What Happened To The Beautiful Jigsaw? Government Policy v The Plan-Led System

“If we are doing things in parallel, it does mean when we get towards the summer we can make sure these things are knitting together properly and actually bring them together, with those pieces of the jigsaw starting to come together as one whole piece—hopefully, one whole beautiful piece as well” – Brandon Lewis, then minister for housing and planning, 24 February 2016, in evidence to the Commons CLG Select Committee – responding to concerns as to the various changes to the planning system then (and still) underway, including proposed changes to the NPPF, LPEG review and the Housing and Planning Bill (now an Act but still inchoate). (And he was referring to summer 2016…)
Of course a few other things happened to knock summer 2016 off course. But still we wait for the full picture and hence the growing frustration over continued delays to the Housing White Paper and speculation as to its contents.
“OK, that’s politics”, we may say, but is there a more fundamental, longterm, problem to be tackled?
“[M]inisters cannot frustrate the purpose of a statute or a statutory provision, for example by emptying it of content or preventing its effectual operation” (Supreme Court in R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 24 January 2017, para 51). 
On reading this, it struck me that there is a logical disconnect at the heart of the modern planning system. Section 38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 requires that decisions be taken in accordance with the statutory development plan “unless material considerations indicate otherwise”. However, the Government’s non-statutory NPPF, despite an amorphous status as a “material consideration”, somehow often ends up trumping the statutory plan (for example – currently – by way of para 49 deeming policies for the supply of housing to be regarded as out of date in defined circumstances, triggering the para 14 presumption and – under the changes consulted upon last year – by way of the proposed housing delivery test). From where does the NPPF gain its authority in our statutory plan-led system? What is to prevent an LPA from deciding to give its policies little weight and how does the resultant uncertainty help anyone?
The Court of Appeal in Suffolk Coastal District Council v Hopkins Homes, Richborough Estates v Cheshire East Borough Council  (Court of Appeal, 16 March 2016) set out the position as follows:
“The NPPF is a policy document. It ought not to be treated as if it had the force of statute. It does not, and could not, displace the statutory “presumption in favour of the development plan”, as Lord Hope described it in City of Edinburgh Council v Secretary of State for Scotland [1997] 1 W.L.R. 1447 at 1450B-G). Under section 70(2) of the 1990 Act and section 38(6) of the 2004 Act, government policy in the NPPF is a material consideration external to the development plan. Policies in the NPPF, including those relating to the “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, do not modify the statutory framework for the making of decisions on applications for planning permission. They operate within that framework – as the NPPF itself acknowledges, for example, in paragraph 12 (see paragraph 12 above). It is for the decision-maker to decide what weight should be given to NPPF policies in so far as they are relevant to the proposal. Because this is government policy, it is likely always to merit significant weight. But the court will not intervene unless the weight given to it by the decision-maker can be said to be unreasonable in the Wednesbury sense”
Whilst the statutory role of government guidance is clear in relation to plan-making (section 19 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 provides that “in preparing a local development document the local planning authority must have regard to…national policies and advice contained in guidance issued by the Secretary of State”) there is no such statutory signposting in relation to decision-making. 
It didn’t have to be this way. Consideration was indeed given to giving the NPPF statutory status as the Localism Act went through Parliament. The then minister of state for decentralisation Greg Clark stated in Public Bill Committee on 15 February 2011:
“There are some suggestions that a reference to the significance of the NPPF would be helpful. Against that, however, I have heard some concerns in our discussions that link to the points made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich about not taking a year zero approach to things and completely designing the system from scratch. One of the features of the present regime with which the right hon. Gentleman is familiar is the importance of section 38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. That provision establishes the primacy of the development plan, which obviously needs to be consistent with national policy. If we were to establish in the Bill a new primacy for national policy that is different from how we have managed in recent decades, I would want to be cautious that we did not introduce something, albeit with the best of intentions, that changed the accepted understanding of the importance of the primacy of the development plan and that, in effect, interferes with section 38(6) without good purpose. If there is a balance of advantage in the approach, I think we can contemplate it, but it behoves us to reflect carefully on the representations that have been made, which I undertake to do.

Scotland’s National Planning Framework has statutory effect pursuant to section 1 of the Planning etc (Scotland) Act 2006
In relation to infrastructure, we of course have a statutory regime of national policy statements  to set the framework for decisions in relation to development consent orders, with ten NPSs having been prepared so far pursuant to section 5 of the Planning Act 2008.
In contrast to these regimes, the NPPF can be amended with little Parliamentary scrutiny. 
The position is even worse in relation to written ministerial statements on planning policy matters, when one recalls, for example:
– Eric Pickles’ 20 May 2010 statement that the then intended abolition of regional strategies was to be a material planning consideration in decision-making, which led to Cala Homes (South) Limited v Secretary of State  (Court of Appeal, 27 May 2011). The court concluded that “…it would not be safe for the Court to assume that at this stage there are no circumstances in which any decision-maker could rationally give some weight to the proposed abolition of regional strategies. In view of the uncertainty created by the legal obstacles…[the need for Parliamentary process to be undergone and SEA]… and any decision-maker who does think it appropriate to give some weight to the Government’s proposal when determining an application or an appeal would be well-advised to give very clear and cogent reasons for reaching that conclusion, but that does not mean that there could be no case whatsoever in which any decision-maker might be able to give such reasons.

