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Court of Appeal upholds narrow interpretation of rural exceptions sites policy

DATE: 14 Jul 2016

The Court of Appeal has dismissed the appeal in Old Hunstanton Parish Council v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. The Court of Appeal’s decision is relevant to the interpretation of development plan policies for exceptions housing in rural areas.

The case concerned a planning inspector’s decision to grant permission for 15 affordable homes on a rural exception site adjoining the village of Old Hunstanton in West Norfolk. The relevant Core Strategy policies permitted such development where there was a “local need” for it. At first instance, Lang J held that properly understood, the relevant policies of the West Norfolk Core Strategy provided policy support for rural exceptions housing only where there was a need for that housing in the immediate rural settlement, or in other small rural communities as defined by the old PPS3, where those rural communities were local to the development site. The judge had also found that the Inspector’s decision letter contained defective reasoning, in that it did not address the rationale for the Inspector’s choice of policy interpretation.

The Court of Appeal (Laws, Tomlinson and Lewison LJJ) found that the policy texts themselves could be read either narrowly, as proposed by the Parish Council, or broadly, as proposed by the Secretary of State and Hastoe (the developer). In such a case the judge had been entitled to look to the supporting texts and to the old PPS3, which supported a narrower reading. Both the Core Strategy and PPS3 supported the existence of a nexus between the location of the development and the location of the need for the development. The judge had therefore been right to find that the needs of a town could not be relied on to justify development in a rural village. The population limits contained in PPS3 were, however, only a guide, rather than a definition of eligible communities (as the judge had concluded). The Court also confirmed that, in assessing whether need was referable to the village in question, it was permissible to take into account those no longer resident in the village but who had a connection to it.

The Court did not need to decide the reasons point. Laws LJ did however indicate that in his view the Inspector’s reasoning was sufficiently clear to be lawful.

Finally, the Court rejected the contention that the Inspector’s decision would have inevitably been the same had no error of law been made: the High Court was not a suitable forum to re-run evidential arguments not addressed by the Inspector, particularly where the evidential points in question had been challenged by objectors.

Heather Sargent appeared for the second appellant, Hastoe Housing Association Ltd, instructed by Stephens Scown LLP.

Luke Wilcox appeared for the successful respondent Parish Council, instructed by Humphries Kerstetter LLP.