Planning Inspector Andrew McGlone has granted outline planning permission for up to 144 new homes in the Green Belt on the edge of Dorking in Mole Valley following a six-day public inquiry earlier this month. The site is also within the setting of the Surrey Hills AONB (now the “Surrey Hills National Landscape”). The Inspector concluded that the substantial benefits of the proposals – including delivery of market and affordable housing – would clearly outweigh the harms, including harm to the Green Belt, so as to satisfy the “very special circumstances” test prescribed by national policy.
The site had been assessed as suitable for release from the Green Belt and allocated for development in the emerging Mole Valley Local Plan 2020-2037 (“the ELP”). However, despite having completed its examination in public, progress on the ELP stalled in December 2022 following publication of the consultation draft NPPF. The Council considers that the wording of the consultation draft (if carried forward in the final published version) would enable it to proceed to adopt an alternative plan which would not require the release of Green Belt sites. The appeal inspector shared the appellant’s doubts as to the Council’s proposed timeline for adoption of a “Green Belt out” plan.
ELP aside, the issues for consideration by the Inspector included: (1) compliance with the spatial strategy of the adopted development plan; (2) the effect of the proposal on the openness of the Green Belt and its purposes; (3) the effect of the proposal on the character and appearance of the area, including the Surrey Hills National Landscape; (4) whether the Council could demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites; (5) the weight to be afforded to the benefits to the proposal; and (6) whether the harm by reason of inappropriate development in the Green Belt, and any other harm, would be clearly outweighed by the benefits of the proposal.
On the first issue, despite identifying conflict with the spatial strategy policies of the adopted development plan, the Inspector concluded that limited harm would arise from that conflict, given that the policies are out-of-date and therefore carry limited weight.
On the second issue, the Inspector concluded that the proposal would result in only a moderate loss of openness in the Green Belt, in part due to the proposals retaining 45% of the site as open space after development. He found no conflict with the 2nd (preventing the merging of neighbouring towns), 4th (preserving the setting and special character of historic towns) and 5th (assisting in urban regeneration) Green Belt purposes specified in the NPPF, and only limited harm arising from conflict with the 1st (checking unrestricted sprawl) and 3rd (safeguarding the countryside from encroachment) purposes.
On the third issue, the Inspector concluded that the proposals would result in harm to the character and appearance of the area arising from the loss of the rural character to the edge of Dorking in this location. However, that harm would be limited given the opportunity (accepted by the Council at the inquiry) to bring forward design and landscaping details at reserved matters stage. Importantly, he found that there would be no material harm or adverse effects on the setting of the Surrey Hills National Landscape.
On the fourth issue, the Council accepted that against its local housing need figure – as determined using the standard method – it could not demonstrate a 5 year supply of housing land. However, it had put forward five alternative “scenarios” for the Inspector to consider in determining its housing requirement. The Council sought to rely on two appeal decisions (VIP Trading and Clacton on Sea) to justify a departure from the approach set out in NPPF para 74. The Inspector concluded that the circumstances in which those decisions were taken were not directly comparable to the situation in this appeal and that, given the uncertainty surrounding the ELP, the clarity offered by the local housing need figure calculated in accordance with the standard method was to be preferred, even if he were minded to disregard the “clear binary approach” set out by para 74 of the NPPF. Ultimately, he found that, as against the LHN figure, the Council could only demonstrate a 2.9 year supply, resulting in a shortfall of roughly 1,152 dwellings.
On the fifth issue, the Inspector afforded very substantial weight to the provision of market housing given the very substantial shortfall against the minimum level of supply against the local housing need figure. He also took into account the Council’s most recent housing delivery test results (70%) and the uncertainty around the timeline and future direction of the ELP.
As for affordable housing, the Inspector took into account the backlog in delivery across the current plan period and the fact that the future trajectory (even under the ELP) is set to be substantially below the level of delivery needed to meet the historic shortfall. He noted the serious consequences of not providing sufficient affordable homes and the increase in the number of people on Mole Valley’s Housing register, with increasing affordability ratios and people paying significantly over 30% of their income on rent. Accordingly, he afforded very substantial positive weight to the proposal’s delivery of up to 72 affordable homes.
On the sixth issue, taking the delivery of market and affordable housing together with the numerous other benefits generated by the proposals (development in a sustainable location, delivery of gypsy and traveller pitches, provision of a school drop off/pick up facility, BNG of over 20%, provision of over 3.5 hectares of newly accessible green infrastructure, and economic benefits), the Inspector concluded that these clearly outweigh the harms that he identified as arising from the scheme. Accordingly, he found that the very special circumstances necessary to justify the development do exist.
The judgment may be accessed here.