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Appeal decision: Secretary of State rejects site due to landscape concerns - Highnam Neighbourhood Plan

Neighbourhood Plan, Secretary of State rejects planning appeal due to landscape concerns: image of field and sky
In the appeal decisions I've reviewed to date, the outcome has often been disappointing for the Neighbourhood Plans involved.

However, in a recent appeal case the Secretary of State applied the policies of a Neighbourhood Plan to refuse outline planning permission for 40 dwellings, despite a lack of housing land supply.

The planning appeal for a 50 dwelling scheme at land south of Oakridge, Highnam, Gloucestershire, was dismissed by a Planning Inspector, after being refused planning permission by Tewkesbury Borough Council. The appeal decision was called in by the Secretary of State (SoS), The Right Honourable James Brokenshire MP, who agreed with the Planning Inspector's recommendation.

The decision was issued 20 December 2018, under appeal reference APP/G1630/W/17/3184272.

'Tilted balance'

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) applies a presumption in favour of sustainable development where there are no relevant development plan policies, or the policies which are most important for determining applications, including housing development, are out-of-date

Crucially, the NPPF considers plans to be out-of-date where the local planning authority cannot demonstrate a five year supply of deliverable housing sites, or where the Housing Delivery Test indicates that the delivery of housing was substantially below the housing requirement over the previous three years.

Where policies are out-of-date, planning applications for housing development will be granted planning permission unless doing so will result in adverse harm.

In the appeal case, Tewkesbury Borough Council fell short of the requirement for a five year land supply, with a land supply of only 3.99 years, meaning the 'tilted balance' must be applied.

In the absence of a five year supply of housing, the SoS noted the benefits of the scheme in delivering market and affordable housing.

Highnam Neighbourhood Plan

The Highnam Neighbourhood Plan (HNP) was made in January 2017. The HNP sets out policies on a range of issues including housing, transport, business and enterprise, community facilities and environment and conservation. 

The HNP does not make site allocations, and does not directly discuss the appeal site. However, HNP policy H2 places importance on the design and visual character of new developments, encouraging them to "make a positive contribution to forming a sense of place: demonstrating both design quality and sensitivity to the existing environment...".

Character and appearance

The SoS and Inspector considered the main issues to be "the effect of the proposal on the settlement pattern, and the landscape and visual effects of the proposal", noting that Oakridge provides a "definitive and robust edge between the settlement and open countryside", and "development would result in harm by disrupting the settlement pattern by extending the urban area into open countryside beyond a well-defined edge".

The appeal site is not within a landscape subject to any specific designation for its character or quality.

The SoS makes reference to HNP policy H2, and a landscape policy (SD6) set out in the Gloucester, Cheltenham and Tewkesbury Joint Core Strategy (JCS), which seeks to protect landscape character and requires development proposals to have regard to local distinctiveness, landscape and visual sensitivity.

The SoS considered that the proposal would not have sufficient regard for local distinctiveness or contribute positively to a sense of place, concluding the proposal would therefore run counter to JCS policy SD6 and NP policy H2.

Planning balance

In making his decision, the SoS considered that the housing and economic benefits of the proposal carry significant weight. However, the SoS considered that the conflict with the development plan on matters of character and landscape impact carry very substantial weight. The SoS dismissed the appeal, and refused planning permission for the scheme.

What we can learn 

The Highnam case is similar to a case at Chinnor, Oxfordshire which I recently reviewed. In both cases, the local planning authority could not demonstrate a five year land supply, and a key concern was the site's impact on the landscape - despite neither site having any formal landscape designation.

However, the big difference between these two cases is the outcome - the Highnam case was refused, whilst the Chinnor case was approved.

In the Inspector's Report, the Inspector draws on two landscape studies which accompany the JCS and provide assessment of landscape character and visual sensitivity. In addition, each party submitted additional evidence on landscape and visual impact during the appeal process.

In describing the harmful impacts of the scheme on the local landscape, the Inspector draws on this wealth of evidence.

The Highnam case highlights the importance of evidence in resisting unplanned developments. Whilst the HNP and JCS policies sought to protect landscape, the evidence documents articulated the specific characteristics of the local landscape enabling the Inspector (and SoS) to draw clear conclusions.

For many communities, the threat of unplanned developments is a major concern - particularly, where proposals come forward in sensitive locations, such as at the edge of settlements.

The Highnam case shows that Neighbourhood Plan policies, where supported by evidence of landscape character and visual sensitivity can help to resist unplanned developments in inappropriate locations.

When writing a Neighbourhood Plan, you should check if your district or borough council has up-to-date evidence of the local landscape which you can utilise to inform your Neighbourhood Plan - and where not available, you should consider preparing or commissioning such evidence.

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