– Eric Pickles’ 28 November 2014 statement introducing the vacant building credit and small sites affordable housing threshold, which led to West Berkshire Council v Secretary of State  (Court of Appeal, 11 May 2016). Despite the absolute wording of the statement, it was interpreted by the court as necessarily admitting of exceptions, leading now to a mess of conflicting appeal decisions by inspectors, well documented by Planning magazine (27 January 2017 issue).
– Gavin Barwell’s 12 December 2016 statement amending (without prior consultation) the five year housing land supply threshold in para 49 of the NPPF, which has recently led to a judicial review being brought by a group of no fewer than 25 housebuilders and developers. 
Brandon Lewis’ statement at the outset of this post is quoted in the Commons CLG Select Committee’s review of consultation on national planning policy  published on 1 April 2016. The Committee responded to his optimism as follows:
“We welcome the Minister’s indication that any changes to the NPPF resulting from this consultation will be made during summer 2016, and that he intends to draw together the outcomes of the consultation with those of the other changes affecting the sector“. 

The Committee’s formal recommendations included: 

“As a priority the Department should publish clear timescales for the next steps for this consultation, including timescales for the Government’s response, implementation, and suitable transitional arrangements. If the changes to the NPPF are delayed beyond summer 2016, we expect the Minister to write to us to explain the reasons and provide updated timescales”

” As a matter of principle, we believe that when changes are made to the wording of a key policy framework such as the NPPF, there should be a two-stage consultation process: first on the overall policy, and subsequently on the precise wording which will give effect to the change. If there is no further consultation on the specific wording of the consultation proposals, it is essential that the Department listens carefully to concerns about ambiguity or lack of clarity in the revised NPPF, and provides clarification where required”

“To ensure that proper consideration is given to the impact of changes resulting from this consultation, and from other developments in the housing and planning sector, the Department should carry out a comprehensive review of the operation of the NPPF before the end of this Parliament. The review must include sufficient opportunity for appropriate consultation with stakeholders, and should follow a two-stage approach to consulting, first on general principles, and subsequently on precise wording.”
All sensible, but what a waste of energy. Nine months after the report there has been no Government response!

How are decision-makers meant to balance non-statutory, unstructured interventions from ministers with the outcomes pointed to by statutory planning policies? This surely a very difficult task for decision-makers and with the constant risk of unwelcome surprises for those at the sharp end. Personally, I would go further than the Select Committee’s recommendations and instil basic, legally binding, procedural discipline into ministers’ approach to policy making, given the risk that the statutory planning system is otherwise frustrated, emptied of content or prevented from effective operation (to use the words of the Supreme Court). 
Simon Ricketts 28.1.17
Personal views, et cetera

That Written Ministerial Statement

Gavin Barwell’s 12 December 2016 Neighbourhood Planning: Written Statement  has attracted criticism not just for its content, but for inserting significant changes to the operation of the NPPF without prior consultation and without indeed making an amendment to the NPPF itself. 
Paragraph 49 of the NPPF provides that:
“Relevant policies for the supply of housing should not be considered up-to-date if the local planning authority cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites.”
ie the presumption in favour of sustainable development in paragraph 14 is triggered. This means:
“where the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out-of-date, granting permission unless: 

    * any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole; or 


    * specific policies in this Framework indicate development should be restricted”


The December 2016 written ministerial statement provides, “…that relevant policies for the supply of housing in a neighbourhood plan, that is part of the development plan, should not be deemed to be ‘out-of-date’ under paragraph 49 of the National Planning Policy Framework where all of the following circumstances arise at the time the decision is made:

* This written ministerial statement is less than 2 years old, or the neighbourhood plan has been part of the development plan for 2 years or less;


* the neighbourhood plan allocates sites for housing; and


* the local planning authority can demonstrate a three-year supply of deliverable housing sites.”


It seems that consultation will take place in due course that will refine the policy, but in the meantime it takes immediate effect:

“Following consultation, we anticipate the policy for neighbourhood planning set out in this statement will be revised to reflect policy brought forward to ensure new neighbourhood plans meet their fair share of local housing need and housing is being delivered across the wider local authority area. It is, however, right to take action now to protect communities who have worked hard to produce their neighbourhood plan and find the housing supply policies are deemed to be out-of-date through no fault of their own.”

So, suddenly local authorities have an additional “get out of jail” card even where they cannot demonstrate a five-year supply – if the proposal is in a part of its administrative area that (1) has a neighbourhood plan that has policies for the supply of housing (including allocation of sites) and (2) if the local authority has at least a three-year supply of sites.


Local authorities with a dubious housing land supply position may now be immediately tempted to secure that neighbourhood plans within their area contain policies that echo their own housing supply/allocation policies!

Those determining applications and appeals will now need to grapple with the additional questions of whether the relevant neighbourhood plan includes policies for the supply of housing (a phrase that will be examined by the Supreme Court in February in the Hopkins Homes/Richborough Estates litigation) as well whether there is a three-year supply of deliverable housing sites (of course in some situations there may be a five-year supply but not a three-year supply, if the allocated sites have a long lead-in period but the lack of a three-year supply will be irrelevant if the five-year supply is there). 

