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How should sustainable development be interpreted?By: Sarah Easton

British wildlife: Red squirrelDevelopers face many challenges when hoping to build on previously undeveloped land. The views of the local community, the protection of wildlife and the impact on existing infrastructure are just a few of the many factors, which have to be considered.

The starting point when assessing the chances of obtaining planning permission is the local plan for the area. If there is no local plan or it is out of date then consideration is given to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

At the centre of NPPF is the presumption in favour of sustainable development. The NPPF must be taken into account in the preparation of local and neighbourhood plans and is a material consideration in the determination of planning applications by local authorities.

Local planning authorities should (unless material considerations indicate otherwise) approve development proposals that accord with the development plan, without delay. Where the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out-of-date, they should grant planning permission unless any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in the NPPF as a whole or specific policies in the NPPF indicate development should be resisted.

Policies in local plans should follow the approach of the presumption in favour of sustainable development so that it is clear that development, which is sustainable can be approved without delay. All plans should be based upon and reflect the presumption in favour of sustainable development, with clear policies that will guide how the presumption should be applied locally.

The presumption advocates a 'pro-growth' approach to planning, which may be favourable to developers seeking planning permission. However, much depends on the local planning authority’s discretion in interpreting the concept of 'sustainable development'. The wording of the exceptions (eg: 'significantly and demonstrably') are also open to interpretation.

The NPPF also requires local planning authorities to identify and update annually a supply of sites sufficient to provide five years' worth of housing against their housing requirements with an additional buffer of 5per cent to ensure choice and competition in the market.

The recent case of Gladman Developments, which was headlined in the press, is a good example of whether factors that significantly and demonstrably argue against the presumption of development should outweigh that presumption under the NPPF.

Gladman applied for planning permission for a development of 112 homes in Slad Valley, an area in Gloucestershire known for its beautiful landscape and made famous by the novelist Laurie Lee in his novel Cider with Rosie.

In July, the Planning Inspectorate rejected Gladman’s appeal against the refusal of planning permission. The decision considered the competing demands of the need for housing and retention of the landscape.

The planning inspector agreed that the provision of 112 new houses would be of significant benefit and that there was compelling evidence of a strong and growing unmet need for the 30 per cent of the houses, which would be designated affordable. However he also noted that the site forms an integral part of the Slad Valley.

He recognised that the local authority had not sought specific protection for this land other than the local plan restricting residential development outside settlement boundaries – which is now regarded as out of date in terms of NPPF. He also recognised that the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty surrounds Stroud so it is likely that potential development sites necessary to meet the housing requirement would lie within its setting. Nevertheless, on the basis of the evidence provided and the particular circumstances of the case, he concluded that there were adequate grounds to consider the continuity and quality of the landscape having a value worthy of retention.

In assessing the competing demands the inspector said regard had to be had to the nature of the development. By projecting into the rural area, separating the open land to the west from the remainder of the upper part of the valley and in being visible from a relatively large number of viewpoints, the scheme would influence the landscape character over an extended area, disproportionate to the scale of the development. The addition of 112 dwellings, whilst helping to meet the housing shortfall, would not be so great a benefit as to outweigh the disruption to the landscape quality of the valley. He concluded that any other potential advantages were not of sufficient weight to have a decisive effect. He considered that, even if the existing policies of the local plan were deemed not to apply because of NPPF, the presumption in favour of sustainable development would not outweigh the need to protect the landscape.

Gladman is now challenging the decision in the High Court. Developers and campaigners for the protection of the countryside will be eagerly awaiting a decision as to whether the inspector was right to hold the landscape as such an important factor in refusing planning permission.

About the author
Sarah Easton, Thomson Snell & PassmoreSarah Easton is a partner in the commercial property team at Thomson Snell and Passmore.

Features October 2014

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