As published in Planning Resource on 30 April 2020.

The secretary of state last week allowed two appeals totalling more than 800 homes on green belt sites. Commentators suggest that the decisions indicate the weight that ministers place on schemes’ potential contribution to meeting housing need when considering whether they demonstrate the “very special circumstances” required for green belt permission.

Generations of young planners have passed through the doors of Oxford Brookes University’s Wheatley campus. It is fitting therefore that the site, located 3.5km outside of Oxford, should have been the site of a potentially significant planning decision.

In the second of two important decisions on green belt sites, both issued last week, housing secretary of state Robert Jenrick granted the university permission to redevelop the campus and turn it into 500 homes. Just a couple of days earlier, Jenrick had approved plans for 325 homes and a special needs school in the Greater Manchester green belt in Stockport.

However in both appeals, the most important factor was meeting housing need. Claire Dutch, partner and co-head of planning and environment at law firm Ashurst, said the Stockport decision “swung” on the issue of housing need. Similarly, housing was the key factor in the Oxford Brookes decision, said Jason Lowes, town planning partner at Rapleys. “Even though there was a five-year supply, the fact that there was such a shortage of affordable housing was given strong weight.” While meeting housing need in itself is not usually deemed very special circumstances by councils, said Lowes, it formed a large part of the secretary of state’s thinking in both of these decisions.

Lowes believed that while housing need was probably given sufficient weight in the Oxford Brookes decision to justify consent, other factors were deemed to be important too, such as the benefit of getting rid of the campus’s tower that looms over the surrounding countryside. Burden agreed, adding: “It’s not saying that residential sites in the green belt are up for grabs – you have to look at the special circumstances of the site and the planning constraints.

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