Local Plan Interventions

As set out in his 16 November 2017 written ministerial statement, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has written to 15 local planning authorities (Basildon, Brentwood, Bolsover, Calderdale, Castle Point, Eastleigh, Liverpool, Mansfield, North East Derbyshire, Northumberland, Runnymede, St Albans, Thanet, Wirral and York), indicating that they have “the opportunity to put forward any exceptional circumstances, by 31 January 2018, which, in their view, justify their failure to produce a Local Plan under the 2004 Act regime.” He will then make a formal decision as to whether formally to intervene in their plan-making. 
His Bristol speech on the same day says this:

“…today is the day that my patience has run out.

Those 15 authorities have left me with no choice but to start the formal process of intervention that we set out in the white paper.

By failing to plan, they have failed the people they are meant to serve.

The people of this country who are crying out for good quality, well-planned housing in the right places, supported by the right infrastructure.

They deserve better, and by stepping in now I’m doing all I can to ensure that they receive it.”

Will this be another empty threat or this time will we actually see some action? Back 20 July 2015 the then minister for housing and planning, Brandon Lewis, announced in a written ministerial statement:

In cases where no Local Plan has been produced by early 2017 – five years after the publication of the NPPF – we will intervene to arrange for the Plan to be written, in consultation with local people, to accelerate production of a Local Plan.”

There was then the February 2016 technical consultation on implementation of planning changes which included within its chapter 6 the Government’s proposed criteria for intervention, namely where:

* the least progress in plan-making had been made;

* policies in plans had not been kept up to date;

* there was higher housing pressure; and

* intervention would have the greatest impact in accelerating local plan production.

Decisions on intervention would be informed by the wider planning context in each area (specifically, the extent to which authorities are working co-operatively to put strategic plans in place, and the potential impact that not having a plan has on neighbourhood planning activity).

The Government confirmed in its February 2017 housing white paper that these criteria would indeed be adopted. 

The February 2016 technical consultation proposed that authorities identified for potential intervention would be given an opportunity to set out exceptional circumstances why that should not happen:

“What constitutes an ‘exceptional circumstance’ cannot, by its very nature, be defined fully in advance, but we think it would be helpful to set out the general tests that will be applied in considering such cases. We propose these should be: 

• whether the issue significantly affects the reasonableness of the conclusions that can be drawn from the data and criteria used to inform decisions on intervention; 

• whether the issue had a significant impact on the authority’s ability to produce a local plan, for reasons that were entirely beyond its control.”

We can assume that those 15 authorities will now be looking very carefully at this passage. 

A political decision to intervene is one thing but what would then be the legal process to be followed?

The Housing and Planning Act 2016 amended the default powers of the Secretary of State within section 27 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, so that it read as follows:

Under section 9 of the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017, the Secretary of State can now also order the preparation of joint development plans, giving him a further option in the case of interventions, particularly as he “may apportion liability for the expenditure arising on such basis as he thinks just between the local planning authorities for whom the document has been prepared.”
Of course the practicalities are quite another thing. How is the Government actually going to go about the intervention process? Preparing the document centrally, directing an adjoining authority to take the lead or parachuting in civil servants or consultants to carry out the work (all at the cost of the authority) is surely always going to be a last resort. The process is likely to be locally unpopular, prone to error and obviously liable to litigation. Authorities may also trip over themselves in their belated haste. However, surely after the end of January a few authorities are bound to be identified, pour encourager les autres. 
So how have these authorities found themselves in this position? Here’s just a flavour:
Basildon
Yellow Advertiser (20 April 2017):

“Tory chief Phil Turner has suggested calling in independent analysts to go over the plan, which allocates land for development across the borough until 2034. 

Cllr Turner said he hoped to ask experts to go over the plan’s policies on green belt and infrastructure. 

He said he hoped the move would help him cut the number of planned houses in the borough, which currently sits at 15,260.

He said: “We can’t review the whole plan but those two points are areas where we think there may be opportunities about reducing our housing numbers. 

“During the consultations, we’ve had a lot of feedback about how people don’t think we are working hard enough to to save the green belt. We don’t want to build on the green belt and we have avoided it as much as possible but I don’t think the public actually believes us.

“So what we are thinking is we should call in some independent people to scrutinise the plan and tell us where we can maybe use the evidence to put up an argument to challenge the housing numbers.”

Cllr Turner was due to present the proposal to all councillors in a secret meeting last night. 

If approved, he said the process could cost a six-figure sum and take up to six months.

Brentwood
Largely green belt authority. Prolonged delays.  

Bolsover

Local Plan withdrawn after it failed examination in 2014. Failure to co-operate with North East Derbyshire District Council and Chesterfield Borough Council with regard to a strategic development site. 
Calderdale

Brighouse Echo (17 November 2017):

 “Councillor Scott Benton, Leader of the Calderdale Conservatives, said: “‘The draft Local Plan published by the Labour Council administration has caused great concern throughout the different communities of Calderdale.

“The Labour Party have clearly been taken aback by the scale of the opposition to their plans and instead of meeting their target of producing a Final Plan in December, they have announced that they are now kicking the issue down the road again until after the elections next summer.

“‘Labour’s first attempt at producing a draft Plan was a disaster. Instead of working with residents and other Councillors to produce a Plan that is fit for purpose they have delayed the process until after elections. This makes a mockery of our local democracy and demonstrates why Calderdale requires fresh leadership.”

Castle Point

Local Plan failed examination in April 2017 – failure adequately to assess housing need, and failure to cooperate with neighbouring councils.
Eastleigh
Eastleigh News (16 November 2017):
“In February 2015, Eastleigh had to go back to the drawing board after its first Local Plan was rejected by the planning inspector because, he said, it didn’t plan for enough new homes – in particular new affordable ones.

