By way of an introduction, the Green Belt policy was established in 1955 with the primary aim of preventing urban sprawl. There are now 14 separate areas of Green Belt with a coverage totalling approximately 13% of England.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has been recently revised but continues the government’s reluctance to allow development in the Green Belt. Paragraph 143 of the NPPF states the following:
“Inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.”
Furthermore, the NPPF goes on to state that “very special circumstances’ will not exist unless the potential harm to the Green Belt by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm resulting from the proposal, is clearly outweighed by other considerations.” (NPPF paragraph 144). The significance of this is that there is not an exhaustive list available to Local Planning Authorities, or other decision-makers, to offer them definitive guidance as to what may amount to ‘very special circumstances’. Ultimately, decisions are based on whether the decision maker believes the very special circumstances of the application before them outweigh the detrimental impact on the Green Belt.
It is worth stressing that a single proposal may have a number of special circumstances, which are all to be considered cumulatively. Therefore, a single proposal may have many circumstances which, when considered in isolation, would not warrant development in the Green Belt but, together, might well do.
Development in the Green Belt is increasing year-on-year. In 2018, 202,700 homes were proposed on London’s Green Belt alone. The following are a number of recent examples of proposals that have been allowed in the South East:
On 19th December 2018, the development of 79 units of care housing was granted in Tonbridge and Malling, Kent. In this instance, the Planning Inspector stated that the lack of five-year housing supply was not in itself, enough to outweigh the harm resulting from the proposal. However, the Inspector considered that this unmet housing need, when taken together with the need for increased accommodation for the elderly, did constitute ‘very special circumstances’ and the appeal was allowed.
An unmet housing supply, when considered alongside a need for improved social infrastructure, was again deemed to be a ‘very special circumstance’ in an appeal decision dated 21st March 2018, relating to a site in Surrey. In this instance, the Local Planning Authority was only able to show a housing land supply of 2.1 years. The Secretary of State was swayed in this instance by the fact that as well as the provision of 258 homes, the proposal also included a new school in an area that lacked sufficient choice of schools.
Circumstances which are increasingly being applied in Essex and the South East are a lack of Traveller accommodation, coupled with the personal circumstances that will inevitably be associated with such proposals. Across Essex and Kent, in the last year alone, three appellants have succeeded on this basis. One such occasion was a change of use involving the placing of two caravans on Green Belt land in Thurrock. The appeal was granted on the basis that the Council had failed to find adequate sites to accommodate the Traveller community and was considered alongside the fact that the failure to allow the appeal would have a severe detrimental impact on the educational needs of the children that were involved. Such a finding follows case law [Wychavon DC v SOSCLG  which states: “It would be impossible to hold that the loss of traveller family's home, with no immediate prospect of replacement, was incapable in law of being regarded as a 'very special' factor for the purpose of the guidance”. This approach has been reflected in other recent appeal decisions.
To conclude, Green Belt development continues to be case and fact-specific and each proposal will be judged on its own merit. However, the examples set out in this article demonstrate how Planning Inspectors are considering the issue of ‘very special circumstances’ to justify Green Belt development in the South East. Furthermore, the upturn in development in the Green Belt over recent years would suggest that such circumstances will continue to be applied as potential reasons for granting planning permission for development in Green Belt locations.