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Secretary of State rejects new village in the Surrey Green Belt

On 24 May 2018, the Secretary of State refused planning permission for 1,024 new residential units together with a community hub, primary school, medical centre, dentist, pharmacy, local supermarket, pub/restaurant, offices and associated parking at Drake Park, Fieldcommon Lane, Molesey, within the Surrey Green Belt.

The Secretary of State agreed with his Inspector that the provision of housing and other benefits, in the context of a 2.65 year's supply of housing, did not amount to very special circumstances which clearly outweighed the harm to the Green Belt and other harm to the transport network, such as to justify granting permission contrary to the development plan.

The Secretary of State's analysis of national housing and Green Belt policy is worth noting for other cases.

Housing Need

The Secretary of State agreed with the Inspector that a worsening trend in prices and rents justified a market signals uplift to the OAN by 20%. That uplift accommodated the need for affordable housing and employment and therefore no further uplifts were justified (DL, 17-20). The Planning for the Right Homes in the Right Places consultation document could only bear "little weight" at this stage (DL, 22).

These arguments are, however, likely to become redundant within s.78 appeals, if the standardised housing methodology is introduced in the revised NPPF. This is due to be published in July.

Green Belt Openness

The Secretary of State agreed with the Inspector's interpretation of Turner v SSCLG [2016] EWCA Civ. 466 at DL, 27, and rejected the Appellant's approach of taking account of boundary vegetation to the appeal site. The Inspector reasoned:

"the idea that a parcel of Green Belt land must be visible from adjoining land if it is to make a meaningful contribution to openness makes little sense in practical terms. For example, if there was a patchwork of open fields divided by hedgerows and woodlands, on the appellant's approach that landscape would make a reduced contribution to openness because each individual field is visually enclosed" (IR, 382).

The Secretary of State's clarification of that approach is welcome.

Sprawl and Design

The Secretary of State agreed with the Inspector that "sprawl" was a "site specific judgment, taking account of context, location and scale as well as design" (DL, 30 and IR, 395). Thus, the fact the scheme could be well designed did not preclude a finding that it conflicted with the first purpose of the Green Belt to prevent urban sprawl.

This decision would appear to remove the scope to argue that good design can defeat a finding of sprawl, which was left open from the Secretary of State's reasoning in the Oaklands College, St Albans Campus, St Albans decision (Ref APP/B1930/W/15/3051164).

Countryside

Interestingly, the Secretary of State did not reject the Appellant's argument that not all Green Belt amounted to "countryside" but found the site to be countryside on the facts (DL, 32).

Very special circumstances

The Secretary of State afforded "significant weight" to the benefits of housing delivery and economic benefits and "moderate weight" to the affordable housing, public park and replacement community hall. The Secretary of State made a clear finding at DL,56 that those matters did not amount to "very special circumstances" in the circumstances of the appeal.

That approach demonstrates that notwithstanding a shortfall in housing need, a local plan at an early stage, the provision of housing is highly unlikely to ever amount to the necessary "very special circumstances" necessary to justify development on the Green Belt.

The Secretary of State's Decision Letter and the Inspector's Report can be found here.

Ashley Bowes appeared (together with Craig Howell-Williams QC) for the successful Local Planning Authority (instructed by Elmbridge Borough Council).