High Court upholds 760-home approval, despite 'incoherent' planning report

Planning consent granted for construction of 760 new homes on farmland near Bridport, Dorset, has been upheld by a High Court judge - even though he ruled that councillors had based their decision on a planning report that failed to "meet the bare minimum standard" for such documents.

London's Royal Courts of Justice
London's Royal Courts of Justice

Together with housing, Hallam Land Management also plans to build a 60-unit care home, a mixed-use local centre and a primary school on Vearse Farm. There would also be playing fields, allotments and open space and four hectares would be set aside for employment purposes, the application said.

For the most part comprising agricultural land, the site lies within the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and is immediately to the west of the Bridport Conservation Area, which embraces the whole of the seaside market town.

Also nearby is the Toll House, also known as Magdalen Farmhouse, which is a Grade II-listed building and a heritage asset.

Despite concerted opposition from many local residents, the then West Dorset District Council granted outline planning permission for the development in November 2017.

Dorset Council, which had by then absorbed the district council as part of a local government reorganisation, granted full planning consent in May last year.

Challenging the permission at the High Court in Cardiff, local campaign group Advearse, and two of its members, Lewis Gerolemou and Phillip Summerton, argued that councillors failed to have 'special regard' to the development's impact on the listed building.

Councillors had also, they submitted, shown a failure to give 'great weight' to conserving heritage assets in accordance with the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

Councillors were said to have been significantly misled by, amongst other things, a "mis-statement" in a planning officer's report that the development would have "no adverse impact on the character and appearance of the conservation area."

Ruling on the case, Mr Justice Swift acknowledged that the officer's report was "at the very least unclear" on issues concerning the conservation area and failed to inform councillors of the test they needed to apply under the NPPF.

The report confusingly stated that the development would have "no adverse impact" on the conservation area's character and appearance whilst, at the same time, it would have "some effect" on its setting and views, the judge said.

The report's approach to conservation of the Toll House was also flawed, the judge said, and, although it was not appropriate to "nit-pick" or treat the report as if it were a statute, he ruled that, in certain respects, it failed to "meet the bare minimum standard" of coherence required.

He told the court: "The officer's report does not address those matters in any coherent way. Even though what is required of an officer's report is not demanding, a report must meet some basic standards of good public administration."

Turning to the issue of relief, however, the judge refused to quash the planning permission.

He said that, even had the officer's report been perfect, it was highly likely that councillors would have reached the same conclusion.

The development was considered crucial to the council's future housing strategy and its benefits were "clearly apparent" from the report of a local plan inspector who explained why it was "necessary" to allocate the site for house-building.

The judge added: "Both for the conservation area and the Toll House, the impact was assessed as falling into the less than substantial bracket."

And, even were the planning application sent back for reconsideration, he said, the "only realistic outcome" was that councillors would again conclude that the public benefits of the development would outweigh any harm caused to the Toll House or the conservation area.

Advearse's other grounds of challenge to the planning permission failed.

R on the Application of Advearse & Ors v Dorset Council. Case Number: CO/2277/2019

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