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Planning controversies demand clear reasons

A flurry of decisions on reasons have underlined the need for care in explaining planning decisions, from delegated reports to sensitive areas. Our comprehensive guide to the Oakley green belt case and other decisions is here.

The decision in R (Campaign To Protect Rural England, Kent (CPRE)), v Dover District Council [2016] EWCA Civ 936 is on its way to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, it is worth looking into the Court of Appeal’s approach to the standard of reasons required of an authority granting permission for development of a scale “unprecedented in an AONB” in that case. The judgment confirms that reasons for approval may be required in planning matters where basic fairness demands it, despite the absence of a statutory duty, particularly where significant policy breaches are being entertained. It also highlights the benefits of dealing properly with the need for statements of reasons under the EIA regime.

Controversial proposals

The authority’s officers had recommended a less dense, but – according to its advisors – no less viable approach to delivering housing in the sensitive area.  Members rejected that approach on viability grounds and objectors challenged by judicial review on the basis of inadequate reasons.

No reasons required?

The defendant authority started from the position that there is no duty on planning authorities – unlike the Secretary of State – to give detailed reasons for the grant of permission (adopting the ‘light touch’ approach in R (Hawksworth Securities Plc) v Peterborough City Council & Ors [2016] EWHC 1870 (Admin)) where the standards applicable to an inspector’s decision on appeal were distinguished from merely an ‘administrative’ decisions by local planning authorities).

The Court of Appeal recognised that this 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.”  In the circumstances of Dover, several factors justified detailed reasons:

  • the nature of protective NPPF policies means that decisions to authorising development which will inflict substantial harm on an AONB must be accompanied by “substantial reasons”;
  • a departure from officers’ advice;
  • the applicability of the statutory duty to make a statement of reasons and mitigation under Regulation 24(1)(c) of the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011.

Costly admin errors

The Committee minutes in question failed – against that standard – to give legally adequate reasons:

  • firstly, it was unclear whether members accepted their officers’ assessment of harm; if they did, they would have “opted to inflict irreversible harm on the AONB” on the limited material before them;
  • secondly, it was unclear whether they viewed viability issues as a mere risk, which would have made their obligation to address the issue of harm was “all the more acute”;
  • thirdly, it was not clear if they had applied a simple unweighted balance to AONB protections; and
  • finally, they had reached conclusions on visual screening which were “fragile at best and would have to be supported by reasoning a good deal more substantial than the sentence in the minutes”.

EIA goalie?

The judgment helpfully confirms that while the lack of a regulation 24 statement may not necessarily kill a decision where reasons are adequate on the record, it could save it where they are not.

The Supreme Court judgment, when it comes, should provide a definitive position on the basis and scope for reasons for approval. In the meantime, a little transparency and coherence for controversial decisions can only be a sensible approach.

SEA change

There has been a spate of recent cases concerning the requirement for plan makers to consider ‘any reasonable alternatives’ as part of the plan-making process and the role Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) plays in how that should be approached. This article looks at the recent decisions concerning the role that strategic environmental assessments play in the plan-making process, and the consideration of reasonable alternatives.

Read the full article

This article was first published in Property Law Journal (February 2017) and is also available at http://www.lawjournals.co.uk/

Daylight/ Sunlight Error Fatal To Permission

In Watt, R (on the application of) v London Borough of Hackney & Anor [2016] EWHC 1978 (Admin), the High Court quashed the grant of permission for a mixed use development likely to adversely affect sunlight reaching adjacent open land used by the neighbouring school for children’s play. The application had been considered on the basis the redevelopment of the vacant site would have enhanced the character and appearance of the conservation area.

Latent defects

The authority relied on a daylighting report addressing the extent of reduction in daylight to the play land at different times of year. A claim for judicial review was made on several grounds and independent assessment – carried out after the claim – identified flaws in the original report, exaggerating the existing levels of daylight and so understating (by a third) the effect of the new scheme on the play land.

The judge admitted the new report as part of a ground of claim alleging an error of fact. The defendant authority offered its own evidence in response, but – crucially – did not object to its admission.

Errors of fact can be fatal

The judgment confirms that the error of fact justified quashing the permission in the circumstances: there was a factual error which created a misleading picture; the fact was ‘established’, in the sense of being uncontentious; neither the appellant (nor his advisers) were responsible; and finally, the error played a material part in the reasoning (on the basis that it was impossible to say that had not done so, applying Simplex GE (Holdings) Ltd v Secretary of State for the Environment (1989) 57 P&CR 306).

Get your facts right

The daylight reaching the play area was above the relevant policy threshold with the correct analysis (just less far above than the original assessment had, wrongly, suggested). Despite the fact that the error may not have been decisive in the overall decision, though, the judge was prepared to quash the permission.  The judgment therefore confirms the risk that faulty technical work creates for planning decisions, even where the error itself is not decisive.

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.

Amalgamation of units still at risk

As we have noted previously, the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (“TCPA”) is clear that the conversion of a single unit into several units requires planning permission. Although the legislation is silent on amalgamation, it may too be a material change of use requiring planning permission (see our 13 May 2014 blog).

