Green Belt Developments

This month’s green belt news: two Court of Appeal rulings, a Secretary of State decision letter and of course the draft revised NPPF.
Brown v London Borough of Ealing (Court of Appeal, 23 March 2018) was a judicial review of a local authority’s grant of planning permission for a first team training and academy facility for Queen’s Park Rangers, sports pitches, community facilities and associated development at Warren Farm Ealing, on metropolitan open land (where of course green belt policy tests apply).

One of the two grounds of challenge was “whether the officer’s conclusion, accepted by the committee, that “very special circumstances” existed to justify the grant of planning permission for “inappropriate development” on Metropolitan Open Land was bad in law“. 
Paragraph 88 of the current NPPF states:
When considering any planning application, local planning authorities should ensure that substantial weight is given to any harm to the Green Belt. ‘Very special circumstances’ will not exist unless any potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations.”
Following Redhill Aerodrome Ltd. v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Court of Appeal, 24 October 2014), it is well established that the expression “any other harm” does not just mean any other harm to the green belt but takes in non- green belt factors as well. The question for the court in Brown was whether the officer had taken this correctly on board. It was submitted by the claimant that the structure of the officer’s conclusions suggested that she had either excluded non green belt harm such as loss of public access or that she had double-counted by concluding that the proposed improvements to community facilities would balance out that harm, when she had already taken into account the same factor as part of the “very special circumstances” arising. The court disagreed. The report had to be interpreted “with reasonable benevolence and realism, and not in an overly legalistic way“. The officer had properly applied the approach that the Redhill judgment requires and on the double-counting point:

“In principle, it is possible for a particular factor to be relevant, and to carry appropriate weight, in the consideration of more than one planning issue. It may serve to avoid or overcome or, at least, outweigh some real or potential planning harm, and it may also satisfy some planning need that would otherwise go unmet”

“This was not, in any sense, “double-counting”. Rather, the officer’s conclusions point up the two-fold relevance of the improvement to recreational facilities at Warren Farm as a material consideration – to which appropriate weight had to be given in two respects, not merely in one. The officer was entitled to conclude, as a matter of planning judgment, that in the context of “Public Access”, given the availability of other publicly accessible open space nearby, the balance of relevant benefit – improved sports facilities for the local community – against disadvantage – the “loss” of public access for recreation – fell in favour of the development. I do not accept that this benefit was immaterial in that particular context; it was, I think, plainly a relevant consideration there. The officer was also entitled to conclude, again as a matter of planning judgment, that in the “very special circumstances” balance itself, the ability of the development to meet a need identified in development plan policy – the general need for investment in improved sports facilities, and specifically the need for such investment at Warren Farm – was a consideration to which weight should be given on the positive side of that balance. These conclusions were not in tension or conflict with each other. They were distinct from each other, but mutually consistent. They do not show a material consideration being given double weight, only a single factor being given due weight in two different respects: first, outweighing a “loss” that would be caused by the development itself; second, meeting an existing need that would not be satisfied without the development.”
Samuel Smith Old Brewery (Tadcaster) Limited v North Yorkshire CC (Court of Appeal, 16 March 2018) was the latest piece of litigation instigated by Yorkshire brewer and serial litigator Humphrey Smith. This time the target of Mr Smith’s attention was a planning permission granted for the extension of a limestone quarry in the green belt about a mile from Tadcaster. The claimant argued that the council had misapplied paragraph 90 of the NPPF, which states mineral extraction is not “inappropriate development” in the green belt if it preserves the openness of the green belt. 
The officer had approached the question of “openness” in this way:
“It is considered that the proposed development preserves the openness of the Green Belt and does not conflict with the purposes of including land within the Green Belt. Openness is not defined, but it is commonly taken to be the absence of built development. Although the proposed development would be on existing agricultural land, it is considered that because the application site immediately abuts the existing operational quarry, it would not introduce development into this area of a scale considered to conflict with the aims of preserving the openness of the Green Belt.