On December 11 the council will meet for a crunch vote on their new Local Plan and the council’s preferred options of housing development on land North of Bishopstoke and Fair Oak (Options B and C).

There has been fierce local opposition – not just from the residents most likely to be affected by the development of 5,000 new homes but also from residents close to the route of a proposed M3 link road that will stretch across countryside from Upham to Allbrook.

So far this year three councillors have stood down from the ruling Liberal Democrat group to sit as Independents because of their concerns over the direction of the local plan.

It is likely they will join the opposition Conservative group on December 11 in voting against the council’s favoured options – though this is unlikely to prevent their adoption.”

Liverpool
Prolonged delays. 
 Mansfield

Mansfield 103.2 (17 November 2017):

Hayley Barsby, Interim Chief Executive at Mansfield District Council, said: “We are disappointed to have been named as one of the 15 local authorities.

“We are confident that while we don’t have an up-to-date Local Plan that this hasn’t affected development in the district.

“Mansfield District Council is committed to bringing forward house building – this is demonstrated by the council supporting the Berry Hill development (formerly known as the Lindhurst development) which will create 1,700 new houses for the district.

“Of the 9,024 new homes we need to provide by 2033, planning permission already exists for 4,147.

“Over the past 12 months we have worked hard to bring forward the Local Plan and during this time we have been mindful to undertake feasibility and consultation to ensure it reflects not only the needs of the district but also the views of our communities.

Following an initial consultation in early 2016 on the draft Local Plan, we received 1,477 comments which were then reviewed to ensure the plan is fit for purpose up to 2033.

The council reviewed its position and prepared a new vision and objectives. These have been used to create alternative options for the delivery of sustainable housing and employment to meet future requirements. 

A Preferred Options consultation took place in October and November 2017.”

North East Derbyshire
Derbyshire Times (18 October 2017) quotes the Labour leader of the council in response to criticisms from the local (Conservative) MP:
“We are well aware of the need to protect the character of our area and have done all we can to do this, however the Government’s expectations and targets for housing place significant pressure on our ability to continue this.” 

He added: “As such we’d welcome any moves by the MP to seek a revision to Government policy so that the expectations for north east Derbyshire are realistic and in keeping with those of our residents.”
Northumberland

Northumberland Gazette (16 November 2017):

 “Northumberland’s Local Plan, a key document which details where development should take place, is not likely to be adopted until 2020. In the summer, the county council’s new Conservative administration withdrew the Local Plan Core Strategy – put together by the council’s Labour group before losing the county election in May – to review a number of aspects of the document, primarily due to concerns that numbers for the proposed level of new housing were too high.”

Runnymede
Local plan failed examination in 2014 due to failure to meet housing needs and failure of duty to co-operate. 
 St Albans

Local Plan failed examination in 2016 due to failure of duty to co-operate, council’s subsequent challenge to that decision failed.
Thanet

Prolonged delays but Regulation 19 consultation anticipated in January 2018. 
 Wirral

Wirral Globe (16 February 2017):

Wirral Council’s leader is preparing for battle with Whitehall over plans that could force the authority to turn green belt land into a housebuilding free for all.

The Government has ruled Wirral must produce a blueprint demonstrating how it will hit a target of building nearly 1,000 new homes each year over the next five years.

That’s 500 more than the present annual number.

Councillor Phil Davies says he is adamant that he will not sanction the release of green belt land – and has written to communities secretary Sajid Javid urging him to reconsider.”

York
Prolonged delays. 
York Press (16 November 2017):
City of York Council’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders have pointed to delays caused by the announcement of barracks closures in York, and insisted they are on course to deliver a sound plan by May.

Leader Cllr David Carr said: “We’re making very good progress to deliver a Local Plan which is right for York – one which provides the homes and employment opportunities we need while protecting our city’s greenbelt and special character.

“We rightly reviewed the plan after the Ministry of Defence’s announcement over the future of three very large sites, and consulted once again listen to views from across York.”

However the announcement has brought criticism from Labour councillors, who say they warned this could happen.”
Themes
Tell me if I am over-simplifying but it seems to me that there are some common, unsurprising, themes within this list:
– Uncertainties as to the calculation of objectively assessed needs and the extent to which authorities can justify not meeting that need to due to green belt issues (nearly all these authorities have areas of green belt within their boundaries). 
– Uncertainties as to the extent to which it may be appropriate for authorities to assist in meeting other authorities’ needs, the duty to co-operate being far too loose a mechanism (which is not necessarily to suggest that a return to regional planning and “top down” numbers is the answer – these are authorities who didn’t manage to adopt a plan even under that regime, which of course had built into it inherent delays at the regional tier). 

– As a result of this wriggle room, housing numbers becoming a political battleground, with members often not accepting officers’ advice or with changes in approach arising from changes in political control. 

– Delays due to plans having been found unsound at the end of, or a long way into, a long process (usually as a result of these factors). 

– Plainly, these authorities haven’t been sufficiently spurred on by the application of the “tilted balance” leading to development taking place in unplanned, unwanted locations – perhaps due to that policy lever being less effective in relation to green belt – or other Government threats to date. 

– Many of the authorities being, on paper at least (their websites tell a good story to their constituents), now close to being able to submit a plan for examination, after (usually) a series of Regulation 18 consultation processes. 

Is slow plan-making the fault of local politicians or of the planning system itself? I would say both. The lack of prescription as to numbers and methodology has inevitably given room for protracted, unending, debate as to different approaches and outcomes. Debate and local choice is surely to be welcomed but the system has been so loose that in some areas this has slowed progress to an extent that anyone would surely say was unacceptable. Accordingly, the proposed tightening of the OAN methodology (see my 20 September 2017 blog post) and of the duty to co-operate is surely welcome, as is this clear threat by Javid of intervention. 

However, if formal intervention is actually required, the outcome will surely be a political, administrative and legal mess. 
…………………..