It seems that the Government does not intend to amend the NPPF but to leave it to be read alongside the written ministerial statement. So much for the intent behind the NPPF in the first place, as described rather sceptically by the Court of Appeal in Hopkins/Richborough  (17 March 2016):
“”The “Ministerial foreword” concludes by stating that “[by] replacing over a thousand pages of national policy with around fifty, written simply and clearly, we are allowing people and communities back into planning”. Some judicial doubt has been expressed about that assertion. As Sullivan L.J. said in Redhill Aerodrome Ltd. v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government [2015] 1 P. & C.R. 3 (in paragraph 22 of his judgment, with which Tomlinson and Lewison L.JJ. agreed), “[views] may differ as to whether simplicity and clarity have always been achieved, but the policies are certainly shorter”. In an earlier case in which this court had to consider the meaning of the policy in paragraph 47 of the NPPF, City and District Council of St Albans v Hunston Properties Ltd. [2013] EWCA Civ 1610, Sir David Keene had expressed the view (in paragraph 4 of his judgment, with which Maurice Kay and Ryder L.JJ. agreed), that “[unhappily] … the process of simplification has in certain instances led to a diminution in clarity”.” (paragraph 8)
The lack of any intention to amend the NPPF is particularly disappointing given the fact that the Government consulted  in December 2015 over other proposed changes to the framework, which remain in hiatus pending the forthcoming Housing White Paper. If the document is to be updated, why not do the job properly (and clear up other ambiguities at the same time), rather than to allow people and communities to be shut out again from the process by having a supposedly comprehensive policy statement that is anything but?
Policy making by written ministerial statement  is understandably attractive for politicians. Indeed, since the changes to the Government’s consultation principles in January 2016  we can presumably expect much less consultation:
“Do not consult for the sake of it. Ask departmental lawyers whether you have a legal duty to consult…Do not ask questions about issues on which you already have a final view. “
A legal duty to consult often does not arise – if, for example, there is no specific statutory requirement, if there has been no prior indication that has lead to a legitimate expectation that there will be consultation or if the proposal is not a plan or programme to which the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive applies.  
The Government’s 28 November 2014 written ministerial statement that introduced the vacant building credit and affordable housing small sites threshold predated the Government’s amended consultation principles. It may well be that there was in fact no duty on the Government to consult. However, if a public body chooses to carry out consultation it must abide by judge-made rules of lawful consultation – the Sedley principles:
a)  Consultation must take place when proposals still at a formative stage;
b)  The public must be given sufficient information to allow for intelligent consideration and response;

c)  Adequate time must be given for consideration and 
response;

d) The consultation responses be conscientiously taken into 
account in finalising the proposal.

The adequacy of the consultation undertaken ahead of the 2014 statement was of one of the grounds of challenge in West Berkshire Council v Secretary of State  (Court of Appeal, 11 May 2016). Whilst the Court of Appeal found the consultation process to be lawful, that had not been the conclusion of Holgate J at first instance. No wonder the advice is now: if you don’t have to consult, don’t. Depressing for those who might hope that open debate leads to better policy making and fewer unintended consequences.

Simon Ricketts 29.12.16

Personal views, et cetera

4 Possible Improvements To The Planning System Using Black Box Thinking

If you’ve read Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking  , which you probably have, you’ll know that the theme is that people, teams and systems perform at their best when they learn continuously from mistakes and failures. The more complex the system, the more important it is that there is an open loop rather than closed loop culture. 

How to apply this to the planning system?
1. The Government should clarify the NPPF whenever necessary

I get it that consistency in overall policy direction is important. But it is scandalous that the ambiguities of this one document have caused and continue to cause such scope for disputes. Landmark Chambers keep a very useful digest of court rulings in relation to the interpretation of the NPPF. Just look at the hundreds of cases listed and reflect on the time, cost and delay that each has caused to public sector and private sector alike. 

Three examples, each of which could be immediately resolved with the insertion of a classificatory footnote:

– I am obviously pleased to be one of numerous lawyers acting in the Hopkins Homes v Suffolk Coastal; Cheshire East v Secretary of State and Richborough Estates litigation, to be heard in the Supreme Court in February 2017. But why is this hearing even necessary? The case turns upon whether the Court of Appeal was correct when it ruled on 17 March 2016 that when the Secretary of State wrote in para 49 of the NPPF “relevant policies for the supply of housing” this is to be properly interpreted as “relevant policies affecting the supply of housing”.

– Heading towards the Court of Appeal is Dartford Borough Council v Secretary of State  (Deputy High Court Judge Charles George QC, 21 January 2016), the issue being whether the court was right to conclude, from the inclusion of “residential gardens” in “built up areas” from the definition of “previously developed land” or “brownfield land” within the NPPF, that residential gardens in outside built up areas are not to be regarded as previously developed land. 

– Similarly currently heading to the Court of Appeal is R (DLA Delivery) v Lewes District Council  (Foskett J, 31 July 2015), on the question whether a neighbourhood plan can precede an up to date local plan. 

These are narrow points that do not require any wholesale re-writing of the NPPF. 

It is ironic that the gestation of the NPPF lies in the conservative party’s 2010 Open Source Planning document. This is far from open source planning.

Isn’t it also odd in the extreme for so many lawyers and planners to be attempting to make sense of what the NPPF really means, when this document is no Oracle of Delphi: it is a practical plan written on behalf of Government to express its desired political direction and the current Secretary of State no doubt has a view which can be simply expressed by way of footnoting the document!
2. Learn from experience



Legislative changes commonly are brought about with little by way of initial experimentation in pilot areas – save where the proposal is so outlandish (such as the idea of alternative providers of planning application processing services) that one suspects the pilot has been offered as a political compromise or to enable tactical retreat. 
The outcomes of pilots need to be rigorously reviewed, without preconception – and the pilot authorities need to be selected randomly, rather than those who volunteer. Would we have got into our current CIL mess with this approach? The more complex the system, the greater the inevitability of unanticipated outcomes. 
3. A more transparent system



I would hope that the Government’s chief planner Steve Quartermain receives on a say monthly basis a summary of:
– all Planning Court rulings which have found against the government

– all PINS reports where interpretation of government guidance, or application of procedure, has led to material uncertainty or problems

together with focused recommendations as to the corrections to policy or legislation that might as a result be made to stop that uncertainty or problem arising again. 

