The recent decision in Villages Action Group v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government highlights the need to handle early stage Neighbourhood Plans carefully on appeal.

The Aldingbourne and Westergate Villages Action Group challenged the Secretary of State’s grant of permission for a residential development in Aldingbourne, West Sussex on appeal, on the basis that his inspector had failed to consider the emerging Aldingbourne Neighbourhood plan (or give adequate reasons for dismissing concerns about restricting the expansion of a neighbouring school). The appeal site was earmarked for a school expansion in the emerging Neighbourhood Plan (NP). The NP was at a very early stage – having only been published in first draft after the Inquiry (and so well short of even the start of the local authority publicity period referred to in the PPG).  Reference to the NP by the local authority in its statement of case accepted that it was material but of minimal weight.

The Limit of Reason(s)

Mrs Justice Lang held that the Inspector was not obliged to refer to the draft NP in her decision letter, because it was at a very early stage and attracted little weight, the school expansion idea was hopeless, the documents were not provided to her and little reliance was placed on it at the Inquiry (or afterwards). She also refused to accept that the Inspector had overlooked the NP as a material consideration (despite making no comment on it in the decision).

There are some points to bear in mind on appeal:

  • Unlike planning authorities, the Inspectorate/ Secretary of State have a statutory duty to give reasons.
  • Only ‘main issues’ must be referred to in decision letters.
  • There is no general duty of inquiry on appeal – absent a statutory duty to consider issues, parties must raise issues and evidence sufficiently clearly.
  • The challenge was dismissed, with no error by the Inspector established.

Prematurity vs Conflict of Policies

The judgment implies that prematurity (as opposed to simple conflict with emerging policies) will not be a ‘main/ principal important controversial issue’ worthy of freestanding inquiry or even a real consideration unless the plan is at an advanced stage.  The PPG arguably sets the bar in a different way – preventing prematurity refusal, not consideration per se, where the NP is still embryonic.

As in the Court of Appeal’s decision in the Shinfield Glebe challenge (1), the question could be asked and answered differently – was the early stage NP (and any prematurity effect) genuinely material in the sense that it might have led the Inspector to reach a different conclusion (or was otherwise fundamental)? If so – which is perhaps doubtful on the facts described in the judgment – could it sensibly have resulted in anything other than permission? The PPG suggests not.