Lichfield District Local Plan
Main Modifications Statement - September 2014

Resumed Hearing Statement by the Lichfield Civic Society

Matter 7 - Exceptional Circumstances

1. This issue is critical since it affects fundamentally the most significant of the Main Modifications proposed by the District Council. In turn, there are inter-relationships and impacts on this particular issue from other questions being asked by the Inspector in his Examination at this Resumed Hearing.

2. The Civic Society has already indicated in the representations to the Main Modification 19, various concerns about the Council's approach to the release of Green Belt on the south side of Lichfield City, and the failure to adequately demonstrate exceptional circumstances to justify the proposed revision of Green Belt boundaries.

3. These points will be briefly reiterated later in this submission, but there are other, fundamental and critical matters arising from the proposed Main Modifications which directly impinge on, or are affected by, the Green Belt proposals that require consideration. These relate principally to:

a. The Judicial Review case, I.M. Properties v Lichfield District Council 2014, ruled that the Court had no jurisdiction to consider I.M.P's complaint at that stage and has left to the Inspector's judgement the planning issues. Whilst the decision addressed whether relevant planning matters were considered by the Council, that part of the conclusions is 'obiter dicta' and as such does not constitute a legal binding precedent. In identifying the planning issues, it is necessary to address all relevant planning considerations whether or not they were referred to by the Court. These will include the revised NPPF Planning Policy Guidance, the RSS Panel recommendation referred to below, Government statements about the importance of the need to protect Green Belt and specifically whether 'exceptional circumstances' exist. It is the Society's view that in the absence of a comprehensive inter-authority perspective on sub-regional housing requirements, the recommendations of the RSS Panel remain a material consideration to which some weight should be given.

b. The currently proposed Green Belt releases are inconsistent with the NPPF and the NPPF Planning Practice Guidance (6 March 2014). The latter states that unmet housing need is unlikely to outweigh harm to the Green Belt such as to constitute the very "exceptional circumstances" to justify inappropriate development within the Green Belt. Additionally, it has become clear from recent work that there is no shortfall in the 5 year housing supply at present to support any immediate Green Belt releases. In this respect, we support the submission of the Beacon Street Area Residents' Association (BSARA) on the updating of the calculations utilising the Council's own evidence as submitted to the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. The Council's own evidence to the LGBC for England demonstrates there is no 5 year supply shortage. However when recommending that the two Green Belt sites be released the report to Council stated it was essential these sites delivered in the first 5 years of the Plan. This reported absence of a 5 year supply has become an artificial and now redundant justification for Green Belt release supported by skewed site evaluation and sustainability scoring. The overall housing target context is also relevant. It is based upon migration rates which are 34% above the long term average although BSARA have identified issues which indicate the migration rates used in the SHLAA were higher than 34%. The Inspector's Initial Findings indicated that long term average rates should be used unless there was strong evidence otherwise (Annex to Inspector's letter 3rd September 2013 paragraph 26). We believe that there is no justification to exceed the long term average, and certainly not to exceed it by such a significant level or more.

c. The Local Plan Strategy as currently proposed is incompatible with the more recent proposal to roll back the Green Belt south of Lichfield City for housing development. The Local Plan Strategy, as expressed in Core Policy 1 (and at related paragraph 4.15 as modified), continues to refer explicitly to the Council's recognition of "the important role of the Green Belt" and its need for protection. It states that the Spatial Strategy of the Local Plan "seeks to minimise impact upon the Green Belt" and that this has been "considered in the light of a range of options". This is completely contrary to what has happened, since the range of options considered by the Council has been limited to an examination of a selective number of Green Belt locations only (Local Plan Strategy Green Belt Review Supplementary Report, December 2013). It is the Civic Society's view that consideration of alternative location options for development undertaken to date has been partial and hence inadequate and insufficient to justify the revision of Green Belt boundaries, i.e. exceptional circumstances have not been demonstrated. A comprehensive list of alternative development options both within and beyond the Green Belt needs to be fully evaluated before the need to release Green Belt land could be demonstrated, and this should include a wide range of locations within the whole District. A comprehensive approach would be consistent with the preparation of long term District wide plan and would be good planning practice. As one indication of the need for this, the District Council were recommended by the WMRSS Phase 2 EiP Panel in their Report (September 2009), after detailed and comprehensive consideration of the situation, to examine the alternatives available for growth beyond the Green Belt to the north of Lichfield City. This has still not been carried out. The Green Belt Review Supplementary Report referred to above failed completely to address non-Green Belt locations of which there are a number. In addition, that study, even in its own terms, failed to evaluate options in an unambiguous and impartial manner, as referred to in detail in the Society's representations to the Main Modifications.

d. The sustainability argument is being used by the District Council to justify releasing Green Belt sites around Lichfield City. However the Council's approach concerning sites outside the Green Belt, but close to the Parish of the City is inconsistent. A site in Streethay has been allocated as an SDA, whereas the planning application proposals for 750 houses at Watery Lane north of the City has been refused notwithstanding it is highly accessible to the wide range of facilities in the City. The two Green Belt allocations proposed by way of Main Modification close the gap between the City with Wall and Shenstone parishes whereas the Watery Lane site involves no encroachment into the Green Belt and is as equally sustainable as the allocated sites. This illustrates the fact that the application of the proposed policy is neither consistent, sound nor justified.

