In its first judgment on the NPPF, the Supreme Court has rejected a broad approach to the meaning of NPPF49 (which states that "relevant policies for the supply of housing" should not be considered up-to-date if the local planning authority cannot demonstrate a five-year supply of deliverable housing sites). NPPF49 is one way to engage the 'tilted balance' in NPPF14, but Suffolk Coastal District Council v Hopkins Homes Ltd & Anor [2017] UKSC 37 confirms that relevant supply policies are simply those by which "acceptable housing sites are to be identified and the five-years supply target is to be achieved".

The Inspector considering Hopkins Homes' appeal against Suffolk Coastal DC's refusal of permission adopted a narrow approach to NPPF49 (excluding landscape, countryside and settlement boundary policies from its ambit). Richborough Estates' successful appeal – based on a broader application of NPPF14 to similar policies - was challenged by Cheshire East BC. The High Court had quashed each decision, on opposing grounds. The Court of Appeal rejected the narrow approach as "plainly wrong".

The Supreme Court refused to quash the Cheshire Inspector's decision, despite the mistakenly broad treatment of NPPF49 (including restrictive countryside policies). He was entitled to reduce the weight given to the restrictive (green gap) policy since it derived from “settlement boundaries that in turn reflect out-of-date housing requirements”. The ultimate decision reflected the proper application of NPPF policies. The fact that the development plan period had expired meant the policies were out of date in any event.

The Suffolk refusal was, reluctantly, quashed. The Inspector had correctly treated recently-adopted, narrowly-construed, 'supply' policies as inadequate (and so out of date for NPPF14 purposes). He had gone wrong in deciding that (settlement boundary) policies not 'affecting' the supply of housing should be given full weight because they fell outside NPPF49. Recognising that the policy was largely a function of the failed housing supply policies would have led to a proper consideration of how its weight may need to be reduced to satisfy housing delivery objectives.

The judgment brings several points back into sensible focus. Failed housing supply policies engage the tilted NPPF presumption. Other restrictive policies (and statutory priority conferred by Section 38(6) Planning & Compulsory Purchase Act 2004) are not displaced, though. Planning judgment remains key. That said, adjustment to the priority for restrictive policies (such as Green Belt, landscape, settlement boundary and Green Gap type policies) should be considered where they are rooted in failed supply policies. The judgment is clear that "rigid enforcement" of such policies despite a housing supply failure is likely to frustrate the fundamental NPPF objective of boosting the supply of housing to meet the needs of the present and the future.