Comment - Homes win favour in planning vacuum

Local planning authorities rarely see four significant planning decisions go the wrong way on a single day.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles
Communities secretary Eric Pickles

However, such a fate befell Cherwell District Council in September, when communities secretary Eric Pickles granted permission for a total of 375 homes proposed for sites on the edges of Banbury and the villages of Bloxham and Hook Norton after recovering the cases for his own decision.

The outcome illustrates starkly the uphill struggle facing councils with no up-to-date local plan in resisting developers' bids for substantial housing projects on unallocated sites.

Following discussion of the district's housing land situation, the secretary of state considered that the council could not conclusively prove a five-year supply of specific deliverable sites to meet housing requirements.

Cherwell's housing land availability assessment had not been examined independently and the emerging local plan was still at a very early stage, he noted. In that light, the merits of development on the unallocated sites fell to be considered against the presumption in favour of sustainable development outlined in paragraph 14 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The results of the resultant examination of the Banbury site's sustainability credentials are helpful. The inspector noted that the site was a 15-minute walk from a range of facilities, including a railway station, leisure centre, shops and offices, and within 800 metres of schools, local shops and a supermarket. The scheme's contribution to job creation, affordable and market housing and wildlife conservation also helped persuade him that "limited and localised harm" to the appearance of the countryside did not outweigh its benefits.

On the village schemes, the fact that work had started on neighbourhood plans cut little ice. Despite recognising that empowering local people to shape their surroundings is a core principle of the NPPF, Pickles agreed that no question of prematurity arose while the local plan on which the neighbourhood plans would be based had yet to reach the examination stage. As the inspector on the Hook Norton case reflected: "The mechanism via which localism works is the local plan, which is at too early a stage to have more than little weight attached to it, and the neighbourhood plan, a draft of which has not yet been written."

It's a far cry from the comments of the inspector who advised Pickles this summer that allowing plans for up to 100 homes at Tarporley in Cheshire would be a "forceful body blow" and "intensely damaging" to the parish council's neighbourhood planning aspirations. It made no difference; Pickles approved that scheme anyway. These decisions follow the view, set out in the government's draft online planning practice guidance, that refusal on prematurity grounds will seldom be justified before the end of the pre-examination publicity period.

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