In terms of whether the proposed development does not conflict with the purposes of including land within the Green Belt, the proposed quarrying operations are not considered to conflict with the purposes of including land within the Green Belt. Equally, it is not considered that the proposed development would undermine the objective of safeguarding the countryside from encroachment as it should be considered that the site is in conjunction with an operational quarry which will be restored. The proposed development is a temporary use of land and would also be restored upon completion of the mining operations through an agreed DRMP.

The purposes of including land within the Green Belt to prevent the merging of neighbouring towns and impacts upon historic towns are not relevant to this site as it is considered the site is adequately detached from the settlements of Stutton, Towton and Tadcaster. It is also important to note that the A64 road to the north severs the application site from Tadcaster.”
The court found that this was indeed a misinterpretation of paragraph 90:
“The concept of “the openness of the Green Belt” is not defined in paragraph 90. Nor is it defined elsewhere in the NPPF. But I agree with Sales L.J.’s observations in Turner to the effect that the concept of “openness” as it is used in both paragraph 89 and paragraph 90 must take its meaning from the specific context in which it falls to be applied under the policies in those two paragraphs. Different factors are capable of being relevant to the concept when it is applied to the particular facts of a case. Visual impact, as well as spatial impact, is, as Sales L.J. said, “implicitly part” of it. In a particular case there may or may not be other harmful visual effects apart from harm in visual terms to the openness of the Green Belt. And the absence of other harmful visual effects does not equate to an absence of visual harm to the openness of the Green Belt.

As a general proposition, however, it seems to me that the policy in paragraph 90 makes it necessary to consider whether the effect of a particular development on the openness of the Green Belt can properly be gauged merely by its two-dimensional or three-dimensional presence on the site in question – the very fact of its being there – without taking into account the effects it will have on the openness of the Green Belt in the eyes of the viewer. To exclude visual impact, as a matter of principle, from a consideration of the likely effects of development on the openness of the Green Belt would be artificial and unrealistic. The policy in paragraph 90 does not do that. A realistic assessment will often have to include the likely perceived effects on openness, if any, as well as the spatial effects. Whether, in the individual circumstances of a particular case, there are likely to be visual as well as spatial effects on the openness of the Green Belt, and, if so, whether those effects are likely to be harmful or benign, will be for the decision-maker to judge. But the need for those judgments to be exercised is, in my view, inherent in the policy.

The first part of the question posed by the preamble in paragraph 90 – whether the development would “preserve” the openness of the Green Belt – cannot mean that a proposal can only be regarded as “not inappropriate in Green Belt” if the openness of the Green Belt would be left entirely unchanged. It can only sensibly mean that the effects on openness must not be harmful – understanding the verb “preserve” in the sense of “keep … safe from harm” – rather than “maintain (a state of things)” (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 4th edn.). There may be cases in which a proposed development in the Green Belt will have no harmful visual effects on the openness of the Green Belt. Indeed, there may be cases in which development will have no, or no additional, effect on the openness of the Green Belt, either visual or spatial. A good example might be development of the kind envisaged in the fourth category of development referred to in paragraph 90 of the NPPF – “the re-use of buildings provided that the buildings are of permanent and substantial construction”. But development for “mineral extraction” in the Green Belt, the category of development with which we are concerned, will often have long-lasting visual effects on the openness of the Green Belt, which may be partly or wholly repaired in the restoration phase – or may not. Whether the visual effects of a particular project of mineral working would be such as to harm the openness of the Green Belt is, classically, a matter of planning judgment.

In my view, therefore, when the development under consideration is within one of the five categories in paragraph 90 and is likely to have visual effects within the Green Belt, the policy implicitly requires the decision-maker to consider how those visual effects bear on the question of whether the development would “preserve the openness of the Green Belt”. Where that planning judgment is not exercised by the decision-maker, effect will not be given to the policy. This will amount to a misunderstanding of the policy, and thus its misapplication, which is a failure to have regard to a material consideration, and an error of law.”
Or as Zack Simons summarised:

The planning permission was quashed.
Aside from these two Court of Appeal rulings, throwing light on paragraphs on paragraphs 88 and 90 of the NPPF respectively, it was also interesting to see this month the Secretary of State allow an appeal by Berkeley Homes (Southern) Limited and Howard Partnership Trust for substantial development in the green belt, comprising 258 homes and replacement secondary school in Effingham, Surrey. In his decision letter (21 March 2018) the Secretary of State’s findings included that:

