Developing in Green Belt will inevitably provoke strong arguments and is often perceived as a controversial move. It is nevertheless something that we’re grappling with evermore frequently as a result of a range of factors, but namely the rise in housing demand and tightly drawn settlement boundaries.
This was perfectly exemplified by a recent housing appeal in Stockport Borough which related to the Seashell Trust’s [the Trust] proposals to redevelop their existing specialist needs school in Heald Green. The site, in its entirety, is located within the Green Belt.
Following its initial refusal in January 2018, the Trust subsequently appealed and in December 2019 an Inspector recommended that the application be approved. On the 22nd April 2020, the Secretary of State [SoS] upheld the Inspector’s advice and allowed the appeal.
This blog considers the decision itself and also the wider implications it could have on proposed developments on Green Belt land across Greater Manchester in the short term.
The ‘Transformation Project’
The project, dubbed by the Trust as the ‘Transformation Project’, sought to modernise the existing dated facilities on the site. In order to cross-fund the development, the proposals also incorporated an outline application for up to 325 dwellings on fields to the north.
The redevelopment of the school site itself was, perhaps understandably, not the controversial element of the proposal. Had the trust simply progressed this proposal in isolation, there might have been no policy conflict as the redevelopment of previously developed land within the Green Belt is supported within the National Planning Policy Framework [the Framework]. However, without the cross-funding from the delivery of up to 325 dwellings, the scheme could not proceed. It is this “enabling development” which was unsurprisingly the source of most of the controversy.
The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework
The site, known as ‘Griffin Farm’, forms a draft allocation (ref. Policy GM Allocation 40) within the emerging Greater Manchester Spatial Framework [GMSF]. As many of you will know, the GMSF process has been mired by delay. In some instances, this has led to a policy vacuum as specific Greater Manchester authorities delayed progress on their own plans to track the preparation of the GMSF.
This is to some extent the case in Stockport who’s Core Strategy pre-dates the publication of the original Framework. The Council originally intended to produce an Allocations Development Plan, including a review of Green Belt boundaries in the borough. However, the preparation of this document was abandoned because of the GMSF and the need to review the Core Strategy.
To date, there are a number of schemes that have obtained planning permission on draft GMSF allocations. However, all these decisions related to large scale strategic employment developments, even where a residential element has been included. The Trust’s proposals are different in that they have no such employment link. Therefore, those frustrated with the ongoing delays to the GMSF process were perhaps keeping a close eye on the outcome of the Trust’s appeal.
Interestingly, on reviewing the Inspector’s recommendation, he makes it clear that, given the status of the plan, ‘very limited weight indeed’ can be afforded to the emerging GMSF, concluding that doing so would conflict with the Framework [§48]. This requires decision makers to afford weight to policies based on the stage of preparation of the plan and the extent to which there are unresolved objections to policies. It is fair to say that there remains a significant number of unresolved objections in relation to the GMSF.
So, the fact that the site forms a draft allocation in the GMSF had little or no bearing on the Inspector’s recommendation and it certainly did not form a material part of the case for very special circumstances.
Very Special Circumstances
For inappropriate development to be permitted within the Green Belt, very special circumstances [VSC] need to be shown. The VSC case in this instance had two fundamental strands. Firstly, the need case behind the proposal to redevelop the existing school. Secondly, matters relating to the supply of housing. Within this latter strand, consideration was given to both the Council’s under delivery of affordable housing, and its current inability to demonstrate a 5-year housing land supply.
When addressing the need case, the Inspector, and subsequently the SoS, concluded that the need for the proposed development as a whole had been robustly demonstrated. This included the fact that the improved provision for those with very complex educational needs could not be met elsewhere. It was therefore afforded substantial weight. Importantly, it was also accepted that the redevelopment of the school could not be viably delivered without the cross-funding from the residential element of the proposals.
Turning to the residential element, the Trust’s proposals included an affordable housing provision of 30% which was at odds with the policy requirement of 50%. Whilst this was acknowledged, it was concluded that the policy in question was out of date. Notwithstanding this conclusion, it was also acknowledged that the aim of seeking to maximise affordable housing is not inconsistent with the Framework. The SoS therefore still attached significant weight to the policy.
However, the Council’s previous under delivery of affordable housing was also a key factor in the consideration of VSC. The SoS, whilst acknowledging that 30% was below the policy target, found that this nevertheless carried significant weight in favour of the proposal. This was bolstered by the fact that the legal agreement was to include a claw-back mechanism that could potentially result in the full 50% ultimately being provided, subject to further viability testing in the future.
The affordable housing considerations were then balanced alongside the fact that the Council could only currently demonstrate a 2.8 year supply of housing. Both the Inspector and the SoS concluded that the housing benefits overall carried very significant weight.
The above factors were afforded a degree of weight which, when considered as part of the overall planning balance, were found to outweigh the considerable policy conflicts and substantial harm associated with the development. The Inspector and SoS therefore concluded that the VSC exist.
What We Can Take Away From The Decision
The most significant part of this decision is the Trust’s success in demonstrating that very special circumstances exist for a major residential development on Green Belt land. A fundamental part of making this case was evidencing the Council’s under delivery of affordable housing and an absence of a 5-year housing land supply. Very significant weight was afforded to these matters.
Of great significance is the fact that both the Inspector and the SoS attached a greater degree of weight to matters relating to the supply of housing than the educational need case. This reaffirms that there is a continued appetite within central Government to take a hard line on authorities failing to meet their housing targets. However, in my view this decision does not completely open the floodgates or set a precedent for premature applications for residential development to come forwards on Green Belt land proposed for allocation within the emerging GMSF.
The circumstances associated with this development are unique and the Trust put forwards a coherent and robust case which, despite the weight attached to housing need, was ultimately focussed around the strong need case supporting the school’s redevelopment proposals. The two key strands were intrinsically linked, and I do not believe that the very significant weight afforded to the housing matters would have been sufficient to demonstrate that VSC exist in isolation of the substantial weight afforded to the educational need case.
Therefore, except in instances where unique circumstances apply, we are likely still some time away from seeing any significant residential developments coming forwards on Green Belt land in Greater Manchester, the future of such sites remaining very much linked to the progress of the GMSF and Local Plans.