BSCF's comments on superschool plans in the context of the new National Planning Policy Framework

Letter to the Department of Communities and Local Government

Christine Symes
Department of Communities and Local Government
Eland House, Zone 1/H1
Bressenden Place
London SW1E 5DU
3 May 2012

TOWN AND COUNTRY PLANNING ACT 1990 – SECTION 78

APPEALS BY THE GOVERNORS OF THE BISHOP'S STORTFORD HIGH SCHOOL, THE HERTFORDSHIRE & ESSEX HIGH SCHOOL AND SCIENCE COLLEGE, HERTFORDSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL AND COUNTRYSIDE PROPERTIES PLC

LAND AT WHITTINGTON WAY, BISHOP'S STORTFORD, HERTS;
LAND AT JOBBERS WOOD, GREAT HADHAM ROAD, BISHOP'S STORTFORD, HERTS;
LAND TO THE SOUTH OF HADHAM ROAD, BISHOP'S STORTFORD, HERTS;
THE BISHOP'S STORTFORD HIGH SCHOOL FOR BOYS, LONDON ROAD, BISHOP'S STORTFORD, HERTS;
THE HERTFORDSHIRE & ESSEX HIGH SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, WARWICK ROAD, BISHOP'S STORTFORD, HERTS, CM23 5NJ;
BELDAMS LANE SPORTS PITCHES, BELDAMS LANE, BISHOP'S STORTFORD, HERTS.

Your Refs: APP/J1915/A/11/2149483
APP/J1915/A/11/2149492
APP/J1915/A/11/2149488
APP/J1915/A/11/2149401
APP/J1914/A/11/2149392
APP/J1915/A/11/2149392

1. I am writing on behalf of the Bishop's Stortford Civic Federation (BSCF), including its member residents' associations, in response to your letter of 20 April in which you invite comments on the relevance, if any, of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which came into force on 27 March, to the decisions to be taken by the Secretary of State on the appeals referred to above. We welcome this opportunity which, we believe, reinforces the reasons why these appeals should not be allowed. For your convenience, the comments which follow are in broadly the same order as the NPPF itself. Extracts from the NPPF are quoted in italics.

2. Relevance

2.1 On the question of relevance to the decisions on these appeals, the NPPF has the following to say

'Planning law requires that applications for planning permission must be determined in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. The National Planning Policy Framework must be taken into account in the preparation of local and neighbourhood plans, and is a material consideration in planning decisions.' (para 2)

'Planning law requires that applications for planning permission must be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.' (para 11)

'The planning system is plan-led. Planning law requires that applications for planning permission must be determined in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. This Framework is a material consideration in planning decisions.' (para 196)

2.2 In the view of BSCF these extracts make it clear that the NPPF is a material consideration in the determination of these appeals by the Secretary of State. They also make it clear that the appeals must be determined in accordance with the local development plan unless material considerations dictate otherwise. For this purpose, the local development plan is the plan adopted by East Herts District Council (EHDC) in April 2007, the relevant policies of which have been saved. The following extract shows that full weight may be given to these policies even if there is a limited degree of conflict with the NPPF.

'For 12 months from the day of publication, decision-takers may continue to give full weight to relevant policies adopted since 2004 even if there is a limited degree of conflict with this Framework.' (para 214)

2.3 In the view of the BSCF

3.The role of the planning system

'The purpose of planning is to help achieve sustainable development.'

'Sustainable means ensuring that better lives for ourselves don't mean worse lives for future generations.'

'In part, people have been put off from getting involved because planning policy itself has become so elaborate and forbidding – the preserve of specialists, rather than people in communities.'

'This National Planning Policy Framework changes that. By replacing over a thousand pages of national policy with around fifty, written simply and clearly, we are allowing people and communities back into planning.' (All from the Ministerial introduction)

'Within the overarching roles that the planning system ought to play, a set of core land-use planning principles should underpin both plan-making and decision-taking. These 12 principles are that planning should:

  • be genuinely plan-led, empowering local people to shape their surroundings, with succinct local and neighbourhood plans setting out a positive vision for the future of the area. Plans should be kept up-to-date, and be based on joint working and co-operation to address larger than local issues. They should provide a practical framework within which decisions on planning applications can be made with a high degree of predictability and efficiency;
  • take account of the different roles and character of different areas, promoting the vitality of our main urban areas, protecting the Green Belts around them, recognising the intrinsic character and beauty of the countryside and supporting thriving rural communities within it;
  • support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate, taking full account of flood risk and coastal change, and encourage the reuse of existing resources, including conversion of existing buildings, and encourage the use of renewable resources (for example, by the development of renewable energy);
  • contribute to conserving and enhancing the natural environment and reducing pollution. Allocations of land for development should prefer land of lesser environmental value, where consistent with other policies in this Framework;
  • encourage the effective use of land by reusing land that has been previously developed (brownfield land), provided that it is not of high environmental value;
  • conserve heritage assets in a manner appropriate to their significance, so that they can be enjoyed for their contribution to the quality of life of this and future generations;
  • actively manage patterns of growth to make the fullest possible use of public transport, walking and cycling, and focus significant development in locations which are or can be made sustainable; (Extracts from para 17)

