Key High Court ruling – In the context of Guildford’s Local Plan relating to Green Belt release

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Kate Lowe - Pegasus Group Senior Planner (Manchester)A recent High Court decision has been released in the context of Guildford’s Local Plan relating to Green Belt release. Take a look at our blog written by Senior Planner, Kate Lowe from our Manchester office, who summarises the High Court ruling below.

Judicial Review to Guildford Borough Council’s Local Plan: Were there exceptional circumstances justifying the release of Green Belt Land and a headroom of 4,000 dwellings above the OAN?

Two words: Green Belt. These two words are certain to spark discussion and draw people’s attention. The High Court judgement I comment on in this blog most definitely caught my attention. In my four years at Pegasus Group, I have been heavily involved in Green Belt Land; preparing Green Belt assessments and promoting a number of sites for Green Belt release. This High Court judgement resonated with me in particular given that Pegasus Group were involved in the preparation of the Council’s Green Belt assessment.

Last week, Sir Duncan Ouseley dismissed a judicial review challenge against Guildford’s adopted Local Plan. The Challenge was made by local campaigners, including: the Guildford Green Belt Group, Compton Parish Council and Ockham Parish Council, with all grounds of challenge being dismissed by the judge.

Guildford Borough Council submitted their proposed ‘Local Plan: Strategy and Sites (2015-2034)’ to the SoS in December 2017. The Plan sought to allocate three major Green Belt sites (totalling 5,200 homes). The Plan was examined under NPPF 2012 and was adopted by the Council’s Conservative administration in April 2019 (days before the Conservatives lost power in the May local election).

The change in power and the adoption of the Plan sparked huge political backlash and a judicial review, with claimants arguing that the exceptional circumstances test required by the NPPF to allow Green Belt release in local plans had not been met and the additional ‘4,000 homes headroom’ was not justified.

As set out in the adopted Local Plan, the OAN for Guildford is 10,678 dwellings (562 dwellings per year) up until 2034, however, the plan allocates sites for the delivery of 14,602 homes. All claimants challenged, with degrees of difference, the release of sites from the Green Belt and their allocation for development. The main issue was whether the Inspector had erred in law in his approach to what constituted the ‘exceptional circumstances’ required for the redrawing of Green Belt boundaries. The question was, does the difference between the potential supply of 14,602 dwellings and the OAN of 10,678 dwellings imply that the plan should allocate fewer sites and release less Green Belt land?

As set out by the Inspector, the exceptional circumstances to release land from the Green Belt were as follows: the need for housing; the need for land for business use which could not be met other than through Green Belt releases; the lack of scope for increasing housing on land within the urban areas; the need for a sound and integrated approach to the proper planning of the area; and the need for flexibility.

The judge highlights that there is no definition of the policy concept of exceptional circumstances which is a deliberate policy decision in itself and is deliberately broad. The judge goes on to state that exceptional circumstance is a less demanding test than the development control test for permitting inappropriate development in the Green Belt, which requires ‘very special circumstances’. There is no requirement that Green Belt land be released as a last resort, nor is it necessary to show that assumptions upon which the Green Belt boundary have been drawn.

Exceptional circumstances can be found in the accumulation or combination of circumstances, of varying natures, which entitle the decision maker, in the rational exercise of a planning judgement, to say that the circumstances are sufficiently exceptional to warrant altering the Green Belt boundary. The phrase ‘exceptional circumstances’ should be considered as a whole, and in its context, to judge whether Green Belt boundaries should be altered in a Local Plan review.

It is not necessary to explain why each factor or the combination is itself ‘exceptional’. It does not mean that they have to be unlikely to recur in a similar fashion elsewhere. It is sufficient reasoning to spell out what those factors are, and to reach the judgement.

There were an additional 447 dwellings on Green Belt sites in the plan which claimants did not challenge. If all sites, including these, were to be deducted from the allocations (as they would all require exceptional circumstances), the deficit would be 2,700 out of 10,678 which would not provide Guildford with their OAN requirement in the plan period.

Furthermore, the judge saw nothing illogical with requiring a buffer of some significance and treating the total number of dwellings of all the allocated sites as creating an appropriate buffer. There is no need to calculate a precise headroom figure and then match it with sites. The headroom figure was a judgement based on the sites which were available to meet a requirement figure over 10,678 and to ensure that over the initial and subsequent years of the Plan, the rolling five year housing supply, with a 20% buffer for some years, would be maintained. The scale of the headroom was partly required because the sites to be released were large sites and could face delays on that account.

This High Court judgement provides clarity on the circumstances under which the exceptional circumstances test can be met. It substantiated the ability for Local Planning Authorities to release Green Belt land over and above the precise housing need requirements to allow for flexibility and for a sound and integrated approach to the proper planning of the area. This ruling clarifies that local authorities should not shy away from higher housing numbers because Green Belt release will be needed to achieve these numbers. This judgement clearly sets out that broader spatial objectives can and should be taken into account to justify higher housing figures.

If you have any questions about this blog or any Green Belt issues related to your project, please contact us.