Meanwhile, it is perhaps unfortunate timing that in the same week the Secretary of State has made a holding direction in relation to the Stevenage local plan, at the request of local Conservative MP Stephen McPartland, despite a favourable Inspector’s report having been received last month. The issue appears to result from a continuing fault line both in Stevenage and more widely: whether to provide homes by way of town centre redevelopment (as per the plan) or outside the town in a new settlement (as per Mr McPartland). 

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Stevenage position, why allow such political interventions if the plan has been found sound?
Simon Ricketts, 18 November 2017
Personal views, et cetera

(With thanks to Town Legal colleague Rebecca Craig for some background research. Mistakes and opinions all mine). 

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Green Belt Policy: Will It Change?

In all the noise and spin ahead of the Autumn budget on 22 November, I would be wary of reading anything substantive into stories such as these:
Telegraph 4 November 2017 Philip Hammond risks Tory backlash with gamble on opening up the green belt 

Times 30 October 2017 Hammond rebuffed over budget plan for green belt housing
 I don’t believe that there will be anything to change the current policy direction. This Government surely does not have the strength, the resolve or the thinking space. The existing tests in the NPPF for reviewing green belt boundaries and for determining applications for planning permission in the green belt will be retained, with the minor changes that have previously been announced. In my view the real action isn’t around what the policies say, but how they are applied. 

Local plans
At present, green belt boundaries may be reviewed as part of local plan processes. Established green belt boundaries should only be changed in “exceptional circumstances”. Boundaries are intended to be long term, capable of enduring beyond the plan period. 
The Government’s February 2017 Housing White Paper proposes, at paragraph 1.39, embellishing that “exceptional circumstances” test:
“Therefore we propose to amend and add to national policy to make clear that: 

* authorities should amend Green Belt boundaries only when they can demonstrate that they have examined fully all other reasonable options for meeting their identified development requirements, including: 

    * making effective use of suitable brownfield sites and the opportunities offered by estate regeneration; 


    * the potential offered by land which is currently underused, including surplus public sector land where appropriate; 


    * optimising the proposed density of development; and 


    * exploring whether other authorities can help to meet some of the identified development requirement.”


* and where land is removed from the Green Belt, local policies should require the impact to be offset by compensatory improvements to the environmental quality or accessibility of remaining Green Belt land. We will also explore whether higher contributions can be collected from development as a consequence of land being released from the Green Belt. ”

Wording along these lines is likely to be added to the draft revised NPPF, promised early in 2018, but will make no material difference in practice – the additional guidance may look like tough talk but is largely a statement of the present position. 
Statistics can be used in various ways. At one end of the spectrum there is concerted lobbying by CPRE (see for instance their paper Green Belt Under Siege 2017). But the Government’s own figures DCLG statistical release Local Planning Authority Green Belt: England 2016/17 7 September 2017 sets the issue in context:
Overall there was a decrease of 790 hectares (less than 0.05%) in the area of Green Belt between 31 March 2016 and 31 March 2017. In 2016/17, eight local planning authorities adopted new plans which resulted in a decrease in the overall area of Green Belt compared to 31 March 2016.”


Regardless of how “exceptional circumstances” are defined, it is presently too easy either for local planning authorities to delay their plan making or to seek to justify not meeting their objectively assessed housing needs on the basis of green belt constraints. Threats of intervention on the part of the DCLG have come to nothing and the duty to cooperate (even when elevated to a duty to provide statements of common ground) is still too far too uncertain as to its effect, allowing local politicians to justify to themselves not assisting with adjoining authorities’ unmet requirements. Furthermore, the Government’s previous politically driven interventions such as in delaying for some time the Birmingham Development Plan at the request of local Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell hardly promote a positive approach. 
The problem isn’t so much specifically about green belt policy but more generally about how effectively to penalising authorities that do not properly plan – and surely about how positively to encourage authorities on every local plan review to consider whether boundaries should be reviewed – possibly even ahead of looking outside their boundaries where adjoining authorities are not readily in a position to pick up their unmet needs? The prolonged delays to plan making in green belt areas such as parts of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire are a serious indictment of the present system. 
If the imminent draft London Plan as expected fails to encourage the boroughs to review their green belt boundaries, will that not be an opportunity missed? By all means require exceptional circumstances, but rigid adherence to the status quo for political reasons has social, environmental and economic costs. 

(map from LSE paper A 21st Century Metropolitan Green Belt 2016)

Planning applications and appeals
Green belt designation has never been an absolute bar to development. There are two main routes to consent:
First, is the proposal not “inappropriate development” within the meaning of paragraph 89 and 90 of the NPPF? For residential and commercial development the most main potential exemptions are:
* “the extension or alteration of a building provided that it does not result in disproportionate additions over and above the size of the original building;

* the replacement of a building, provided the new building is in the same use and not materially larger than the one it replaces; 


* limited infilling in villages, and limited affordable housing for local community needs under policies set out in the Local Plan; 


* limited infilling or the partial or complete redevelopment of previously developed sites (brownfield land), whether redundant or in continuing use (excluding temporary buildings), which would not have a greater impact on the openness of the Green Belt and the purpose of including land within it than the existing development.

Secondly, even if the proposal is for “inappropriate development”, can the applicant demonstrate “very special circumstances”? The guidance is unspecific as to what will amount to very special circumstances: “Very special circumstances’ will not exist unless the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations.” The balancing of considerations is left to the decision maker. 

By way of recent example, the Secretary of State allowed an appeal on 1 November 2017 for a proposed development by Oaklands College and Taylor Wimpey comprising “new and refurbished college buildings, enabling residential development of 348 dwellings, car parking, associated access and landscaping.” His decision letter concluded as follows:
“35. The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector (IR 248) that the proposal is inappropriate development in the Green Belt, which is harmful by definition. He further agrees there would be additional harm by reason of a reduction in openness and by virtue of encroachment into the countryside. Therefore he attributes substantial weight to the harm to the Green Belt caused by the proposed development. 

