Regional Director, Andy Meader speaks to Planning Resource: “National policy sets out key steps for councils to take in order to prove the need for green belt changes.” Read the article in full on the Planning Resource website.

Q What does the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) say about the role of ‘exceptional circumstances’ in justifying green belt changes?

A – Specific reference is made to the need for exceptional circumstances to be “fully evidenced and justified” when altering green belt boundaries in plans. Expanding upon this, paragraph 137 of the framework clarifies that “before concluding that exceptional circumstances exist to justify changes to green belt boundaries, the strategic policy-making authority should be able to demonstrate that it has examined all other options for meeting its need for development”. On the introduction of new green belts, clarification is given that this also requires exceptional circumstances to be demonstrated, for example if large-scale development such as a new settlement or an urban extension is planned.

Q What are the typical issues that might constitute exceptional circumstances justifying changes?

A – The judgement in the 2015 court case Calverton Parish Council v Greater Nottingham Council & Others (EWHC 1078) identifies five matters to consider when assessing whether exceptional circumstances are present. The first of these is the acuteness/intensity of the objectively-assessed need. The other matters relate to the inherent constraints on supply/availability of land; the consequent difficulties in securing sustainable development without impinging on the green belt; any resulting harm caused to the green belt and the degree to which this could be ameliorated. The inability of local planning authorities to accommodate their housing requirements without introducing development in the green belt has been the key factor behind the vast majority of green belt changes justified to date.

Q What evidence would councils be expected to produce at local plan examinations to demonstrate exceptional circumstances?

A – Councils will need to show that all other reasonable options have been examined. For those councils whose land beyond major settlements is primarily or entirely green belt, the focus will generally be on whether all reasonable options for maximising additional development within those settlements have been taken, alongside confirmation that neighbouring authorities cannot accommodate any of their required development. For councils with notable areas of non-green belt land, there will be an additional requirement to demonstrate why the potential expansion of existing settlements in non-green belt land is not reasonable.

Q Should the existence or otherwise of exceptional circumstances be covered in a council’s green belt review?

A – A green belt review will be used by a local planning authority to contribute to the case for exceptional circumstances being present (or not) for specific sites. However, it is not the role of such reviews to comment upon whether or not exceptional circumstances are present, because that decision needs to be informed by other factors beyond their remit. The existence or otherwise of exceptional circumstances would instead be likely to be contained in separate reports and prepared by the council in support of the local plan.

Q What will objectors to green belt change be likely to focus on if they are trying to disprove exceptional circumstances?

A They would need to show that there are other reasonable options for development that can and should be followed by the council. While attempts have historically been made by objectors to challenge the need for the scale of development proposed, there is likely to be less scope for such challenge with the move towards a standard housing need method.

Q How should developers with green belt land engage with the process?

A – A case will need to be made for site-specific appropriateness for for green belt release. Attention should be given to the findings and methodology of any relevant green belt studies prepared by the planning authority, as these will often inform eventual proposed allocations in local plans. If a site is to be allocated by a local authority, it will need to be satisfied that development of it will contribute towards sustainable patterns of development.

Andy Meader is Regional Director at Pegasus Group’s Bracknell office.

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