Unsuccessful Attacks On Guildford & Waverley Local Plans

Two recent salutary lessons from Surrey for campaigners tempted to resort to the courts, having failed to persuade the relevant local plan inspector.

Guildford local plan

In Compton Parish Council v Guildford Borough Council (Sir Duncan Ouseley, 4 December 2019), three separate claimants, Compton Parish Council, a Mr Julian Cranwell and Ockham Parish Council, “opposed the principle and extent of land which the submitted Plan proposed to release from the Green Belt, as well as the allocation for development of specific sites proposed for release from the Green Belt.

The main general issue (numbered 2 in the list used by the parties) was whether the Inspector had erred in law in his approach to what constituted the “exceptional circumstances” required for the redrawing of Green Belt boundaries on a local plan review. This had a number of aspects, including whether he had treated the normal as exceptional, and had failed to consider rationally, or with adequate reasons, why Green Belt boundaries should be redrawn so as to allow for some 4000 more houses to be built than Guildford BC objectively needed. The scale of the buffer did not result, it was said, from any consideration of why a buffer of such a scale was required but was simply the sum of the site capacities of the previously allocated sites. There were two other general issues (1) and (7): (1) had the Inspector considered lawfully or provided adequate reasoning for not reducing the housing requirement, leaving some needs unmet to reflect the Green Belt policy constraints faced by Guildford BC? (7) Did Guildford BC breach the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004 SI No.1633, in deciding not to reconsider what might be reasonable alternatives to the proposed Plan when, in 2018, the objectively assessed housing needs figure was reduced from 12,426 to 10,678, with housing land supply allocations totalling 14,602. It was submitted that it ought to have considered alternatives such as removing the development allocation in the Green Belt from one or more of the contentious large sites.”

But there were also site specific grounds of challenge. The first site specific issue, (4), relating to the former Wisley airfield, was the adequacy of reasons given by the Inspector in his report on the PE for reaching conclusions which, it was said, were inconsistent with the views expressed by an Inspector, accepted by the Secretary of State, on an appeal against the refusal of planning permission for a major residential development at the former Wisley airfield, taking up most of the Local Plan allocation there. The appeal Inquiry began before the PE and the decision emerged in the course of the PE. The second site specific issue at Wisley, (5a), concerned the extent of land removed from the Green Belt yet not allocated for development, termed “white land”; issue (5b) concerned the lawfulness and effect of the submission of the 2017 version of the Plan, when the further consultation on it was restricted to the 2017 changes, and did not encompass unchanged aspects of the 2016 version, upon which there had already been consultation in 2016. The third issue, (8), concerned the lawfulness of the approach by the Inspector to the air quality impact of the Wisley allocation on the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area, the SPA. It was initially said that the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 SI No.2012 required the decision-maker to leave mitigation and avoidance measures out of account; but the argument was refined so that it attacked the assessment that there would be no adverse effects, on the basis that there would still be exceedances of critical thresholds, even though the baseline levels of pollution would have reduced.

The site-specific issues raised in respect of the Blackwell Farm allocation were, (3), that the local exceptional circumstances relied on by the Inspector were not legally capable of being regarded as “exceptional”, and that strategic and local “exceptional circumstances” overlapped, leading to double counting of exceptional circumstances. The other issue at Blackwell Farm was, (6), whether the Inspector erred in law in the way he considered the new access road. This would have to climb the escarpment to link to the A31, and a section of which would pass through the part of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the AONB, which lay to the north of the A31. Should he have concluded that this would be “major development” in the AONB and so face a policy obstacle to its approval which could put the allocation at risk, or even prevent its being delivered? He should at least have taken this risk into account.”

After assessing the extent of local housing need the inspector concluded that there was “to strategic-level exceptional circumstances to alter the Green Belt boundary to meet development needs in the interests of the proper long-term planning of the Borough.

