An appeal at ministerial level by Barratt Homes against refusal to let the firm build up to 100 houses at Green Pits Lane in Nunney has been dismissed.
The decision follows a three-day inquiry hearing at Mendip District Council’s offices in Shepton Mallet in January.
Barratt Homes had appealed to Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in an attempt to overturn Mendip’s Planning Board’s decision to refuse outline planning permission on 20 August last year.
Mr R. Schofield, an Inspector appointed by the Secretary of State, reviewed the application procedure and heard statements from Nunney residents and members of Nunney Parish Council.
He also visited Nunney on 19 January to orientate himself on the issues under discussion.
Both Mendip District Council and Barratt Homes and its partner firms had legal representatives cross-examining witnesses at the inquiry.
Christopher Boyle QC, acting for the developers, focused for much of his time on the timing of the decision. Mendip’s Local Plan – an important policy document that sets out where new housing is and isn’t desirable – was only recently adopted.
Without the framework of a Local Plan in place in Mendip, housing developers have found little to stop them building wherever they felt like it in the last few years.
The plan was adopted with a few changes. The final plan does not reject new housing development in Nunney – without specifying a specific site -, but calculates the number of new properties required by 2029 at 55 – the construction of one of which has already been approved elsewhere in Nunney.
Although Mendip’s own estimate of how many new houses are needed in the district are currently being challenged in the High Court by another property developer, after brief discussion this played no role during the hearing.
Nadia Sharif, instructed by Mendip District Council, called witnesses including Case Officer Matthew Williams of Mendip’s Planning department to defend the way the application had been refused.
Case Officer Matthew Wiliams of Mendip’s Planning department recommended that outline planning permission be refused. He argued that the proposed development of up to 100 houses would represent “a significant, unnecessary and unjustified encroachment of built development which harms the scenic and distinctive rural character of the site and significantly degrades the quality of the local landscape.”
In his 16-page appeal decision report, Mr Schofield concluded that building houses at Green Pits Lane in Nunney would not cause significant harm to the character and appearance of the area.
He gave significant weight, however, to the fact that Mendip was able to demonstrate that it has a five-year supply of deliverable housing land.
Since Mendip’s development plan is not absent, silent or out-of-date, he concluded that Barratt Homes’ proposal would contradict local housing policy by being outside the development boundaries of Nunney.
The Inspector noted that the sheer size of the development was “significantly over and above” the level of development recommended for Nunney in Mendip’s Local Plan.
Nunney is defined as a Primary Village in Mendip’s Local Plan. This means that the District Council considers that our village and other specified villages offer key community facilities (including the best available public transport services) and some employment opportunities, which makes them best placed to accommodate most new rural development.
Mendip’s own policy documents therefore calculate that Nunney should get 55 new houses, but this is over a period of 29 years. This is based on an increase of 15% of existing housing stock, with 70 new houses set as the upper limit for any Primary Village.
Nunney Parish Council was hoping to get 23 new houses, including 7 affordable homes. Mendip District Council wanted 54 homes to meet its building targets. At the start of 2014 Barratt Homes took everyone by surprise by pushing for up to 100 houses.
In total 61 members of the public wrote in to comment on the original outline planning application, all of whom were against it. Local protests were also held.
Mr Schofield made clear in this appeal decision that although 55 houses could be considered a minimum for Nunney, it did not automatically follow that just because a figure is minimum it must be exceeded – particularly when Mendip was able to demonstrate that it has sufficient building sites available elsewhere in the next five years.
Barratt’s QC pointed out that according to Mendip’s own Local Plan it was acceptable to build a few extra houses “where the most effective planning of sites needed to meet the requirements of individual settlements would naturally enable somewhat higher levels of development”.
According to Mendip this should mean minor increases over and above the allocated figure for a settlement, proportionate to that allocation, where appropriate or desirable.
The Inspector dismissed Barratt’s argument that just because the Green Pits Lane site was large enough to accommodate 100 houses, it was therefore “effective planning” for Barratts to build 100 houses on it.
Barratt Homes then argued that at some point someone would have to build on the Green Pits Lane site if Mendip’s own estimates of housing required in Nunney in coming years were to be met.
Scofield accepted that some houses might have to built in Nunney at some point, but said that this did not mean building on the entire field and building considerably more houses than would be appropriate for Nunney.
Mr Schofield questioned whether Nunney did indeed have the best available public transport services. “Nunney is served by three bus services,” he wrote in his report. “Of these, the 31 is solely for children attending school in Bruton and the 662 is only a single service to Shepton on weekdays and Saturdays, which does not return.”
“The main service, therefore, is the 161 between Wells and Frome. This is an approximately two hourly service, with a three-hour gap between two of the afternoon weekday services. The earliest weekday bus into Frome is 0958 and the latest return is 1920. This changes to 1053 and 1945 on Saturdays, with no service on Sundays.”
“Thus, it cannot be considered that there is either a frequent bus service to the main centres or that the services are convenient for the majority of those who may seek to use them for work.”