Does he?
Where problems are identified, they need to be addressed far more quickly. The current delay in relation to the CIL working party’s report is inexcusable. Furthermore, when changes are made they should always be made by way of consolidation of previous legislation. Anyone without a paid subscription to Westlaw or similar is at a complete loss in relation to the various iterations of the CIL Regulations. 
Equivalently, on a local basis why don’t LPAs have to consider, openly, what changes in policy or approach may be needed as a result of adverse appeal outcomes in their district or borough? Do members even regularly learn, on an impartial basis, of the reasons why appeals have been lost?
More broadly, there is little systematic transparency so that all can learn from each other’s experiences. Whilst individual reports and decisions can be found, one looks long and hard for any national list of inspectors’ reports on plans (including, as importantly, notes of preliminary meetings and correspondence with the LPA raising issues) and, for appeal decisions falling back on Compass (a premium rate service!), the planning press and word of mouth. How can this help drive understanding, change or consistency?
4. Allow schemes to improve during the application and appeal process



We are moving increasingly to a system where applicants are encouraged to have their schemes fully designed and “oven ready” at the outset of the formal application process, with amendments, particularly during the appeal stage, frowned upon. The PINS planning appeals procedural guide  says that amendments should only be made “exceptionally” at the appeal stage:
“If an appeal is made the appeal process should not be used to evolve a scheme and it is important that what is considered by the Inspector is essentially what was considered by the local planning authority, and on which interested people’s views were sought.”

But hang on – as long as interested people’s views are indeed sought, isn’t it a good thing if a scheme evolves, for the better, as a result of prolonged exposure to opposing views or further information that comes to light? Of course it may be administratively inconvenient but won’t it often lead to a better outcome? Yes, that may lead to delays during the application or appeal stage but that should be something for the applicant or appellant to take on board.

End of polemic. It was a good book anyway. 

Simon Ricketts

Personal views, et cetera

Avoiding Dover-type reasons JRs

Planning committees that resolve to approve planning applications against officers’ recommendations need to be careful not to fall foul of a JR if their reasoning is inadequate. The risks are particularly high in EIA cases and where there are other sensitive elements. Although Laws LJ described it as an “unusual case”, R (CPRE Kent) v Dover District Council & China Gateway International Limited  (Court of Appeal, 14 September 2016) should be a watchword for caution. 
The Court of Appeal quashed an LPA’s decision, taken contrary to officers’ advice, to approve a scheme for major development in the Kent Downs AONB. It was said to be uncontentious between the parties that “the scale of the proposed development is unprecedented in an AONB”. Officers had recommended that the scheme would only be acceptable with changes to its layout, which the applicant claimed would make the scheme unviable. The officers’ report analysed the issues in detail and set out out the policy tests in paragraphs 115 and 116 of the NPPF:
“115. Great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in… Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty…

116. Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated that they are in the public interest. Consideration of such applications should include an assessment of:

The need for the development, including in terms of any national considerations, and the impact of permitting it, or refusing it, upon the local economy;

The cost of, and scope for, developing elsewhere outside the designated area, or meeting the need for it in some other way;

Any detrimental effect on the environment, the landscape and recreational opportunities and the extent to which that could be moderated.”

The members’ reasoning for disagreeing with their officers’ recommendation was briefly summarised in the committee minutes, referring to the benefits flowing from the development, the belief that harm could be minimised with effective screening and concluding that the advantages outweighed the harmful impact on the AONB. 

The Court of Appeal summarised the relevant law on the standard of reasoning required of a decision maker, setting out the classic passage from South Bucks v Porter (No 2) (2004):

36. The reasons for a decision must be intelligible and they must be adequate. They must enable the reader to understand why the matter was decided as it was and what conclusions were reached on the ‘principal important controversial issues’, disclosing how any issue of law or fact was resolved. Reasons can be briefly stated, the degree of particularity required depending entirely on the nature of the issues falling for decision. The reasoning must not give rise to a substantial doubt as to whether the decision-maker erred in law, for example by misunderstanding some relevant policy or some other important matter or by failing to reach a rational decision on relevant grounds. But such adverse inference will not readily be drawn. The reasons need refer only to the main issues in the dispute, not to every material consideration. They should enable disappointed developers to assess their prospects of obtaining some alternative development permission, or, as the case may be, their unsuccessful opponents to understand how the policy or approach underlying the grant of permission may impact upon future such applications. Decision letters must be read in a straightforward manner, recognising that they are addressed to parties well aware of the issues involved and the arguments advanced. A reasons challenge will only succeed if the party aggrieved can satisfy the court that he has genuinely been substantially prejudiced by the failure to provide an adequately reasoned decision.”

The court referred to the recent judgment by Lang J in R (Hawksworth Securities plc) v Peterborough City Council  (Lang J, 26 July 2016) where she had taken a light-touch approach to scrutiny of LPA decisions partly on the perhaps weak basis that it would be “unduly onerous to impose a duty to give detailed reasons…given the volume of applications to be processed”. The court didn’t suggest that her reasoning was “wrong in principle” but that “Lang J’s approach needs to be treated with some care. Interested parties (and the public) are just as entitled to know why the decision is as it is when it is made by the authority as when it is made by the Secretary of State”. 

