Circumstantial thinking* on the Green Belt

18 March 2021

It is frustrating that all this expense could have been avoided if the Sites Allocations Document had been agreed and published at the appropriate time.

Claire Temple Director Harrogate

*Circumstantial speech (also circumstantial thinking) — an inability to answer a question without giving excessive, unnecessary detail.
You have a site that you want to develop on the edge of the town, and it is designated ‘Green Belt’. How do we, as planning consultants, advise on such a complex and emotive issue? Three little words: ‘Very Special Circumstances’, or VSC for those in the know.

But how do we demonstrate VSC? What even is a VSC?
Two recent High Court decisions tell us that more than exceptional circumstances are needed to justify use of Green Belt land (Luton and Central Beds) and whilst housing need is enough to demonstrate exceptional circumstances it is not enough to demonstrate VSC (Guildford). In essence, under-delivery of housing, whilst an exceptional circumstance’, is not enough justification by itself for development in the Green Belt, however frustrating the under-delivery may be.
Last week, a decision was issued by the Secretary of State to approve an application by Commercial Estates Group (CEG) for 500 homes in the Green Belt in Burley in Wharfedale.
There is a chequered history here; I will try to be brief. In 2018, the Labour controlled Council granted permission for the proposals. This was called-in following local opposition to the scheme, including by the local Conservative MP. Following an Inquiry in 2019 (two days before purdah prior to the general election) the application was refused. There was a legal challenge to the Secretary of State’s decision which was subsequently quashed in 2020 on the grounds of deficiencies in how the minister considered Green Belt issues in relation to his conclusion. The application was then re-determined by the Secretary of State who has now approved the application. With no general election in sight, some commentators have highlighted the potential political motives behind the timing of these decisions.
From a policy background (I hope you have not nodded off yet), the 2017 Core Strategy allowed for 700 dwellings to be bought forward in Burley in Wharfedale as a local growth centre and acknowledges the need for the release of Green Belt land. The Site Allocations Plan, which by logic should have followed the Core Strategy and remove the land from the Green Belt, did not happen. (The Council have now produced a Preferred Options Document which is available for comment until 24th March 2021; the site in question is a preferred option).
Back to the point of this blog, what is required to demonstrate VSC? The Secretary of State’s decision acknowledges the Local Plan position, the Core Strategy, and that exceptional circumstances (the need for housing delivery within the Green Belt in this area) had already been demonstrated. Then moving to demonstrating VSC,  the Secretary of State affords weight to the benefits of the proposal which are classified as follows:

  • New homes – ‘substantial weight given the poor housing land supply position’
  • Primary school – ‘great weight’
  • Biodiversity net benefits – ‘significant weight’
  • Heritage (a temporary Roman Camp) – ‘very significant’
  • Economic and recreational benefits – ‘moderate weight’

On balance, the Secretary of State could consider that the Local Plan position combined with the benefits demonstrated that VSC had been demonstrated.

Of course, there is no magic planning wand on what will be considered a VSC case; the merits will vary depending on the circumstances.
The Burley case is what barristers refer to as a ‘sweetheart case’, both legal teams promoting the same case for development. It is frustrating that all this expense could have been avoided if the Sites Allocations Document had been agreed and published at the appropriate time. However, we can understand why developers would prefer to take a chance with an application rather than wait years for the Local Plan to progress. The proposed reforms to the NPPF suggest a timescale of 30 months to prepare a Local Plan. As we all know, this is highly ambitious and if it is to happen then Local Authorities need to be appropriately funded to deliver this. Otherwise, we could be seeing quite a few more ‘sweetheart cases’.