Hertfordshire scheme approved on appeal by inspector on the basis of housing demand alone

Developer Canton has won a planning appeal for 100 homes on an unallocated site in the Hertfordshire green belt in a decision experts say could set a precedent for other schemes.

Planning inspector Christa Masters concluded that the provision of housing, in the context of a “bleak” lack of housing supply in the councils covered by the application, was enough to demonstrate the necessary “very special circumstances” which are needed to justify speculative applications on green belt land.

The decision is important because it came despite the fact a written ministerial statement in 2015 by then housing minister Brandon Lewis appeared to rule out this argument being used to justify green belt schemes.

Green belt land

Green belt land

The decision relates to a site in Colney Heath, which straddles St Albans and Welwyn Hatfield local authorities. Both councils have out-of-date local plans and cannot demonstrate the five-year supply of land the government requires in national planning policy.

The policy states that development on the green belt is in most cases inappropriate, and can only be justified by demonstrating “very special circumstances”, where harm to the green belt is “clearly outweighed” by other factors.

However, the St Albans local plan dates back to 1994 and is one of the oldest in the country, while Welwyn Hatfield’s dates from 2005. Neither council could demonstrate more than a three-year supply of land for new homes.

This led the inspector to conclude that the provision of 45 market-sale homes and 45 affordable homes both attracted “very substantial” weight in favour of the scheme.

Masters also said the provision of 10 homes for self-build attracted “substantial weight” in favour of the scheme. She ruled that “these factors, when considered collectively, demonstrate that very special circumstances do exist”.

At the same time, she dismissed the 2015 ministerial statement as it had not been included in subsequent updates to national planning policy, and relevant words in national planning guidance had been removed.

She said: “I can therefore see no reason to give this anything other than little weight as a material consideration.”

Zack Simons, barrister at Landmark Chambers, who acted for the appellant Canton Ltd, said the decision was significant because almost all previous decisions to grant applications for housing in the green belt had involved sites that had been allocated in an emerging but not adopted local plan.

He said in a blog: “The circumstances which tipped the scales and won the day [were] housing need. Pure and simple. Housing need, and the failures to deliver housing in the context of the break-down in the plan-led system in this part of Hertfordshire”.

Paul Miner, head of planning policy at countryside charity the CPRE, said the body was concerned by the decision, and it showed the government needed to be clearer that housing need alone was not enough to justify green belt development.

He said: “The government needs to re-iterate the policy it has – it needs to be made clear that Brandon Lewis’ statement is still the government’s position.

“The government needs to be clearer that if there are to be incursions on the green belt, then this should only be happening after being fully explored and tested as part of a local plan process.”