A High Court ruling last month considered how alternative sites were dealt with in preparing a neighbourhood plan for Henfield in West Sussex - R (Stonegate Homes Ltd and Littleworth Properties Ltd) v Horsham District Council; Date: 13 October 2016; Ref: [2016] EWHC 2512 (Admin).

The claimants were promoting a housing scheme to the west of the village while the plan was being prepared. Planning officers recommended approval, but the council refused permission following a resolution by members in 2014. The claimants appealed and continued to seek an allocation in the plan.

The plan favoured sites east of Henfield, excluding the claimants’ western site on transport grounds, despite recent appeal decisions dismissing this concern. The plan passed examination and was approved by in a referendum.

The claimants sought a judicial review of the council’s decision to adopt the plan on the grounds of failure to assess reasonable alternatives to the overall development strategy, irrationality in setting the built-up area boundary and inadequate reasons in relation to obligations under the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive.

Mrs Justice Patterson found that reasonable alternatives to the spatial strategy, in particular alternatives to locating development at the east of the village, had not been considered when making the plan. She held that its policy was based on residents’ concerns, rather than technical evidence, that homes on the village’s west side would be further from its centre and so have greater highways impacts.

A 2014 appeal decision for development on the western side of Henfield had dismissed these highway arguments, as had a statement of common ground in the claimants’ appeal. The judgment confirmed that failure to grapple with those findings, or to provide sound evidence for the plan policies, did not comply with the SEA directive obligation to consider reasonable alternatives.

In response to the second ground, the judge held that neither the environmental impact of the built-up area boundary nor alternatives had been considered as required by the SEA directive. On the third ground, she found that, because the plan was in breach of the directive, the council’s reasons for confirming that it met the basic conditions set by government for such documents "were bound to be and were inadequate".

The case highlights the importance of a robust evidence base for plan policies, the role of appeal decisions in providing this evidence, and the onus on councils to look behind examiners’ reports to ensure that plans meet basic conditions.

This article appeared in Planning Magazine on 18 November 2016.