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29/04/2014

Garden cities - wake up and smell the roses

Words:
Roses in a garden

After the “will they, won’t they” of recent months, the government has finally pledged support for the garden city idea - or rather, it has committed to pump-priming the infrastructure needed to get the stalled, but already consented, Ebbsfleet development moving ahead under the banner of “garden city”.

To do this, the government is to set up an Urban Development Corporation for the area. In terms of new schemes, the government is shortly to publish a prospectus setting out how local planning authorities (LPAs) can develop “their own, locally led proposals for bringing forward garden cities”. Ebbsfleet is clearly as far as the government itself is prepared to go.
 
But what is the likelihood of garden cities being realised at the local level?
 
Ministers are always keen to point out that the government’s planning reforms are all about devolved power and local decision-making, but ultimately, this has to operate within the scope of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). That the NPPF is a relatively high-level document should be good news for sustainable development and localism, allowing for flexibility and the balancing of material considerations with local needs and circumstances, by local decision-takers.
 

"Ministers are always keen to point out that the government’s planning reforms are all about devolved power and local decision-making, but ultimately, this has to operate within the scope of the National Planning Policy Framework"

 
But in spite of the rhetoric, the government is quick to assert its own interpretation when it is politically expedient to do so.
 
Indeed, this March was another busy month for national policy and guidance. On 3 March and in response to the inspector’s report on the Reigate and Banstead Core Strategy (and the media/public/colleague furore that ensued), Nick Boles wrote to the Planning Inspectorate, seeking to clarify the government’s position on NPPF green belt policy, making it clear that neither the secretary of state nor his inspectorate should bear any responsibility for LPAs choosing to build in the green belt (this is certainly one way of interpreting “localism”). So far, fair enough, but, in doing so, the minister has inevitably added to the perceived weight of green belt policy (and possibly other NPPF policy constraints) in terms of displacing the presumption in favour of sustainable development. His intervention may yet cause Reigate and Banstead to drop its green belt changes. So much for brave, local decision-making.
 
This was underlined by changes to the National Planning Policy Guidance (NPPG) introduced in its full version, published online just a few days later. Possibly in response to the court decisions in the Hunston cases (St Albans), the NPPG now includes a paragraph within its Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA) guidance providing that unmet housing need is unlikely to constitute the very special circumstances needed to support inappropriate development of the green belt. This begs the question as to whether unmet housing need can reasonably amount to the exceptional circumstances needed to justify changes to the green belt through the local plan. If unmet housing need cannot justify green belt release then what can?
 
Green belt is but one example of the typical constraints to development that are likely to be relevant to new settlements/garden cities and which present policy considerations within the NPPF and now the NPPG. Others include flood risk, brown/greenfield land use, landscape and biodiversity. If the government wants to see LPAs bring forward garden cities, it will need to stop playing politics with its policy and give local decision-making a chance.
 
Ian Green is a legal director in the Planning Team at DLA Piper LLP
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