Q Why did the meaning of the word "isolated" end up in the Court of Appeal?
A Braintree District Council had refused permission for two bungalows in the village of Blackmore End on the grounds that the dwellings were outside a defined settlement boundary in the plan.
On appeal, the inspector gave permission primarily on the grounds that local plan policies were out of date. As a result, there was a presumption in favour of housing in this case, he said. He cited the fact that there were a number of dwellings nearby and that therefore those proposed were not isolated homes in the countryside. This meant paragraph 55 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which suggests that isolated new dwellings should be avoided, did not support the council’s reason for refusal.
The council asked the Planning Court and then the Court of Appeal to consider whether the inspector had misunderstood the meaning of the word "isolated" in the expression "new isolated homes in the countryside" and drawn the wrong conclusion.
Q What did the Court of Appeal decide?
A The appeal was dismissed, which meant the inspector’s decision was upheld. Using the principle that policy wording should not be over-analysed, the court supported the dictionary definition of "isolated" as meaning "far away from other places, buildings or people". The court ruled that it did not mean, as argued by the council, isolation from services.
Q In getting there, did the court say anything more interesting?
A The court pointed out that paragraph 55 is worded to be an advisory policy in that it only exhorts local planning authorities to "avoid" new dwellings in the countryside. This is in contrast with other policies in the NPPF that are clearly meant to prompt a presumption either in favour of or against development.
The court added that the purpose of paragraph 55 is to locate housing where it will enhance the "vitality" of rural communities. There was no reason why new housing could not be of benefit to a nearby rural settlement even if it had no or few community or transport services, it notes.
Q What are the implications for plans and local planning authority (LPA) decision-makers?
A The ruling implies that LPAs that use a settlement boundary on a map as a straightforward means of applying a policy to differentiate between locations inside the village, where housing is acceptable, and locations outside the village, where it is not, cannot rely on paragraph 55 of the NPPF for support. Sites near other houses cannot be defined as "isolated", it seems.
Nor can a lack of nearby services be cited as a reason homes should be classed as isolated. This suggests that local planning policies that seek to prevent settlements from growing through expansion at its edges or through consolidation of loose ribbons of development will need a different policy tool, supported by firm evidence – yet another incentive for decision-makers to update their plans.
Q What are applicants likely to think?
A Applicants may be emboldened to take less notice of visually arresting red lines around settlements on proposal maps, when considering whether it is worth pursuing development beyond them, especially where there is an obvious shortage of housing allocated in local or neighbourhood plans. But where local authorities have maintained their required supply of housing land, there will remain a constraint against unplanned development in rural areas.
Q Is there anywhere that can truly be called "isolated" for the purposes of paragraph 55?
A The Appeal Court did not have that question to consider. The fact that isolation in planning terms has been ruled to simply rest on how far away another dwelling is suggests that local planning authorities may need to consider new spatial policies. These should address the meaning of "isolated" in their local context and how the edges and gaps in all rural settlements are to be treated.
Lachlan Robertson MRTPI is a partner at Carter Jonas