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Unmet Housing Demand Can Trump Green Belt Policy

In a case which threw into stark relief the increasing conflict between Green Belt policies and unmet demand for new housing, controversial plans for construction of 116 homes and a 72-bed care home on a green field site near St Albans, Herts, have been put back on track by the High Court.

The proposals for a rural site situated close to school playing fields were thwarted when St Albans City and District Council refused planning permission. That decision was upheld by a government planning inspector who found that the developers, Hunston Properties Limited, had failed to show the ‘very special circumstances’ needed to justify inappropriate development of the Green Belt.

However, in ruling that the inspector had made a ‘fundamental’ error of law, the Court found that she had wrongly based her assessment of the projected need for new housing in the area on a revoked planning policy and had misconstrued and misapplied the Government’s national planning policy framework.

Hunston argued that there was evidence that 688 new homes would have to be built in the St Albans area every year until 2028 to meet unmet housing demand and that the council faced a shortfall of more than 1,400 new homes over a five-year period. It submitted that, in the absence of a strategic local plan for the area, Government projections were the best evidence of real unmet housing demand and that the need for new homes ‘clearly outweighed’ Green Belt objections.

However, in rejecting the proposals, the inspector had accepted the council’s plea 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. The inspector had said that the plans would ‘erode the openness’ of the Green Belt and ’cause irrevocable harm to the character and appearance’ of the area.

Quashing the inspector’s decision, the Court found that her assessment of projected housing demand had been based on a regional spacial strategy for the East of England that had been revoked shortly before she reached her decision. The error of law was ‘fundamental’ and required fresh consideration of Hunston’s planning appeal by the Department of Communities and Local Government.