36. The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that there would be some limited harm to the character and appearance of the area (IR249) and he gives limited weight to this harm. 

37. The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that the delivery of significant improvements to the College weighs very heavily in favour of the proposal (IR 251). The Secretary of State gives the educational benefits significant weight in favour of the proposal. He also agrees with the Inspector that in light of the lack of a five year housing land supply, the proposed market and affordable housing is a significant benefit (IR 252) that carries significant weight in favour of the proposal. Additionally, the Secretary of State agrees that the enhancement of beneficial Green Belt uses carry moderate weight in favour of the proposal. The Secretary of State gives limited weight to improvements to the non- designated heritage assets (IR 253). 

38. The Secretary of State shares the Inspector’s view that the effect on protected trees in Beaumont Wood, the relationship with the policies related to the Watling Chase Community Forest, and the effect on traffic and flooding in the Sandpit Lane area are neutral factors in the planning balance (IR 254). 
39. Overall, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that the considerations summarised above clearly outweigh the harm to the Green Belt, justifying the proposal on the basis of very special circumstances (IR 255). He therefore concludes that relevant policies relating to development in the Green Belt do not indicate that the proposed development should be restricted. The Secretary of State also concludes that the adverse impacts of the proposed development would not significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits.

40. Overall, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that there are persuasive material considerations which warrant a decision other than in accordance with the development plan (IR255).”
The application of the NPPF’s tests in relation to plan making and decision taking inevitably gives rise to disputes both as to interpretation (see the many court rulings listed by Landmark Chambers in relation to each of the relevant paragraphs of the NPPF) and as to the weight to be applied to the various material considerations (meaning unpredictability, together with many speculative applications). But with even greater inflexibility (after all the policy hurdles are already extremely high) there would be another set of problems. 

Any politician is going to be cautious about a major policy shift. It is an open question as to whether the public understands the policy basis for green belt – the way in which, often vast, swathes of land around our cities have been identified as an ad hoc series of urban containment zones:
“- to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;

– to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another; 


– to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment; 


– to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and 


– to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land

However, free market solutions advocated by the likes of the IEA and the Adam Smith Institute are wide of the mark. The idea of the green belt, albeit largely abstract, albeit largely restrictive and not driven by specific landscape, environmental or conservation attributions, has captured the public imagination like no other planning invention – perhaps, in a very British way, because it simply carries the expectation of being left alone. The challenge is how, without watering down existing green belt principles, to prevent the designation being used for local political purposes as an argument that increases inequality, renders housing unaffordable, increases commuting distances and drives urban development to unacceptable densities or sensitive non green belt locations? 
In the same way as in its early years the objective of green belt designation moved away from providing open space for recreation and towards a more restrictive role, over time can it move again towards a positive role more closely aligned with other landscape, land use or nature conservation designations?
Another eighty years or so should crack it. 
Simon Ricketts, 11 November 2017
Personal views, et cetera

Slow Train Coming: Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges In The South East

The planning system doesn’t just fail to provide homes. There are clear lessons to be learned from the unstructured and inadequate approach that successive governments have applied to securing appropriate strategic rail freight interchange developments (SRFIs, in the jargon) to serve London and the south east. That approach has now wasted decades without a spade in the ground, despite millions of pounds having been spent, countless inquiries and High Court proceedings and no doubt a lifetime of worry for those potentially affected. The difficulties with SRFIs also illustrate that the problems aren’t over even when planning consent is obtained – issues of commercial viability and land control are as fundamental. 
This blog post summarises where the three leading contenders have reached: Goodman’s Colnbrook Slough scheme, Helioslough’s former Radlett Aerodrome scheme and Roxhill’s Howbury Park scheme, all in the green belt. It is a long story but that’s why I have tried to tell it.

What is an SRFI?

An SFRI is defined in the Government’s National Networks national policy statement January 2015 as a “large multi-purpose rail freight interchange and distribution centre linked into both the rail and trunk road system. It has rail-served warehousing and container handling facilities and may also include manufacturing and processing activities”.

What is the consenting process?

If the proposal falls within the criteria in section 26 of the Planning Act 2008 (eg a site area of at least 60 hectares, to be connected to national rail network and capable of handling (a) consignments of goods from more than one consignor and to more than one consignee, and (b) at least four goods trains a day), it falls under the NSIP procedure.

The only SRFIs so far consented as NSIPs have been Prologis’ Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal (3 July 2014) and Roxhill’s East Midlands Gateway Rail Freight Interchange  (12 January 2016) (the latter against the examining authority’s recommendations). Goodman’s East Midlands Intermodal Park, Roxhill’s Northampton Gateway Rail Freight Interchange, Ashfield Land’s Rail Central Strategic Rail Freight Interchange  (also Northampton) and Four Ashes’ West Midlands Interchange are all at pre-application stage. 

An NSIP can of course include associated development. There can be uncertainties as to the extent of warehousing that is justified and the degree to which commitments are to be given as to its rail-connectedness. For applications made from 6 April 2017, up to around 500 homes may also be included (see section 160 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and the Government’s March 2017 guidance). 

If the proposal doesn’t meet the NSIP criteria, it will need to proceed by way of a traditional planning application. The NSIP process has its pros and cons. It is interesting to note that the three schemes we will be looking at in this blog post have been proceeding by way of a planning application, with the site areas of the Colnbrook and Howbury Park schemes being 58.7 hectares and 57.4 hectares respectively (given an NSIP threshold of 60 hectares that looks like a deliberate “serve and avoid” to me…) and with the Radlett application process having predated the switching on of the 2008 Act. 