'Early and meaningful engagement and collaboration with neighbourhoods, local organisations and businesses is essential. A wide section of the community should be proactively engaged, so that Local Plans, as far as possible, reflect a collective vision and a set of agreed priorities for the sustainable development of the area, including those contained in any neighbourhood plans that have been made.' (para 155)

3.1 The messages which BSCF would highlight from these extracts and which we have presented in evidence at the public inquiry are

4. Promoting sustainable transport

'Transport policies have an important role to play in facilitating sustainable development but also in contributing to wider sustainability and health objectives. Smarter use of technologies can reduce the need to travel. The transport system needs to be balanced in favour of sustainable transport modes, giving people a real choice about how they travel. However, the Government recognises that different policies and measures will be required in different communities and opportunities to maximise sustainable transport solutions will vary from urban to rural areas.

'Encouragement should be given to solutions which support reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and reduce congestion. In preparing Local Plans, local planning authorities should therefore support a pattern of development which, where reasonable to do so, facilitates the use of sustainable modes of transport.' (paras 29-30)

4.1 The evidence of BSCF shows that the proposed relocation site for the schools will militate against these objectives because of its inherent inaccessibility; it will relocate the schools further away from prospective housing developments in Bishop's Stortford; and the real impact on traffic congestion compared with the present has not been properly assessed by the appellants, particularly in respect of how the schools' relocation coupled with the proposed housing will impact on the existing town infrastructure and network. If granted, these appeals would increase the propensity to travel, especially by car, and not 'reduce the need to travel'.

5. Housing Supply

'To boost significantly the supply of housing, local planning authorities should:

  • use their evidence base to ensure that their Local Plan meets the full, objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing in the housing market area, as far as is consistent with the policies set out in this Framework, including identifying key sites which are critical to the delivery of the housing strategy over the plan period;
  • identify and update annually a supply of specific deliverable sites sufficient to provide five years worth of housing against their housing requirements with an additional buffer of 5% (moved forward from later in the plan period) to ensure choice and competition in the market for land. Where there has been a record of persistent under delivery of housing, local planning authorities should increase the buffer to 20% (moved forward from later in the plan period) to provide a realistic prospect of achieving the planned supply and to ensure choice and competition in the market for land;
  • identify a supply of specific, developable sites or broad locations for growth, for years 6-10 and, where possible, for years 11-15;
  • for market and affordable housing, illustrate the expected rate of housing delivery through a housing trajectory for the plan period and set out a housing implementation strategy for the full range of housing describing how they will maintain delivery of a five-year supply of housing land to meet their housing target; and
  • set out their own approach to housing density to reflect local circumstances'. (para 47)
5.1 The adopted local plan has already identified sites for some 3500 homes in Bishop's Stortford, the great majority of which have as yet not been developed or completed. This equates to approximately 5 years' supply for the whole of East Herts and around 30% of the total for the whole of the district over the next 20 years if the now discredited regional housing targets were adhered to. While the LDF core strategy is still under development it is not known what total level of supply will be needed or its locations, but under most likely scenarios, Bishop's Stortford already has sufficient land identified to meet a disproportionately large share of East Herts' total housing requirement without the need for the large number of windfall homes which these proposals would deliver. In the absence of the LDF, policy ENV1 in the local plan represents EHDC's current view about new development adjacent to existing developed sites. In this context, it is clear that the proposed housing densities on all the sites would be excessive if planning permission were to be given.

6. Promoting healthy communities

'The Government attaches great importance to ensuring that a sufficient choice of school places is available to meet the needs of existing and new communities. Local planning authorities should take a proactive, positive and collaborative approach to meeting this requirement, and to development that will widen choice in education. They should:

  • give great weight to the need to create, expand or alter schools; and
  • work with schools promoters to identify and resolve key planning issues before applications are submitted.' (para 72)

6.1 The evidence provided by BSCF shows that there is ample provision to provide a choice of secondary school places in Bishop's Stortford for residents in the EPA which covers the town, Sawbridgeworth and surrounding villages. These proposals, by increasing places at two single sex schools and using the Hadham Road site for housing instead of educational purposes, would in fact reduce the potential for choice, by removing from the educational estate a site which could, for example, be used for a 'free' school. The marginal increment of 45 places offered by the appellants' proposals does not justify the wholesale overturning of the local plan which the relocation would involve when that could be met by other schools in the area. The schools do not need to expand and expansion and co-location is likely to put at risk their current success. The local planning authority has refused planning permission for these proposals. The promoters have not been able to demonstrate that the key planning objections have been overcome.

