CALA decision in Winchester is a shot in the arm for localism in great planning debate, says expert

Out-Law Analysis | 04 Nov 2011 | 11:33 am | 2 min. read

OPINION: The concepts of growth and localism are often perceived as at loggerheads in the Government's approach to reforming the planning system.

A recent decision by the Secretary of State Eric Pickles is being seen by local authorities as a shot in the arm for the localism side of the debate. The Secretary of State refused permission for CALA's 2000 new homes plan for Winchester, ostensibly because he wanted to give the Council's 'Blueprint' engagement strategy in relation to plans for development in the area the chance to flourish.

It is somewhat ironic that it is CALA Homes, the most ardent of opponents to the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies, which has had a scheme rejected in one of the most pro-localism appeal decisions by Mr Pickles. CALA, though, has not exactly won too many friends in Government due its RSS abolition challenges.

The decision is positively effusive in its praise for Winchester's 'Blueprint' localism process, which it described as "a process ... to adopt a bottom up approach that will eventually inform the CS [Core Strategy]".

Whilst the Inspector found that the Core Strategy was at too early a stage to support an objection on prematurity grounds (which the Council also accepted during the public inquiry), the Secretary of State said that "in this particular case it is important to give Winchester the opportunity to complete its Blueprint process".

The reference to "this particular case" seems deliberately intended to give the Secretary of State wriggle room in relation to future decisions. Nonetheless, the decision will hearten a number of local authorities with dwindling housing supplies who are already examining what is exemplar about Winchester's 'Blueprint' process in order to follow suit.

The decision is strongly worded. It describes returning decision-making powers to local authorities as "a key planning priority for Government".

"If a decision was taken now to allow such a significant housing scheme, this would be likely to undermine the work being carried out in Winchester to establish a new bottom-up housing strategy," the decision said.

Despite agreeing with the Inspector that the emerging Core Strategy itself should carry little weight, he gave "greater weight" to the 'Blueprint' process than he did to the need to provide an "assured supply of housing".

This seems to go further than previous decisions on prematurity, certainly in emphasising the importance of the local involvement in the plan-making process. In the often-cited Mesea Homes Ipswich decision, for example, the Secretary of State used less colourful language in describing when refusals on prematurity grounds can be justified.

"There are circumstances where it may be justifiable to refuse permission on [prematurity] grounds," that decision said. This is where a development plan document, such as a core strategy, is being prepared or is under review, but it has not yet been adopted, and where a proposed development is so substantial, or where the cumulative effect would be so significant, that granting permission could prejudice the core strategy. This could take the form of predetermining decisions about the scale, location or phasing of new development which are being addressed in a core strategy policy."

The growth versus localism debate will rage, and there are resources out there seeking to reconcile the tension between the two sides. But for now the 'Blueprint' decision will go down as a win for the localism side of argument.

Richard Ford is a planning law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. A version of this article previously appeared in Planning Magazine