A Government Planning Inspector's view of the number of new homes he believes need to be built in the Derbyshire Dales means the District Council may not defend our decision to refuse a housing development off Old Derby Road in Ashbourne.
In March, we refused outline planning permission for a residential development of up to 200 homes on the greenfield site, proposed by the trustees of a former Lord Lieutenant of Derbyshire, the late Sir Ian Walker-Okeover.
Councillors agreed such a development would be "inherently encroaching and harmful to landscape character" and that it was unwarranted and unsustainable as the council could demonstrate a housing land supply "comfortably in excess" of the requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework.
But at the end of July, Government Inspector Keith Holland, presiding over a two-day examination of the District Council's draft Local Plan, decided the 4,400 dwellings the council estimated should be built locally in the period 2006-2028 was far too low - and that at least 6,500 should be allocated.
A meeting of the District Council's Corporate Committee will be asked next Thursday (18 September) to vote on whether to go ahead with spending £32,000 tax payers' cash defending their decision at a public inquiry, due to start on 7 November, called by the Old Derby Road site applicants. Read the report in full [PDF 3MB] from p26.
The expenditure was approved by the council in May for the appointment of counsel and an expert landscape witness.
But a report to next Thursday's meeting prepared by Corporate Director Paul Wilson will recommend that the District Council should no longer attempt to defend its decision, while stressing such a move will not lead to a housing "free-for-all" in the Derbyshire Dales.
The backdrop to what the report describes as "an extremely difficult and contentious course of action" is the recent announcement by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander of a radical national building policy requiring 250,000 to 300,000 new homes a year - more than twice the number actually built in England last year.
"There is therefore, a very clear expectation that there will be a significant increase in house building activity and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is increasingly being seen as the policy mechanism to achieve this," Mr Wilson states.
"The pre-submission draft Derbyshire Dales Local Plan proposed that 4,400 dwellings should be provided for in the period 2006-2028. However, the full Objectively Assessed Need for the Derbyshire Dales is actually in the order of 6,006 dwellings."
Mr Wilson concedes that the District Council had intentionally pursued a planning strategy for the area based not on meeting the full assessed need, but on environmental capacity and widespread public opposition to greenfield site development.
Crucially, the report reveals there is no policy presumption against the development of greenfield sites in the NPPF - the fact that a site may have a degree of landscape impact is not sufficient to outweigh the need to provide land for housing.
Additionally, the landscape harm arising from the development of the appeal site has been assessed by an independent landscape expert, who considers the issue not to be sufficient on its own to sustain refusal.
Mr Wilson concludes:
"The decision can no longer be reasonably defended and any attempt to do so will almost certainly result in an adverse award of substantial costs against the District Council.
"Council are therefore strongly advised to acknowledge that there has been a significant change in circumstances which now makes the appeal unsustainable to defend. An alternative approach to the resolution of this matter is therefore required."
Councillors will be asked to consider requesting that the Planning Inspectorate downgrade the public inquiry to an appeal hearing, which will not require legal counsel, on the basis that the District Council will not seek to defend the original reason for refusal due to the change in circumstances, and that the appellants will not submit an application for costs against the council.
However, third party interests - including ward members and the Town Council - would still get the opportunity to outline their objections to the Inspector.
The report adds:
"The District Council has a duty to act responsibly with public resources and it would be inappropriate for the council to ignore the significant change in circumstances that has occurred.
"Whilst the implementation of the NPPF has increased the amount of residential development permitted across the country as national government intended, particularly in circumstances where Local Plans have not yet secured a sufficient supply of deliverable housing sites, it is not intended to encourage a housing development 'free-for-all'.
"On the contrary, if the adverse impacts of a proposal can be demonstrated to 'significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, then planning permission should still be refused. Unfortunately, those circumstances do not exist in this case."
- Read the report in full [PDF 3MB] from p26