The need case

The National Networks NPS sets out the need for SRFIs in paras 2.42 to 2.58:

“2.53 The Government’s vision for transport is for a low carbon sustainable transport system that is an engine for economic growth, but is also safer and improves the quality of life in our communities. The Government therefore believes it is important to facilitate the development of the intermodal rail freight industry. The transfer of freight from road to rail has an important part to play in a low carbon economy and in helping to address climate change.

2.54 To facilitate this modal transfer, a network of SRFIs is needed across the regions, to serve regional, sub-regional and cross-regional markets. In all cases it is essential that these have good connectivity with both the road and rail networks, in particular the strategic rail freight network (see maps at Annex C). The enhanced connectivity provided by a network of SRFIs should, in turn, provide improved trading links with our European neighbours and improved international connectivity and enhanced port growth.

“2.56 The Government has concluded that there is a compelling need for an expanded network of SRFIs. It is important that SRFIs are located near the business markets they will serve – major urban centres, or groups of centres – and are linked to key supply chain routes. Given the locational requirements and the need for effective connections for both rail and road, the number of locations suitable for SRFIs will be limited, which will restrict the scope for developers to identify viable alternative sites. 


2.57  Existing operational SRFIs and other intermodal RFIs are situated predominantly in the Midlands and the North. Conversely, in London and the South East, away from the deep-sea ports, most intermodal RFI and rail-connected warehousing is on a small scale and/or poorly located in relation to the main urban areas. 


2.58  This means that SRFI capacity needs to be provided at a wide range of locations, to provide the flexibility needed to match the changing demands of the market, possibly with traffic moving from existing RFI to new larger facilities. There is a particular challenge in expanding rail freight interchanges serving London and the South East.


Annex C strategic rail freight network map

These facilities are important for our economy, and for reducing vehicle emissions (not that there is any reference to this, or indeed any other supra-local planning interventions, in the Government’s draft air quality plan published on 5 May 2017). Unfortunately, the strategy in the NPS is very general. Whilst there are the references to London and the South East in the passages above, this is even less specific than the former Strategic Rail Authority’s Strategic Rail Freight Interchange policy  March 2004, much argued over at inquiries, which asserted that “required capacity would be met by three or four new Strategic RFI” in London and the South East and that the “qualitative criteria to deliver the capacity mean that suitable sites are likely to be located where the key rail and road radials intersect with 
the M25.”

Currently it is down to the private sector to identify sites which may meet the NPS criteria, with a wary eye on what other sites may be in the frame – a game not for the faint-hearted, meaning a very limited pool of potential promoters.

Since the NPS, we have had DfT’s Rail Freight Strategy  13 September 2016:

Para 53 “This Rail Freight Strategy will not set out proposals for new enhancements to the network nor specify in detail the freight paths that will be needed in future. These issues are being considered by DfT on a longer timescale as part of the long-term planning process for the rail network, which will consider priorities for the railway beyond the current control period (from 2019). To inform the industry’s advice to DfT as part of this process, Network Rail is currently consulting on a more detailed Freight Network Study. This considers the requirements of the rail network over the next 30 years and is intended to support the series of Route Studies that have been published or are under development by Network Rail.”

Will we see an amended National Networks NPS in the foreseeable future so as to give greater direction? I doubt it.  

So now let’s look at the most likely candidates to serve London and the South East

Colnbrook 

Those with long memories may recall Argent’s LIFE (London International Freight Exchange) scheme proposed on land to the north of the A4 at Colnbrook, near Slough. The then Secretary of State dismissed an appeal against refusal of planning permission on 20 August 2002, stating:

“The central issue remains […] where to strike the balance between Green Belt and sustainable transport interests. The proposal would be inappropriate development in the Green Belt and would harm the openness of the Green Belt, at the same time there are positive aspects including some sustainable transport benefits”. 


“The Secretary of State continues to support the principle of encouraging more rail freight, but shares the Inspector’s judgement that the balance of benefits and disbenefits is against the LIFE scheme as currently proposed and that the general presumptions against inappropriate development in the Green Belt should apply”.

Goodman are now promoting a smaller SRFI on part of the site. Their scheme is now imaginatively called SIFE (Slough International Freight Exchange) and was the subject of a planning application in September 2010. It was refused by Slough Borough Council and an inquiry was due to take place into Goodman’s appeal in October 2012. However, the inquiry was then put in the sidings whilst the then Secretary of State decided whether to re-open an inquiry into the Radlett SRFI scheme, which he considered might have significant implications for SIFE. As it happened, due to delays in that inquiry process (of which more later), the SIFE inquiry was not rescheduled until The Radlett decision letter was issued in July 2014. 

After a ten day inquiry in September 2015, the Secretary of State on 12 July 2016 dismissed Goodman’s appeal against refusal by Slough Borough Council of planning permission for SIFE. The Secretary of State addresses the extent to which there is a need for all three facilities (SIFE Colnbrook; Radlett, and Howbury Park):

24. The Secretary of State has carefully considered the Inspector’s reasoning about need at IR12.88 – 12.103 and accepts the Inspector’s conclusion that the current policy need for a regional network has not been overcome by the SRFI at Radlett and SIFE is able to be regarded as a complementary facility as part of a wider network (IR12.104). 

25. With regard to the Inspector’s analysis of other developments and sites at IR 12.105 – 12.106, the Secretary of State agrees that the NPS makes clear that perpetuating the status quo, which means relying on existing operational rail freight interchanges, is not a viable option. 

26. The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that there is a reasonable probability that Radlett will be operational in 2018 and there is the prospect of Howbury Park being progressed to implementation. In addition, rail connected warehousing is under development in Barking. On the downside, the geographical spread is uneven. There is a noticeable gap in provision on the west side of London, with Radlett being complementary to rather than an alternative to SIFE. SIFE would contribute to the development of a network of SRFI in London and the South East and a wider national network in accordance with the policy objective of the NPS (IR12.107).”

