Communities secretary Sajid Javid told this month's Conservative Party Conference he would take "unprecedented steps" to deliver more new homes. But his decision two weeks earlier to overrule a planning inspector's advice and refuse a 100-home development in the West Sussex village of Yapton because of policies contained in its recently-made neighbourhood plan meant that, for some observers, Javid's words at the conference rang hollow.
Inspector David Nicholson's report to Javid had centred around National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) guidance for areas that cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of housing land, which renders statutory local plan documents - such as the housing elements of Yapton's neighbourhood plan - out of date. Local planning authority Arun District Council cannot demonstrate a five-year housing land supply and has yet to finalise an objectively assessed housing need figure as part of work on its emerging local plan.
Nicholson said that while the appeal proposals were contrary to the neighbourhood plan's built-up-area-boundary policy BB1, they would otherwise constitute sustainable development. He said any dismissal of the appeal could be a "very short lived victory" for scheme opponents because of Arun's likely need to find additional housing sites as work on its emerging local plan progressed.
Javid disagreed with Nicholson on a number of points, particularly policy BB1 - conflict with which he said should be given "substantial weight" - and the neighbourhood plan's policy H1, which commits Yapton to making "additional allocations" for housing if Arun's local plan requires them. He said the latter policy gave Yapton "flexibility to allow a shortfall in housing to be met".
Huw Edwards, a partner at consultancy Barton Willmore, said Javid's decision was "peculiar" and had "perturbed many" in the development industry. "It acknowledges that local and neighbourhood plans are out of date, but still finds in favour of the local authority, because of the significance of neighbourhood planning," he said. "It seems to mark a shift from previous decisions, and it doesn't sit comfortably with what the housing minister and secretary of state were saying at the party conference."
Jamie Lockerbie, a senior associate at law firm Pinsent Masons, said he believed Javid would have been keen to underscore the government's commitment to neighbourhood planning, and that Yapton's H1 policy had given him a hook. "I don't think there's a fundamental conflict between the secretary of state and the NPPF guidance," he said. "But you get the impression that Yapton was almost completely saved by the fact they accepted they might need to do a review of their housing in future." Lockerbie said he believed Javid's decision would have been very different if Arun had already completed a review of its housing need and had a higher number in place.
Jon Herbert, associate director at consultancy Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design, said the Yapton case showed a five-year housing land supply shortfall was "not always the trump card" for developers and that policies founded on robust planning principles could carry significant weight.
HOW INADEQUATE EVIDENCE BASE SCUPPERED PLAN
Elsewhere in West Sussex, a neighbourhood plan covering the village of Henfield was last week quashed by the High Court after a developer keen to build homes on a site not allocated for housing successfully argued the document was founded on an inadequate evidence base.
Stonegate Homes said Horsham District Council had failed to lawfully assess reasonable alternatives to the plan, particularly housing development on the western edge of the village.
Alex Ground, a partner at Stonegate's law firm Russell-Cooke, said both Horsham and the plan examiner had failed to respond to concerns about the plan's evidence base when they were first raised. "Each body relied on someone else's conclusions that the appropriate evidence was there, when in fact there was none," she said.