Under the plan-led system, it has been rare to see refusals of otherwise acceptable schemes on the grounds that they would prejudge the outcome of the plan-making process.
The courts have historically made clear that plan preparation cannot be a rubber-stamp reason for refusal.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) addresses the weight to be given to emerging plan policies, but says nothing about prematurity. The government's January 2005 guidance note The Planning System: General Principles, which survived publication of the NPPF last March, advises that refusal on prematurity grounds is "seldom justified" where a local plan is at the consultation stage and has no early prospect of submission for examination, recognising that the resultant delay in determining use of the land would be unacceptable.
Last spring, the refusal of several housing schemes on prematurity grounds suggested that the government was playing by very different rules. Communities secretary Eric Pickles also overruled an inspector's recommendation to approve developer CALA Homes' plans for 2,000 homes in Winchester. The inspector had rejected the council's prematurity case, since its core strategy had not been submitted for examination, but Pickles considered that its consultation approach should be given a chance. His department's consent to the decision being quashed appeared to accept that it conflicted with the General Principles statement.
This January's High Court dismissal of a legal challenge brought by objectors to East Devon Council's decision to approve 400 homes in Axminster makes clear that refusal of permission on prematurity grounds would be inconsistent with the statement where a plan is not yet ready for formal submission.
A decision from December bears out this approach. Developer Larkfleet's proposal for 1,000 homes at Grantham was excluded from the emerging local plan. Its High Court challenge to the secretary of state's dismissal of its appeal included alleged legal flaws in the inspector's approach to prematurity. But the judge endorsed the inspector's reasoning, noting that the plan had been formally submitted for examination and that prematurity had been weighed as simply one factor in the overall planning balance.
Policy on prematurity concerns the crucial balance between planning and delivery. A loose application of prematurity objections flies in the face of the General Principles and the urgency injected by both the NPPF and the Planning for Growth agenda. The 2005 statement still sets the bar high for those seeking to postpone growth until another day.
R (Save Our Parkland Appeal) v East Devon District Council; Date: 18 January 2013; Ref: (2013) EWHC 22 (Admin).
Larkfleet Ltd v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government; Date: 19 December 2012; Ref: (2012) EWHC 3592 (Admin).
This article was published in Planning Magazine, 8 March 2013.