The court drew attention to features of the Dover case which pointed away from her approach:
– the nature of the development proposed as against the AONB policy tests

– the fact that the committee was departing from the officers’ recommendation, meaning that it should, “if but briefly”, engage with the officers’ reasoning

– the fact that here there was a statutory duty to give reasons by virtue of Regulation 24(1) of the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011  .
On the facts it was held that the reasoning was not adequate to show whether the Committee had accepted the officers’ assessment of the harm that would be caused, whether the Committee had gone wrong in carrying out a balancing exercise of harm versus benefits (which would not be sufficient to meet the policy tests) or how any screening would make a substantial difference. End of permission. 
A few concluding comments: 
1. An applicant in the happy position of having persuaded a committee to approve an application in the face of an officers’ recommendation to refuse should make sure that the committee’s reasoning is sufficient to address the main elements of the officers’ recommendations. Often this will not necessarily be the case. For example, at its most basic, varying approaches are taken by authorities as to the brevity of their minutes. If in doubt, err on the side of a full record of what was said. It is odd that many authorities still do not record debates digitally or make them available for subsequent scrutiny as a matter of course.

2. No reference was made in the judgment to the statutory duty on decision makers in section 85 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, in exercising or performing any functions in relation to, or so as to affect, land in an AONB, to “have regard to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the area of outstanding natural beauty”. It is a very broad test and I assume the court and the parties took the position that it was automatically met if the NPPF policy tests in paragraphs 115 and 116 were met. 
3. Regulation 24(1) of the EIA Regulations 2011 is one of many elephant traps in the planning system: 

“Where an EIA application is determined by a local planning authority, the authority shall—

(a)in writing, inform the Secretary of State of the decision;

(b)inform the public of the decision, by local advertisement, or by such other means as are reasonable in the circumstances; and

(c)make available for public inspection at the place where the appropriate register (or relevant section of that register) is kept a statement containing—

(i)the content of the decision and any conditions attached to it;

(ii)the main reasons and considerations on which the decision is based including, if relevant, information about the participation of the public;

(iii)a description, where necessary, of the main measures to avoid, reduce and, if possible, offset the major adverse effects of the development; and

(iv)information regarding the right to challenge the validity of the decision and the procedures for doing so.

These requirements are easy to overlook. 

4. Laws LJ concluded his judgment by remarking that the “scale of the proposed development is unprecedented in an AONB”. If I can be permitted a partizan remark, he would do well to see the implications of HS2 for the Chilterns AONB, in relation to which I would argue that the Commons Select Committee’s 22 February 2016 conclusions  were inadequate…
Simon Ricketts, 16.9.16

Personal views, et cetera

Sequential Test: Still Testing

The  “town centres first” sequential test in paragraph 24 of the NPPF still leads to much uncertainty as to its practical application. This post briefly summarises (largely just by cutting and pasting the relevant passages) the recent Warners and Aldergate court rulings and the Secretary of State’s Exeter decision letter, all from the last month alone.

But first, the paragraph:

“Local planning authorities should apply a sequential test to planning applications for main town centre uses that are not in an existing centre and are not in accordance with an up-to-date Local Plan. They should require applications for main town centre uses to be located in town centres, then in edge of centre locations and only if suitable sites are not available should out of centre sites be considered. When considering edge of centre and out of centre proposals, preference should be given to accessible sites that are well connected to the town centre. Applicants and local planning authorities should demonstrate exibility on issues such as format and scale

A little, but not much more, guidance is set out in the NPPG:

“It is for the applicant to demonstrate compliance with the sequential test (and failure to undertake a sequential assessment could in itself constitute a reason for refusing permission). Wherever possible, the local planning authority should support the applicant in undertaking the sequential test, including sharing any relevant information. The application of the test should be proportionate and appropriate for the given proposal. Where appropriate, the potential suitability of alternative sites should be discussed between the developer and local planning authority at the earliest opportunity.The checklist below sets out the considerations that should be taken into account in determining whether a proposal complies with the sequential test:

  • with due regard to the requirement to demonstrate flexibility, has the suitability of more central sites to accommodate the proposal been considered? Where the proposal would be located in an edge of centre or out of centre location, preference should be given to accessible sites that are well connected to the town centre. Any associated reasoning should be set out clearly.
  • is there scope for flexibility in the format and/or scale of the proposal? It is not necessary to demonstrate that a potential town centre or edge of centre site can accommodate precisely the scale and form of development being proposed, but rather to consider what contribution more central sites are able to make individually to accommodate the proposal.
  • if there are no suitable sequentially preferable locations, the sequential test is passed.”

This replaced more detailed practice guidance  which was withdrawn on 7 March 2014.

Warners Retail (Moreton) Ltd v Cotswold District Council & Ors [2016] EWCA Civ 606 (24 June 2016)

The Court of Appeal rejected a claim for judicial review brought by the owner of a Budgens store in Moreton-in-Marsh, seeking to quash a planning permission granted for an out of town food store. The arguments were around whether the applicant had been sufficiently flexible before rejecting as sequentially preferable an extension to the Budgens. (The permission was granted when the more detailed practice guidance was in place, hence references in the passages below).

Lindblom LJ:

“Under paragraph 24 of the NPPF both applicants and local planning authorities are expected to “demonstrate flexibility on issues such as format and scale”. What bounds can reasonably be set on an applicant’s preference and intentions as to “format and scale” in any individual case will always, and necessarily, depend on the facts and circumstances of that particular case. The policy in paragraph 24 of the NPPF should not be seen as prescriptive in this respect. It plainly is not.

