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Secretary of State overturns Planning Inspector's decision due to density concerns

Neighbourhood Plan, Secretary of State, Planning Inspector, densityNormally, planning appeals are determined by Planning Inspectors, but in some circumstances appeals may be 'recovered' for determination by the Secretary of State (SoS). The current SoS for Housing, Communities and Local Government is James Brokenshire MP.

In December 2018, the SoS issued a decision on a recovered appeal at Woburn Sands, Buckinghamshire. The proposal for residential development of up to 203 dwellings, a doctor’s surgery, open space and landscaping, together with pedestrian, cycle and vehicular access, was initially refused by Milton Keynes Council, and following appeal, granted permission by a Planning Inspector. However, the SoS recovered the appeal and overturned the Inspector's decision, dismissing the appeal.

Details of the case are available on the Planning Inspectorate's website, using case reference: APP/Y0435/W/17/3169314.

Appeal site & Neighbourhood Plan

The appeal site is a 15.2 hectare, greenfield site, located outside the development boundary of Woburn Sands - a small town, in close proximity of Milton Keynes.

A small part of the appeal site is located within the Woburn Sands Neighbourhood Area. The Woburn Sands Neighbourhood Plan (WSNP) was made in 2014, and places great importance on protecting the countryside setting, woodlands and footpath links. The WSNP  permits development outside the Development Boundary only in exceptional circumstances.

Planning History

Initially, the scheme was recommended for approval by an officer at Milton Keynes Council (MKC). The relevant policies were considered to be out of date as MKC was unable to demonstrate a five year supply of housing land. The officer therefore applied the NPPF's 'tilted balance', concluding that the scheme is sustainable and should be approved. However, the scheme was ultimately refused by MKC's Planning Committee, on the basis that the scheme is contrary to the WSNP (policy WS5), and is low-density and therefore not sustainable.

An appeal was submitted and a public inquiry was held in 2017. A Planning Inspector considered that, in the absence of a five year supply of housing land, the WSNP's policy to restrict development in the countryside should be afforded "very little weight".

The Planning Inspector assessed the impacts of the proposal, exploring a range of themes, such as the location of the site, density of the proposed scheme, character of the area and heritage.

The Planning Inspector concluded that the the scheme would deliver benefits, placing significant weight on the provision of market and affordable housing, which "would not only contribute to meeting the dearth in the provision identified, but also represent a step towards reducing the imbalance between jobs and housing that has arisen as a result of the failure of house-building to keep pace with local economic growth." The Planning Inspector granted planting permission, concluding that:

"...even in circumstances where an inspector were to conclude that the Council could demonstrate a 5-year supply of housing, the sustainability and other advantages could constitute material considerations sufficient to justify the grant of planning permission."

Clearly, there was little doubt in the Planning Inspector's mind in making his decision.

Secretary of State's Decision

The Secretary of State (SoS) recovered the appeal and reviewed the Inspector's decision..

Like the Planning Inspector, the SoS considered that the housing benefits of the scheme carry significant weight in favour of the proposal. The SoS noted the economic benefits, applying moderate weight in favour of the proposal.

The SoS considers that the low density of the scheme carries significant weight against the proposal. The low density of the scheme (just 16 dwellings per hectare) conflicts with policies in the development plan which promote higher densities, even when the character of the surrounding area is taking into account. Similarly, the Planning Inspector raised concerns with the density of the scheme, noting that land should be used as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Interestingly, the SoS considered that Milton Keynes Council does have a five year land supply. However, the SoS maintained that the WSNP policy to restrict development in the countryside is out-of-date. The SoS therefore applied only moderate weight to the appeal site's location in open countryside outside the development boundary.

In addition, the SoS considered the impact on the character of the area carries limited weight.

The Secretary of State considers that the proposal should be determined in accordance with the development plan, and therefore concluded that the appeal should be dismissed, and planning permission should be refused.

Observations

The Woburn Sands case is an interesting one. Firstly, it is somewhat surprising the SoS recovered the appeal in the first place. The Inspector's decision is a 'classic' example of the 'tilted balance' being applied in the absence of a five year housing land supply.

Secondly, it was no surprise that the Inspector considered the WSNP's development boundary to be out-of-date, as he had determined there to be a lack of a five year housing land supply. However, the SoS considers there is a five year land supply - but still treated the WSNP's development boundary as out-of-date. This highlights the inherent risk in carrying forward development boundaries from Local Plans - they can be determined to be 'out-of-date' and therefore have little effect.

Thirdly, and perhaps most surprising is the significant weight the SoS places on the 'density' of new housing, surpassing even the benefits of delivering new housing. Perhaps this gives some insight into what the government considers 'sustainable development' to mean. I would conclude from this that, Neighbourhood Plans should set out criteria-based policies which clearly and precisely explain the requirements which new development should meet to be sustainable and of high quality design.

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