In the recent Cheyne Gardens appeal an Inspector dismissed an appeal against Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (“RBKC”)’s decision not to grant a certificate of lawfulness for works to amalgamate two flats into a single dwelling. Planning permission had been refused and the applicant argued that a Certificate should be granted on the grounds that there was no material change of use requiring planning permission.  The analysis centred on two questions:

1          Is the change of use ‘development’?  ap

The appellant argued that the proposals should not be treated as development on the basis of Section 55(2)(f) TCPA and Article 3(1) of The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987. Both provide that where a building is used for a purpose of any class specified in the schedule to that Order, the use of that building for any other purpose within the same class shall not be taken to involve development of land. In Richmond upon Thames v SSETR & Richmond upon Thames Churches Housing Trust [2000] this was confirmed as engaged where the combined units were already in a single occupation.

The Inspector refused to apply Section 55(2)(f) and Article 3(1) on the basis that the two flats in this case were in use as two separate dwellinghouses, each occupied by a single household or person. The revised position would be one unit occupied by a single household or person.  Whilst the new arrangement, by virtue of the amalgamation, would be used for one of the uses within Class C3, it would not be the self-same building in the before and after scenarios.  The amalgamation was therefore development capable of amounting to a material change of use.

2          Is the change of use material in planning terms?

Richmond established that the extent to which a particular use fulfils a legitimate or recognised planning purpose (in terms of a purpose relating to the character of the land) is relevant in deciding whether a change from that use is a material change of use.   In particular, the loss of a particular type of residential accommodation where that loss was resisted by specific policies.

RBKC put forward evidence that de-conversions and amalgamations were anticipated to result in the loss of 400 homes over a five year period. Set against that, London Plan Policy 3.3 imposes a minimum 10 year housing building target of 7,330 dwellings for RBKC, with an annual monitoring target of 733 homes.  The Inspector considered that the loss of one unit should be considered against the annual target.  Despite accepting that this would be an “almost infinitesimal change” (and the loss of the single unit was under the 5 unit threshold set in the RBKC policy) he nonetheless decided that it would “as a matter of fact and degree have a significant impact in planning terms” concluding that circumstances had “changed significantly” since the adoption of that policy.

So what?

The focus of recent amalgamation appeals has been on the materiality of the change, rather than the question of whether there has been a change of use. The decision reflects the approach applied by the High Court in June, quashing CLEUD and Section 78 appeals on the basis that the Inspector should have taken account of generalised housing need arguments despite the lack of a specific policy threshold.

Although there is real scope to achieve permission on the basis that the loss of supply is clearly de minimis, the Cheyne Gardens decision confirms that decision makers will continue to treat general housing supply policies as a basis for regarding small amalgamations as material even though more specific policies on such changes do not necessarily warrant it.  The difficulties of doing so in the absence of such policies are illustrated by the 77 Drayton Gardens decision, in which the Inspector refused to grant a CLEUD (on the basis that a material change had occurred by virtue of amalgamation of two units, treating the existence of restrictive policies as weighing on the ‘threshold’ question of whether a change of use had occurred). He nonetheless quashed the related enforcement notice and granted permission on the basis that evidence of housing need (including for larger units) and actual supply outweighed the conflict with the development plan.

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.

Neighbourhood Planning Unchained? The Neighbourhood Planning Bill 2016

Having lost its infrastructure component between the Queen’s Speech and publication, the slimline Neighbourhood Planning Bill had its first reading in the House of Commons earlier in September, and its technical consultation is open for responses until 19 October 2016.

The most interesting element of the Bill from a neighbourhood plan perspective is the process for modifying a neighbourhood plan – although the requirement for subsequent regulations means the precise effect is not yet known.

nhdChanges to bear in mind

This provision is helpful following the changes to the Planning Practice Guidance made earlier in the summer, which suggested that a fresh neighbourhood plan process would be needed (including a referendum) to update a plan where its policies become out of date.

The Bill provides a three tier process:

  • The local planning authority may make minor modifications with the consent of the neighbourhood planning body, without further consultation, examination or a referendum.
  • Where more substantial changes are proposed, a streamlined process is available (as long as the changes do not change the nature of the plan).  An examiner will then consider the amended plan (normally via written representations, and a further referendum is not required).
  • If the modifications would change the nature of the plan, a fresh neighbourhood plan process would be required. 

While it is questionable how streamlined this written representation process will be, and whether it would apply in circumstances where neighbourhood plans must be updated to be in general conformity with new local plans, the prospect of a quicker and simpler way of modifying a neighbourhood plan is to be welcomed.  Owners and developers will need to monitor carefully whether changes are being made that would prejudice their interests (and whether the process is being followed properly).

Weight

There are also several provisions which seek to give greater weight to neighbourhood plans, perhaps with political intentions. For example, provisions give weight to neighbourhood plans which have passed referenda but have not formally been “made” by the local authority.  It is not clear how much of an issue this has been, particularly given the current Planning Practice Guidance which states that emerging neighbourhood plans can be a material consideration, referring back to paragraph 216 of the National Planning Policy Framework weighing of emerging plans.  However, the Government is clearly keen to emphasise the importance of neighbourhood plans, and make it clear that local planning authorities cannot limit the consideration of neighbourhood plans by failing to “make” them. The Bill also requires local planning authorities’ statements of community involvement to set out their policies for giving advice and assistance with the making and modification of neighbourhood plans.

These changes demonstrate the continuing focus on and political will behind neighbourhood planning.