Regional plans: developers challenge Pickles in court

The scrapping of regional strategies has been over-ruled by the courts, for now, but confusion continues with many planning decisions now open to challenge
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Property developers are seeking clarity from the courts

Local authorities are facing a wave of planning appeals as the construction industry continues to challenge the government's abolition of regional plans.

Last month, a challenge brought by house builder Cala Homes saw the High Court rule that the government's abolition of regional plans was illegal.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles was quick to play down the impact of the ruling, saying that the judgement changed very little and that the government remains resolved to scrap "this layer of confusing red tape", adding that the localism bill would "sweep away the controversial regional strategies".

The government's head planner Steve Quartermain wrote to local authorities after the High Court ruling, to reiterate this advice.

But the government's take on the ruling is being widely disputed within the industry. Cala has launched a further legal challenge seeking to overturn Pickles' latest advice and the court has since issued an order overruling the government until Cala's latest case can be heard.

Ian Ginbey, head of planning at commercial law firm Macfarlanes, which acted for Cala on its challenge, says: "We are seeking to restore some clarity to the planning framework. We are of the view that decision makers should not have regard to a mere intention to change the law at some indeterminate point in the future.

"The court has agreed with this approach, pending a full legal hearing into the lawfulness of the secretary of state's statement and the chief planner's advice. As such, until the outcome of that hearing is announced, it is clear that decision makers should have full regard to regional strategies as part of the statutory development plan."

Advice to local authorities

The situation is now one of confusion. Regional strategies have been reinstated, but are still due to be scrapped, and the government insists that little has changed. Meanwhile, lawyers are warning that recent planning decisions are now open to challenge. The Planning Inspectorate has begun examining cases to see which will be affected, and has also issued advice to local authorities.

The implications of the ruling will differ depending on several factors; the progress that had been made on the regional plan in the given region, the attitude taken by the local authority since Pickles' announcement and, in individual planning decisions, the reliance placed upon the regional plan or lack of it.

Councils in areas which have an adopted regional strategy will be most affected by the ruling. Stuart Andrews, head of planning at commercial law firm Eversheds, says: "Regardless of what the government may suggest, in an area where you have an adopted regional strategy it is the first port of call for decision making.

"Local authorities that have abandoned the regional strategy are undoubtedly going to face a barrage of speculative applications and appeals."

The ruling will also affect planning decisions due to be made before the localism and decentralisation bill can be introduced, potentially tipping the balance in favour of developers in areas where housing proposals are hotly contested.

Shift in planning balance

Matthew Spry, director at planning consultancy Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners, says: "For applications where a determination will be made before the localism bill becomes law, and where the decision turns on housing numbers, this ruling represents an important shift in the planning balance in favour of the development."

The latest challenge from Cala adds a further air of uncertainty, as councils and developers wait for yet another clarification as to the state of the planning system. In the meantime, local authorities face an increasingly difficult task in making decisions.

Andrews suggests the next few months will be a trying time: "The Cala challenge will have a significant impact and the government is misleading itself to suggest it will do anything else. You wouldn't want to be a local authority trying to cope with the situation."

Mark Wilding is senior reporter on Property Week

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