However he goes on to reach the following conclusions as to whether there are very special circumstances justifying inappropriate development in the green belt:

“13. The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector’s comments at IR12.8, and like the Inspector, concludes that the appeal proposal would be inappropriate development in the Green Belt and that it is harmful as such. As the proposal amounts to inappropriate development he considers that, in the absence of very special circumstances, it would conflict with national policies and with the CS. Like the Inspector, the Secretary of State considers that the NPS does not change the policy test for SRFI applications in the Green Belt or the substantial weight to be attached to the harm to the Green Belt (IR12.8). For the reasons given by the Inspector at IR12.9 – 12.11, the Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector’s conclusion (IR12.12) that the proposed development would result in a severe loss of openness

14. The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that the introduction of major development on the site, even if enclosed within well-defined boundaries, would not assist in checking sprawl and hence would conflict with a purpose of the Green Belt (IR12.13). For the reasons given by the Inspector at IR12.14, the Secretary of State agrees that the proposal would not be compatible with the purpose of preventing neighbouring towns merging into one another. The Secretary of State accepts the Inspector’s conclusion that the proposed development would encroach into the countryside. He agrees too that this conflict is not overcome by the proposed creation of new habitats and other aspects of mitigation in existing countryside areas (12.15). The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector’s overall conclusion that these conflicts should be afforded substantial weight (IR12.18). The Inspector acknowledges that the proposed SRFI development’s location in the Green Belt may well be an optimum solution in relation to existing patterns of distribution activity, but like the Inspector, the Secretary of State concludes that this does not reduce the actual harm that would occur (IR12.19)”

His overall conclusions:

40. The Secretary of State accepts that the most important benefit of the proposal is the potential contribution to building up a network of SRFIs in the London and South East region, reducing the unmet need and delivering national policy objectives. In addition, there is the prospect of SIFE being complementary to Radlett and other smaller SRFI developments and improving the geographical spread of these facilities round Greater London. In this context, the Secretary of State accepts that the contribution it would make to meeting unmet need is considerable. 

41. He accepts too that SIFE would comply with the transport and location requirements for SRFIs to an overall very good standard. He acknowledges that sites suitable for SRFIs are scarce and the difficulty in finding sites in the London and South East region. On account of this factor, and the standard of compliance achieved, he affords meeting the site selection criteria significant weight. No less harmful alternative site has been identified in the West London market area, a factor which he affords considerable weight. Attracting less but nevertheless moderate weight are the economic benefits, the reduction in carbon emissions and improvements. 

42. In common with the Inspector in her conclusion, the Secretary of State has been persuaded by the irreparable harm that would be caused to this very sensitive part of the Green Belt in the Colnbrook area, leading to the high level of weight he attaches to this consideration. Overall, the Secretary of State concludes that the benefits of the scheme do not clearly overcome the harm. Consequently very special circumstances do not exist to justify the development. Furthermore, he finds that planning conditions would not be able to overcome the fundamental harms caused to the Green Belt, Strategic Gap and Colne Valley Park and the open environment enjoyed by the local community. In addition, he has concluded that the proposal does not have the support of the NPS because very special circumstances have not been demonstrated.”

Goodman challenged the decision on the basis that it was wrong for the Secretary of State, in adjudicating the “very special circumstances” test, to give no weight to Goodman’s argument that it was inevitable that a Green Belt location is essential for meeting the need for an SRFI in this location. However the decision has been upheld: Goodman Logistics Developments (UK) Ltd v Secretary of State  (Holgate J, 27 April 2017). Holgate J stated:

“It should be noted that Goodman did not advance the extreme argument that the need for another SRFI to serve London and the South East was such that it was inevitable that a a Green Belt site would have to be released for that purpose. There is no policy support for any such proposition. The NPS does not suggest that the need for a network of SFRIs, or for any particular SFRI, is a need to be met come what may, irrespective of the degree of harm which may be caused, or indeed the degree of need for an SRFI in a particular region. Instead, Goodman relied upon an “inevitability” which was qualified. The claimant argued that it is inevitable that another SRFI to serve the London and South East region will be located on a Green Belt site and harm to the Green Belt will occur, if the need for such a SRFI is to be met. The merits of the “inevitability” argument put forward by Goodman were therefore dependent upon the decision-maker’s assessment as to what importance or weight should be attributed to that need and whether that need should indeed be met after taking into account all the harm that would result.

He goes on:

“The degree of harm that would result from the appeal proposal is only inevitable (in one sense) if the decision-maker concludes that the need for the SRFI and any other benefits flowing from the proposal are of such weight that the balance comes down in favour of granting planning permission. It is not in fact inevitable that the balance will be struck in that way

But if the “need” for SRFIs is not allowed to amount to “very special circumstances” for the purposes of green belt policy, and if there is room for a balancing of the seriousness of that need as against the degree of harm that would be caused, does this lead to unnecessary uncertainty right until the conclusion of the decision making process? Couldn’t the suitability in principle of development in the green belt have been resolved at an earlier stage, preferably via the national policy statement? Similarly, the uncertainties as to the inter-relationship between the three schemes. Why was a decision on Radlett (positive or negative) allowed to become a prerequisite to determining SIFE?

So what next for the site? As it happens, the proposed new runway at Heathrow Airport in combination with associated mitigation proposals and associated development would in fact take up most of the site in any event. Is this planning process now at least partly about establishing “no scheme world” value? 

Radlett

Helioslough’s proposal for an SFRI on the former Radlett Aerodome site has a similarly lengthy – and even more convoluted – history. Two appeals had been dismissed for rail freight distribution proposals on the site, which again is in the green belt. The second appeal decision, dated 7 July 2010, turned on a conclusion by the Secretary of State that the Colnbrook site could be a less sensitive site than the Radlett site for an SRFI and that therefore “very special circumstances” for the development of the Radlett site had not been made out. 

