How a court judgment exposed the risk of counting on housing need to justify green belt release

A successful legal challenge to a development plan in Leeds shows the risk of plan-makers depending too heavily on housing need figures to justify green belt release, especially when those numbers drop significantly, say commentators

Leeds Civic Hall (pic: The Jaco, Flickr)
Leeds Civic Hall (pic: The Jaco, Flickr)

Last July, Leeds City Council finally adopted its site allocation plan (SAP) after six years in the making. The document identifies sites for housing, employment, retail and greenspace in order to meet the growth targets set out in the 2014 core strategy. However, a neighbourhood planning body in the outlying district of Aireborough last week succeeded in a judicial review against the SAP's proposed green belt release after arguing that the document was based on an out-of-date assessment of housing need.

The forum's argument was rooted in the government's decision, first proposed in September and formally introduced in the July 2018 NPPF, to change the way it calculates local planning authorities' housing requirements. The introduction of the standard housing need method, outlined in the consultation document 'Planning for the right homes in the right places', dramatically reduced Leeds' requirement for the 2012 to 2028 local plan period to 42,000 homes. This was far below the figure of 66,000 in the council's core strategy that the SAP was based on. This reduction meant the council no longer needed to release sites for 4,070 new homes in the city's green belt as proposed in the SAP, the forum claimed.

A selective review of the core strategy, containing the new figures, has subsequently been adopted by the council. However, the SAP was submitted for examination in May 2017, before the standard method was revealed. As the SAP examination process was already ongoing, the council pressed ahead, albeit reducing green belt releases to those considered necessary to accommodate the city's housing needs for the plan's first five years. While the submitted plan proposed 12,481 homes on green belt, the final version cut this to 4,070 homes. The forum, motivated by the desire to remove the council's allocation of four green belt site in Aireborough, argued that a more fundamental rethink was required of the policy.

Under the NPPF, councils needs to demonstrate "exceptional circumstances" to justify green belt release in local plans. Given the steep drop in the council's overall housing requirement, in her judgment Mrs Justice Lieven ruled that there was "no clear explanation" in the inspectors' report on the SAP for their decision that exceptional circumstances existed to justify the level of green belt releases.

In a statement following the judgment, Leeds said it had pushed ahead with the housing allocations in order to safeguard itself against the risk of speculative applications mounted on the ground that the council lacked a five year supply of housing land. Andrew Rose, associate at consultancy Spawforths' Leeds office, said: "They (the council) wanted an up to date site allocation plan with allocations in it which would then give them [an adequate] housing land supply."

However, planning barrister Jenny Wigley of Landmark Chambers, who represented the neighborhood forum, believed the council should have withdrawn the SAP from examination when it became clear that the core strategy housing need figures it was based on were no longer up to date. This would not have resulted in much delay, she claimed, while ensuring that the authority had "certain figures" to work from as opposed to the "patch and mend" route that it ended up going down. "They were ploughing ahead with implementing the core strategy when they knew there would be an entirely different core strategy with an entirely different set of numbers," she said.

The wider lesson from the case is that it is possible to successfully challenge green belt allocations, which have been made on exceptional circumstances grounds, said Wigley. This looked an uphill struggle, particularly following a High Court ruling last December, which backed Guildford Council's deallocation of green belt land in its local plan even though the strategy had plenty of headroom for meeting its housing requirement. Wigley said: "You could get the impression looking at cases over the last few years that you couldn't get anywhere with a local plan challenge [on green belt grounds] but [the Leeds case] has conclusively proved you can."

In the Leeds SAP case, Wigley said it was only the housing need numbers "that were the justifying factor - they didn't have the back up and there was no other coherent reasons for releasing the green belt sites. Once you just have the naked numbers, you need good reasons when the numbers go down significantly and they didn't."

Paul Miner, head of strategic plans and devolution at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, agreed that the SAP was on shaky ground once the new standard method figures appeared."The main justification for releasing green belt was that Leeds had a particularly high housing need. However, the standard method showed that the level of housing need in Leeds was significantly lower than previously estimated and that removed the primary justification for release of green belt."

Wigley has sympathy for the plight that Leeds found itself in. "It was a huge exercise and a massively difficult task with the goal posts changing," she said. She also pointed out that Leeds is unlikely to be the only northern authority facing difficulties in justifying green belt release given the lower housing need figures produced for many councils across northern regions under the standard method.

The judge is yet to determine whether all of Leeds' green belt allocations should be quashed or just those in the area covered by the neighbourhood forum, a decision which could be concluded in about a fortnight's time, according to those involved. "It is frustrating and slows down the delivery agenda," said Nick Lee, managing director of planning consultancy NJL Consulting, which has an office in Leeds. Meanwhile, a Planning Inspectorate spokesperson said the body is “carefully considering the judgment and the comments made to see if there any lesson to be learn”.

For Catriona Riddell, strategic planning specialist at the Planning Officers' Society, the Leeds judgment illustrates the limits that the local plan system places on any attempt to revise green belt boundaries. She said: "Green belt is supposed to be a strategic policy. But since the loss of regional strategies, green belts have been viewed as a local policy constraint, with boundaries changed to meet housing needs, rather than to help place-shaping over a wider area to support local authorities' long term ambition. Perhaps if the Leeds plan was more clearly tied to a long-term strategic growth strategy and not specifically to housing delivery, the changes to green belt would have been more defensible."

NOTE: This story was updated at 4.30pm on Tuesday 23 June to make clear that the Leeds SAP has not been "quashed" as previously stated. The judge has yet to determine whether and how the SAP will be affected.

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