– There is a need for additional school places in the area, “the existing school premises are not fit for the purpose of meeting modern educational and social need and that the replacement of the school in order to facilitate this carries very substantial weight“. Furthermore, “there are very significant issues with the fabric of the school and the ongoing funding of its repair and maintenance in the current budgetary context. He further agrees that in seeking to address condition as well as suitability and sufficiency, the least expensive option is the rebuilding of the school on the only other available identified site, and that these matters carry very substantial weight.”
– An Autism Centre “optimally located within the new complex to maximise its effectiveness for the students who will use it, … is a clear benefit of the scheme and to deepening the educational and community inclusivity of the school.”

– Guildford Borough Council only has a 2.1 year housing land supply. Against this the Secretary of State considered that the delivery of dwellings, 20% of which will be affordable, carries very substantial weight. 

He concluded that the benefits arising from the scheme “clearly outweigh harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness and any other harm, and so very special circumstances exist” for the purposes of paragraphs 87 and 88 of the NPPF. 
The inclusion of reference to the extent of unmet housing need in Guildford as part of the very special circumstances relied upon is encouraging, but the need to replace the school and provide more school places was a crucial component, given that the Government has indicated since 2013 that unmet housing need alone is not sufficient to amount to very special circumstances, a stance that is presently unlikely to change. Indeed, at the end of a House of Commons debate debate on 6 February 2018 on housing, planning and the green belt, there was this exchange between Dominic Raab and a backbench Conservative MP:

This was of course followed by publication on 5 March of the draft revised NPPF (NPPF 2.0 for hipster-planners). Has it made any difference to any of what I have set out above? Well, slightly:
– paragraph 88 is now paragraph 143 and after the words “any other harm” is added “resulting from the proposal“. This is an additional pointer towards the Court of Appeal’s wider interpretation of that phrase as per Redhill and now Brown. 
– paragraph 90 is now paragraph 145 with unchanged wording, although within paragraph 144 there is an important extra category of development that is not “inappropriate” and where “very special circumstances” therefore do not need to be shown”: “where the development would re-use previously developed land and contribute to meeting an identified local affordable housing need, not cause substantial harm to the openness of the Green Belt. ” – this “not cause substantial harm” is going to be the new battleground I’m sure. There is also a clarification of the previous statement that “the provision of appropriate facilities for outdoor sport, outdoor recreation” etc is not “inappropriate development”. The wording is now “the provision of appropriate facilities (in connection with the existing use of land or a change of use) for” those uses”, following the approach already adopted by the courts, eg in R (Timmins) v Gedling Borough Council (Court of Appeal, 22 January 2015).
The “exceptional circumstances” test for changing green belt boundaries in plans has been embellished (as flagged since the February 2017 housing white paper) by requiring that “the strategic plan-making authority should have examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting its identified need for development. This will be assessed through the examination of the plan, which will take into account the preceding paragraph, and whether the strategy; 

* a)  makes as much use as possible of suitable brownfield sites and underutilised land; 

* b)  optimises the density of development, including whether policies promote a significant uplift in minimum density standards in town and city centres, and other locations well served by public transport; and 

* c)  has been informed by discussions with neighbouring authorities about whether they could accommodate some of the identified need for development, as demonstrated through the statement of common ground.”

“Where it has been concluded that it is necessary to release Green Belt land for development, plans should give first consideration to land which has been previously-developed and/or is well-served by public transport. They should also set out ways in which the impact of removing land from the Green Belt can be offset through compensatory improvements to the environmental quality and accessibility of remaining Green Belt land.”

Will this embellishment raise the threshold materially for green belt release? I’m not sure that the additional criteria do anything more than articulate the matters that would be examined in any event. The removal of some brownfield proposals, which will not cause substantial harm to the openness of the green belt, from the definition of inappropriate development is on the other hand potentially significant (and surely wholly sensible). As for the constant flow of case law, it is certainly not going to dry up. 
Simon Ricketts, 30 March 2018
Personal views, et cetera


Green Belt Policy: Will It Change?

