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Free-Standing Sustainable Development Assessment a Mistake

In Reigate and Banstead BC v SoS CLG [2017] EWHC 1562 (Admin), Lang, J quashed permission granted on appeal for development on greenfield land intended for release in the development plan only if needed to boost housing land supply (HLS).

The recently-adopted Local Plan provided for almost a 5 year HLS, constrained so as to be unable to meet full objectively assessed need (OAN). Despite its “urban area first” strategy, the Inspector worked on the basis that sustainable development should be approved in the absence of harm.  He found that there was not basis for dismissing it because the proposal would reduce the HLS shortfall against OAN over the plan period and would not significantly prejudice the spatial strategy given its scale (45 homes).

The authority challenged the decision on the basis that the Inspector had inverted the statutory requirement to determine the appeal in accordance with the development plan, subject to material considerations otherwise (s38(6) PCPA 2004).

The judgment identifies ten key propositions for NPPF14 cases, including:

  • The need to distinguish between local and national policies which describe what qualifies as sustainable development (e.g. NPPF 6, 7, 18 to 219) and policies that determine when a presumption in favour of such development arises.
  • That the NPPF 14 exhaustively defines when a presumption in favour of sustainable development can arise. There is no general presumption outside NPPF 14 (applying Trustees of the Barker Mill Estates v SoS CLG [2016] EWHC 3028 (Admin) and Cheshire East BC v SoS CLG [2016] EWHC 571 (Admin)). The Inspector could – in theory – have reached the same outcome by applying the s38(6) starting point but giving in efforts to close the OAN gap greater weight.  However, the judgment implies that in the absence of something significant – such as evidence that local housing stress had worsened substantially since the Local Plan was adopted – the decision would be have been doomed to the same fate.
  • One proposition seems out of kilter with the rest – that the NPPF14 presumption “does not extend to a proposal which conflicts with the development plan“. Although not relevant in Reigate, NPPF14 is explicit that the presumption does extend to such proposals where (1) the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out‑of‑date and (2) any adverse impacts of granting consent would not significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits considered against NPPF policies in the round (and no specific restrictive NPPF policies apply – which should now include ‘related’ development plan policies following Suffolk Coastal District Council v Hopkins Homes Ltd & Onr [2017] 1 WLR 1865).

Viability Decisions – Care Needed on ‘Market Value’ Assumptions

The recent Parkhurst Road appeal decision emphasises the importance of understanding how  land value expectation (and so the price for land) should reflect planning policy requirements.

The appeal decision dismissed the 96-home proposals for the disused Territorial Army centre on Parkhurst Road, Holloway on the grounds that it would not provide the “maximum reasonable” level of affordable housing, as required by the council’s core strategy. The appellants offered ten per cent affordable provision, reflecting a purchase price of £13.25 million (which, in light of nearby sales data, was said to be the market value for the site). The Inspector accepted the authority’s approach, starting with the site’s established use value (EUV) and applying a significant premium, to reach an overall benchmark nearly half that put forward (at which 34% provision was feasible).

Caution is needed on whether the decision is really a game-changer or just a reminder of home truths.

Benchmark, not Landmark

The decision is a benchmark, of existing policy, rather than a landmark in terms of a new approach. It shows a willingness to take policy and guidance at its word and treat land value as genuinely residual to policy requirements (even where they are expressed to be ‘subject to viability’).  It does not junk the comparable approach, nor does it undermine the use of either a substantial premium to Existing Use Value  (EUV Plus) or use of Alternative Use Value where appropriate to reflect the need for an incentive to release land.  It is a reminder of the need to critically examine evidence of comparable values to weed out those which failed to comply with policy in the first place (i.e. are not truly comparable).

It also illustrates the role that the Mayor’s Housing Supplementary Planning Guidance (March 2016) will play in London in clarifying that the outcome should rarely be different whether either the EUV Plus or the RICS market value basis is used properly.

Context is everything

The backdrop to this particular decision also matters. In a previous (2015) appeal, the Inspector’s finding that the price paid was broadly reasonable in light of ‘market signals’ (competing bids and comparables) resulted in a letter from the Government responding to the threat of legal proceedings by Islington acknowledging that the PPG’sunambiguous policy position” is “in all cases land or site value … should reflect policy requirements and planning obligations…”.

The 2017 decision adopts a more critical approach to giving effect to that, but is not really that different to other appeal decisions through the years which reflect the same fundamental point already flagged in the PPG (look back, for example, at the 2013 Holsworthy Showground decision) discounting price paid as an overbid against true market value.

