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Affordable snakes and ladders on small sites

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The judgment in the battle of wills over the Government’s small sites affordable housing and Vacant Building Credit policies has concluded, for now, with the Government victorious in the Court of Appeal. This blog considers the practical impact of the Vacant Building Credit.  What are the wider implications of the judgment for affordable housing decisions and policies?

Policy on the hoof

cartoonThe process by which the policies were introduced was surprising, but not unlawful.  However, two elements of the judgment may prove controversial:

  • firstly, the acceptance of a retrospective Equalities Impact Assessment where complying with the Public Sector Equalities Duty when taking the decision where the assessment was ‘adequate and in good faith’ and original decision “would not have led to a different conclusion“;
  • secondly, that Ministers are not required to have regard to material considerations when making national planning policy given that it relies on the exercise of crown prerogative powers. This will seem obscure to those living outside the legal bubble.

Common sense still allowed

Policy is just policy. The judgment confirms that:

  • government, whether central or local, may state policy ‘rules’ absolutely, but
  • decision takers must consider them without treating them as absolute – their discretion to weigh things in the balance and do something different cannot be fettered by policy.

For applications, that means:

  • complying with the duties to consider all relevant issues and determine in accordance with the development plan unless there are reasons not to (Section 70(2) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and Section 38(6) of the Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act 2004);
  • local authorities are entitled to weigh the Government’s policy against their own plan policies, the demographic evidence on which they are based and any economic evidence on the viability of specific ‘small sites’.  There will inevitably be an upsurge in appeals as they do so, since applicants will generally expect the Government to follow its own policy on appeal;
  • where there are perfectly sound reasons for a Localist decision, there should be little scope for adverse costs awards.  The difference in weight to the national policy is simply a matter of planning judgment – which the Court of Appeal decision emphasises must be carried out diligently.

Making plans

Local Plan policies could still be promoted on the basis of evidence base and local circumstances which justify the LPA’s proposed thresholds. That will run the gauntlet at Examination in Public given the wider powers to intervene in the Plan-making process now available under the Housing and Planning Act 2016.

The reasoning given for the small sites policy in Government’s evidence (extracted at paragraph 53 of the judgment) provides clear scope for authorities to use evidence to show that their affordable housing policy thresholds are in line with the intended policy objective as long as requirements are:

  • viable, and
  • that contributions will be required at a time when they could not sensibly stall schemes (i.e. pre-occupation).

If local policies are supported by evidence that shows they would deliver Government’s stated intended outcome then they should survive Examination.