Proposals for up to 175 new homes on the edge of a Berkshire village have been boosted after the High Court ruled that the civil servant who blocked the plans made an error of law in failing to take into account a ministerial statement in which a fundamental shift in planning policy was announced to Parliament.
The Oxford Diocesan Board of Finance wanted to develop five fields it owns on the edge of the village of Shinfield, close to the M4 Motorway. Planning permission was refused by Wokingham Borough Council and, after a public inquiry, the Department of Communities and Local Government dismissed the diocesan board’s appeal in line with a planning inspector’s recommendation.
The inspector had said that such a large-scale housing scheme would cause visual intrusion, spilling over a ridge and down a slope towards the motorway corridor, and would unacceptably narrow the gap between Shinfield and greater Reading.
However, in overturning the department’s decision, Mrs Justice Lang said that a ministerial statement – entitled ‘Planning for Growth’ and issued by the Minister of State for Decentralisation in March 2011 – had mistakenly been left out of account by the civil servant who drafted the decision letter. The minister had told Parliament that, in the interests of promoting economic growth, the Secretary of State would henceforth take the statement into account and enforce a strong presumption in favour of sustainable development when reaching planning decisions.
The ministerial statement was not issued until after the close of the public inquiry and was thus rightly left out of account by the inspector. However, the Secretary of State’s decision was not announced until two months after the statement was made and he was therefore obliged to have regard to it.
The judge said: “I am forced to conclude, on the balance of probabilities, that the ministerial statement was overlooked by the civil servant who had responsibility for drafting this particular decision letter. Regrettably, the error was not identified when it was checked and signed on behalf of the Secretary of State. A possible explanation for this error is that it was not referred to in the inspector’s report and, as it was relatively new, the author had not yet been alerted to the necessity to consider and refer to it, whether by way of checklist, or template, I do not know”.
Other grounds of challenge pursued by the diocesan board were dismissed; however the court’s ruling means that the Secretary of State must now consider its planning appeal afresh.