Last October, following a request from Conservative MP for Shipley Philip Davies, housing and planning minister Gavin Barwell imposed a direction blocking Bradford City Council from formally adopting its emerging local plan core strategy. At the time, Davies claimed that the work of the council and its core strategy examiner, who had just concluded that some 11,000 dwellings are likely to have to be accommodated in Bradford's green belt, was "fundamentally flawed".
Despite lifting the direction last month, Barwell made plain that communities secretary Sajid Javid "is not accepting" that exceptional circumstances justify green belt boundary changes. In a letter to council leader Susan Hinchcliffe, he warned that the secretary of state would consider intervening on any site allocations brought forward by the authority, as well as individual applications and appeals.
He also pointed out that if proposed amendments to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) set out in February's Housing White Paper are implemented, the site allocations process would need to show that "all other reasonable options" for meeting the city's housing needs have been examined.
Bradford's core strategy itself does not alter existing green belt boundaries, leaving that to a future site allocations development plan document (DPD). But council planning and transport strategy manager Andrew Marshall said evidence collected for the core strategy already demonstrates exceptional circumstances for a green belt review. "All realistic and achievable options for development within existing settlement boundaries have been explored and utilised. If new requirements or adjustments to established tests are brought forward by government, the council will look to build additional evidence into the site allocations DPD work and any changes to the NPPF will be considered prior to submission," Marshall said.
Marshall said the secretary of state's decision not to intervene further at this stage "suggests that he has found no reasonable basis on which to challenge the council's policies and evidence". He added: "If the government is going to intervene in all plans looking to make changes to the green belt on a consistent basis, not only is the secretary of state going to be very busy but he is going to be acting in a way counterproductive to his stated goals to see plan-making speeded up and housing delivery boosted."
Richard Sagar, a partner at Leeds-based law firm Walker Morris, said Bradford Council's approach in identifying housing needs and its consideration of all other reasonable options to green belt release had been "remarkably prescient" of the white paper proposals. "It is understandable that the secretary of state would want to send a clear message that he remains interested to ensure that national policy is applied in a proper manner. However, on the facts and circumstances, green belt release will be inevitable to meet Bradford's housing needs," Sagar said.
Planning Officers Society strategic planning convenor Catriona Riddell said ministers are clearly sending a warning that Bradford Council will have to go through a "proper process" of demonstrating exceptional circumstances for green belt release in its site allocations DPD. "I think the secretary of state has concluded that the need to get a plan in place and the fact that there is no immediate danger of green belt releases outweighs the risks of letting the core strategy get adopted. More widely, this is clearly a shot across the bows of any council considering release of green belt sites without having done everything possible to avoid this, even though the rules haven't yet been formally set out in the NPPF," Riddell said.
Paul Bedwell, a director at Leeds-based consultancy Spawforths, pointed out that most councils in the sub-region are contemplating green belt releases to meet their development needs. "The green belt in the area was last looked at 30 or 40 years ago and it's overdue to be considered again," he said. Bedwell said there are signs that the Planning Inspectorate is scheduling fairly short examinations where the case for green belt review looks robust. "The onus is on councils to do the hard work on justifying green belt reviews in advance, and the message seems to be that ministers won't intervene if that has been done," he said.
Marshall said his team is now looking to take the core strategy to full council next month for a decision on adoption, while the aim is to consult on preferred sites by early in 2018 and draw up a submission plan by the year end. In the meantime, he said the council has "serious concerns" about the "unreasonable" six-month wait for the direction to be lifted, given that all the relevant material requested by officials was provided within eight weeks of its imposition. "It should have been apparent very quickly to officials and the minister that there was no reasonable justification for formal intervention," he said.
In an interview with Planning last month, Barwell accepted that the delay on the Bradford plan was "not ideal", adding: "Going forward, I would hope that we are not causing that level of delay to local plans." Marshall said an "indicative timetable" for intervention would give certainty to all parties involved. Riddell agreed that this would be useful in helping affecting councils move forward: "They need to know how long they have to wait for a response." Sagar said: "The problems with delivery of housing in Bradford are acute and chronic, so any delay has amplified consequences."