Flexibility was also called for under the practice guidance, in somewhat more elaborate terms. It is very clear from paragraphs 6.42 and 6.45 that the identification of a relevant “need” or “need/demand” for the purposes of the sequential approach was not intended to be merely a self-serving exercise on the part of the developer himself. As paragraph 6.45 made plain, sites were not to be rejected on the strength of the “self imposed requirements or preferences of a single operator …”. Otherwise, the sequential approach would likely become a merely self-fulfilling activity, divorced from the public interest. It is also clear, however, that the authors of the practice guidance regarded the developer’s own intentions as generally having some bearing on the application of the sequential test. One sees this, for example, in paragraph 6.37 – in the reference to “the need or demand which the proposal is intended to meet”; in paragraph 6.42 – in the concept of “what aspect(s) of the need are intended to be met by the site(s)”, the recognition that a more central site does not have to be able to “accommodate precisely the scale and form of development being proposed”, and the need to consider what contribution such a site might make to “meeting the same requirements”; in paragraph 6.45 – in the reference to the “need/demand [the applicant’s] proposal is intended to serve”; and also in paragraph 6.46 – in the reference to “the scale/form of town centre uses proposed …” (my emphasis).

The only site said to have been a sequentially preferable alternative to Minton’s is the site of the Budgens store. It is not suggested that that site could have accommodated an additional food store of the kind assumed by Minton for the purposes of the sequential test, even if the permitted extension to the Budgens store were not built. In essence, Mr Warren’s argument was that the members should have asked themselves, but did not, whether the extended Budgens store could meet the identified need, and, if the answer was that it could, should have found that Minton’s proposal for an additional food store must fail the sequential test because there was no need for it. 

In my view that argument is untenable. It does not reflect the national planning policy and guidance bearing upon the council’s decision on the Minton proposal. In effect, it seeks to restore to national planning policy for retail development a test of need that has not been there since PPS4 replaced PPS6 in December 2009. That, of course, is not possible. Minton’s proposal did not have to be justified by a demonstration of need.

One of the grounds for the challenge was that the officer had wrongly treated the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Tesco v Dundee City Council  case on suitability as directly applicable to the NPPF notwithstanding differences in the language of the guidance north and south of the border.

“I think one must be careful here. The Government’s policy for the sequential approach in paragraph 24 of the NPPF and the practice guidance are not in all respects the same as the NPPG8 and development plan policies construed by the Supreme Court in Tesco v Dundee City Council. They are similar in broad intent, but they are not in identical terms. An obvious similarity, though the language is different, lies in the concept of “flexibility”. The requirement in the final sentence of paragraph 24 of the NPPF for both applicants and local planning authorities to “demonstrate flexibility on issues such as format and scale”, as amplified by the advice in paragraphs 6.42 to 6.46 of the practice guidance, bears some similarity to the requirements for “flexibility and realism” on the part of both developers and retailers and planning authorities in paragraph 13 of NPPG8 and the requirement for planning authorities to be responsive to the needs for retailers in paragraph 14. That much is clear. But one should not simply read across the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Scottish policies in Tesco v Dundee City Council as if it were the construction of the differently worded policy in paragraph 24 of the NPPF and the corresponding parts of the practice guidance. It is not.”

Aldergate Properties v Mansfield District Council and another [2016] EWHC 1670 (Admin) (8 July 2016)

The High Court quashed planning permission for a proposed out of town Aldi foodstore, following a challenge by the owner of a site in Mansfield town centre. The town centre had been ruled out by the applicant as a potential location, partly because there is already an Aldi store near to the centre and planning permission for another.

Ouseley J summarises parts of the planning committee report that, led to approval of the application, as follows:

“The Report continued, saying that as the application site was out of centre, a sequential assessment had to be carried out. The Report referred to the agreement that the exercise did not need to include sites covered by the catchment areas of the existing store on Nottingham Road or the recently permitted store at Leeming Lane South, to the south and north respectively of Mansfield town centre, because it was “unrealistic that Aldi would operate a store in close proximity to these existing and committed stores, and it would therefore be unreasonable to require a search for sites that would not make commercial sense for the operator”. 

The Report noted the centres and sites considered, and the reasons why they were not suitable. In order to be suitable for Aldi, sites needed to be at least 0.6 ha in size. The applicant was thought to have been fairly flexible in terms of more central sites, and in format and scale by looking for sites “which are slightly smaller than the application site”. Aldi’s reasoning for not being more flexible was based on Tesco Stores Limited v Dundee City Council, (dealt with below), set out in the Planning and Retail Statement with particular reference to paragraph 38 of the judgment, which focussed suitability on the developer’s proposals, not on some alternative scheme which might be suggested by the authority. The question, said the Report, was whether an alternative site was suitable for the development proposed, not whether the proposed development could be altered to fit an alternative site. The sequential test was thus passed and the principle of retail development acceptable. There was no separate discussion of impact.”

Ouseley J ruled that it was inappropriate to rule out the town centre as a potentially more suitable location, purely due to the identity of the proposed retailer:

“[…] In my judgment, “suitable” and “available” generally mean “suitable” and “available” for the broad type of development which is proposed in the application by approximate size, type, and range of goods. This incorporates the requirement for flexibility in [24] NPPF, and excludes, generally, the identity and personal or corporate attitudes of an individual retailer. The area and sites covered by the sequential test search should not vary from applicant to applicant according to their identity, but from application to application based on their content. Nothing in Tesco v Dundee City Council, properly understood, holds that the application of the sequential test depends on the individual corporate personality of the applicant or intended operator.

