A Planning Inspector has refused planning permission for a gypsy and traveller site in the Green Belt in Runnymede.
The council's longstanding failure to provide a sufficient number of pitches and the compelling personal circumstances of the proposed occupiers weighed more or less equal in the planning balance with the harm to the Green Belt. What tipped the balance against the proposal was that the occupiers had deliberately gone ahead without planning permission by clearing a previously undeveloped woodland before constructing and then occupying 13 pitches over the course of a bank holiday weekend.
It was common ground at the 10-day public inquiry that there was a significant national and regional need for gypsy and traveller sites. The Inspector found that many of the 80 or so potential occupiers had no lawful site to occupy and that there were no sites in the borough capable of accommodating all of the appellant group together, as they wished. Nor did the council have a 5 year supply of deliverable sites. In fact, the council had granted just one permanent planning permission since 2001. All of these factors, the Inspector concluded, weighed substantially in favour of the appeal, as did the "compelling" evidence of the personal circumstances of the potential occupiers.
Nor was it disputed that the site would be inappropriate development in the Metropolitan Green Belt. The Inspector found that the development would lead to further fragmentation and a loss of openness in what is already a fragmented part of the Green Belt.
However, during the early May 2017 bank holiday weekend, starting just as the council's planning officers were leaving the office, a carefully planned operation took place which resulted in a 1.5ha woodland being cleared, levelled and laid to hardstanding. By the time the council's officers had returned to work and had an opportunity to take enforcement action, 13 pitches had been laid out and the site occupied by 23 households. The site was eventually vacated following a High Court injunction.
A local residents' association and property developer had combined forces to participate in the inquiry as a Rule 6 party. They argued at the inquiry that the unlawful and thoughtless way in which the site had been developed had caused real anger in the neighbouring village and that this was a material consideration which ought to be given substantial weight.
They asked the Inspector to consider the Written Ministerial Statement on intentional unauthorised development. That document makes clear that the government is particularly concerned by such development in the Green Belt.
The Inspector acknowledged that there may be a perception that occupying a site before obtaining planning permission might improve the chances of eventually gaining permission, but rejected the appellants' suggestion that they could take the law into their own hands:
"As it happens little in the way of advantage eventuated in this case, but the actions clearly prevented the proper application of planning policies concerned with the quality of development and caused friction with the local community."
In the result, this appears to have been the factor that tipped the balance against a grant of planning permission:
"In balancing these opposing considerations and their respective weight, however, I consider that the Green Belt harm supplemented by the weight arising from the intentional unauthorised nature of the development is not clearly outweighed by the weight of the other considerations. It follows that the very special circumstances necessary to justify a grant of planning permission for the development in the Green Belt do not exist."
Matt Lewin represented the Rule 6 Party, instructed by Kevin Goodwin and Peggy Hui of KG Creative Consultancy.