Confusion reigns as flagship building policy left in tatters
The Government yesterday torpedoed its own flagship localism policy – before performing a remarkable apparent U-turn just a few hours later to halt its own decision.
At the start of the day, a Government planning inspector announced he was granting an appeal by a developer to build 180 new homes on a green-field site on the edge of Malmesbury – the first place in the West to have drawn up a Neighbourhood Plan.
Furious civic leaders were outraged – they had been given £20,000 and been visited by communities minister Don Foster to encourage them to create their own plan – described by planning minister Nick Boles as the counterbalance to the Government’s controversial announcement of a “presumption in favour” of green-field development.
The inspectors’ decision over-rode the plan, which had proposed development in another part of town.
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Local Tory MP James Gray wrote to secretary of state Eric Pickles describing how the decision had “driven a coach and horses” through the Government’s own policy, and made it “pointless” for any other community to create one to shape their own development.
After a day of “no comment” from the Department for Communities and Local Government, Mr Gray said planning minister Mr Boles had admitted there had been a mistake. He said he had asked for the appeal by developers Gleeson to be called in for him to make a decision, and appeared to claim that the Bristol-based planning inspectorate had released their decision in error.
“He tells me that he gave written instructions last week for this planning application to be “called in”, in other words to be decided by the ministers personally,” said Mr Gray. “Through some mistake, that instruction apparently did not arrive at the Planning Inspectorate, who issued the permission incorrectly. The minister has now instructed the planning permission to be withdrawn and the application to be “called in”.
“It is really remarkable, and I’ve never heard of anything like this before. Let us hope Mr Boles comes to the right decision now,” he added.
The calling-in raises serious questions about the legality of the entire process – with Gleeson almost certain to mount a judicial review if Mr Boles does overturn the inspector’s decision.
Mr Boles and Mr Pickles transformed the planning system last year with a “presumption in favour” of green-field development, but added a rule that towns and villages could create a Neighbourhood Plan to shape development.
The north Wiltshire town of Malmesbury was the first in the West to create a Neighbourhood Plan, and its document was one of the most-advanced in the country, after receiving the support of Bath MP and communities minister Don Foster, as well as civil servants in Whitehall.
But developers rushed to submit planning applications while community leaders, shopkeepers, schools and residents worked on the Neighbourhood Plan – backed by a £20,000 grant from the DCLG. Their creation welcomed development on green-field sites along with school expansion and other benefits.
But a site proposed by housebuilder Gleeson plc had not been chosen by the community – so it submitted a planning application which was refused. An eight-day public inquiry for the ensuing appeal heard how the entire concept of Neighbourhood Plans would be scuppered if an appeal was allowed.
In the original judgement yesterday, planning inspector Colin Thompson praised the Neighbourhood Plan, but said because it was still being finalised, he would allow Gleeson to build. Mr Thompson admitted the Government’s two key policies “pulled in different directions”, but that presumption in favour trumped a Neighbourhood Plan.
The deputy leader of Conservative-controlled Wiltshire council said the original decision was “an embarrassment”. “You’ve got Eric Pickles giving out money to communities to create Neighbourhood Plans with one hand, and then sending inspectors to dump on them from a great height with the other.
“The ministers even came to Malmesbury to encourage the community and then they do this – are they taking the mickey?”
Town councillor Kim Power said that with the precedent set in favour of development, Malmesbury could get 1,400 homes in the next two years.