The following letter was generated by ADVEARSE members on my behalf…
8, Lodge Lane
The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
c/o The National Planning Casework Unit
5 St Philips Place
2 January 2018
West Dorset District Council, Planning Application Ref: WD/D/17/000986 — Land at Vearse Farm, Bridport — Case Officer: Jean Marshall
We would like to request a call-in with respect to West Dorset District Council’s (WDDC) resolution made on 3 November 2017 to grant outline planning permission for the above development of up to 760 houses and other mixed use.
We believe WDDC did not give due consideration to the assessment of the substantial harm this development will cause to a designated area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) and national heritage assets; that it did not sufficiently stipulate reasons which might justify such harm; that it did not sufficiently stipulate any potential public interest advantages to the proposal, or assess and explain whether any such advantages might be more in the overall public interest than any potential harm. We further believe that WDDC failed to give due consideration to any implications the granting of this permission will have for the potential for future substantial harm to other AONB land in West Dorset and beyond. We believe WDDC’s decision is open to challenge not simply as to the quality of its judgment on this planning issue but on a failure to address, as policy requires, the fundamental issue of the protection of a designated landscape and to consider the true nature of ‘exceptional circumstances’.
We believe the council officers’ report to the committee failed faithfully to represent expert opinion as to the damage that the development would inflict upon the AONB, that it failed to address the existence or otherwise of ‘exceptional circumstances’ as required by the National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF) and that it failed to justify its recommendation of a decision contrary to Local Plan (LP) Policy ENV.1. We thus believe that WDDC has failed in its democratic duty to give any legally adequate explanation or provide sufficient reasons for its decision to allow a residential development of such an unprecedented large scale on an AONB, and failed properly to apply the pressing requirements of paragraphs 14, 17, 32, 114, 115 and 116 of the NPPF and the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Regulations.
We consider this issue to be of more than local importance because the site covers 454,000 square metres of high-quality agricultural AONB land which should expect to have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty. Records show the presence of a farm and field system at Vearse dating back to at least 1668. The farmhouse and buildings (listed Grade II) have remained isolated within an agricultural landscape for over 200 years, and the land contributes significantly to the setting of the designated Bridport Conservation Area. The site is in Symondsbury Parish, just outside the western edge of the town of Bridport. It is overlooked by many significant hills*, including the iconic Colmer’s Hill landmark, and lies fewer than 1.5 miles from the heart of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage site, deemed of outstanding universal value and international importance to earth science. We submit that these factors represent the true exceptional circumstances here, and that the public interest inherent greatly outweighs any public interest advantages to the proposed scheme.
The vast numbers of new people the development would introduce into the town would put great pressure on existing, already strained and diminishing services and infrastructure, most of which are outside the remit of the heads of the Section 106 agreement. These issues include strain on local NHS services, the inability of the local roads to cope safely with the additional traffic in terms of both vehicles and pedestrians, and the recent drastic cuts to local bus services. We believe the application contravenes the aims of LPT3 (May 2017), in particular points 4 and 5 of Strategy Measure 6, and is not in accord with paragraph 32 of the NPPF (particularly in terms of avoiding additional road safety risk and improving safety for vulnerable users). While the highways ‘experts’ have consented to the proposal, we have identified at least two errors** on which they have had to back track. Dorset County Council (DCC) Highways’ response has been to say that we should take this up with WDDC, which responds that ‘the experts say it’s OK’. So far is the development from having exceptional merit or meeting the public interest that the officers’ report to the committee is peppered with instances where consultees find the latest version of the applicant’s plans still falling short of their requirements, failing to respond adequately to their suggestions or making unfounded assertions.
*The applicant’s Environmental Statement states that ‘The Site is surrounded by a series of hills and ridges that limit views towards it from the wider AONB’, but these hills and ridges that overlook it are the wider AONB, views from which will be severely harmed by the development.
**For instance, the developer submitted a drawing of an alteration to a junction (North Allington roundabout) designed to relieve the increased traffic flow resulting from the development. DCC Highways deemed this significant enough to include it in the outlined Section 106 Agreement details. However, following representations from objectors at the planning committee meeting the DCC Highways officer admitted that the suggested alteration was a mistake. The applicant also proposed the addition of advisory cycle lanes to the principal access road (B3162) leading to Bridport town centre. These must have been discussed with the Highway Authority but again following representations from objectors who were concerned about road safety (the road is only 7m wide) DCC Highways said that advisory cycle lanes were not something they wished to pursue. Local residents remain concerned that the pressure DCC Highways is under to facilitate this application may result in other road safety errors being made. For instance, did DCC Highways also make a mistake when they told the planning inspector who approved the LP that they were satisfied that measures (including the aforementioned mistaken ones) could be taken to accommodate the level of development involved?
The nature, size and location of this development would significantly impact the environment, character, culture and heritage of the town and countryside, and adequate reasons have not been provided to explain why such rapid, massive urban growth in this area is considered to be in the public interest.
