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Neighbourhood Plans First But How Long Will They Last?

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Judgment has been handed down in the first Neighbourhood Plan (NP) case to reach the Court of Appeal, reinforcing the position that NPs can come forward in the absence of up to date Local Plans.

As discussed previously, developer DLA Delivery Limited judicially reviewed the decision to hold a referendum on the draft NP as, in addition to environmental concerns, DLA claimed that the plan was not in accordance with the appropriate strategic policies.  The NP had been prepared in accordance with the policies of the unadopted, emerging Local Plan, rather than the expired strategic plan.

In the High Court, Foskett J dismissed the claim, allowing permission to appeal on the ground of conformity with strategic policies.  Permission was subsequently given to appeal on additional grounds.

Conformity with what?

On the first ground, whether the district council misunderstood and misapplied the requirement that the NP be in general conformity with the strategic local policies, Lord Justice Lindblom agreed with Foskett J that a NP could proceed in the absence of a strategic development plan document. Lindblom LJ added that where the local plan is historic, a NP cannot logically lack general conformity, as the plans are made for wholly different periods.  The judgment makes clear that a NP can come forward in the absence of an up to date local plan.  Both the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and Planning Policy Guidance (PPG) references to a NP being in general conformity are intended to prevent the “mischief” of a NP frustrating an up to date local plan, rather than requiring a local plan to be in place first.

Properly assessed, but not explained

On the second ground, whether the NP failed to meet Habitats Directive requirements due to the lack of evidence that the Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG) required to mitigate the proposed development would be provided.  Lindblom LJ found that the examiner was not irrational to have considered that SANG would have to be provided, despite the timing and location being uncertain (unlike the level of certainty needed when dealing with a planning application).  The examiner failed to address the lack of evidence for SANGs, and should have done, but Lindblom LJ did not consider this to be fatal, finding that addressing the lack of evidence would not have changed the conclusion.

Early Warning

This judgment clearly demonstrates that NPs can come forward in the absence of an up to date local plan. However, the groups preparing NPs in such areas should be aware of the risk that their NPs may become “out of date” when a local plan with a higher objectively assessed housing need is adopted.  The Written Ministerial Statement, as clarified by the Housing White Paper, provides protection for NPs unless there is a significant lack of delivery in the local planning authority area – but this will be outside the control of the NP group.  Many NP groups and local authorities will also be reassured by Lindblom LJ’s robust defence of the current way of appointing examiners.

The judgment also flagged other areas of caution for NP bodies. Lord Justice Lindblom found the consideration of the environmental mitigation by the examiner was not wholly correct, whilst concluding that it was not fatal to the plan.  The conclusion that the screening opinion was actually in breach of some habitats legislation will be a particular red flag.  Screening opinions and SEA considerations raise particular risks for NPs.  NP forums need to give careful attention to their proper preparation, which can be tricky where groups may have limited experience of such documents.