In all the noise and spin ahead of the Autumn budget on 22 November, I would be wary of reading anything substantive into stories such as these:
Telegraph 4 November 2017 Philip Hammond risks Tory backlash with gamble on opening up the green belt 

Times 30 October 2017 Hammond rebuffed over budget plan for green belt housing
 I don’t believe that there will be anything to change the current policy direction. This Government surely does not have the strength, the resolve or the thinking space. The existing tests in the NPPF for reviewing green belt boundaries and for determining applications for planning permission in the green belt will be retained, with the minor changes that have previously been announced. In my view the real action isn’t around what the policies say, but how they are applied. 

Local plans
At present, green belt boundaries may be reviewed as part of local plan processes. Established green belt boundaries should only be changed in “exceptional circumstances”. Boundaries are intended to be long term, capable of enduring beyond the plan period. 
The Government’s February 2017 Housing White Paper proposes, at paragraph 1.39, embellishing that “exceptional circumstances” test:
“Therefore we propose to amend and add to national policy to make clear that: 

* authorities should amend Green Belt boundaries only when they can demonstrate that they have examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting their identified development requirements, including: 

    * making effective use of suitable brownfield sites and the opportunities offered by estate regeneration; 

    * the potential offered by land which is currently underused, including surplus public sector land where appropriate; 

    * optimising the proposed density of development; and 

    * exploring whether other authorities can help to meet some of the identified development requirement.”

* and where land is removed from the Green Belt, local policies should require the impact to be offset by compensatory improvements to the environmental quality or accessibility of remaining Green Belt land. We will also explore whether higher contributions can be collected from development as a consequence of land being released from the Green Belt. ”

Wording along these lines is likely to be added to the draft revised NPPF, promised early in 2018, but will make no material difference in practice – the additional guidance may look like tough talk but is largely a statement of the present position. 
Statistics can be used in various ways. At one end of the spectrum there is concerted lobbying by CPRE (see for instance their paper Green Belt Under Siege 2017). But the Government’s own figures DCLG statistical release Local Planning Authority Green Belt: England 2016/17 7 September 2017 sets the issue in context:
Overall there was a decrease of 790 hectares (less than 0.05%) in the area of Green Belt between 31 March 2016 and 31 March 2017. In 2016/17, eight local planning authorities adopted new plans which resulted in a decrease in the overall area of Green Belt compared to 31 March 2016.”

Regardless of how “exceptional circumstances” are defined, it is presently too easy either for local planning authorities to delay their plan making or to seek to justify not meeting their objectively assessed housing needs on the basis of green belt constraints. Threats of intervention on the part of the DCLG have come to nothing and the duty to cooperate (even when elevated to a duty to provide statements of common ground) is still too far too uncertain as to its effect, allowing local politicians to justify to themselves not assisting with adjoining authorities’ unmet requirements. Furthermore, the Government’s previous politically driven interventions such as in delaying for some time the Birmingham Development Plan at the request of local Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell hardly promote a positive approach. 
The problem isn’t so much specifically about green belt policy but more generally about how effectively to penalising authorities that do not properly plan – and surely about how positively to encourage authorities on every local plan review to consider whether boundaries should be reviewed – possibly even ahead of looking outside their boundaries where adjoining authorities are not readily in a position to pick up their unmet needs? The prolonged delays to plan making in green belt areas such as parts of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire are a serious indictment of the present system. 
If the imminent draft London Plan as expected fails to encourage the boroughs to review their green belt boundaries, will that not be an opportunity missed? By all means require exceptional circumstances, but rigid adherence to the status quo for political reasons has social, environmental and economic costs. 

(map from LSE paper A 21st Century Metropolitan Green Belt 2016)

Planning applications and appeals
Green belt designation has never been an absolute bar to development. There are two main routes to consent:
First, is the proposal not “inappropriate development” within the meaning of paragraph 89 and 90 of the NPPF? For residential and commercial development the most main potential exemptions are:
* “the extension or alteration of a building provided that it does not result in disproportionate additions over and above the size of the original building;

* the replacement of a building, provided the new building is in the same use and not materially larger than the one it replaces; 

* limited infilling in villages, and limited affordable housing for local community needs under policies set out in the Local Plan; 

* limited infilling or the partial or complete redevelopment of previously developed sites (brownfield land), whether redundant or in continuing use (excluding temporary buildings), which would not have a greater impact on the openness of the Green Belt and the purpose of including land within it than the existing development.