[…] NPPF [24] positively “requires” retail investment in the first place to locate in town centres rather than elsewhere. Its thrust is rather more emphatic than policies which advise developers and retailers to have regard to the circumstances of town centres, as in Tesco v Dundee [28]. It is the purpose of the planning system to control development, that is to permit, prevent, encourage, inhibit or limit and condition it, so that the individual private or commercial interest and the broader public interest meet in reconciliation however uneasily. NPPF [24] cannot therefore be interpreted as requiring “suitability” and “availability” simply to be judged from the retailer’s or developer’s perspective, with a degree of flexibility from the retailer, and responsiveness from the authority.

Third, and of critical importance here, still less can it be interpreted as envisaging that the requirement or preferences of an individual retailer’s trading style, commercial attitudes, site preferences, competitive preferences whether against itself or greater competition should dictate what sites are “suitable” or “available” subject only to a degree of flexibility. NPPF [23] and [24] are simply not couched in terms of an individual retailer’s corporate requirements or limitations. That would be the antithesis of planning for land uses and here, its default policies. It would take very clear language for such an odd result to be achieved.”

The applicant had accepted a condition that made the permission personal to Aldi. However, the judge held:

“This is not solved by the imposition at the end of the process of a condition restricting occupation to a particular retailer. That may be necessary for consistency of approach but it would reinforce the error of approach; instructively though it was opposed here by Aldi which had benefited from an approach unique to Aldi. The town centre remains where development is required; the out of centre development may inhibit or prevent a store coming forward in the town centre, and draw away town centre trade, trips, expenditure and vitality.

Fourth, there is a further reason why the identity of the applicant, as opposed to the sort of development it proposes, is not generally relevant to the sequential test. The sequential test in the NPPF is not just one of suitability; it covers availability: “only if suitable sites are not available, should out of centre sites be considered.” A town centre site may be owned by a retailer already, to use itself for retailing, who is not going to make it available to another retailer. It is plainly available for retailing, though only to one retailer. That does not mean that another retailer can thus satisfy the sequential test and so go straight to sites outside the town centre. “Available” cannot mean available to a particular retailer but must mean available for the type of retail use for which permission is sought.”

The judge had delayed handing down the judgment so as to be able to take into account the Court of Appeal’s ruling in Warners but found nothing in that to change the approach he was taking.
The Secretary of State’s decision letter dated 30 June 2016 in relation to the north of Honiton Road and west of Fitzroy Road, Exeter, site 

This was a recovered appeal in relation to a proposed district centre. The Secretary of State dismissed the appeal, partly because he agreed with his inspector that the more centrally located bus and coach station site was sequentially preferable and had been wrongly discarded.

The Secretary of State agreed that it was wrong to argue that the core strategy was “inconsistent with the NPPF, or out of date on the grounds that whether development is acceptable is now only to be determined by reference to the sequential and impact tests”. He agreed that the NPPF expects local plans to “fill the gaps” by meeting the criteria set out in paragraph 23 of the NPPF for policy making, including a network and hierarchy of centres. The core strategy defined local centres and the proposal would go beyond any reasonable of local centre for the purposes of the core strategy.

The inspector goes into an interesting analysis of the previous decision of the Secretary of State in Rushden Lakes dated 11 June 2014  distinguishing it on the basis that in that case the local plan’s settlement hierarchy policies were found to be out of date.

On the suitability of a potentially preferable site and whether sufficient flexibility had been shown, the Secretary of State says this:
“For the reasons set out at IR11.30-11.37, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that given no more than reasonable flexibility, the Bus and Coach Station site would be suitable for the town centre uses proposed for the appeal site (IR11.37). The Secretary of State has taken into account the Inspector’s reasoning at IR11.38-11.40. He agrees that there is no rationale for concluding that the site must be on the open market to any developer, and that the new retail floorspace would be marketed to traders who would occupy it regardless of who developed or owned the scheme (IR11.39). He further agrees that the requirement for a bus station and a leisure outlet on another part of the Bus and Coach Station site does not mean that the area earmarked for retail development is not available (IR40). Overall he considers that the Bus and Coach Station site is available.”

The inspector:

11.32 Tesco v Dundee looked at how the policy should be interpreted including flexibility. As above, it found that the question of suitability does require judgement but also that the purpose of flexibility is not to require the application to be transformed into something significantly different. Here, the proposed retail elements could be accommodated without disaggregation but the configuration of floorspace would need to be different to take account of the relative size of adjacent properties (their scale) and the floorspace would most likely need to be concentrated nearest to the existing PSA for commercial reasons. This would be no more than showing reasonable flexibility. 

11.33 To insist on the same requirement for parking and access in a town centre, which has ample existing parking, service roads and excellent links to public transport, would be unreasonable. Drive-through restaurants do feature within the definition of a town centre and so, to be suitable, it must be possible for these to be accommodated. Nevertheless, as with general access requirements for servicing and other vehicular needs, it would be no more than showing reasonable flexibility to accept that existing streets and access arrangements could provide part of the drive element of such a proposal if not the restaurant area. Moreover, drive-through restaurants are not fixed elements of the proposals as they do not feature specifically in the description of development, would not be a requirement of the suggested conditions, and could easily be varied to another use. The scheme would also include a gym which would fall within the health and fitness centres part of the NPPF definition. However, the Council’s contribution to the PHL as a whole includes a leisure centre. It was not suggested that an operator who might occupy the gym proposed for the appeal site would not be interested in a City Centre location, and there are already other gyms in Exeter.