Helioslough successfully challenged that decision. On 1 July 2011 HH Judge Milwyn Jarman QC ordered that the Secretary of State‟s decision be quashed, holding that the Secretary of State had misconstrued the Strategic Gap policy in Slough’s. Core Strategy and consequently had failed to treat that as an additional policy restraint over and above the Green Belt designation. So the appeal fell to be redetermined by the Secretary of State.

Prior to redetermining it, the Secretary of State consulted with the parties as to whether to conjoin a re-opened inquiry with the inquiry that was to be held into the SIFE Colnbrook appeal. On 14 December 2012 he notified the parties that we was not going to re-open the inquiry but determine it on the basis of the evidence already before him. On 20 December 2012 he issued a letter  indicating that he was minded to allow the appeal, subject to completion of a section 106 agreement. 

St Albans City and District Council sought to challenge by way of judicial review the Secretary of State’s decision to not to re-open the inquiry. However that challenge was refused permission  by Patterson J on 14 June 2013 (and a subsequent renewal application before Collins J failed). 

As it happened, the “minded to grant subject to section 106 agreement” indication was unsatisfactory for the promoter too, which had problems completing a section 106 agreement due to land ownership difficulties (part of the site being owned by Hertfordshire County Council) which had led it to press for obligations to be secured by way of negative Grampian-style condition. Helioslough challenged the Secretary of State’s continued delay in issuing a final decision but permission to proceed with judicial review was rejected by John Howell QC sitting as a deputy judge  on 1 July 2013. 

A section 106 agreement was finally submitted and the Secretary of State granted planning permission in his decision letter  dated 14 July 2014. His conclusions were as follows:

“In conclusion, the Secretary of State has found that the appeal proposal would be inappropriate development in the Green Belt and that, in addition, it would cause further harm through loss of openness and significant encroachment into the countryside. In addition the scheme would contribute to urban sprawl and it would cause some harm to the setting of St Albans. The Secretary of State has attributed substantial weight to the harm that would be caused to the Green Belt. In addition he has found that harms would also arise from the scheme’s adverse effects on landscape and on ecology and that the scheme conflicts with LP policies 104 and 106 in those respects. 

53. The Secretary of State considers that the factors weighing in favour of the appeal include the need for SRFIs to serve London and the South East, to which he has attributed very considerable weight, and the lack of more appropriate alternative locations for an SRFI in the north west sector which would cause less harm to the Green Belt. He has also taken account of the local benefits of the proposals for a country park, improvements to footpaths and bridleways and the Park Street and Frogmore bypass. The Secretary of State considers that these considerations, taken together, clearly outweigh the harm to the Green Belt and the other harms he has identified including the harm in relation to landscape and ecology and amount to very special circumstances. Despite the Secretary of State’s conclusion that the scheme gives rise to conflict with LP policies 104 and 106, in the light of his finding that very special circumstances exist in this case he is satisfied that, overall the scheme is in overall accordance with the development plan”. 

Inevitably, the council challenged the decision. They asserted that the Secretary of State had applied too strict a test in considering whether he could depart from conclusions he had reached in his initial decision and that the Secretary of State failed to take into account a recent decision that he had made on a nearby site. The challenge failed: St Albans City and District Council v Secretary of State  (Holgate J, 13 March 2015).

So shouldn’t this be a scheme that is now proceeding, after all of that work? Reserved matters have been applied for, leading to local heat if a report of a recent planning committee is anything to go by. But the rub is that Hertfordshire County Council as land owner hasn’t made a decision as to whether to make its land available to enable the development to proceed. 
Howbury Park
The third scheme is one in Crayford, again on green belt land, that was initially promoted by Prologis and secured planning permission on appeal in December 2007. However, due to the global financial crisis it did not proceed and the permission is now time expired.

Roxhill has now replaced Prologis as developer and has submitted fresh applications for planning permission to London Borough of Bexley and to Dartford Borough Council (the proposed access road is in Dartford’s administrative area). 

Bexley members resolved to approve the scheme on 16 February 2017 but Dartford members resolved to reject it on 20 April 2017 following their officers’ recommendation. So presumably we may see yet another appeal. 

The Bexley part of the scheme is of course within the remit of the Mayor of London, but not the Dartford part, so there is little that he can do by way of intervention. In any event, it will be seen from his 6 June 2016 Stage 1 report  that he is not particularly providing  a clear strategic lead on the issue:

“11. … The majority of the SRFI developments to date have been in the Midlands and the North, and the aspiration is to have a network of three SRFI around the M25, including this site at Howbury Park, South East London, Radlett, North London(approved by the Secretary of State) and Colnbrook, West London (decision awaited from the Secretary of State) to build a national network.”

“28 Although London Plan policy 6.15a Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges is supportive of the type of facility proposed due to identified strategic need, policy 6.15b caveats this support and sets out criteria which must be delivered within the facility. 

A)  The provision of strategic rail freight interchanges should be supported. Including enabling the potential of the Channel Tunnel Rail link to be exploited for freight serving London and the wider region. 


B)  The facilities must: (a) deliver model shift from road to rail; (b) minimise any adverse impact on the wider transport network; (c) be well related to rail and road corridors capable of accommodating the anticipated level of freight movements; and (d) be well related to the proposed market. 


