In retrospect, would you believe a minister of the Crown, a judge sitting in the Court of Appeal, or a senior council officer? When it came to Guildford Borough Council planning team trying to justify their evidence base in front of the borough’s own Scrutiny Committee, all bets were off. The ten individuals, to whom the council deigned to give air time for 3 minutes each to raise their pros and cons (mostly cons) on the veracity of the evidence base, certainly had to sit in silence and listen to a determined attack on their legitimate concerns and so here is a bit of a response to the thorny question of Green Belt protection.
It’s a bit like a line in an old Tommy Cooper comedy routine; you can hear his voice going round in your head, “There was this senior council officer, a judge and a minister…”
So, the senior council officer said that the St Alban’s (Hunston) decision only relates to a specific planning decision. Quite so, but the Court of Appeal’s interpretation of the law relates also to local plans like that of Guildford Borough. Paragraph 6 of the judgement states:
“6. There is no doubt, that in proceeding their local plans, local planning authorities are required to ensure that the “full objectively assessed needs” for housing are to be met, “as far as is consistent with the policies set out in this Framework”. Those policies include the protection of Green Belt land. Indeed, a whole section of the Framework, Section 9, is devoted to that topic, a section which begins by saying “The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts”: Paragraph 79. The Framework seems to envisage some review in detail of Green Belt boundaries through the new Local Plan process, but states that “the general extent of Green Belts across the country is already established.” It seems clear, and is not in dispute in this appeal, that such a Local Plan could properly fall short of meeting the “full objectively assessed needs” for housing in its area because of the conflict which would otherwise arise with policies on the Green Belt or indeed on other designations hostile to development, such as those on Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or National Parks. What is likely to be significant in the preparation of this Local Plan for the district of St Alban’s is that virtually all the undeveloped land in the district outside the built up areas forms part of the Metropolitan Green Belt.”
and paragraphs 27-33 are relevant too, especially paragraph 29 (see below), that notes the objectively assessed housing need is what should be considered but in the context of the geographical area:
“29. But there may be other factors as well. One of those is the planning context in which that shortfall is to be seen. The context may be that the district in question is subject on a considerable scale to policies protecting much or most of the undeveloped land from development except in exceptional or very special circumstances, whether because such land is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Park or Green Belt. If that is the case, then it may be wholly unsurprising that there is not a five year supply of housing land when measured simply against the unvarnished figures of household projections. A decision-maker would then be entitled to conclude, if such were the planning judgment, that some degree of shortfall in housing land supply, as measured simply by household formation rates, was inevitable. That may well affect the weight to be attached to the shortfall.”
It appears the assertion made by the senior council officer that St Alban’s has no relevance in the context of the Guildford Borough Local Plan is questionable. Furthermore, it seems recent case law and recent ministerial decisions demonstrate that a shortfall in housing supply does not provide sufficient justification to override the protection of the Green Belt, not only in relation to specific planning appeals, but also in relation to any review of boundaries.
The minister said, in his first letter to the head of the Planning Inspectorate 3 March 2014, “the Framework makes clear that a Green Belt boundary may be altered only in exceptional circumstances“. This was was clear advice specifically given to planning inspectors.
The chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate said “pardon?” and the minister in his reply of 13 March 2014 said that the advice given was a clarification of existing rulings; as near a ‘U-turn’ as you’ll see from any politician without actually saying its a ‘U-turn’. Nothing in this second letter undermines the clarification in the first. The first letter states that Green Belt is a policy that indicates development should be restricted; “local authorities should meet objectively assessed needs unless specific policies in the Framework indicate development should be restricted. Crucially, Green Belt is identified as one such policy“, a word for word quotation from paragraph 14 of the NPPF. Seems the minister is right, it’s clarification, not change.
In his second letter, the minister confirms that the NPPG “provides useful clarity on the practical application of policy. It should provide helpful support for Inspectors and should not normally be considered a reason for extending examinations” indicating that it isn’t the policy but the Planning Inspectorate’s interpretation of that policy that has been wrong and that the minister’s guidance on the current rules should not be ignored.
The clear statement about the ‘Green Belt’ in these letters is that ‘Green Belt’ is a policy that restricts development and, as the minister rightly notes, that policy is stated in the NPPF. Those members of the public that pointed out the flaws in the evidence base in front of the Scrutiny Committee believe residents should be entitled to rely on Guildford Borough councillors following this guidance from the minister, published as an open letter with a view to its influencing local plans and the inspection process.
“There was a senior council officer, a judge and a minister…”