Paragraph 114 of the NPPF stipulates:
Great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in … Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty.
Paragraph 115 adds:
Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest.
As found in the case of the Kent branch of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) vs Dover District Council, a local planning authority which is going to authorise a development which will inflict ‘significant detrimental impact’ and substantial, ‘long-term’ or ‘irreversible’ harm on an AONB must give substantial reasons for doing so (paragraph 2.212). The Kent judgment found this issue to be clearly at the very centre of the policy expressed in NPPF paragraphs 115 and 116 and in EIA Regulations.
The officers’ report to the planning committee quotes from the Dorset AONB Team’s comments but with significant omissions, some of which prejudice the view of the adverse impacts of the development on the AONB. Notably, the report omits the opening sentence of the second paragraph of the AONB report:
As you will appreciate, a development of this scale at this location will produce a range of adverse effects that conflict with the primary purpose of the designation, this being the conservation and enhancement of the Area’s natural beauty.
It is only by suppressing such comments that the report to committee can misleadingly claim (Report 12.9):
Overall, both the AONB Team and the Landscape Officer consider that the visual and wider landscape impacts of the development are acceptable.
The WDDC Landscape Officer also highlights the conflict with policy and the possible practical difficulty of ensuring the ‘moderation of adverse effects’ following a grant of outline planning consent, remarking:
the proposals, owing to their scale and location within the AONB, inevitably conflict with Policy ENV1 i), ii), and iii) which aim to protect the area’s exceptional landscapes including their landscape quality and diversity, uninterrupted panoramic views, individual landmarks, sense of tranquillity and remoteness.
Through selective presentation, the officers’ report thus hides the extent of expert assessment of the fundamental conflict between the development and the protection of the ‘designated landscape’; misleadingly suggests that the AONB Team and others consider ‘mitigation’ of landscape damage could be total; and obscures the extent to which they consider the developer could and should have responded more fully to their suggestions.
See also, for example, the comment of Natural England:
In our previous response (dates 2 June 2017) Natural England set out a number of landscaping and biodiversity issues that we considered needed to be addressed by the application. The submitted modified plans have failed to address these issues…
It is the report’s own opinion, rather than that of the expert and other representations received, that (12.11): ‘Overall, the proposal is considered to be acceptable in respect of its potential visual impact on the site and surroundings and in its impact on the Character and openness of the AONB.’ No case is in fact argued for the assertion that follows in the report that the proposal complies with the provisions of LP Policy ENV.1 or the NPPF (paras 115 and 116).
The only ‘exceptional circumstance’ cited in the council officers’ report as justification for this project is ‘housing need’. This disregards paragraph 14 of the NPPF, footnote 9 of which specifically stipulates that ‘policies relating to sites … designated as … an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ should apply to decision-taking whether or not the LPA can demonstrate a five-year housing land supply. In addition, however, the extent and nature of the genuine housing need of local people of Bridport has been clearly identified and this development would fail to resolve that need because the housing on offer would be chiefly targeted at the higher end of the open market and would thus be inaccessible to those for whom the ‘housing need’ exists. Around 500 of the houses planned are simply not needed in this area at all, and should not, therefore, be part of the council’s housing land supply calculations. Further, we do not believe the planning authority had sufficiently investigated scope for alternatives, such as brownfield sites (the register of which was not published until 3 December 2017), empty or abandoned properties and industrial units, or any more truly strategic and relevant housing-need solutions. We therefore submit that there is no identifiable need for such housing on this AONB land and that the public interest against the project far outweighs that for it.
The local town council and both affected parish councils all voted against the development; 251 representations were made by 281 local people, only two of which were in support; and at the outline planning meeting around 27 local people spoke against the proposals. The only justification WDDC has provided for the disregard of these democratic representations is the circular argument that the site has been designated for development in the LP.
We understand that any planning applications should be decided in line with the LP unless material considerations indicate otherwise. However, the LP is also not supposed to be set in stone, but is supposed to be revised and updated as new information becomes available and/or circumstances change (NPPF 17). In this case WDDC has failed to address many issues brought forward by hundreds of local people which should have been resolved during the LP development or, at the latest, at the outline planning stage for this specific proposal. Further, we believe that there are material considerations which should decide against this development and that the LP itself is seriously flawed.
The West Dorset LP states at 3.3.6:
In the plan area, local housing and economic needs cannot be met without major development in the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The need for growth from both a national and local perspective is considered to justify the exceptional circumstances for allowing major development to take place within this nationally designated landscape.
This appears to be WDDC’s only stated ‘exceptional circumstances’ justification. However, this is plainly a general and not an exceptional circumstance at all, and this paragraph explicitly demonstrates that WDDC has abandoned any attempt to discriminate where development might be more or less damaging within the AONB. This blanket approach, as implemented in the Vearse Farm resolution, logically provides slippery slope justification for new development anywhere within the AONB as the local authority continually struggles to meet government-imposed housing targets, thus negating the requirements of planning policy as expressed both elsewhere in the LP and in the NPPF.
