In an important test of local democracy in the planning context, the High Court has struggled through Byzantine legislation and opened the way for a neighbourhood referendum in which residents of a county town will be given the chance to have their say in shaping residential development in the area over a 13-year period.
The local authority had permitted the referendum, in which local residents would be asked to express their views on three sites which were earmarked to provide at least 170 new homes before 2026. However, a house building company which had an interest in a 4.1 hectare plot near the town – which was not one of those selected to feature in the referendum – fiercely objected to the process.
In ruling on the company’s judicial review challenge – believed to be the first in which a neighbourhood referendum has come under the legal spotlight – the Court noted that much of the underlying legislation, including parts of the Localism Act 2011, were ‘not always well drafted’ and that that was likely to produce over-complexity and lengthy processes which would do nothing to reduce expense.
However, in opening the way for the referendum to proceed, the Court dismissed the company’s arguments that the legislation did not permit specific allocation of sites within Neighbourhood Development Plans. Also rejected were complaints that the referendum covered too wide an area and that the three selected sites should have been subjected to environmental assessment.