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Legal landscape: Isolated homes can be sustainable

Rural House iStock

We’re told that housing in isolated rural locations is not sustainable. But NPPF2 has no definition of ‘isolated’ and courts advise a pragmatic approach to rural housing consent, says Bernadette Hillman.

The question of sustainability of housing proposals in rural settlements and villages in terms of distance to services and facilities continues to be a difficult and uncertain issue for developers, as well as for existing and future residents. While these projects are challenging, the fact that a site falls outside or even partly outside of the defined settlement boundary need not be fatal.

National planning policy identifies broad principles and indicates a broad approach to this issue. Local planning authorities are advised what ‘should’ be done but there are no specific tests to judge the acceptability of particular proposals.

In our experience, planning authorities have, in the past, generally taken the view that settlement areas are sacrosanct, depending on:  

  • the local development plan as the starting point
  • its status
  • whether the authority can demonstrate a five-year housing land supply.

Subject to overcoming those constraints, local planning authorities would tend to cite national guidance and to avoid development of homes in the countryside, unless one or more of the prescribed circumstances applied, even if they were not truly ‘isolated’.

NPPF2 expressly recognises that development in a small village may enhance and maintain services in a neighbouring village, as people travel to use them. There is no national planning policy against development in settlements without facilities and services. On the contrary, paragraph 78 says: “where there are groups of similar settlements, development in one village may support services in a village nearby”.  

In practice, particularly in rural villages where development in one village is very likely to support services in another, the courts advise a flexible, clear and logical approach, as in: Dartford Borough Council v SSCLG & ors [2017] EWCA Civ 141 and Braintree DC v SSCLG & ors [2018] EWCA Civ 610.  

In brief 

  • Local authorities tend to cite national policy to resist housing in ‘isolated’ rural locations. 
  • But NPPF2 is not prescriptive and many terms, such as ‘isolated’, are undefined. 
  • The courts advise a flexible, clear and logical approach – development may support services in neighbouring villages, for example. 
  • Therefore, homes in small villages that are not truly ‘isolated’ can contribute to sustainable housing.



The Court of Appeal has stated specifically that ‘functional isolation’ does not fall within the previous paragraph 55 (now paragraph 79). A prescriptive and restrictive interpretation is inappropriate. The decision-maker’s task is simply to discern the objective meaning of the policy as it is written, having regard to the context in which the policy sits.

Once they have understood the policy, they may then exercise their planning judgement in what should be a fairly straightforward exercise. Planning policies, whether in the local development plan or in the NPPF, should not be over-interpreted for fear that this could distort their true meaning.

The section on rural housing in NPPF2 deals specifically with the location of new housing development. The first sentence of paragraph 78 tells local planning authorities that housing should be located “where it will enhance or maintain the vitality of rural communities”.

"There is no requirement for a ‘village’, to have any ‘services’ of its own, let alone ‘services’ of any specified kind"

The concept of the “vitality” of a rural community is wide and undefined. The example given that it “may support services in a village nearby” does not limit the notion of ‘vitality’ to a consideration of ‘services’ alone. It shows that the policy sees a possible benefit of developing housing in a rural settlement with no, or relatively few, services of its own.

NPPF2 contains no definitions of ‘isolated’, ‘community’, ‘settlement’, or a ‘village’. There is no specified minimum number of dwellings, or population. Development in one village may “support services” in another. There is no requirement for a ‘village’, to have any ‘services’ of its own, let alone ‘services’ of any specified kind.

In rural areas, where public transport is limited, it is recognised that people may have to travel by car to a village or town to access services. Sustainable transport needs to be sufficiently flexible to take account of the differences between urban and rural areas.Housing proposals in rural settlements can and should be supported where they will enhance or maintain the vitality of rural communities, providing the supply of housing required to meet the needs of present and future generations. Homes in very small villages that are not truly ‘isolated’ can do just that, contributing to sustainability because of their proximity to other homes. 

Bernadette Hillman is senior planning counsel at Asserson and honorary solicitor to the RTPI

Photo | iStock


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