Six months on from a High Court ruling that former communities secretary Sir Eric Pickles discriminated against travellers by intervening in appeals involving green belt pitches, the first decisions on dozens of cases that the court ruled had been wrongly recovered by the secretary of state have now been issued.
The first two redetermined decisions, issued last week, found in favour of appellants Charmaine Moore and Sarah Coates. Inspector Clive Kirkbride quashed two enforcement notices and allowed Moore’s appeal against the London Borough of Bromley’s decision to refuse permission to change the use of green belt land from the keeping of horses to a mixed use for the keeping of horses and a single pitch. Meanwhile, inspector Victor Ammoun allowed Coates' appeal against Dartford Borough Council's refusal to grant temporary permission to station a static caravan on land in Kent.
Moore and Coates were the claimants in January’s High Court case, in which Mr Justice Gilbart ruled that Pickles’ decision to recover their appeals breached the Equality Act 2010 and the European Convention on Human Rights. The appeal decisions are set to be the first of many more, given that Planning has learned that a total of 36 such recovered appeals were passed back to the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) this March for redetermination in the wake of Gilbart’s ruling.
Alison Heine, a planning consultant who specialises in Gypsy and traveller cases, welcomed the "balanced" reissued appeal decisions, which she said took into account the impact of the proposals on the green belt and the needs of the families. No5 Chambers barrister Tim Jones, who acted for Coates, said the Dartford decision underlines the importance of local planning authorities providing sufficient sites to meet the needs of travellers, on the same basis as they are required to meet other housing needs.
A further two appeal decisions – both in Essex - have since been issued on Gypsy and traveller cases passed back to PINS following the ruling. In the first, Kirkbride granted temporary permission for land to be used as a residential caravan site in Brentwood. In the second, inspector Simon Hand granted permission for change of use from an animal sanctuary to three traveller pitches in Castle Point.
Both Heine and Jones expressed frustration about the six-month delay in issuing the decisions since the High Court judgment. "This was on top of the very long period that Pickles had sat on the appeals," said Heine. Jones added: "The High Court judge made the point that the claimants' human rights had been violated due to the unreasonable delay caused and it could be suggested that the government was in contempt by taking so long to reissue the decisions."
Jones pointed out that the planning inspectors’ reports in most of these cases had been written before they were recovered by Pickles and it is now simply a matter of publishing them. A PINS spokesman said: "We recognise the need to deal with the cases as soon as possible following remittance. Some decisions have already been issued and more decisions will follow in the coming weeks."
PINS had written to the agents for the 36 appellants asking whether the situation had changed since the cases were first considered. "Despite slight changes, most replied that the situation was unaltered," said Jones. However, two cases in Dartford brought by planning consultant Angus Murdoch are set to be reopened because a new needs assessment had been carried out for the district since they were considered.
Marc Willers QC of Garden Court Chambers, who specialises in Gypsy and traveller planning work, is seeking a judicial review of two recovered cases in which Pickles overruled inspectors’ advice by dismissing the appeals. "We are set to argue before a Planning Court judge that the secretary of state’s decisions should be overturned in the light of the original judgment. It deemed that the recovery process that had led to his decision had been discriminatory," Willers explained. A hearing due to take place last week has been postponed until the autumn because the judge is unwell.
In a statement, planning minister Brandon Lewis said: "The vast majority of travellers abide by the rules but I’m determined to ensure fair play in the planning system, with everyone treated equally. Unauthorised development, including in the green belt, creates tensions with the settled population and must be tackled. That’s why we’ve strengthened the powers that councils have to enforce planning rules and take action against breaches. All councils should use these powers to reduce the number of illegal sites and work with residents to ensure that they provide authorised sites in their local plans."
Lewis added: "I now want to go further and give more control to local areas and more protection for green spaces. The government wants to bring forward more protection for open countryside and a more sensible way of dealing with travellers who have permanently stopped travelling."