Appeal rulings suggest a minister in two minds

There are signs of a divergence between Eric Pickles the policymaker and Eric Pickles the decision-maker.

Richard Garlick: "The current system does not force Pickles to be tough on prematurity". Department for Communities and Local Government photo
Richard Garlick: "The current system does not force Pickles to be tough on prematurity". Department for Communities and Local Government photo

As a policymaker, the communities secretary seems set to loosen local democratic control of development, with a draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) that says applications should be approved when local plans are "absent, silent, indeterminate or when relevant policies are out of date", as long as they do not contravene national sustainable development principles. But in several recent decisions, Pickles has gone to unusual lengths to assert the right of the town hall to shape development in its area.

Three weeks ago, he endorsed Cornwall Council's refusal to allow a 1,300-home extension to St Austell, saying that granting permission before the local plan had been drawn up would "deny the local community the opportunity of determining its preferred choice of housing sites" (see Housing & Regeneration News Analysis, p8). A month earlier, he cited similar reasons for rejecting both a 280-home scheme in Sandbach, Cheshire, and a 2,000-home extension to Winchester.

In the Sandbach case, he said that granting permission would have "the potential to prejudice the fairness and effectiveness of the (local plan) process". Giving consent to the Winchester application, Pickles said, would undermine work being carried out as part of initial local plan consultations to establish a "new bottom-up housing strategy". In all three cases, Pickles' ruling in effect stated that it was too early in the local plan-making process to decide on a major development and that the application was therefore premature.

Coming from a secretary of state whose draft NPPF requires decision-makers to discount out-of-date or absent plans, this approach is unexpected. It is not as if the current system, as yet unchanged by the forthcoming Localism Bill or NPPF, forces him to take a tough line on prematurity. The rules say that, unless a development plan is almost ready to come forward for examination, refusal on prematurity grounds will seldom be justified. None of the three plans in question is beyond the early consultation stage, so Pickles was under no pressure to give them any great weight.

Nor is it common for prematurity to be cited as a reason for refusal. One expert told us last week that, prior to these three decisions, he could not recall it having been cited in an appeal decision for some time.

So Pickles' drive to shore up emerging local plans is absolutely voluntary. But what motivates it? Could it be, as some have suggested, a short-term political strategy to prevent permissions for big, locally controversial schemes from fuelling further opposition to the government's planning reforms? Or has Pickles had a more fundamental change of mind, one that will lead him to put more weight on emerging plans in the final version of his national planning framework? Clarification would be appreciated by applicants and decision-makers alike.

Richard Garlick, editor, Planning//

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