Comment - Keeping the lid on rural development

In a statement earlier this month, communities secretary Eric Pickles stressed the "paramount" importance of protecting the green belt from new building.

Newly issued government practice advice reasserts the presumption against development in the green belt to meet housing need (see Change of tone in reiteration of green belt practice guidance)

That this does not apply to previously developed green belt sites was clear in his decision a week later to allow up to 100 homes on redundant land at the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in Hertfordshire (see Green belt homes allowed to meet supply shortfall).

Pickles found the inspector's conclusion that the proposal would not be inappropriate development or harmful to the green belt "reasonable". Given an acute housing need in the area and the lack of an up-to-date development plan, he applied the presumption in favour of sustainable development set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

As an aside, he found that "some consideration" could be given to the proposal's benefits in helping to safeguard the campus in the longer term, as well as jobs at BRE and in associated companies. However, he drew the line at taking into account the prospect for capital receipts from the development to help to close a gap in the BRE pension fund.

Recent Department for Communities and Local Government figures (see Councils faulted on reasons for barn conversion refusal) show many rural councils resisting prior approval bids under the new permitted development right to convert agricultural buildings to residential use under class MB of the General Permitted Development Order 1995. That was the background to a case from North Yorkshire in which an inspector backed the council's refusal of prior approval for a barn conversion just 600 metres from a village with local services (see Barn conversion ruled out in permitted rights test).

The council's sole objection was that its siting made the change of use "impractical or undesirable". The inspector agreed that the scheme would result in isolated rural development, contravening paragraph 55 of the NPPF. Since none of the special circumstances cited there had been put forward to justify the location, he refused consent. Another inspector reached a similar view in a case from Cumbria this month, although in that instance the site was almost two kilometres from the nearest settlement (DCS Number 400-005-443).

Finally, an enforcement case involving a new barn in the Surrey green belt (see Soap production ruled out as agricultural activity) raised the issue of whether the council's requirement for total demolition was justified. Citing the Court of Appeal ruling in Ahmed v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and London Borough of Hackney (see Enforcement decision highlights room for discretion), the appellant argued that the council should have considered the "obvious alternative" of requiring removal of one bay of the barn. The inspector demurred, finding that this would not address the significant harm to the green belt from the inappropriate development.

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