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Comparables That Glitter Are Not All Gold

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The approach to land value and the application of planning policy were brought into sharp focus by an Inspector’s decision to dismiss the developer’s appeal against refusal of permission on the grounds that the ‘maximum reasonable level’ of affordable housing had not been secured. The developer had proposed residential redevelopment of a surplus military site where it was the successful bidder. Holgate, J’s judgment – dismissing the challenge to that decision under Section 288 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 – in Parkhurst Road Ltd v Secretary of State for Communities And Local Government & Anor [2018] EWHC 991 (Admin) confirms the importance of understanding how land value should reflect planning policy requirements.

The developer relied on nearby sales data to justify its land cost as at the market value for the site, limiting its affordable provision at ten percent. The Inspector accepted the authority’s approach, starting with the site’s low established use value (EUV) and applying a substantial premium (EUV Plus), to reach an overall benchmark value at which 34% provision was feasible.

In the previous (2015) appeal, an Inspector’s finding that the developer’s benchmark land value was broadly reasonable in light of ‘market signals’ (competing bids and comparables) resulted in a threat of legal challenge by the authority and a letter from the Government acknowledging that the Planning Practice Guidance “unambiguous policy position” is “in all cases land or site value should reflect policy requirements and planning obligations…”.

The developer ran its new appeal case on the basis that using EUV Plus was inappropriate where the EUV was negligible. The Inspector rejected its evidence on market values, on the basis of the weakness of the comparables used (being unadjusted for variations in policy compliance and EUV). He refused to accept “a market valuation which does not, in my view, adequately demonstrate proper consideration of, or give adequate effect to, the guidance in PPG or the requirements of the development plan“. In line with the authority’s case, he adopted EUV Plus as a starting point, then having regard to the market as a relevant, not determining factor.  The decision letter included a statement that the authority was promoting an EUV Plus method of valuation.

The developer challenged the decision under Section 288 on various grounds, including that the Inspector’s misunderstanding of the authority’s was partly responsible for rejecting the developer’s position that a purely market value approach was “the only reasonable means by which to establish the land value” given the low EUV. It also claimed that the Inspector’s decision was vitiated by accepting a (flawed) technical ‘fix’ for comparing land values relied on by the authority’s expert.

Holgate, J dismissed these two grounds: firstly, the Inspector had understood the authority’s approach correctly (establishing a site value and then re-expressing it as EUV plus a premium to cross-check the reasonableness of the site value indicated by comparables); secondly, the Inspector had erred on the technical fix but his “wholesale and robust rejection” of the appellant’s valuation case and interpretation of development plan policy did not rely on – “had nothing to do with”  – that point.

The judgment clearly explains the meaning of the PPG and the upholds the way the Inspector applied it. There is no wider or new principle, but it is nonetheless helpfully clear that in the current PPG regime:

(1) the PPG addresses the problem of ‘circularity’ – where residual land valuation using land price is based on downgrading policy expectations erode policy – by requiring site value to respect policy expectation, competitive return to willing owners and evidenced market value at the same time;

(2) comparable evidence is one helpful way to calibrate reasonable land value expectation, but may often require adjustment to be fit for purpose (including, for example, to deal with high existing or alternative use values and policy non-compliance).  The more adjustment needed – and the harder to do – the less the weight that may be applied (40);

(3) reasonable behaviour matters – proper due diligence and analysis of actual demand are key elements of the reasonable owner (citing Trocette Property Co Ltd v Greater London Council (1974) 28 P & CR and Inland Revenue Commissioners v Gray [1994] STC 360);

(4) policy requirements (depending on how they are expressed) may put the onus of proof on the applicant. An Inspector may reject that party’s case as lacking sufficient cogency to satisfy the policy (paragraph 54, applying Vicarage Gate Limited v First Secretary of State [2007] EWHC 768 (Admin));

(5) planning by numbers is tempting but dangerous – “the NPPG recognises that it may not be proper” to “compromise policy requirements” even where there is a viability constraint;

(6) authorities need to be careful too: using EUV Plus as a rule rather than part of an analysis “disregards levels of market value arrived at quite properly in arm’s length transactions and consistent with the correct application of planning policies and sound valuation principles” (146).  “Local policy statements” may cross the line in this way “especially where the document has not been subjected to independent statutory examination prior to adoption“. This is rife in practice, with Supplementary Guidance masquerading as development plan policy;

(7) planning appeal decisions should be taken with a pinch of salt – they are fact specific, cannot establish or change policy, consume “a disproportionate amount of time and may distract parties” from actually getting their own evidence right.

Both the appeal decision and the judgment underline the need to avoid land value expectation becoming self-referential. The decision 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) and of the risks when bidding for land with low existing value of being too led by future scheme, rather than underlying use, value.

The judgment also underlines the critical importance of properly testing the effect of policies at examination in public if they are to be legitimately treated as the irreducible starting point. Practitioners should take heed on both fronts and hope that the Government does not sweep away too much of the current Guidance, on which there is now judicial clarity.

(This article was originally published in Estates Gazette on 14 May 2018)