'Existing open space, sports and recreational buildings and land, including playing fields, should not be built on unless:

  • an assessment has been undertaken which has clearly shown the open space, buildings or land to be surplus to requirements; or
  • the loss resulting from the proposed development would be replaced by equivalent or better provision in terms of quantity and quality in a suitable location; or
  • the development is for alternative sports and recreational provision, the needs for which clearly outweigh the loss.' (para 74)

The appellants have not renewed the licence on the western field at the Hadham Road site which was used until 2010/11 as an outdoor sports facility, particularly at junior level, for which there is an acknowledged deficit in the town, in order to pave the way for a second phase of housing on the site.

'Local communities through local and neighbourhood plans should be able to identify for special protection green areas of particular importance to them. By designating land as Local Green Space local communities will be able to rule out new development other than in very special circumstances. Identifying land as Local Green Space should therefore be consistent with the local planning of sustainable development and complement investment in sufficient homes, jobs and other essential services. Local Green Spaces should only be designated when a plan is prepared or reviewed, and be capable of enduring beyond the end of the plan period.
'The Local Green Space designation will not be appropriate for most green areas or open space. The designation should only be used:

  • where the green space is in reasonably close proximity to the community it serves;
  • where the green area is demonstrably special to a local community and holds a particular local significance, for example because of its beauty, historic significance, recreational value (including as a playing field), tranquillity or richness of its wildlife; and
  • where the green area concerned is local in character and is not an extensive tract of land.

'Local policy for managing development within a Local Green Space should be consistent with policy for Green Belts.' (paras 76-78)

6.2 Although the absence of a neighbourhood plan means that these latter provisions do not formally apply in Bishop's Stortford it is relevant that the site at Beldams Lane is the subject of a Village Green Designation application, because it meets the criteria listed above. Taken as a whole, the proposals would lead to a significant net loss of open space and sports facilities, with the replacements being poorly located on the edge of town and with much more pressure on them from pupils at the schools. Furthermore, they would go against the guidance from Natural England that people should have at least 2 hectares (of green space) within 300 metres (5 minutes walk) from their home.

7. Protecting Green Belt land

'The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.

'Green Belt serves five purposes:

  • to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas;
  • to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another;
  • to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment;
  • to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns; and
  • to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land.

'Once Green Belts have been defined, local planning authorities should plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt, such as looking for opportunities to provide access; to provide opportunities for outdoor sport and recreation; to retain and enhance landscapes, visual amenity and biodiversity; or to improve damaged and derelict land.' (paras 79-81)

'Local planning authorities with Green Belts in their area should establish Green Belt boundaries in their Local Plans which set the framework for Green Belt and settlement policy. Once established, Green Belt boundaries should only be altered in exceptional circumstances, through the preparation or review of the Local Plan. At that time, authorities should consider the Green Belt boundaries having regard to their intended permanence in the long term, so that they should be capable of enduring beyond the plan period. 'When defining boundaries, local planning authorities should:

  • ensure consistency with the Local Plan strategy for meeting identified requirements for sustainable development;
  • not include land which it is unnecessary to keep permanently open;
  • where necessary, identify in their plans areas of 'safeguarded land' between the urban area and the Green Belt, in order to meet longer-term development needs stretching well beyond the plan period;
  • make clear that the safeguarded land is not allocated for development at the present time. Planning permission for the permanent development of safeguarded land should only be granted following a Local Plan review which proposes the development;
  • satisfy themselves that Green Belt boundaries will not need to be altered at the end of the development plan period; and
  • define boundaries clearly, using physical features that are readily recognisable and likely to be permanent.' (paras 84-85)

'As with previous Green Belt policy, inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.
'When considering any planning application, local planning authorities should ensure that substantial weight is given to any harm to the Green Belt. 'Very special circumstances' will not exist unless the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations.' (paras 87-88)

7.1 These extracts set out the Government's commitment to protecting and preserving the Green Belt in the clearest possible terms. There was no disagreement at the public inquiry that the appellants' proposals would constitute inappropriate development within the meaning of the previous planning policy guidance on the subject (PPG2). The NPPF makes it clear that it would continue to be regarded as inappropriate within the new framework. Prior to its adoption in 2007, the draft local plan proposed a redesignation of part of the Whittington Way Green Belt site to permit its use for the proposed schools relocation. Following the examination in public of the draft local plan, the Inspector rejected the proposed redesignation and pointed out that, in the absence of any natural boundaries for the redesignated area, the rest of the site would be at risk of development too. The boundaries of this site have therefore been the subject of a review prior to the adoption of the local plan, specifically with the proposed relocation of the schools in mind, and their present status and extent as Green Belt has been confirmed.

