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Appeal granted in countryside despite Five Year Land Supply - Shinfield Neighbourhood Plan

Neighbourhood plan, planning appeal granted despite five year land supply: image of grass
Through a recent appeal decision, a Planning Inspector has granted outline planning permission for up to 55 dwellings and 'Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace' (SANG) at land at Parklands, east of Basingstoke Road, Spencers Wood, Wokingham.

The decision was issued on 28th February 2019, under appeal reference APP/X0360/W/18/3204133.

The appeal site is located between two villages, Three Mile Cross and Spencers Wood. The scheme proposes two areas of development adjoining each of the villages, separated by an area of open space - a 'SANG'.

Shinfield Neighbourhood Plan

The Shinfield Neighbourhood Plan (SNP) was made in February 2017. Policy 1 of the SNP addresses the location of development:

In Shinfield Parish, development within the Development Limits..., will be supported; development adjacent to the Development Limits will only be supported where the benefits of the development outweigh its adverse impacts. 

'Development limits' are a very common planning tool, contained in many Local Plans and Neighbourhood Plans, but are often called by other names - e.g. settlement limits, development envelopes, settlement boundaries, etc. In this post I've used the term 'development limits' to be consistent with the SNP.

Development limits are usually drawn tightly around the built area of settlements, plus any development sites expected to be built out in the plan period. They define the extent of the built area and the countryside. Development is normally acceptable within the development limit, and generally more restricted outside of it.

A map accompanies the policy which shows five areas contained within 'development limits', including the villages of Shinfield, Three Mile Cross and Spencers Wood. The three villages have their own development limit boundaries, and are in very close proximity of each other, separated from other development in the Reading-area by the M4 motorway.

The supporting text discusses the importance of maintaining the separate identifies of the three villages to the local community.

Development Plan

In addition to the SNP, the development plan for the area includes the Wokingham Borough Core Strategy (2010) (the 'CS').

The appeal site is located within a wider area for strategic growth for 2,500 dwellings. However, the appeal site is located outside the development limits for Three Mile Cross and Spencers Wood.

A CS policy (CP11) restricts development which can take place outside of the development limits. The policy states that development proposals will not normally be permitted, with the exception of certain countryside-based activities.

Policy CP9 of the CS sets out a hierarchy of development locations and both Three Mile Cross and Spencers Wood are ‘modest development locations’. The policy requires development to be within development limits but allows for affordable housing adjoining those limits in modest development locations. The Inspector noted that the appeal scheme would not accord with this policy, as the proposal includes market housing.

Land supply and status of development limits

The government's planning policies for England, the National Planning Policy Framework (the NPPF), sets out a 'presumption in favour of sustainable development'. In summary, where the policies of the development plan are out-of-date, planning permission should be granted unless doing so will result in adverse harm, or would conflict with the NPPF. Planning policies can become 'out-of-date' where there is an insufficient supply of sites for housing development, or where the Council has failed the Housing Delivery Test. The implications of the presumption in favour of sustainable development are explained in my post Presumption-proofing Neighbourhood Plans.

In the appeal case, the Inspector explored the Council's supply of sites to test whether Wokingham Borough Council can demonstrate a 'five year supply' of housing land. In other words, whether the Council has granted planning permission for enough sites to meet the number of new homes needed over the next five years.

The NPPF requires that, if a plan is more than five years old, the government's own method for working-out housing need should be applied when calculating the 'five year land supply'. As the CS is more than five years old, the Inspector concluded the CS's housing requirement figure is out-of-date.

Based on the government's method for calculating 'local housing need', the Inspector calculated that Wokingham Borough Council can demonstrate 6.83 years of housing land supply, thereby far exceeding the requirement for a 'five year land supply'.

One might reasonably assume that as Wokingham Borough Council has satisfied the five year housing land supply requirement, the Development Plan would be considered up-to-date and the appeal scheme should be refused by virtue of being located outside of the development limit. 

However, the Planning Inspector took a different view. As the development limits were drawn based on the CS's out-dated housing target the Inspector concluded they are also out-of-date, irrespective of the five year land supply position.

In his decision letter, the Inspector identified that the policies relating to the development limits do not carry full weight:

This does not mean, however that those policies are out-of-date such that the tilted balance in paragraph 11 (d) of the Framework would be engaged. Nonetheless because the policies are not fully up-to-date the conflict with them does not attract full weight.

It is surprising to me that there can be 'degrees' of outdatedness. I had previously assumed that policies were measured in binary terms - a policy is either up-to-date or out-of-date. The CS policies appear to occupy an unusual space which is neither up-to-date nor out-of-date. 

Landscape character and heritage issues

The Council refused planning permission for a number of reasons, namely landscape impacts and concerns regarding the scheme's affects on a heritage asset.

