In a decision letter issued on 31 August 2017, following a 5 day public inquiry in July 2017, Planning Inspector Christina Downes BSc DipTP MRTPI allowed an appeal by CALA Management Ltd and CAB International against the refusal by South Oxfordshire District Council for a major development in the Chilterns AONB comprising 91 dwellings and a new, state of the art global headquarters building for CABI to replace the out-dated former school buildings on the site which CABI currently use as their headquarters office.
CABI is an international not-for-profit inter-governmental development and information organisation focusing on the agricultural and environmental sectors. It was established pursuant to a UN level treaty and is headquartered in the UK at the appeal site near Wallingford. In recent years it has identified a compelling need for new headquarters premises owing to the current buildings on site having reached the end of their lifetime. On its own, however, the project would not be viable. Accordingly, CABI entered into a joint venture agreement with the housebuilder CALA pursuant to which residential development was also proposed to cross-subsidise the new office building. A previous proposal for a care home development to provide a similar cross-subsidy had been granted planning permission by the Council but proved commercially unviable and the permission lapsed.
The Council’s Planning Committee rejected the current proposal, against Officer advice, on grounds that included a failure to show exceptional circumstances justifying major development in the AONB in accordance with the test in NPPF para. 116 as also reflected in development plan policy, that the location was not suitable for residential development having regard to the extent of accessibility by sustainable transport means, as well as a failure to provide the 40% affordable housing which development plan policy targeted (despite 20% being agreed to be the maximum viable amount in the circumstances) and the provision of a market housing mix which did not provide pro rata equivalence to analysis in the latest Strategic Housing Market Assessment as to the extent of need for different sizes of dwelling in the District (despite the proposed mix also being agreed to have been dictated by viability considerations).
Allowing the appeal, the Inspector concluded:
- At best the Council had a 4.1 year housing land supply. Therefore the NPPF para. 14 tilted balance would be engaged in the event that there was compliance with NPPF para. 116 in relation to the AONB and NPPF paras. 132-134 in relation to impact on a nearby Grade II* listed church.
- Contrary to the Council’s submissions, harm other than harm to the AONB was not relevant to the assessment under NPPF para. 116.
- The delivery of market and 20% affordable housing was in the public interest, particularly given the lack of a 5 year housing land supply, and given the viability position there was no merit in the Council’s objection either to the amount of affordable housing or to the proposed mix.
- CABI was an organization of international importance and worldwide reputation, as well as a significant local employer. The provision of a new building for it would be in the public interest.
- There was no scope for providing the development elsewhere or in any other way – the most likely alternative was that CABI would move its headquarters overseas – therefore it was in the public interest for the development to happen on the appeal site.
- The special qualities of the AONB would not be diminished if the appeal scheme were to go ahead, albeit there would be some detrimental impact to the perception and experience of recreational users of the nearby public rights of way.
- Overall, exceptional circumstances existed so as to justify this major development in the AONB in accordance with NPPF para. 116 and the equivalent development plan policy.
- The limited ‘less than substantial’ harm to the listed church was clearly outweighed by the proposals’ public benefits, in accordance with NPPF para. 134.
- Therefore, there were no restrictive policies in the NPPF that pointed against the proposals and the tilted balance in NPPF para. 14 was accordingly engaged.
- Whilst accessibility to local facilities on foot was limited, cycling would be an attractive option as would the bus services which stopped right outside the appeal site. Overall there was compliance with NPPF and development plan policies relating to sustainable transport.
- Overall, the adverse impacts of granting permission did not significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, and the limited breaches of development plan policies relating to the settlement hierarchy and development in the countryside outside settlement boundaries were outweighed by other material considerations.
The appeal decision can be downloaded here.
Charles Banner acted as sole counsel for the Appellants, instructed by Matthew Mainstone of Wedlake Bell.