We believe the LP fails to apply the terms of NPPF Paragraph 14, which stipulates that such plans should ‘meet objectively assessed needs … unless … any adverse impacts of doing so would demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed’ against overall or specific policies contained within the NPPF. The Suffolk Coastal case in the Supreme Court established that, as well as NPPF policies, development plan policies, such as ENV1 i), are covered by the reference to ‘specific policies’ in NPPF 14 footnote 9. LP Policy ENV1 is absolute in its disallowal of a development such as this:
The plan area’s exceptional landscapes and seascapes and geological interest will† be protected, taking into account the objectives of the Dorset AONB Management Plan and World Heritage Site Management Plan. Development which would harm the character, special qualities or natural beauty of the Dorset Area of Outstanding Beauty or Heritage Coast, including their characteristic landscape quality and diversity, uninterrupted panoramic views, individual landmarks, and sense of tranquillity and remoteness, will† not be permitted.
Development should be located and designed so that it does not detract from and, where reasonable, enhances the local landscape character. … Development that significantly adversely affects the character or visual quality of the local landscape or seascape will† not be permitted.
†The policy wording of ‘will’, rather than ‘should’ throughout should be noted as the case officers’ report points out its significance in other contexts.
The government inspector’s report on the LP (Report to West Dorset, Weymouth and Portland Councils by Paul Crysell BSc MSC MRTPI an Inspector appointed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Date 14 August 2015) notes that ‘The size and extent of the allocation challenges the presumption in the NPPF that major development should be avoided in AONB unless there are exceptional circumstances.’ Nowhere in the inspector’s report are ‘exceptional circumstances’ at Vearse Farm specifically identified, demonstrated or explained. Claims of acceptability alone do not constitute the demonstration that NPPF 115 ‘public interest’ test requirements have been met. The inspector’s discussions focus entirely on the claimed acceptability of the development under various headings that might be considered after a requirement for exceptional circumstances have been met. It is not, for example, an exceptional circumstance under NPPF 115, that the development would provide for the town’s growth, or that adequate traffic arrangements could be provided (assuming that is indeed so) or that some level of landscape damage mitigation could be achieved. Instead, the inspector’s qualified support appears to be justified by the fact that most of West Dorset is AONB land and in order to meet government-set targets houses needs must be built there regardless. However, he also dismisses suggestions that the final planning decision be delayed until the forthcoming neighbourhood plan for Bridport could be used to examine alternative development options. His reasoning is that it may lead to the promotion of schemes in ‘locations where the individual and cumulative impact of development may be greater’. We submit, conversely, that this prevents the opportunity to identify schemes in locations where the individual and national cumulative impact of development may be far less harmful; contravenes NPPF paragraphs 115 and 116 and EIA Regulations; that the case officers’ report offers nothing to remedy the omissions in the inspector’s report; and that the WDDC planning committee failed to take any of this into consideration.
Nowhere in the planning or application documents relating to Vearse Farm can reference be found to the NPPF Paragraph 116 requirement of giving consideration to ‘the cost of, and scope for, developing elsewhere outside the designated area, or meeting the need for it in some other way’. It seems that the ‘exceptional circumstances’ are no more than the circumstances surrounding WDDC’s difficulty in meeting the national requirement for the supply of housing land. The assumption is that, because this particular large site is available, the optimum and easiest course is to locate the entirety of a massive development in one area regardless of it being on one of the most landscape-sensitive edges of the town, providing one of the least adequate accesses to the town centre and to the major road network, or of it being the least strategic, relevant or acceptable housing-need solutions.
It remains, as indicated in the Kent judgment and in the ‘decision-taking’ section of NPPF paragraph 14, the ultimate duty of the planning committee to give full scrutiny to the significant detail and legalities of the location and planning application and to make the weight of public interest decision. Further, as also indicated in the Kent case, it is the duty of the planning committee to give due consideration to any local implications for future such permissions. We submit that granting permission on the grounds stated has both local and national implications because it effectively gives WDDC carte blanche to build on any of its AONB in order to meet national house-building targets and without the need to identify or stipulate ‘exceptional circumstances’, which thus completely cancels out the universal protections of AONB status altogether. The WDDC planning committee, therefore, has further been negligent in failing to acknowledge these compelling, material public interest reasons for refusing permission to build on this area of outstanding national importance.
That is precisely those circumstances under which the NPPF explicitly states that policies for the restriction of development should continue to be applied. We understand that there is currently a fundamental conflict between the seemingly undeliverable designations of national house-building targets and the protections of AONB land, but submit that, until this issue is resolved at national level, and while this anomaly opens up the potential for future disregard of the NPPF and promotes the dangerous, irreversible slippery slope negation of AONB status altogether, the weight of public interest lies much more heavily on the side of refusal in this case.
We would therefore be most grateful if you could call in this important, precedential case in order to give it the careful consideration it deserves.
Co Chairman, ADVEARSE
Copied to: The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.