The appeal site is primarily an area of open pasture land between the settlements of Three Mile Cross and Spencers Wood, and adjoins a Grade II listed building. The Inspector noted that the proposed residential development on the northern part of the site would encroach into that open setting of the listed building, resulting in harm.

The Inspector discussed the landscape impacts, and considered there would be some harm to the character and appearance of the area in terms of the extension of built frontage along the road, the reduction of the gap between the settlements and the additional development close to a 'ridge' in the landscape. However, the Inspector concluded extent of that harm would be limited.

Planning balance

In reaching his overall conclusions, the Inspector gave 'significant weight' to the scheme's conflict with the 'development limit' policies, and gave 'great weight' to the harm to the setting of the listed building and 'moderate weight' to the harm to the character and appearance of the area.

However, the Inspector gave 'substantial weight' to the benefits of the SANG, provision of affordable housing, the site's accessible location, and to the enhancement to the setting of the listed building in terms of improved public access. The Inspector also considered favourably the economic benefits arising from the construction of the development and from the expenditure of its residents, and provision of a footpath to a school.

The Inspector concluded that the benefits of the scheme would outweigh the impacts, and the proposal would accord with Policy 1 of the SNP. Planning permission was granted.

What we can learn

Development limits

Development limits do so much more than simply make land available for development, and are often intended to prevent unconstrained growth which can potentially harm a settlement's character and impact upon local infrastructure. Such policies also recognise that the countryside is not simply a 'blank space' void of development, but is a valuable asset for agriculture, recreation, heritage and biodiversity. I therefore find it somewhat troubling that the Inspector declared the Development Limits contained in the CS and SNP to be out-of-date.

At the time of the appeal, Wokingham Borough Council were able to demonstrate a land supply position which is far in excess of the five year requirement. However, the Inspector did not consider the development limits to be up-to-date as they had been set by the CS, whose housing target is now out-of-date by virtue of being more than five years old. Applying the Inspector's logic means that, for all plans which pre-date the current NPPF, the development limits will automatically become out of date after five years from adoption - regardless of whether the plan is delivering the right amount of growth, or not.

There appears to be inconsistency with how Inspector's are treating development limits, so it is difficult to provide clear advice on the matter. However, neighbourhood planning groups may wish to think about how they can make their development limits more robust and resilient to unplanned growth.

For example, the development limit should be reviewed while preparing the Neighbourhood Plan, and should not simply be 'rolled forward' from the Local Plan. In the appeal case, the Inspector appears to skirt around the issue that the two-year old SNP sets a policy relating to the development limits, and attributes the development limits to the policies of the CS. It should be clear that the Neighbourhood Plan's development limit is 'new' and trumps that contained in a Local Plan.

The development envelope should ensure it provides sufficient available, deliverable sites to meet the housing requirement for the Neighbourhood Area - read more in my post Presumption-proofing Neighbourhood Plans.

Neighbourhood planning groups may wish to collate or commission evidence on issues such as landscape character and visual sensitivity. Such evidence may help to protect some areas from growth and, through your policies, set measures to ensure new development is designed to lessen its visual impacts and complement landscape character. It could also help to define 'Areas of Separation', to help prevent settlements from merging together.

In addition, Neighbourhood Plan's can designate Local Green Spaces, to give important open spaces a level of protection equivalent to Green Belt status. Locality has recently published a guide on Making local green space designations in a Neighbourhood Plan.

Benefits and adverse impacts

SNP policy 1 restricts development outside but adjacent to the development limit, except where 'where the benefits of the development outweigh its adverse impacts'. 

The Inspector duly assessed the scheme and concluded that the harm arising from the scheme, namely to landscape character and setting of a listed building, would be outweighed by its benefits. The Inspector therefore concluded the scheme would accord with the SNP policy.

The policy itself does not explain the benefits or adverse impacts of greatest significance to the community. The decision-maker therefore has a wide scope in assessing the benefits and adverse impacts of the scheme.

SNP policy 1 takes a very flexible approach about the location of new development around the development limits. The policy takes a positive approach to delivery growth without having to go through the process of allocating sites.

However this approach does not provide much certainty about where future growth will be located, and therefore may not be suitable for all Neighbourhood Plans. To provide greater certainty, the policy could have provided greater clarity about what it considers to be 'benefits' and 'adverse impacts' - for example, the supporting text to SNP policy 1 notes the community's concerns around the physical coalescence of villages, but this is not articulated in the policy itself.

In addition, the policy could require applications outside of the development limits to provide more evidence of their impacts, than sites within the development limits. For example, the policy could request applicants provide evidence of a scheme's visual impacts.

In summary, neighbourhood planning groups should not assume that Development Limits will always carry full weight in decision-making, as their status can be affected by matters outside the Neighbourhood Plan's control.

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