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Independent Scrutiny Essential in Planning Policy Decisions

Local planning policies affect the future character and appearance of entire areas for many years into the future and that is why they must be subjected to rigorous and independent scrutiny before they are adopted. The High Court made that point in overturning a policy document that sought, amongst other things, to dictate the provision of affordable homes over a 25-year period.

The relevant local authority envisaged construction of 13,940 homes in its area over the period and that figure was enshrined in the local development plan. The policy was formulated on the basis of a pressing need for smaller households due to greater longevity and the fact that couples had children later in life.

The council subsequently also published a supplementary planning document (SPD) that addressed the mix of homes of particular sizes to be built over the period. As a supplementary document, it was not subject to independent scrutiny by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government as a fully fledged development plan document (DPD) would have been.

The SPD sought to set aside up to 45 per cent of the total residential build over the period for one- and two-bedroom homes, 45-55 per cent for three-bedroom homes and 10-20 per cent for four-bedroom homes. It also sought to lay down that 60-70 per cent of one and two-bedroom homes built over the period would be affordable.

In upholding a judicial review challenge brought by five property developers, the High Court found that the SPD was not an appropriate vehicle by which to address issues of such strategic importance. The overall mix of housing across the area should have been the subject of a DPD that would have been opened up for full debate and independent scrutiny.

The council conceded that it had not assessed the SPD’s impact on the financial viability of future housing development proposals. In those circumstances, the Court observed that it was pointless to set housing targets, or seek to encourage the housebuilding industry to provide more homes, without addressing whether policies put in place were so restrictive as to frustrate those objectives. The part of the SPD that dealt with housing mix over the period was quashed.