29 Supporting text paragraph 6.50 acknowledges that these types of large facilities can often only be located in the Green Belt. The Howbury Park site is referenced as a site potentially fulfilling these criteria, reflecting the previous planning permission. Paragraph 6.50 also states: 

‘The Mayor will need to see robust evidence of savings and overall reduction in traffic movements are sufficient to justify Green Belt loss in accordance with policy 7.16, and localised increases in traffic movements.’ “


”38 The need for a SRFI is accepted, and is borne out through the NPS, the London Plan and the Inspector’s decision on the 2007 case. The applicant has made a compelling ‘very special circumstances’ case but GLA officers would advise further clarification should be sought on the biodiversity benefits of the proposal and the environmental benefits, notably whether the emission savings and overall reduction in traffic movements are sufficient to justify the loss of Green Belt in line with London Plan policy 6.15 and supporting paragraph 6.50. It should be noted that TfL has raised concerns in respect of the potential impact on the passenger rail network and has suggested conditions to limit the hours of operation of rail movements in and out of the SRFI. GLA Officers would want to know the full details of the potential impacts on the wider transport network (in line with London Plan policy 6.15B (b) and whether such conditions would hinder the operation and whether this would reduce the potential emission savings and traffic movements. GLA officers would also seek details of the proposed biodiversity management plan and compensatory measures. GLA officers would also expect a similar obligations package as that previously agreed to encourage the take up of rail use. 

39 For the above reasons, at this stage, it is considered premature for GLA officers to make a concrete judgement as to whether the applicant’s very special circumstances case outweighs the identified harm to the Green Belt, and any other harm.”

Concluding thoughts

Even if your work never brings you into contact with the rail or logistic sectors, these convoluted stories must surely give rise to serious concerns. Successive governments have said that these types of facilities are needed in the public interest, for the sake of our national economy and to reduce polluting road freight miles. And yet they wash their hands of any responsibility for lack of delivery. 

The consequences of not providing clear strategic guidance is that years are spent on expensive, contentious planning processes. Often by the time that a process has concluded the world has moved on and the process has to start all over again. 
These are massively expensive schemes to promote. What can we do to make that investment worthwhile? If a site is unacceptable, can’t we indicate that at the outset and not many years later?

To what extent should land ownership issues be resolved at the outset of a major project?

Should the NSIP threshold be reduced? These schemes end up being determined at a national level anyway. Why not funnel them through a process that is more fit for purpose? 

Why don’t we bite the bullet and arrive at more spatially specific policies in the National Networks NPS rather than leave it for promoters to read between the lines as to what the Government’s approach may end up being to particular proposals – particularly given the inevitably sensitive locations involved, often in the green belt? (Or is that taboo issue the answer to my question?). 

Simon Ricketts 6.5.17

Personal views, et cetera

The Unfortunate Case Of The Council’s Sports Hub

It’s easy for a planning lawyer to summarise R (Boot) v Elmbridge Borough Council  (Supperstone J, 16 January 2017). The High Court confirmed what we already know from paragraph 89 of the NPPF – that “the provision of appropriate facilities for outdoor sport, outdoor recreation and for cemeteries, as long as it preserves the openness of the Green Belt and does not conflict with the purposes of including land within it” is not inappropriate development, but that conversely, if harm is caused to the openness of the Green Belt, even limited harm, the development is inappropriate and permission should be refused save in very special circumstances.
The court duly quashed a planning permission granted on 26 January 2016 for the “Elmbridge Sports Hub” – a proposed athletics stadium, ‘league’ football pitch and training pitches (grass and artificial) for Walton Casuals FC, Walton and Hersham FC and Walton Athletics club to replace their current facilities, on a former landfill site in Waterside Drive, Walton-on-Thames.

However, scratch beneath the surface of any case and there are usually some interesting factors. 

This is not a developer-led proposal. It’s being promoted by Elmbridge Borough Council, on land that it owns. The development is proposed to be funded by the sale by the Council, for the development of 52 homes, of Walton and Hersham FC’s present ground at Stompond Lane. 
Most developers would not take the risk of starting construction work ahead of their permission being free from legal challenge. However, Elmbridge embarked on construction on 21 March 2016, despite the scheme already at that stage having become significantly controversial. Indeed the claimant’s solicitors, renowned claimant firm Richard Buxton & Co, were already on board for objectors and had previously scored an early blow by securing an EIA screening direction from the Secretary of State in July 2015, when the application had already initially gone to committee, requiring environmental impact assessment to be carried out. The Secretary of State ruled:
“Whilst this is a finely balanced case, the proposal does raise concerns to suggest the potential for significant environmental impacts through surface disturbance of the former landfill site, uncertainty about the extent of the contamination of the site and the potential for gas migration to both the River Thames and nearby residential properties.”
Why did development start when the permission was still at risk, presumably when proceedings had already been served, or at least a pre-action protocol letter? I don’t know any of the details but I do note that the local elections took place a little afterwards in May 2016. Was this at all relevant?
Rolling ahead to 2017, by the time that the permission was quashed, the construction project was significantly advanced. With the developer a local planning authority, responsible for planning enforcement, this is surely hardly a comfortable position.  

Image from Get Surrey website

Elmbridge had tried unsuccessfully to delay the court hearing, fixed for 6 December 2016, to allow a second planning application to be determined, for a revised version of the scheme, a request that was rejected by Ouseley J in November.  
The second application eventually went to committee on 17 January 2017, the day after the first permission was quashed and on the basis of a detailed officers’ report, resolved to approve it (perhaps no surprise there). Having delayed the scheme first on an EIA point and secondly on the council’s flawed approach to green belt policy, no doubt objectors will be looking for their next line of attack. 
So a straight-forward ruling by Supperstone J but the situation on the ground is plainly a mess. How does a local planning authority get itself into this sort of position? To what extent is this about financial or political imperatives and, against the backdrop of a construction project in mid flow (one dreads to think of the financial consequences under its construction contract if the authority now pauses or abandons the project), how easy was it for members to determine the second application with open minds but on the contrary how difficult it may be for objectors to prove to a court that minds were already made up?
Simon Ricketts 21 January 2017
Personal views, et cetera