A review of the recent 'special measures' case referred to the Secretary of State.

Less than a year after the introduction of the government's 'special measures' regime for poorly performing local planning authorities via the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, the secretary of state has determined the first planning application submitted directly to him.

This process bypassed the proposal being decided at local level by Blaby District Council.

Section 62A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, which came into force on 1 October 2013, enables applicants to apply directly to the secretary of state to determine applications for major development where the local planning authority for the area has been designated as being in special measures. The procedure demonstrates the tensions between the government’s localism policy and its efforts to put in place mechanisms aimed at speeding up the delivery of housing.

In this case, Gladman Developments applied to the secretary of state to determine its outline application for 220 new homes, a school drop-off and pick-up zone and associated infrastructure in Blaby in Leicestershire. The site was agricultural land lying outside the settlement policy boundary. The application was made on 23 April and the secretary of state’s decision was issued on 22 July, following a hearing on 17 June.

The application was refused on five separate grounds, including conflict with local authority planning policies seeking to promote sustainable development within or adjacent to Leicestershire’s principal urban area. The inspector took the view that the proposal would result in unsustainable out-commuting patterns and thus conflict with the principle of promoting a reduction in travel.

He considered that the development would fail to preserve or enhance the character or appearance of local heritage assets and would not reflect the distinctive character of the area. He also found that it would result in the loss of high-quality agricultural land, with the applicant failing to justify the need for the development in that context.

Under the special measures route applicants have no right of appeal, as would usually be the case for applications determined at local level. The new procedure demonstrates that an application for major development can certainly be determined on a quicker timescale – within three months in the Blaby case – than a scheme of this size might usually be considered by a local planning authority.

So far, this is the only application to have taken advantage of the new section 62A procedure. Regardless of the speed within which the application was decided, one has to question whether this route provides developers with a genuine alternative to working with local authorities in ensuring that development is acceptable at the local level and essentially waiving their right to appeal.

This article appeared in Planning magazine, 29 August 2014