Technical Pointers

Both the 2015 and 2017 decisions acknowledge the appropriateness of a viability Review. A 24 month ‘grace period’ was acceptable to avoid a pre-implementation Review but seeking a 22% margin at the Review stage when the effective profit on the 10% AFH offered at appeal was 18% was – sensibly – rejected on the basis that the development risk is already rewarded by the preserved return of 18%.

It is also significant that a requirement not to leave the homes empty for more than 3 months (under its adopted Preventing Wasted Housing Supply SPD, July 2015) was rejected on the basis of doubts about both the justification for, and the enforceability of, the obligation. The latter point should be scrutinised as a proper consideration in judging the reasonableness of the obligation – not least because it would suggest that the kind of obligations required by the St Ives Neighbourhood Plan could never be given effect.

Planning and the General Election: keys to long term success

With the General Election drawing ever closer, planning forms the battleground for a several controversial issues close to voters’ hearts, such as fracking and safeguarding the greenbelt. In particular, persistent difficulties in delivering new housing and infrastructure unite the parties in a common cause. More homes are needed, quickly, together with greater certainty around delivery of supporting infrastructure.

The extent to which the next Government succeeds in solving these problems will be determined by its appetite to grapple with a host of underlying difficulties. These include devising an effective model for land value capture, making the CPO process fit for purpose and addressing the chronic shortfall in local authority resourcing.

Despite obvious distractions elsewhere during this campaign, housing delivery still sits atop the planning agenda, with the manifestos all setting targets and the broad route needed to reach them. The Conservatives will point to steps already taken along this long and winding road – most recently through the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 and its predecessor the Housing and Planning Act 2016. Similarly, the Housing White Paper affords us the rare luxury of a detailed annex to the aspirations commonly found in (deliberately) loosely drafted manifesto commitments. Whilst less “radical” than badged, it establishes a framework of policy changes aimed at speeding up housing delivery, through measures such as diversifying the market, getting local plans in place and holding the public and private sectors to account for delivery.

Housing delivery at scale is recognised as being paramount. This requires a commitment to supporting the growth of new towns and garden communities – where the worlds of housing and infrastructure collide most spectacularly. The Liberal Democrats propose at least 10 new garden communities whilst Labour also underline the need to start on a “new generation” of new towns. The current system already supports that drive with the introduction of a potentially significant power in the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 allowing Regulations to facilitate the designation of areas as new towns and for development corporations to be established.

Whichever party emerges victorious on 8th June, there is a sense that the keys to long-term success are not entirely in their hands. We are witnessing a shift in emphasis towards the increased role of the public sector as an enabler of development. The extent to which they are willing and able to embrace that role will go a long way towards determining whether the same issues – and proposed fixes – will remain on the planning agenda in 2022.

The new New Towns Agenda

The third reading of any Bill in the House of Lords is normally fantastically dull. That was not true of what is now the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017. Lord Mathew Taylor introduced a new and apparently innocuous clause that allows a completely new and parallel way of bringing new towns forward. It authorises the rewriting of the existing new town legislation, by regulation, to allow local authorities, or groups of local authorities, to ask the Secretary of State to designate an area as a new town and for a development corporation to be set up.

If agreed by the Secretary of State, then the local authorities will, effectively, step into the role that the Secretary of State occupied in the old new towns. They will control the way in which their new town development corporation is governed, operates and delivers new communities.  They will be accountable for successes.  They will be responsible for failures. Some powers will, inevitably, be retained by the Secretary of State, at least in the short term – the power to confirm CPOs and to authorise Local Development Orders. In time, with true devolution, even these powers could be left to the parent authority.

What will this mean? Many authorities are already exploring the possibility of new towns and particularly garden communities. One of the real difficulties is educating landowners that the cost of developing the necessary community and social infrastructure up front is significant, and that the legacy costs of stewardship will eat into land values, as much as if not more than the traditional enabling costs. This means that the normal landowner model of a minimum land value + a share of net proceeds or overage does not really work.  There is also a need to ensure that all land is bound into the same broad vision and programme. If that is not the case then the allocation of costs can be unfair.  The first phases will have to bear significant infrastructure costs that then increase the value of the land in later phases. If the later phases choose to develop independently then it may be problematic making sure that they bear their fair share of the initial place-making investment. A development corporation model helps to solve this. It allows early and extensive acquisition. It also ensures that the underlying “scheme”, the new town, is more completely disregarded for valuation purposes.

