Travellers site at Pottersheath, Codicote

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Complexities of the Planning Process An On-Going Case

An undecided planning application for a Gypsy and Traveller site at Pottersheath illustrates some of the complexity around the interpretation of national planning policy, as well as the diverse roles of the Local Planning Authority (NHDC), the local Ward councillors, the Planning Control Committee, as supported by the planning officers and the Planning Inspectorate. The law provides for some local autonomy in deciding planning applications, but this often falls short of what those who are most affected would want.

The Pottersheath site is in Knebworth Ward for NHDC and Codicote Parish. It is in the Green Belt and applications to develop it had repeatedly been refused by the NHDC, the Local Planning Authority. Last year it was occupied by travellers, and a retrospective application was made to use it as a site for gypsies and travellers, reviewed by the Planning Control Committee of NHDC in January.

There were a considerable number of objectors, and in my capacity of “member advocate” I objected to the application, as did Cllr Jane Gray, the councillor for Codicote. The Committee refused the application, which went against the recommendation of the officers. This itself is a relatively unusual circumstance: the members of the committee naturally look to the planning officers, who are all professionally qualified, for an interpretation of the complex and extensive canon of planning law. When an application comes before the committee, the officers prepare a report for the committee; in this case the recommendation was to grant the application, albeit for a temporary period.

An appeal was lodged against the decision. As the application included policy aspects, the planning inspectorate decided on a Public Enquiry, rather than the more usual public hearing. NHDC commissioned further work to defend the Committee’s decision, engaged the services of an expert witness to interpret over 1,000 pages of new evidence submitted by the applicant, as well as counsel to present the evidence. Based on this, advice given to the Committee was that the decision made in January could no longer be defended.

However, the expert witness employed by objectors reached a contrary conclusion. At the Committee’s October meeting I, together with Cllr Gray, again supported the objectors, seeking for NHDC to continue to defend its decision at the Public Enquiry. Disappointingly, the Committee decided that it would not make a defence. The objectors were, of course, disappointed by this decision: had this application not been made retrospectively, the personal circumstances of the applicants would not have been taken into account, and, therefore, would not have been able to form the ‘very special circumstances’ required to block inappropriate development in the Green Belt; their expert witness outlines evidence in defence of the decision.

This experience allows us to draw several lessons, which may be borne in mind as other applications affecting Knebworth, such as for The Station Pub, progress through the legal planning procedure:

  • the ‘very special circumstances’ which are needed to justify development in the Green Belt are extremely wide ranging, and certainly include a lack of supply in the NHDC area and may include the personal circumstances of the applicant;

  • a refusal by NHDC is in general not the final step in the determination of a planning application. A well-funded applicant can choose to appeal and have the decision made by a Planning Inspector, who will decide the application on the basis of evidence;

  • the ability to withstand applications for inappropriate development in the Green Belt depends critically on an adequate supply of appropriate sites in the Local Plan

  • when the balance of supply and demand of sites changes in the District, applications which were refused in the past may have to be granted.

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