Some highlights:

Issue 1: did the Inspector consider and provide legally adequate reasons for his conclusion that the objectively assessed need for 10678 dwellings should be met in full, notwithstanding the consequent need for the release of land from the Green Belt?

There is no definition of the policy concept of “exceptional circumstances”. This itself is a deliberate policy decision, demonstrating that there is a planning judgment to be made in all the circumstances of any particular case; Calverton Parish Council v Nottingham City Council [2015] EWHC 1078 at [20], Jay J. It is deliberately broad, and not susceptible to dictionary definition.”

“”Exceptional circumstances” is a less demanding test than the development control test for permitting inappropriate development in the Green Belt, which requires “very special circumstances.” That difference is clear enough from the language itself and the different contexts in which they appear, but if authority were necessary, it can be found in R(Luton BC) v Central Bedfordshire Council [2015] EWCA Civ 537 at [56], Sales LJ. As Patterson J pointed out in IM Properties Development Ltd v Lichfield DC [2014] EWHC 2240 at [90-91 and 95-96], there is no requirement that Green Belt land be released as a last resort, nor was it necessary to show that assumptions upon which the Green Belt boundary had been drawn, had been falsified by subsequent events.”

“Mr Kimblin put forward Mr Cranwell’s contention that the supply of land for ordinary housing, even with the combination of circumstances found here to constitute exceptional circumstances by the Inspector, could not in law amount to “exceptional circumstances.” I cannot accept that, and I regard it as obviously wrong.”

“The Inspector has already considered the pressing needs, and the consequence of them not being met. Here he considers whether the consequence of those needs being met, through releases of Green Belt land, mean that they should nonetheless not be met. His conclusion is clear: there is no justification for applying a restriction on the quantity of development. His reasoning is clear and adequate: land can be found within the Green Belt, through boundary changes, with relatively limited impacts on openness, elaborated elsewhere in the Report, and without causing severe or widespread harm to its purposes. He also considered whether further land could be made available in the urban areas; IR 81-2; these had been thoroughly investigated; significant constraints existed; any extra yield from sites which could have potential not yet earmarked, “would fall a long way short of making the scale of contribution towards meeting overall development needs that would enable the allocated sites in the Green Belt to be taken out of the Plan.”

“I reject the Claimants’ first ground of challenge. This issue and whether a policy restraint should be applied to the OAN was considered and the Inspector’s conclusion that there should be no restraint below OAN was supported by ample reasoning.”

“Issue 2: Was the conclusion that there were exceptional circumstances justifying the allocations of housing land, released from the Green Belt, to provide headroom of over 4000 dwellings above the 10678 OAN lawful, and adequately reasoned?”

“…in my judgment, once meeting the OAN is accepted as a strategic level factor contributing to “exceptional circumstances”, as it has to be for the purpose of this Issue in the light of my conclusions on Issue 1, it follows that the provision of headroom against slippage and for flexibility to meet changes, “future-proofing” the Plan, as the Inspector put it, would also contribute to such circumstances.”

“...having read the strategic and Local-level exceptional circumstances, which have to be taken together, I had no sense of having read something illogical or irrational, or which strained the true meaning of “exceptional circumstances.” I can see that a different approach to the quantity of headroom might have commended itself, but that was plainly a matter of planning judgment.”

Issue 7 Sustainability Appraisal”

“The Claimants contended, through Mr Harwood, that once the OAN was reduced from 12426 to 10678 as a result of the publication in September 2018 of the 2016 household projections, there should have been a further SA examining reasonable alternatives which matched allocations to the OAN figure of 10678, with the Wisley airfield allocation in mind in particular however.”

“I cannot accept these arguments. No complaint is made of the SA process before the effect of the 2016 household projections was considered. First, the objectives of the Plan had not changed; the objective was not the provision of 10,678 dwellings; it was not simply the provision of the OAN plus an appropriate buffer. I have set out how the objective was phrased in the earlier versions of the SA. An updated SA, confining itself to the provision of 10,678 dwellings, omitting any buffer, would not have been a reasonable alternative, as previous SAs concluded, and would have been for an objective other than that of the Plan.