In practice, development corporations should rarely be necessary. Local authorities already hold most of the appropriate powers. However, the use of, or the threat of the use of, a development corporation may well be a helpful bargaining tool. It should allow local authorities to reach agreements with reluctant landowners. It should ensure that all parties contribute and benefit equally. It should be a weapon of last resort.

Court of Appeal Confirms Full OAN Benchmark for Sensitive Area Developments

We commented on Knight Developments saga applying for 100 homes in the Ashdown Forest last year. Although upholding the High Court’s decision to quash the appeal permission, the Court of Appeal has confirmed that authorities resisting applications in National Parks and AONB will need to push the boat out on the duty to co-operate at the Local Plan stage to avoid being caught out on appeal.

Mitigation certainty

The High Court quashed an Inspector’s decision granting permission following errors in relying on recreational mitigation measures to offset traffic-related nitrogen deposition impacts on the Special Protection Area (SPA) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC).  The Court of Appeal agreed – by failing to identify any ‘solid’ S106 mitigation proposals, it was impossible to establish with reasonable certainty that the relevant mitigation, including heathland management, would actually be delivered for the purposes of applying the precautionary principle to assessing SAC/SPA harm.

Exceptional Circumstances

The High Court also rejected the Inspector’s approach to considering Objectively Assessed Needs (OAN) when applying the NPPF116, which states that (emphasis added):

“Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated 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 Inspector dismissed the alternative sites put forward by the authority not because they were unsuitable, but because ” the existence of other sites, which collectively still fall short of the full OAN, does not amount to an alternative“. He therefore did not use the constrained version which the Core Strategy was designed to meet (taking the SAC/ SPA and other constraints into account).  The High Court judgment appeared to suggest that alternative sites must be considered in detail, regardless of whether they would meet the FOAN.

Clunking Fist of OAN

The Court of Appeal disagreed:

  • There is nothing in the NPPF requiring alternative sites to be looked at across the whole of a local planning authority’s administrative area, or to an area larger or smaller than that. The area of search will be fact specific.  As a matter of fact, the Inspector had looked at both the local and the wider District housing land supply position.
  • Because most of the district was within the AONB, there were few alternative sites suitable for housing development that were “not equally constrained” as the appeal site.  The view that such other available housing sites were unlikely to meet unconstrained OAN was a matter of planning judgment.

Although it upholds the High Court judgment on the SAC/ SPA mitigation point, the Court of Appeal judgment nonetheless expressly endorses the use of FOAN as the benchmark for considering the relevance of alternative sites in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Where up to date Local Plans are adopted to deliver a constrained OAN, these areas are still open to appeals where the level of housing need not being met through the duty to co-operate is less than the up to date FOAN (and the decision-maker is prepared to give meeting needs exceptional weight).

Valued Landscapes Must Be Something Special

In Forest of Dean District Council v Secretary of State for Communities And Local Government& Anor [2016] EWHC 2429 (Admin), the local authority failed to quash the grant of permission for 95 homes in the open countryside on appeal. The development was in an undesignated landscape area. The authority claimed it was ‘valued’ nonetheless (so engaging NPPF 109 – requiring a starting point of “protection and enhancement” rather than a planning balance).

Out of the ordinary

Valued landscape is that which is “out of the ordinary”, rather than designated or simply popular (Stroud District Council v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government [2015] EWHC 488 (Admin)). The Inspector decided there were “no particular landscape features, characteristics or elements that demonstrate that the appeal site is in [landscape assessment] terms representative of the wider landscape i.e. a particularly important example which takes this site beyond representing anything more than countryside in general“. However he also concluded that  ‘valued landscape’ must mean a landscape that is considered to be of value because of particular attributes that have been designated through the adoption of a local planning policy document.

The Secretary of State accepted the claimant’s argument, that this was a misapplication of NPPF 109, but resisted quashing of the decision on the basis that the decision would have inevitably been the same. The developer fought back harder, on the basis that the Inspector properly found the landscape not to be valued because it lacked the necessary attributes, and so approached the NPPF 109 policy lawfully.

The claim was dismissed on the basis that while the Inspector’s phrasing was in places “less than optimal”, he had ultimately properly determined the issue having addressed the critical question of whether the landscape had extra-ordinary aspects taking it beyond ‘mere countryside’. The outcome would therefore have been no different.

The status and effect of valued but undesignated landscape is an increasingly common element of objections to greenfield housing schemes. Understanding whether there is any underlying objective basis for local perception of value is crucial to deal properly with these issues.

