consider that very special circumstances exist which justify the development.”
Land west of Wingates Industrial Estate, Wimberry Hill Road, Westhoughton, Bolton (ref: 3253244 – 21 June 2021)
This was a decision of the Secretary of State in relation to an application, that he had called in, for a large employment development which Harworth Group had made to Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council. Bolton had resolved to grant planning permission on 10 January 2020. As described by the inspectors, B J Sims BSc (Hons) CEng MICE MRTPI and D M Young JP BSc (Hons) MA MRTPI MIHE:
“The Part A outline development concept is to form an extension to the Wingates Industrial Estate where the stated intention of the Applicant Company is to create a high quality employment park incorporating the range of uses described in the application and providing 100,000sqm of floorspace.
The Part B full application is to first remove some timber animal shelters and then to create the site access and form development platforms. This is in anticipation of future proposals for buildings, including one very large scale, key storage and distribution warehouse and a number of smaller units in a range of sizes. The detailed Part B works would also include boundary landscaping works and the creation of an ecological enhancement area at the north western end of the site.”
Other proposals were considered by the same panel of inspectors at four separate inquiries including the Symmetry Park proposal referred to below.
These were the Secretary of State’s conclusions on “very special circumstances”:
“33.For the reasons given above, the Secretary of State considers that the application is not in accordance with Policies CG7AP, CG1,CG3 and OA3 of the development plan, and is not in accordance with the development plan overall. He has gone on to consider whether there are material considerations which indicate that the proposal should be determined other than in accordance with the development plan.
34.The material considerations which weigh against the proposal are the harm to the Green Belt and the landscape and visual impacts. The Secretary of State affords the Green Belt harm substantial negative weight and the landscape and visual harm significant negative weight.
35.The Secretary of State considers that the evident need for development of the type proposed carries substantial weight, and the economic benefits of the proposal carry very substantial weight in favour of the scheme. He considers that the benefits of effective landscape mitigation, a net gain in biodiversity, sustainable drainage to obviate flooding concerns, off site highway works to accommodate generated traffic, new or diverted footpaths where affected by the development, improved bus services and enhanced pedestrian and cycle access to the site each carry limited weight.
36.The Secretary of State has considered whether the harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness, and the other harms he has identified, are clearly outweighed by other considerations. Overall, the Secretary of State considers that the economic and other benefits of the proposal are collectively sufficient to outweigh the harm to the Green Belt and to the landscape such that very special circumstances exist to justify permitting the development.
37.For the reasons given above the Secretary of State considers that the material considerations in this case indicate a decision other than in accordance with the development plan.
38.The Secretary of State therefore concludes that planning permission should be granted.”
Symmetry Park, Junction 25 of the M6, Wigan (ref: 3253242 – 21 June 2021)
This was another call-in decision, following an inquiry held by the same inspectors, into proposals submitted by Tritax Symmetry Limited to Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council, “for the demolition of existing buildings and reprofiling of the site for development comprising:
• Full planning permission for the erection of 27,871 square metres of employment floor space (Use Class B8 with ancillary integral Use Class B1a floor space), comprising two units and the provision of associated infrastructure including sub-station, car parking, landscaping, access from the A49 roundabout and internal estate road; and
• Outline planning permission for the erection of up to 106,095 square metres of employment floor space (Use Class B8 with ancillary integral Use Class B1a floor space), including car parking, internal estate road and landscaping. All matters except for access are reserved, with access proposed from the A49 roundabout.”
Wigan had resolved to grant planning permission in January 2020.
These were the Secretary of State’s conclusions on “very special circumstances”:
“41.For the reasons given above, and in the light of his conclusion in paragraph 43 of this letter, the Secretary of State finds no conflict with development plan policies, and thus concludes that the application is in line with the development plan overall. He has gone on to consider whether there are material considerations which indicate that the proposal should be determined other than in accordance with the development plan.
42.The material considerations weighing against the proposal are the definitional harm to the Green Belt by virtue of inappropriate development, the limited and localised harm to Green Belt openness and the moderate harm from encroachment into the countryside. The Green Belt harm carries substantial weight. Also weighing against the proposal is the moderate visual and landscape harm, which carries moderate weight.
43.Weighing in favour of the proposal are the delivery of logistics floorspace which he accords very substantial weight. The locational benefits carry further significant weight. The socio-economic benefits also carry substantial weight. The biodiversity net gain and highway benefits collectively attract moderate weight.
44.The Secretary of State has considered whether the harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness, and the other harms he has identified, are clearly outweighed by other considerations. Overall, the Secretary of State considers that the economic and other benefits of the proposal are collectively sufficient to outweigh the harm to the Green Belt and to the landscape such that very special circumstances exist to justify permitting the development. As such he finds no conflict with CS Policy CP8 or Green Belt policy in Section 13 of the Framework.
45.Overall the Secretary of State considers that the material considerations in this case indicate a decision which is in line with the development plan – i.e. a grant of permission.
46.The Secretary of State therefore concludes that planning permission should be granted.”
We will continue to see decisions like this, and those referred to in my blog post last year, for so long as local plans do not properly meet the needs for development and/or manage green belt boundaries, although:
⁃ the value of call-ins versus the cost and delays arising may be another question, and
⁃ It is a brave local authority that even attempts to plan for release – see e.g. Green Belt housing plans approved by councillors (Enfield Dispatch, 12 June 2021) and the surrounding brouhaha.
Meanwhile of course the rather dull debate continues as to whether there should be a proper reconsideration of green belt policy – dull only because it is clear how politically toxic (and therefore utterly hypothetical as an idea, whatever its merits) this would be. The HCLG Select Committee’s June 2021 report The future of the planning system in England recommended:
“We agree with evidence that called for the protection of the green spaces in the Green Belt; whilst also recognising that not all Green Belt land are green spaces. A review should examine the purpose of the Green Belt, including whether it continues to serve that purpose, how the public understand it, what should be criteria for inclusion, and what additional protections might be appropriate. The creation of new Local Plans also provides an opportunity for local reviews of Green Belts and the Government should help identify those local authorities where such reviews are particularly urgent. Local Plans can also relieve pressure on Green Belts by prioritising developments on brownfield sites. The Government should ensure there is sufficient funding provided to support their decontamination.”
That recommendation was roundly rejected by housing minister Christopher Pincher in the House of Commons on 14 June 2021:
“We are committed not only to protecting the green belt but to enhancing it, and those protections will remain in force when we bring in planning reforms. I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that we will not be taking the advice of the Select Committee, which suggested that we should undertake a wholesale reform of the green belt. We have committed to protect it, and so we shall, because only in exceptional circumstances may a local authority alter a green-belt boundary, using its local plan and consulting local people on where essential new housing should go, and it needs to show real evidence that it has examined all other reasonable options before proposing to release the green belt. We are committed to the green belt, and we will fight for it.”
i.e. , when it comes to any green belt reform, the Government will continue to…
Simon Ricketts, 25 June 2021
Personal views, et cetera
This week’s Clubhouse Planning Law Unplanned session will be at 5pm on Monday, so as not to draw too many people from the Tuesday evening football. We celebrate Pride month with Planning with Pride. There will be a series of special guests from the planning world, curated by my Town colleague Spencer Tewis-Allen. We would love your support. An invitation to the app and event is here.