e. Although the Local Plan purports to be a strategic approach to the period up to 2029, the policies ignore the highly probable prospect of substantial additional growth pressures which may emerge from the Duty to Co-operate aspects of accommodating any finally agreed additional out migration needs for Birmingham City. It is the Society's view that progressing a review of the Local Plan to include an objective assessment of the potential for a more strategic New or Extended Settlement to accommodate known and future anticipated needs would be a sound, planning based strategic approach for Lichfield District to pursue rather than assuming that the District can avoid any significant additional housing allocations. A New or Extended Settlement in a strategic and sustainable location could accommodate the current shortfall in housing allocations and provide scope for future requirements without the need for the current proposed release of Green Belt or additional proposals on Green Belt sites. The current approach is not a District wide strategy. Instead it is a piecemeal reactive incremental release of Green Belt sites around Lichfield City based on a preference for urban extensions. The previous Local Plan released one site for 650 houses (1100 actually built) and designated the ADR South of Lichfield site that is a proposed allocation in this plan. Two further South of Lichfield sites are now proposed. The Society is gravely concerned over the Council's incremental, unplanned approach. It fears that if this becomes established policy, especially through the sacrifice of Green Belt sites, then the Council will have restricted its defence of Green Belt land and hence will expose itself to continuous external demands for additional housing land releases from the West Midlands Conurbation authorities as they review their local plans.

f. The prospect of substantial housing growth "overspilled" from Birmingham and possibly Tamworth, has implications for consideration of Green Belt release beyond the current plan period as required by the NPPF. The Council intend dealing with this through the Land Allocations process. However, until there is evidence of the likely level of future growth in the District, which cannot be established until, amongst other factors, the Birmingham needs are finalised and properly allocated/distributed across the "sub-region", it is premature to seek to determine a housing strategy and prejudicial to lay the District so open to losses of important areas of Green Belt. The consideration of the need for any post plan period Green Belt release should follow the Main Modification 1 Plan review rather than precede it because a clear indication of the overall scale of provision needed is required. An Allocations Plan process should follow the Core Policy elements, and there is a clear risk that what the Council may seek to achieve through the Allocations process may be at conflict with the then adopted Local Plan.

g. The NPPF in paragraph 83 states that the Green Belt boundaries should be capable of enduring well beyond the plan period which starkly contrasts with the Council's incremental releases approach. The Birmingham City comments on the MM1 early review specifically refers to their needs "which by definition would include any further necessary revisions to the Green Belt". If the District Council's policy of focusing development on the most sustainable urban locations is sound that should influence the priorities for accommodating Birmingham City's needs. Applying a priority for urban locations indicates that sites within Birmingham City with closer access to a wider range of facilities, infra-structure and employment opportunities should be preferred for new development locations.

4. Conclusion and Way Forward

The Council has not established that the proposed release of Green Belt is justified by 'exceptional circumstances'. The District Council should undertake at an early date a comprehensive study of alternative development locations across the whole District (both Green Belt and non-Green Belt areas). The study would provide a suitable basis of information to ensure that appropriate and justified decisions could then be made at the time of any roll forward of the Plan or early review. This is considered necessary to ensure that precipitate and unjustified releases of land are avoided and would ensure that a comprehensive approach is taken to the District's long term development strategy.

To date, the Green Belt Review studies undertaken by the Council, as referred to earlier, have been selective and piecemeal and have lacked comprehensive coverage in the search for suitable land for release. If the Green Belt land to the south of Lichfield City were to be released, as at present proposed, without the benefit of conclusions drawn from a comprehensive study and without adequate justification of land release because of the exceptional circumstances test, it will create an unfortunate precedent which could trigger pressure from local authorities in the West Midlands Conurbation for the wholesale, uncoordinated release of swathes of Green Belt land between Lichfield City and Birmingham. It may also lead to a missed opportunity to deliver more strategic, more sustainable development.

The establishment of a rational and justified development strategy based on the findings of the study, would achieve a balancing of proposals for urban extensions on Green Belt or non-Green Belt sites and development of new or extended settlements on non-Green Belt land. The implementation of the post Plan period Green Belt releases would also be informed by the study's conclusions.

The Civic Society's suggested way forward is to abandon the proposed piecemeal erosion of the Green Belt and thus not progress the two additional South of Lichfield site allocations. The MM1 early review should expressly provide a sound basis for assessment of housing need. It would require a District wide review of a wider range of sites to meet the allocation needs together with a Green Belt review across the District. This approach is justified because it is:

a. based on the evidence of the Council to the LGBCE there is no 5 year housing land shortage a change in the circumstances used to justify the current Green Belt site allocations, and

b. utilising the ONS 2012 projections including higher mortality assumptions for Lichfield there will be no shortage of developable land in the first 10 years post adoption.

John Thompson
Lichfield Civic Society.
September, 2014