Neighbourhood Plans Fudge

The Government’s solution to the so-far intractable problem of Neighbourhood Plans that do not meet housing needs is here in the form of a Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) calling time on the  relative certainty provided by the NPPF and firing the starting gun for changes to the NPPF due with the issue of the Housing White Paper early in 2017.  Most Neighbourhood Plans (NPs) will be going nowhere sensible, even more emphatically than ever.

Nothing comes of nothing

The Courts have confirmed that the Examination tests for a Neighbourhood Plan are a cake walk that does not require any sensible relationship with strategic goals of meeting Objectively Assessed Needs. NPs can be passed fit for service at Examination simply having “regard to” national policies where it is “in general conformity with the strategic policies” that may date back to the 1990s and have little or no relationship to the ongoing mess of housing delivery.

Equally, the ability to put NPs in place without any up to date strategic policies – and the endless snakes and ladders of the Local Plan process – creates a challenge for those promoting NPs as a positive framework for local growth.  Adopted NPs may provide a warm glow that immediately fades as an absent overarching housing land supply weighs in under paragraph 49 of the NPPF.

The Government’s response to date has been wholly political.  In some cases NPs have been effectively ignored; in others the out of date NP policies have been given determinative weight, refusing permission for 100 homes at Yapton in an area of housing need with 3 years’ HLS on the basis that out of date NP policies should be given “significant weight”.

Sticking Plaster Applied

laiThe WMS states that

relevant policies for the supply of housing in a neighbourhood plan … should not be deemed to be ‘out-of-date’ [under NPPF49] where […]”:

  • the WMS or the NP are less than 2 years old
  • the NP “allocates sites for housing”
  • the LPA “can demonstrate a three-year supply of deliverable housing sites”.

Cue some authorities currently bobbing around on the Local Plan process to ditch infrastructure planning, batten down the hatches with a 3 year supply and encourage NPs through the process.  Cue some NP that allocate a couple of single unit sites being treated as up to date even if there remains a housing shortfall in the neighbourhood.

A far better solution would simply be to require the NP examination regime to grapple with the unconstrained Objectively Assessed Needs for their area and plan to meet an equitable slice of them until the Local Plan comes along. NP authors are, after all, engaging in devolved governance.  With that great power comes great responsibility.

Autumn Statement: mood music?

In the absence of the Housing White Paper, the industry is still left needing to mind the gap.  We have simplified budgets – abolishing the Autumn Statement – but no hint of simplified planning for growth.

The overall commitment to housing is welcome mood music, but the lack of detail on powers and fiscal incentives to support locally-led Garden Towns to deliver at the scale needed leaves a hole.  Expanding grant funding for affordable tenures is great news but at £25,000 per unit is not going to be life changing.

hamThe £2.3bn Housing Infrastructure Fund could be a game changer if it is used to reward areas for proactively planning for growth. Making an up to date housing land supply a condition for at least some of the funding would dangle the right carrot for authorities that currently only have the stick. The lack of fiscal measures for new settlements – incentivising forward funding of major infrastructure that can unlock delivery at real scale – is disappointing though.

Affordable Housing is heading towards life support – delivery in 2015-16 was 52% lower than last year.  The announcement in the Autumn Statement of a funding injection to deliver 40,000 affordable homes is welcome. It is a clear recognition that addressing the housing shortage is not simply about building more homes.  Yes, we need more but they must meet a variety of needs. There are further signals of a softening of the Government’s stance on Starter Homes – tenure flexibility replacing David Cameron’s commitment to a single tenure.

Without the Housing White Paper, there is also still a wait to see how the NPPF is going to be reshaped and in particular how housing land supply and Local Plan duties will be re-set following expert advice on accelerating delivery. If the Community Infrastructure Levy is to be replaced by a simplified flat national charge, the effect on infrastructure funding and the transitional arrangements need to be understood now, so that schemes in the pipeline do not get put into suspended animation.

The statement gives some clues about the Government’s direction of travel but, funding commitments aside, offers little substance.  We still await the detail in the Housing White Paper which we are told will be published “soon”.  Reasons for the delay are unclear. Have responses to leaks on more radical measures, such as penalising developers for slow delivery, prompted a re-think?

Vacant Building Credit – an own goal?

Vacant Building Credit (VBC) was re-introduced into the NPPG in May 2016 to less vocal opposition than it faced when originally introduced following a Ministerial Statement in November 2014.  The Statement remains intact following the Court of Appeal’s ruling that it should stand.

