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

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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.