Leeds City Council has issued the following response to a judgment handed down by the High Court today on a case between a neighbourhood forum and the council.
The case related to aspects of the preparation of the Site Allocations Plan (SAP) for Leeds with a primary focus upon the release of four green belt sites in Aireborough.
The SAP is a key planning policy document which serves to allocate land for development of future housing, offices, industrial use and retail in the city and which also protects green space.
As part of the case the Aireborough Neighbourhood Forum claimed the council had acted wrongly in its approach to releasing these four green belt sites in Aireborough, and for later adopting the SAP on the basis of that specific approach.
The claim also criticised the reasoning given by government planning inspectors – who are independent of, and separate from the council – on behalf of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government for approving adoption on this basis. The Secretary of State along with two developers were also interested parties in the case.
Four grounds raised in the claim were rejected or not allowed to proceed by the Judge. The claim was allowed on three of seven grounds raised. These three grounds related to three legal errors on the part of the government planning inspectors. None of these three grounds found that Leeds City Council itself had proceeded unlawfully, or took a legally flawed approach to the Site Allocations Plan.
Consistent with the SAP being one of the largest development plans in the country, it was considered by two government-appointed independent inspectors between 2017 and 2018 – involving a total of 16 days of scrutiny at an examination held in public.
The plan was revised during its preparation to significantly reduce the level of green belt land needed to be released from providing 12,500 homes to just over 4,000 homes.
The inspectors issued their report on the SAP in June 2019, confirming that it was both sound and had met necessary legal and national policy tests in its approach to selecting the most suitable and sustainable sites. This included some green belt land, in areas of the city where alternative non-green belt sites for development were not available.
In her judgment on the claim, Mrs Justice Lieven recognised the high importance to the council to have the SAP in place in order to avoid unplanned development through lost appeals due to the council not having a five-year land supply. The judgment also acknowledges that the council had amended the preparation of the SAP in close response to multiple changes to national guidance and a potentially lower need for housing as a result of changes to government housing projections.
The judge additionally highlights the notably difficult task the council faced in preparing the SAP, stating the following:
“I am intensely conscious of the very difficult situation that the council has found itself in, and the truly massive task of the SAP process.
“I have significant sympathy with the council trying to deal with such large amounts both of housing requirements but also so many sites across a very diverse area.”
Responding to the judgment, Leeds City Council chief planning officer David Feeney said:
“I am heartened that the judge has not found any legal errors with the council’s approach to preparing the plan.
“Whilst it is positive that significant amounts of housing land supply are emerging on brownfield sites in the city centre and the inner area of the city, the council has been clear from the start that the SAP is about meeting a fair distribution of housing needs (including affordable housing for local people) across the whole of the district enabling new homes to be built in areas that meet local need and to avoid over-development in specific areas.
“It is also disappointing that the massive engagement that we had on the SAP, and the huge resulting volume of objections that the inspectors had to deal with, have led to an error of law, as the SAP was the council’s only mechanism at the time to address the lack of a five-year housing land supply and the loss of sites at appeal to speculative development.
“The council hopes that the errors of law can be remedied, so as to avoid a return to speculative development and give continued certainty to investors in the city.”
Notes to editors:
The Site Allocations Plan went through a lengthy and considered process of preparation and public consultation, lasting six years. This involved carefully assessing sites that had been put forward for development throughout the city and deciding which were the most appropriate and sustainable to allocate for development, in accordance with local and national policy. The plan was the subject of independent examination by the Secretary of State’s appointed planning inspectors, who found the plan sound and legally compliant.
Following the submission of the SAP for examination in 2017, the government published its consultation document ‘Planning for the Right Homes in the Right Places‘, which introduced a new standard methodology for calculating housing need. Using this methodology resulted in the housing requirement for Leeds being significantly lower than that set out within the adopted Core Strategy (2014). Leeds City Council and the inspectors agreed that the examination for housing allocations would be delayed until 2018, with the remainder of the plan examined in 2017. Substantial revisions were then made to the SAP which resulted in significant reductions in green belt release, with the sites that remained required to achieve a five-year supply of deliverable housing land as required by national policy.
The judge notes that “the council saw the changing position on housing land requirement as being a significant change that required a careful response in order to meet the need for justification of GB releases”.
The errors of the independent inspectors (not of the council) identified by the judge were (1) legally deficient reasons given in their report on: (a) justifying the release of the specific green belt sites and on (b) site selection process; and (2) an error of fact relating to the calculated increase in supply of housing (mainly in the city centre) during the process. The judge did not find that green belt sites could not properly be released and nor did she find that the site selection process was in error.
Local authorities are required by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to maintain a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites. This is established through paragraph 73 of the NPPF and is measured against the housing requirement established through the Core Strategy Selective Review (2019). Leeds City Council currently has a 7.2-year supply, which is advocated by government, offering choice and competition across a range of markets and provides flexibility to remain robust against the inherent uncertainty of events across a plan period. Having in excess of a five-year supply is necessary to prevent speculative development.
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