The broad premise of  VBC is that is acts as a credit which can be offset against the affordable housing requirement of new development.  The credit is equivalent to the existing gross floorspace of a vacant building brought back into use or demolished for redevelopment purposes.  However, neither ‘abandoned’ buildings or those vacated for the sole purpose of redevelopment are able to benefit from VBC.

Unhelpfully, the NPPG gives no guidance on how VBC is intended to be applied.  Two immediate issues arise:

  • buildWhat is meant by “vacant”?  There is a concern that VBC will incentivise landlords to force the vacation of offices, industrial buildings or even houses to benefit from VBC.  There is also little assistance on where the line can be drawn to assess whether a building is “vacant” or “abandoned”.
  • What is meant by the “gross floorspace” of the vacant building – GIA over GEA?  Once that has been confirmed, how that floorspace should be applied to calculate the off-set?

As a consequence, local authorities are left to make sense of how to apply VBC, and inevitably are creating methods and policies for approaching VBC in a way which will minimise its impact on affordable housing delivery.  Emerging practice includes:

(i)         interpreting “vacant” as being opposite to the “in use” building test set out in the CIL Regulations.  This ensures that a development is unable to benefit from both VBC and the demolition credit which can reduce the amount of CIL payable;

(ii)         requiring the entire building to be vacant, not just part of it;

(iii)        requiring the building for which VBC has been sought to have been actively marketed for a specified period (and for the method and details of marketing to be provided);

(iv)        requiring details of existing floorspace to be provided on a GIA basis when a planning application is submitted.

Of those local authorities that are putting in place policies for calculating VBC, it is clear that there is no standard approach; others will be reviewing whether they apply VBC at all.  The West Berkshire appeal confirmed that the VBC policy is a material consideration and is not capable of being applied in a “blanket” manner; many local authorities will be taking comfort from this, possibly even reviewing how Local Plan policies can be formulated to disapply VBC altogether.

VBC was introduced on the basis it would assist smaller developers deliver viable schemes, however the Government has failed again to build the necessary clarity into the guidance to ensure that it is only small developments which benefit from VBC.

Left to local authorities to put in place their own mechanisms provides no guarantee that VBC will assist those it was intended to; as a consequence VBC’s long-term impact on affordable housing remains potentially damaging at a time when the need for affordable homes remains critical, while the ability to rely on it to bring forward otherwise uneconomic schemes remains unclear.

High Court clarifies application of presumption in favour in heritage harm case

high courtThe High Court has provided further guidance on the application of the presumption in favour of sustainable development (paragraph 14 of the NPPF) in Forest of Dean District Council v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government & Another [2016] EWHC 421 (Admin). The case is helpful for authorities resisting appeals where there is an absence of five year housing land supply.

Permission was granted on appeal for a housing scheme in the absence of a five year housing land supply (HLS). The Inspector applied NPPF49 (which engages the NPPF14 presumption in the absence of a 5 year HLS). The presumption recommends approval where there is no 5 year HLS, unless “the adverse impact of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, … or specific policies in the NPPF indicate that development should be restricted.” That includes where the plan has only recently been adopted (Woodcock Holdings Limited v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and Anor [2015] EWHC 1173 (Admin)).  NPPF126 to 134 provide specific policies on designated heritage assets.  NPPF134 requires less than substantial harm “to be weighed against the public benefits of the proposal…“.

The scheme was acknowledged to cause ‘less than substantial’ harm to the character and appearance of a nearby Grade II listed farmhouse. The Inspector treated that harm as outweighed by the overall public benefits. The authority’s grounds of challenge under section 288 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 included that he had wrongly applied the presumption, by failing to treat NPPF134 as a policy indicating that development ‘should be restricted’.

Coulson J held that NPPF134 is a policy “restricting development” (despite the fact that it does not contain a restriction), interpreting that phrase broadly.  With the presumption disengaged, an “unweighted” cost-benefit balancing exercise must be undertaken.

The finding of harm (regardless of whether it is “substantial” for NPPF purposes) gives rise to a statutory, albeit rebuttable, presumption against the grant of consent (South Lakeland District Council v Secretary of State for the Environment and Another [1992] 2 AC 141) being outweighed by material considerations. Applying the first, weighted, limb on its own meant that it was likely that the wider statutory presumption of refusal where there is any harm to designated heritage assets had been lost.

There is likely to be a broadening of the search for ‘restrictive’ policies in defending refusals. That said, where the decision taker has concluded that there is inadequate HLS and the overarching legal hurdle to approving less than substantial harm has been cleared, it should ultimately make little difference to the outcome.