Landowners, developers and planners are keeping a close watch to see whether there will be any significant changes in planning policy now that Eric Pickles has been replaced by Greg Clark as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The new Secretary of State is known to be a supporter of Localism and he was instrumental in bringing forward the National Planning policy Framework, so it will be particularly interesting to see if there is any change in approach with neighbourhood planning (remembering that some of the Secretary of State’s decisions, attaching too much weight to emerging neighbourhood plans, were quashed before the recent General Election).
The review of Green Belt boundaries, and the particular issue of housing need, is another issue which is likely to come to the fore in the near future. The letter dated 3 March 2014 from Nick Boles MP (then the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State) to Sir Michael Pitt (then the Chief Executive of the Planning Inspectorate) in reaction to an Inspector’s Report into the emerging Reigate and Banstead Local Plan caused some consternation, and was generally interpreted as political rhetoric intended to reassure observers of the importance of the Green Belt - that letter can be viewed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/286882/140303_Letter_-_Sir_Michael_Pitt.pdf .
Certainly, within a few days of sending the letter, Mr Boles was moved to confirm that his letter was not intended to signal any change in policy.
Housing Need and “very special circumstances”
New housing in the Green Belt is inappropriate development. Inappropriate development is by definition harmful to the Green Belt and so it can only be permitted in very special circumstances (see paragraph 87 NPPF). Can housing need provide the “very special circumstances” necessary to allow new homes to be built in the Green Belt?
In 2014, Broxbourne Borough Council granted planning permission for a 4.4Ha development comprising 90 dwellings and associated infrastructure within the Green Belt and within the Lee Valley Regional Park. The Council had referred the application to the Secretary of State, who declined to call-in the application for his own determination. The planning permission was challenged by the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority in a Judicial Review which went to trial early this year, and the permission was quashed R (Lee Valley RPA) –v- Broxbourne BC  EWHC 185 (Admin). However, regarding the question of housing need and very special circumstances, Mr Justice Ouseley said this (see paragraph 68 of the judgment):
“A shortfall in housing land supply can, as a matter of policy, be a very special circumstance, although the occasions when it is likely to suffice by itself to warrant the grant of permission for housing development in the Green belt are expected to be few and far between. That is in effect what the NPPF and the Ministerial statement say. So there is nothing unlawful in the committee treating it as one of a number of very special circumstances.”
The principle then is clear. Housing need can amount to the very special circumstances needed to allow development within the Green Belt, but it will do so only rarely.
On 2 June 2014, Central Bedfordshire Council granted planning permission for a major development on 262Ha of open fields in the Green Belt north of the Luton/Dunstable/Houghton Regis conurbation comprising mainly residential development with some employment and retail uses. The land had previously been jointly promoted for development in an emerging joint core strategy between CBC and Luton BC (later abandoned). LBC considered the amount of affordable housing provided to be inadequate and brought a judicial review. This was dismissed by Mr Justice Holgate in the High Court and LBC’s appeal has now been dismissed by the Court of Appeal R (Luton BC) –v- Central Bedfordshire Council  EWCA Civ 537. Giving the only reasoned judgment of the court Lord Justice Sales said this (at paragraphs 54 to 57:
"54 … paras 87-88 of the NPPF provide guidance regarding the approach to be adopted if there is a proposal for development of an area within the Green Belt set out in a local plan: “very special circumstances” have to be shown. This is a stricter test than that in para 83 in respect of changing the boundaries of the Green Belt in the local plan.
55 Paragraph 83 does not lay down a presumption or create a requirement that the boundaries of the Green Belt must first be altered via the process for changing a local plan before development may take place on the area in question. Paragraphs 87-88 plainly contemplate that development may be permitted on land within the Green Belt, without the need to change its boundaries in the local plan, provided “very special circumstances” exist.
56 Nor does para 83 somehow create a presumption that the boundaries of the Green Belt must first be altered by changes to the local plan … before permission for development can be given, in a case where (as here) there is a parallel proposal to alter the boundaries of the Green Belt set out in the local plan … there is nothing in para 83 (read in the context of the entirety of section 9 of the NPPF) to prevent a planning authority from proceeding to consider and grant planning permission for development on the land in question while it remains in the designated Green Belt, provided the stringent “very special circumstances” test is satisfied.”
So, there remains a glimmer of hope for developers and landowners, but for the time being at least new housing sites in the Green Belt are likely to remain very much the exception rather than the rule. Some local authorities however are heavily constrained by Green Belt and reviews of Green Belt boundaries are highly charged politically. The duty to co-operate cannot on its own always overcome these issues and in order to deliver the quantity of new homes required it is likely that some erosion of the Green Belt will be needed.