11.38 The NPPF and the PPG both refer to availability with regard to the sequential test but neither clarifies how this should be defined. The appellant argued that the BCS is not available since CEH and the Council have agreed on a way forward and are unlikely to allow other developers a look in. The purpose of retail policy in NPPF 23 is to promote competitive town centre environments and manage the growth of centres. The NPPF test should not be used to prevent development unless a sequentially preferable site could actually deliver the proposals. 

11.39 However, there is no sound basis for finding that the BCS site is not available to traders and no rationale for concluding that the site must be on the open market to any developer. Providing PHL goes ahead, the new retail floorspace would be marketed to traders who would occupy it regardless of who developed or owned the scheme. The need for flexibility in the Judgment in Tesco v Dundee refers to retailers as well as developers and this strengthens the conclusion that available means for the development proposed not for the landowner hoping to carry out the development. Although on the separate point of specific locational requirements, the PPG does state that land ownership does not provide a justification for excluding a site. 

11.40 In the absence of any clearer interpretation, the preference in NPPF 24 should refer to availability to traders. It follows that it doesn’t matter who develops the site so long as it can provide the proposed level of shop floorspace. As above, the requirement for a bus station and a leisure outlet on another part of the BCS site does not mean that the area earmarked for retail development is not available. On this point as well, the BCS would be sequentially preferable.

Simon Ricketts 23.7.16

Personal views, et cetera

Brownfield Thinking

“Brownfield land” is right up there with “hard-working families” in terms of the political buttons that it presses. But what is it and what are the implications of land being “brownfield”?
There is no planning law definition other than the definition of “previously developed land” in the glossary to the NPPF:

“Land which is or was occupied by a permanent structure, including the curtilage of the developed land (although it should not be assumed that the whole of the curtilage should be developed) and any associated fixed surface infrastructure. This excludes: land that is or has been occupied by agricultural or forestry buildings; land that has been developed for minerals extraction or waste disposal by landfill purposes where provision for restoration has been made through development control procedures; land in built-up areas such as private residential gardens, parks, recreation grounds and allotments; and land that was previously-developed but where the remains of the permanent structure or fixed surface structure have blended into the landscape in the process of time”.

It may be a surprise to some that there is nothing in the definition that connotes “under-used”, “vacant” or “derelict” – the definition does not exclude land which is currently in occupation (save occupation by agricultural or forestry buildings).

It may also be a surprise to some that (just as large parts of the green belt are anything but green) brownfield land is often anything but brown. The definition only excludes “private residential gardens, parks, recreation grounds and allotments” to the extent that they comprise “land in built-up areas”. The High Court recently confirmed (although it’s obvious on the wording of the definition) that land used as private residential gardens, parks, recreation grounds and allotments in the countryside as opposed to “in built-up areas” comprises brownfield land (Dartford v Secretary of State, 21 January 2016).

The Government has set as a policy objective that 90% of brownfield land “suitable for housing” should have planning permission by 2020. It is seeking to achieve this by a number of policy initiatives, which include:

Housing and Planning Act: permission in principle

The Act provides for the establishment of a register (which the explanatory notes to the Act, rather than the Act itself, explains is intended by the Secretary of State to be a register of brownfield land which is suitable for housing development). Local authorities will be able to place land on the register if it meets criteria which the Secretary of State will set down. The Explanatory Notes accompanying the Act state that “the criteria prescribed by the Secretary of State could for example include that the land must be available already or in the near future for housing development, that it must not be affected by physical or environmental constraints that cannot be mitigated and that it must be capable of supporting 5 dwellings or more“.

The effect of being on the brownfield land register is that, by a general development order, the Government will give automatic permission in principle for certain specified types of site suitable for housing which are on the register, or which have been allocated for that purpose in other local plan documents. The details of what the criteria will be are left for the general development order. The detailed procedure that authorities have to follow in deciding what land goes on the register is also left for later regulations.

Strengthened NPPF policies

The Government has consulted on changes to the NPPF, which would:

– provide that “substantial weight should be given to the benefits of using brownfield land for housing (in effect, a form of ‘presumption’ in favour of brownfield land). We propose to make it clear that development proposals for housing on brownfield sites should be supported, unless overriding conflicts with the Local Plan or the National Planning Policy Framework can be demonstrated and cannot be mitigated” (paragraph 22)

– include an even stronger presumption for starter homes on unviable or underused brownfield land – “Alongside these proposals, we propose to widen the scope of the current exception site policy for starter homes to incorporate other forms of unviable or underused brownfield land, such as land which was previously in use for retail, leisure and non-residential institutional uses (such as former health and educational sites). This will provide clarity about the scope of the exception site policy for applicants and local planning authorities, and release more land for starter homes.” (Paragraph 40)

strengthen the starter homes exception sites policy – “To ensure there is greater certainty that planning permission will be granted for suitable proposals for starter homes on exception sites, we propose to be clearer about the grounds on which development might be refused, and to ensure that this is fully embedded in national planning policy. Specifically, we propose to amend the exception site policy to make it clearer that planning applications can only be rejected if there are overriding design, infrastructure and local environmental (such as flood risk) considerations that cannot be mitigated.” (Paragraph 42)

– support development of brownfield land in the green belt if it “contributes to the delivery of starter homes” (weaselly word, “contributes”!) as long as there is no substantial harm to the openness of the green belt. (Paragraph 53)

The consultation period has closed and we await what emerges…

PS ask a tax lawyer about brownfield land and you will get a very different answer based on its use as shorthand for reliefs available for remediation of contaminated land.
Simon Ricketts 8.6.16

Personal views et cetera