South Ribble Borough Council rejected a bid by developer Wainhomes for the dwellings on land off Chain House Lane just over 12 months ago. The housebuilder appealed to a government planning inspector who upheld the authority’s original decision.
However, the firm then took the matter to court, where the conclusion of the inspector was found to be partially flawed - and quashed.
The decision does not mean that estate will automatically be built - but Wainhomes’ appeal against South Ribble’s refusal of their application will now be considered at a fresh public inquiry overseen by a different inspector.
South Ribble’s cross-party planning committee had originally refused the application because the Chain House Lane plot was part of the borough's bank of “safeguarded” land - areas currently protected from development, but which may be released for building at a later date.
Council leader Paul Foster said he was “disappointed” by the judge’s findings - and that the authority was confident that its position was correct.
“We are ready and prepared to defend our decision and will do so now through the formal channels.
“We want to make it absolutely clear that as a council we are pro-development – but only when done in the right way and in a way that is of benefit to our residents and the wider South Ribble community,” Cllr Foster added.
The court ruling could also have implications for a long-running wrangle over a series of proposals for more than 900 homes in Preston - many in the villages to the rural north of the city.
The planning inspector’s decision in the Chain House Lane case last December dealt with the complex issue of the way annual housing targets are both calculated and also shared between Preston, South Ribble and Chorley councils under an arrangement dating back almost a decade.
Revised planning legislation introduced last year stated that housing numbers should ordinarily be based on the so-called “standard method” of calculation - a process which yielded a lower combined total across the whole of Central Lancashire than was the case when the three district councils first entered into their target-sharing agreement back in 2012.
That new total - of 1,026 properties per year - stands in contrast to the 1,341 required when the authorities first began co-operating on housing eight years ago and jointly developed a document called the “core strategy”.
The planning inspector’s ruling and the high court judgement both hinged on which of the two totals Central Lancashire is now obliged to follow.
Ordinarily, the core strategy agreement would be considered out of date, because it is over five years old - meaning the lower standard method figure would apply.
However, the three neighbouring districts reassessed their housing needs in 2017 - and although they concluded at the time that Central Lancashire needed 1,184 new dwellings a year, they agreed to continue with the higher core strategy figure and the way in which they had redistributed it between them. Under that arrangement, Preston was required to build 507 homes per year and South Ribble and Chorley 410 each.
That became a key issue at both the planning inquiry and during the high court case, because if the 2017 assessment was found to constitute a formal “review” of housing needs, then the otherwise out-of-date core strategy would take priority over the newly-introduced standard method for a period of five years.
Under the higher housing target, Wainhomes argued that South Ribble could not show that it had a rolling five years’ worth of land available to meet its housing needs - as all councils are obliged to do by the government. That would have meant that even safeguarded land like the Chain House Lane plot became available for building unless granting planning permission would “significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits”.
However, the inspector - Susan Hunt - concluded that the housing market exercise carried out in Central Lancashire in 2017 fell short of a formal review - meaning South Ribble could hold itself to a lower target and demonstrate that it had sufficient housing sites available.
In his High Court ruling, Mr. Justice Dove found “errors” in elements of her decision - and concluded that two of the five grounds for her conclusions were not sound.
He ruled that Ms. Hunt’s reasoning had been “unclear and unlawful” when she decided that there had not been a review of the relevant policies three years ago - both because the entirety of the core strategy did not have to be reassessed to constitute such a review and also because a subsequent statement by the three councils indicated that it had been fully re-examined in any case.
On a second point - which had already been conceded by the government, leading to them not defending their inspector in the case - Mr. Justice Dove found that Ms.Hunt had not properly considered the impact of applying the standard method on the distribution of new dwellings between the three councils and the fact that it rendered South Ribble’s policy on safeguarded land out of date as a result.
The authorities have since agreed a new “memorandum of understanding” addressing that point and redistributing the total between them to reflect their own safeguarded land and greenbelt positions - but this was only an “emerging policy” at the time of the inspector's ruling, Mr. Justice Dove said.
While he found in favour of the inspector on three other grounds, he said that this conclusion was that the decision must be quashed.