Secondly, even if the proposal is for “inappropriate development”, can the applicant demonstrate “very special circumstances”? The guidance is unspecific as to what will amount to very special circumstances: “Very special circumstances’ will not exist unless the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations.” The balancing of considerations is left to the decision maker. 

By way of recent example, the Secretary of State allowed an appeal on 1 November 2017 for a proposed development by Oaklands College and Taylor Wimpey comprising “new and refurbished college buildings, enabling residential development of 348 dwellings, car parking, associated access and landscaping.” His decision letter concluded as follows:
“35. The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector (IR 248) that the proposal is inappropriate development in the Green Belt, which is harmful by definition. He further agrees there would be additional harm by reason of a reduction in openness and by virtue of encroachment into the countryside. Therefore he attributes substantial weight to the harm to the Green Belt caused by the proposed development. 

36. The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that there would be some limited harm to the character and appearance of the area (IR249) and he gives limited weight to this harm. 

37. The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that the delivery of significant improvements to the College weighs very heavily in favour of the proposal (IR 251). The Secretary of State gives the educational benefits significant weight in favour of the proposal. He also agrees with the Inspector that in light of the lack of a five year housing land supply, the proposed market and affordable housing is a significant benefit (IR 252) that carries significant weight in favour of the proposal. Additionally, the Secretary of State agrees that the enhancement of beneficial Green Belt uses carry moderate weight in favour of the proposal. The Secretary of State gives limited weight to improvements to the non- designated heritage assets (IR 253). 

38. The Secretary of State shares the Inspector’s view that the effect on protected trees in Beaumont Wood, the relationship with the policies related to the Watling Chase Community Forest, and the effect on traffic and flooding in the Sandpit Lane area are neutral factors in the planning balance (IR 254). 
39. Overall, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that the considerations summarised above clearly outweigh the harm to the Green Belt, justifying the proposal on the basis of very special circumstances (IR 255). He therefore concludes that relevant policies relating to development in the Green Belt do not indicate that the proposed development should be restricted. The Secretary of State also concludes that the adverse impacts of the proposed development would not significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits.

40. Overall, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that there are persuasive material considerations which warrant a decision other than in accordance with the development plan (IR255).”
The application of the NPPF’s tests in relation to plan making and decision taking inevitably gives rise to disputes both as to interpretation (see the many court rulings listed by Landmark Chambers in relation to each of the relevant paragraphs of the NPPF) and as to the weight to be applied to the various material considerations (meaning unpredictability, together with many speculative applications). But with even greater inflexibility (after all the policy hurdles are already extremely high) there would be another set of problems. 

Any politician is going to be cautious about a major policy shift. It is an open question as to whether the public understands the policy basis for green belt – the way in which, often vast, swathes of land around our cities have been identified as an ad hoc series of urban containment zones:
“- to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;

– to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another; 

– to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment; 

– to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and 

– to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land

However, free market solutions advocated by the likes of the IEA and the Adam Smith Institute are wide of the mark. The idea of the green belt, albeit largely abstract, albeit largely restrictive and not driven by specific landscape, environmental or conservation attributions, has captured the public imagination like no other planning invention – perhaps, in a very British way, because it simply carries the expectation of being left alone. The challenge is how, without watering down existing green belt principles, to prevent the designation being used for local political purposes as an argument that increases inequality, renders housing unaffordable, increases commuting distances and drives urban development to unacceptable densities or sensitive non green belt locations? 
In the same way as in its early years the objective of green belt designation moved away from providing open space for recreation and towards a more restrictive role, over time can it move again towards a positive role more closely aligned with other landscape, land use or nature conservation designations?
Another eighty years or so should crack it. 
Simon Ricketts, 11 November 2017
Personal views, et cetera