The judgment that an OAN without any buffer was not a reasonable alternative, was a reasonable judgment for Guildford BC to make. It could only be attacked on rationality grounds; see Spurrier and Others v Secretary of State for Transport and Others [2019] EWHC 1070 (Admin) at [434]. That would be untenable.

Second, whether the effective increase in the headroom or buffer, but without change to the level of housing allocation, was a significant change or one likely to have significant effects was a matter for the judgment of Guildford BC, as the decision-maker. It is clear that the overall level of housing supply was within the range already considered. All the housing allocations had already been evaluated. The judgment that the change was not significant or likely to have significant effects which had not already been considered, was reasonable.

Third, the only point in considering further alternatives would have been whether one or two large sites should be removed from the allocations. The smaller, sequentially less preferable Green Belt releases around villages, totalling 945 dwellings, could not have been omitted from any reduced buffer because of their importance in meeting the five-year housing supply in the early years of the Plan after adoption. Guildford BC and the Inspector did in fact consider whether the increased level of buffer in the same total supply, with a reduced OAN, was appropriate. They each concluded that it was, and that no large Green Belt site allocation should be now omitted. The arguments for deleting one or more of the 3 large sites were raised; indeed there was an obvious issue about whether that would be an appropriate response. Guildford BC and the Inspector considered it. Guildford BC was entitled to conclude that a further round of SA was quite unnecessary. The Inspector agreed, in his Report. There was no misdirection as to the law; it was for Guildford BC to judge whether there had been a change in circumstances or in the plan which warranted a further SA. This judgment can only be challenged on public law grounds; the only one available would be irrationality. There was no irrationality in the decision.”

Even if there had been an error, and assuming that the omission of one or two of the large sites would have been a reasonable alternative to consider, it is perfectly obvious that the allocations in the adopted plan would have been the preferred choice. That issue was considered by both Guildford BC and by the Inspector. Omission of a further SA would have been a procedural error causing no prejudice, let alone substantial prejudice to anyone. Even if one going to vires, I would have exercised my residual discretion to take no action, given that it is perfectly obvious that it could have had not the slightest effect on the outcome of the Plan.”

“Issue 4: the Wisley airfield appeal decision and the way in which the Inspector dealt with it.”

“I do not consider that it was necessary for the LP Inspector to take the AIR and analyse all its views against his views on the various topics. There is perhaps a difference in emphasis in the LP IR comments on the Green Belt releases in general “relatively limited impacts on openness” and their not causing “severe or widespread harm”, and the AIR comment that there would be “very considerable harm” to the Green Belt from the Wisley allocation. However, as IR 182 makes clear, on a comparative basis, the Wisley site was of medium sensitivity. Its development would avoid putting pressure on other Green Belt areas of greater sensitivity. This comparative exercise, underpinned by the Green Belt and Countryside Study, was not a task which the appeal Inspector could undertake or attempted to undertake; but was essential for the LP Inspector. The same applies to the assessment of the degree of visual prominence: the LP IR comments on the allocation as “fairly self-contained visually,” being on a plateau and not prominent, whereas the AIR thought it visible along its length to highly sensitive receptors, though quite well screened in certain respects. But the sites they consider differed in an important respect and with an adverse effect for the appeal scheme. It is obvious from the AIR that the narrowness of the appeal site exacerbated the prominence of the appeal development. The LP Inspector also considered that specific design objectives, should be in the Plan, via a Main Modification, Policy A35.The effect on the character of the area is referred to in IR 181, but is a factor outweighed by the compelling strategic-level exceptional circumstances. The LP Inspector obviously considered the appeal decision, but found the circumstances he had to deal with, compelling.”

