The Court found that, when considering plans for construction of 116 new homes and a 72-bed care home in the Green Belt near St Albans, a planning inspector had erred in construing and applying the PFF and in basing her assessment of the projected need for new housing in the area on a revoked planning policy.
Planning permission for development of the Green Belt site had been refused by the local planning authority. The inspector had dismissed the developer’s appeal on the basis that the proposals would 'erode the openness’ and 'cause irrevocable harm to the character and appearance' of the green field site.
The developers had pointed to evidence that 688 new homes would have to be built in the St Albans area every year until 2028 to meet unmet housing demand. Almost all of the undeveloped land in the district, outside built up areas, was in the Green Belt. However, the developers argued that the Council faced a shortfall of more than 1,400 new homes over a five-year period.
However, in rejecting the proposals, the inspector had accepted the Council's arguments that only 360 new homes needed to be built annually and that that target could be met by sites which had already been allocated for residential development. She based her assessment of unmet demand on a Regional Spacial Strategy for the East of England that had previously been withdrawn.
The High Court subsequently quashed the inspector’s decision on the basis that she had made a ‘fundamental error’ of law. In challenging that decision, the Council argued that the inspector had acted reasonably in seeking to fill the ‘policy vacuum’ resulting from the revocation of the Regional Spacial Strategy.
However, dismissing the appeal, the Court found that the inspector had erred in law in adopting such a constrained figure for housing need. Had she followed the correct policy approach, she would inevitably have found that there was a shortfall. The matter was remitted for reconsideration by a fresh planning inspector who will decide whether the scarcity of housing land in the area amounts to a 'very special reason' justifying development of the Green Belt.
The Court noted that the PFF had been viewed by the Government as a valuable means of simplifying national planning guidance, ‘by replacing over 1,000 pages of national policy with around 50, written simply and clearly’. However, in expressing sympathy for the inspector, it observed, “Unhappily, as this case demonstrates, the process of simplification has in certain instances led to a diminution in clarity."