7.2 In the view of BSCF there are no 'very special circumstances' which would justify overriding the protection which the Whittington Way site currently enjoys. The alleged educational justification is discussed in paras 2.3 and 6.1 above and is spurious. These proposals will undoubtedly be regarded as a test of the credibility of the Government's assertions that it remains committed to protecting the Green Belt and that the NPPF does nothing to weaken that protection. The NPPF therefore adds weight to BSCF's contention that all the appeals should be dismissed.

8. Conserving and enhancing the natural environment

'The planning system should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by:

  • protecting and enhancing valued landscapes, geological conservation interests and soils;
  • recognising the wider benefits of ecosystem services;
  • minimising impacts on biodiversity and providing net gains in biodiversity where possible, contributing to the Government's commitment to halt the overall decline in biodiversity, including by establishing coherent ecological networks that are more resilient to current and future pressures;
  • preventing both new and existing development from contributing to or being put at unacceptable risk from, or being adversely affected by unacceptable levels of soil, air, water or noise pollution or land instability; and
  • remediating and mitigating despoiled, degraded, derelict, contaminated and unstable land, where appropriate.' (para 109)

'Planning policies and decisions should encourage the effective use of land by re-using land that has been previously developed (brownfield land), provided that it is not of high environmental value. Local planning authorities may continue to consider the case for setting a locally appropriate target for the use of brownfield land. 'Local planning authorities should take into account the economic and other benefits of the best and most versatile agricultural land. Where significant development of agricultural land is demonstrated to be necessary, local planning authorities should seek to use areas of poorer quality land in preference to that of a higher quality.' (paras 111-112)

8.1 The appellants' proposals would have a severely detrimental effect on the valued open landscape to the south of Bishop's Stortford, turning a pleasingly undulating area into buildings, car parks and terraced sports pitches some of which would be flood lit and protected by a 2 metre high security fence. All the sites (with the exception of Jobber's Wood) would be developed where at present there has been no development on three of them and only limited development on two of them. By no stretch of the imagination could this be regarded as the re-use of brownfield land. It would in fact lead to the loss of good quality agricultural land at Whittington Way. And the Whittington Way site is likely to be subjected to an unacceptable level of noise pollution arising from proximity to one of the Stansted airport flight paths.

9. Conserving and enhancing the historic environment

'Local planning authorities should set out in their Local Plan a positive strategy for the conservation and enjoyment of the historic environment, including heritage assets most at risk through neglect, decay or other threats. In doing so, they should recognise that heritage assets are an irreplaceable resource and conserve them in a manner appropriate to their significance.' (para 126 extract)

'Local planning authorities should identify and assess the particular significance of any heritage asset that may be affected by a proposal (including by development affecting the setting of a heritage asset) taking account of the available evidence and any necessary expertise. They should take this assessment into account when considering the impact of a proposal on a heritage asset, to avoid or minimise conflict between the heritage asset's conservation and any aspect of the proposal.' (para 129)

'When considering the impact of a proposed development on the significance of a designated heritage asset, great weight should be given to the asset's conservation. The more important the asset, the greater the weight should be. Significance can be harmed or lost through alteration or destruction of the heritage asset or development within its setting. As heritage assets are irreplaceable, any harm or loss should require clear and convincing justification.' (para 132 extract)

Non-designated heritage assets of archaeological interest that are demonstrably of equivalent significance to scheduled monuments, should be considered subject to the policies for designated heritage assets. (para 139)

9.1 The appellants have carried out an archaeological survey of the Whittington Way site in the form of a number of excavated trenches. The material disclosed is, in the view of the County Archaeologist, of regional and potentially national significance since it appears to show the presence of a large Romano-British agricultural and viticultural establishment of a kind not previously known in this area. The full significance, and hence the potential loss of the remains could only be established by undertaking a full survey which has not so far taken place. For the same reason, it is not yet possible to devise a plan for the conservation of the remains. In the meantime, it is clear that the extracts from the NPPF quoted above, including para 139, are relevant. The remains would, of course, be left in situ for the benefit of future generations if the land continued to be used for agriculture.

10. Conclusion

10.1 The BSCF believe that the NPPF is a material consideration for the Secretary of State to take into account in determining these appeals. We have highlighted those parts of the document which we believe to be particularly relevant and our reasons for the relevance which we believe should be attached to them. In our view, taken both individually and as a whole, they strengthen the case for refusing these appeals.

JOHN RHODES


Letter from the Department of Communities and Local Government inviting comments on the Inspector's Report on the proposed superschool plans  Top 

Reply from East Herts District Council

Reply from East Herts District Council