“Accordingly, I reject the contention that it is not possible to see why the LP Inspector reached the conclusion he did, having considered, as he obviously did, what the AIR and Secretary of State had to say. In the circumstances known to all participants about the differing tasks, the reasons are sufficient. There was no need to identify, issue by issue, where the LP Inspector did or did not, to some degree, agree or disagree with the appeal Inspector. Such differences as there may be are explained by the different focus of their tasks and the different cases they were considering.”

Issue 8: The air quality impact of the allocation at the former Wisley airfield”

“It is perfectly clear, in my judgment, that Guildford BC, whose task it was to undertake the HRA, did consider whether significant adverse effects were likely from the development proposed in the Local Plan; it then undertook an appropriate assessment to see whether there would be no adverse effect on the SPA. That could not be answered, one way or the other, by simply considering whether there were exceedances of critical loads or levels, albeit rather lower than currently. What was required was an assessment of the significance of the exceedances for the SPA birds and their habitats. Guildford BC did not just treat reductions in the baseline emissions or the fact that with Plan development, emissions would still be much lower than at present, as showing that there would be no adverse effect from the Plan development. The absence of adverse effect was established by reference to where the exceedances of NOx and nitrogen deposition would occur, albeit reduced, and a survey based understanding of how significant those areas were for foraging and nesting by the SPA birds. The approach and conclusion show no error by reference to the Regulations or CJEU jurisprudence. I have set out the 2019 HRAs at some length. The judgment is one for the decision-maker, as to whether it is satisfied that the plan would not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned; the assessment must be appropriate to the task. Its conclusions had to be based on “complete precise and definitive findings and conclusions capable of removing all reasonable scientific doubt as to the effect of the proposed works on the protected site concerned”; People Over Wind. But absolute certainty that there would be no adverse effects was not required; a competent authority could be certain that there would be no adverse effects even though, objectively, absolute certainty was not proved; R (Champion) v North Norfolk District Council [2015] UKSC 52 at [41], and Smyth v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government [2015] EWCA Civ 174 at [78]. The same approach applies, following the Dutch Nitrogen case, to taking account of the expected benefits of measures not directly related to the plan being appropriately assessed.”

Issue 6: The access road at Blackwell Farm and major development in the AONB

“The issue before me was whether the Inspector reached a conclusion on whether the access road was “major development” in the AONB, to which NPPF [116] applied; a contrary conclusion was said to be irrational. If he had reached no conclusion, he ought to have considered the risk to the allocation, and hence to its deliverability, which would arise when a planning application was made, and a decision could be reached that it was indeed “major development”, with all the weight, adverse to the development, which would have to be given to such a conclusion.”

“I can see the force in the argument from Mr Findlay and Mr Turney that the Inspector has in substance concluded that, with the Main Modifications, the means have been provided for the access road to be constructed in such a way that it would not constitute “major development.” However, he has not expressly so concluded, and it would not have been for him to express the decisive view on the point, or to do so in advance of the detailed design of the road. He has reached the view that the road would not inevitably be “major development”, and that it could be designed and landscaped so that the risk of a significant hurdle to the delivery of the allocation is minimised. I do not consider that he needed to go further. In effect, the degree of risk, with the modification, was not such that it made him find the allocation to be unsound. He considered the issue; his language makes his view clear that he sees no significant risk, and is adequately reasoned.

But it cannot be ignored that he has included an extent of headroom, complained of by the Claimants, in part because he recognised the difficulties which larger sites face. This issue was not expressly part of his consideration of the justification for the headroom, but hurdles and delays in the way of approving infrastructure would have been well within his contemplation of the sort of problems which larger sites face.”

Three days in court, eleven barristers, all claims rejected.