The Inspector said that although Barratt Homes had promised improvements, including a contribution to the running costs of bus services near the development, there was no clear commitment in the proposals.
Even if Barratt Homes did make a financial contribution, this would also be limited to the first five years. After which Somerset County Council – already under pressure – would have to foot the bill.
That’s why he concluded that any long-term reduction in the amount of extra traffic generated by the new housing was doubtful.
He pointed out that not that many people in Nunney work in Frome or would want to work there; so even if a new commuter bus service was added, this would be unlikely to make much of a difference.
Barratt Homes had put forward that the new development would have major benefits for Nunney. Mr Schofield appeared to take some of these alleged benefits with a pinch of salt.
He pointed out that it was a policy requirement rather than a bonus for Barratt Homes to create a play area and public park for any development of this size, for example.
Visit Nunney had argued in its submissions to the Planning department that an increase of up to 750 car journeys a day through the centre of Nunney – a Conservation Area – would have be dangerous for pedestrians and drivers, and would have a significant negative impact on tourism and therefore business in the village.
This increase in traffic through the village and at the already dangerous Nunney Catch roundabout proved a major consideration for the Inspector.
He also agreed with concerns that it would not be safe to walk or cycle to the local shop, pub and other facilities from the new housing development down the High Street to the centre of the village.
“Nunney has a good size convenience shop, suitable for day-to-day needs, a pub, a primary school, a pre-school, a church, a village hall and a play area,” Mr Schofield noted. “A post office operates from the village hall for two mornings a week.”
“All of these services, and the limited local employment in the village, would be in reasonable walking or cycling distance from the appeal site.”
“Accessibility, however, is not just about proximity. In this context, I share the concerns of third parties and of the County Council about the nature of the pedestrian/cycle route to many of the village’s facilities.”
He added, “While some day-to-day needs may be met in Nunney, it is clear that most residents will need to leave the village for larger settlements in order to access higher order retail, employment, secondary education and health services.”
“Walking to such settlements, although possible, is very unlikely to be an attractive, regular option for most residents given the distances (over three miles to Frome) involved.”
“Similarly, although it is feasible to cycle to the nearest town of Frome [Barratt Homes] accepted that the busy, high speed nature of the A361 would make it unattractive for many.”
“The alternative route proposed, along Frome Road, is along winding, hilly, unlit rural roads, which are narrow in places. Consequently, although it may be quieter, in my judgment it is not likely to prove a significantly more appealing option.”
The Inspector considered that the loss of agricultural land at Green Pits Lane would not significantly impact on Nunney’s rural setting as such, given that the site is already surrounded by developments on three sides.
Similarly, he was of the opinion that existing residents at Green Pits Lane and Glebelands would have a different view from their homes, rather than having their views blocked entirely.
“Although development on the site would result in a change in outlook from a number of dwellings, there is no reason to consider that a scheme could not be designed that would ensure no significant adverse impacts beyond the loss of the current view,” he stressed.
Significant over-provision of housing
Barratt Homes had applied for outline planning permission, which meant in essence that all details of the plans were up for negotation. Halfway through the procedure, the developers submitted revised plans that changed the location of car access to the development to Green Pits Lane instead of Glebelands, along with changes to pedestrian access.
Mr Schofield said that the proposed housing “would not be located where the need to travel would be minimised and where services, facilities and employment would be accessible from the site by a range of modes of transport other than the private car.”
He added, “I am not persuaded that there is a compelling need or requirement for such significant over-provision of housing above the indicative figure for Nunney [i.e. 55, ed.] that would outweigh this conflict or that the proposed S106 travel provisions would overcome it. This is also a matter to which I afford significant weight.”
The QC for Barratt Homes had suggested during the hearings that 100 houses in Nunney would be beneficial to the village as the population was ‘ossifying’ (i.e. stagnant) and its services and facilities suffering a decline as a result.
Inspector Schofield agreed that new development would bring extra residents and additional spending, did not dispute that Nunney’s population is not growing and accepted that Nunney First School would welcome more pupils.
“However, no evidence was presented that could lead to the conclusion that the overall vitality of Nunney’s community is under threat or that, even if it was, 100 dwellings rather than any other figure would be needed to enhance or maintain such a state of affairs. Consequently, I give this factor little weight,” he commented.
Mr Schofield acknowledged that building houses at Green Pits Lane would have moderate economic benefits and minor biodiversity benefits, but said that the additional housing – including affordable housing – was of only moderate importance to him in his decision.
“I find that the suggested benefits of the proposed development would not significantly and demonstrably outweigh the harm,” the Inspector wrote. “In the circumstances I conclude that the proposal would not represent a sustainable form of development and that the appeal should be dismissed.”
Barratt Homes could now submit a new outline planning application for a much smaller development in Nunney. This would be costly, risky and time-consuming after the failure of the current application, however, while it is also not clear that a smaller development would avoid problems with development boundaries and traffic increases.