Cllr Bill Evans, South Ribble’s cabinet member for planning, said that was “important to note that the overturning of the decision of the planning inspectorate in this case was not on the basis of planning merits or policy - it was on the basis of the process taken to reach the decision by the planning inspector.”
Wainhomes was approached for comment.
Jean Berry, who has led a campaign opposing the Cain House Lane development for the past two years, said that success in a similar fight over a site off nearby Coote Lane gives her hope - in spite of the setback of the High Court ruling.
“That area is still a field, so I know it can be done. People say that we've got no chance once a planning application has gone in - they think that’s it and we’ve had it.
“But I know different and these fights can be won.
“We appear to be losing so much of our green areas within the area and it is totally changing its character from rural or semi-rural to the urban sprawl off Preston. It is in an inappropriate site as it is nearly a mile away from any shops or services.
“I’m just glad that people are now starting to see that it’s not our councils who are the ogres in this situation - they are opposed to the development, too,” Ms. Berry added.
HOW COULD THIS AFFECT PRESTON?
At an appeal case in 2018 which overturned a decision by Preston City Council to refuse permission for two developments in Broughton, the authority's planners conceded that they did not have the five-year land supply needed to build their then minimum housing target of 507 properties per year.
As a result, the council was forced over the next 18 months to approve a slew of bids to build on land not reserved for housing in its local plan – mostly in villages to the north of the city.
The decision by the planning inspector in the Chain House Lane case clarified that the three Central Lancashire authorities could rely on a lower housing target arrived at under the new “standard method” of calculation. For Preston, this resulted in a new annual target of 410 after an agreed redistribution with its neighbours.
Crucially, that enabled the authority to show that it had a five-year supply of housing land available.
Many of the most controversial approved proposals for development had been left in limbo for 12 months by an attempt by Wyre and Preston North MP Ben Wallace to have them “called in” by the government.
That meant that the city council had the opportunity to bring them back before its planning committee in February this year, where nine of them - totalling 944 proposed dwellings [see below] - were refused on the basis of the planning inspector’s decision in the Chain House Lane case.
At the time of the rethink, two of the developers whose applications had been rejected told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that the authority had not issued the formal “decision notice” on the refusals, pending the outcome of the High Court case between Wainhomes and South Ribble.
Preston City Council did not comment directly on that matter at that point, stating only that it would “continue to take the conclusions drawn from the [South Ribble] appeal into account when determining planning applications, unless and until the decision is set aside by the High Court”.
In response to the High Court now making such a ruling, the authority’s cabinet member for planning, Peter Moss, said: “This situation clearly demonstrates the complexity of the planning process.
“The judgement made by the High Court is not based on the merits, or faults, of the planning decision by the local planning authority. It is based on the contents of the inspector’s report. We stand by South Ribble, as we believe they have taken the correct approach.”
Preston site list
These are the nine applications originally passed and then rejected by Preston City Council’s planning committee – based on the planning inspectorate decision over the proposed Chain House Lane development which has now been successfully challenged in the High Court:
Land at Cardwell Farm, Garstang Road, Barton – 151 properties
Land north of Whittingham Lane, Goosnargh – 145 properties
Bushells Farm, Mill Lane, Preston – 140 properties
Land to the north of Jepps Lane, Barton – 125 properties
Land to the rear of 126A Whittingham Lane, Broughton – 111 properties
Land north east of Swainson Farm, Goosnargh Lane – 87 properties
Land south of Whittingham Lane, Goosnargh – 80 properties
Land at 826 Whittingham Lane and land to the south/rear of Chingle Hall Cottage – 65 properties
Land at Swainson Farm, Goosnargh Lane – 40 properties
CENTRAL LANCASHIRE'S HOUSEBUILDING TARGETS
Under a new "memorandum of understanding" agreed between the the area's three councils in March this year, this is how many homes each district has to see built every year:
PRESTON - 410
SOUTH RIBBLE - 334
CHORLEY - 282
The three authorities are also continuing to work on the creation of their first joint local plan - a document which helps determine development across an area. It is due to be adopted in by the end of 2023.