Waverley local plan

In CPRE Surrey v Waverley Borough Council (Court of Appeal, 31 October 2019) CPRE Surrey and POW Campaign were appealing against the dismissal of their applications at first instance which had sought to challenge the adoption of the Waverley local plan. They contended that “the council erred in law in adopting the Local Plan Part 1 because the inspector who carried out the examination of it under section 20, when identifying the objectively assessed need (“OAN”) for housing in the borough of Waverley, took an unlawful approach to the treatment of the unmet housing need in the neighbouring borough of Woking. CPRE Surrey also complain that the relevant reasons in the inspector’s report were inadequate. The crucial point, common to both appeals, concerns the inspector’s recommended Main Modification 3, which the council accepted, whose effect was to increase the annual housing requirement figure in Waverley by 83 dwellings per annum – 1,575 dwellings over the whole plan period – to address unmet housing need in Woking.

There were four issues: “first, whether the inspector’s approach to the assessment of unmet housing need in Woking was unlawful and his conclusion unreasonable; second, whether his assessment was vitiated by a failure to seek further information; third, whether he was obliged to recommend a review of the Local Plan Part 1; and fourth, whether his reasons were inadequate”.

At paragraph 35 of his judgment Lindblom LJ sets out the principles applying where there is a challenge to a planning decision-maker’s assessment of housing need, by reference to the relevant case law.

He addresses the claimants’ arguments that the inspector had adopted an incorrect approach in failing to assess Woking’s objectively assessed need before deciding to increase Waverley’s housing requirement figure:

“I cannot accept those submissions, skilfully presented as they were. The fatal weakness in such arguments is that they draw the court beyond the line dividing the role of the judge from the role of the planning decision-maker – territory where the court will not intrude. In my view the judge’s analysis is consistent with the general principles recognized and applied in the authorities. As she held, the inspector’s approach to the issue of unmet housing need in Woking was lawful, and his conclusion did not exceed the range of reasonable planning judgment.”

“In the circumstances he was entitled to conclude, as a matter of planning judgment, that it was reasonable to calculate the necessary uplift to Waverley’s OAN by taking 50% of “the figure for unmet need identified through the [2015 SHMA] process”. This conclusion entailed not merely his judgment on the appropriate proportion, but, in effect, a composite judgment on both amount and proportion: hence the figure of 83 dwellings per annum. Another inspector might have reached a different conclusion on the same evidence, but this does not mean that the conclusion he did reach was legally bad. The conclusion that the appropriate proportion was 50% – rather than, say, 60% or 70% or 75% – was comfortably within the bounds of reasonable planning judgment. In judging this to be the appropriate proportion, the inspector took care not to overstate the amount of Woking’s unmet need that should be met in Waverley. This was a cautious judgment, which deliberately allowed for the uncertainties to which he had referred. The ingredients of the calculation itself were clear. They had been identified at the examination, and were explained in the inspector’s conclusions (paragraphs 26 and 29 and footnote 9). And the figure it produced was specific enough for its purpose. It was not unreasonably approximate.”

As for the attack on the adequacy of his reasons:

Generally at least, the reasons provided in an inspector’s report on the examination of a local plan may well satisfy the required standard if they are more succinctly expressed than the reasons in the report or decision letter of an inspector in a section 78 appeal against the refusal of planning permission. As Mr Beglan submitted, it is not likely that an inspector conducting a local plan examination will have to set out the evidence given by every participant if he is to convey to the “knowledgeable audience” for his report a clear enough understanding of how he has decided the main issues before him.

But the crucial point here is that the inspector explained sufficiently why he had concluded that 50% of Woking’s unmet housing need should be planned for in the Local Plan Part 1. His reasons leave no room for sensible doubt on that issue. He did not have to set out the representations in which various possible conclusions – a wide range of them – were put forward, or summarize the relevant evidence. Participants in the process were familiar with the submissions and evidence. The inspector’s reasons had only to set out the main parts of his assessment and the essential planning judgments in it. They did that.”

That reasoning is clear, adequate and intelligible. Nothing that ought to be there is left out. Nothing is obscure. The appellants disagree with the outcome of the inspector’s assessment. But they cannot say that the reasons he gave in those four paragraphs of his report left them unable to see why he concluded as he did.

Simon Ricketts, 6 December 2019

Personal views, et cetera

Image courtesy of Surrey Life