Please Sir, may we have some exceptional circumstances? NO! You’re not privileged enough!

Letter to the Surrey Advertiser…

Dear Sir,
The Guildford draft Local Plan is not logical or sound because it does not set out the ‘exceptional circumstances’ on which GBC relies to make the most drastic changes to the property rights of everyone living in the Green Belt since 1945.

The Green Belt is intended to be ‘permanent’. So the law provides that it can only be changed if exceptional circumstances necessitate the change.

The NPPF states at paragraph 83:

‘Once established, Green Belt boundaries should only be altered in exceptional circumstances, through the preparation or review of the Local Plan.’

The 2005 UK Government Sustainable Development Strategy paper sets out ‘Guiding Principles’, one of which is

‘Promoting Good Governance: Actively promoting effective, participative systems of governance in all levels of society…’

GBC should justify changing the boundaries of the Green Belt by setting out the exceptional circumstances on which it relies inside the draft Local Plan. It has not done this.

The draft Local Plan: Strategy and Sites document uses the phrase ‘exceptional circumstances’ just once . In para 4.123 the requirement of para 83 of the NPPF is repeated. But no exceptional circumstances are cited. Para 4.123 refers to the Green Belt and Countryside Study (GBCS) and states,

‘This will enable us to demonstrate the level of development we consider we could accommodate…’

Note that it does not state that the GBCS has demonstrated – past tense. It states that it will demonstrate – future tense.

The Green Belt and Countryside Study does not set out any exceptional circumstances justifying moving the boundaries of the Green Belt? Pegasus Consulting expressly state at para 18.5 of the Summmary of Volume V of GBCS Pegasus:

“It is not within the remit of this Study to assess whether exceptional circumstances exist to enable major development,

The only mention of moving the Green Belt boundaries that appears in the draft LP is in Policy 10 Green Belt and Countryside where it is stated:

“The Green Belt boundaries can be viewed on the Policies Map. “

The Policies Map is not included in any of the published documents. You have to go to the Local Development Scheme 2014 to find out more about the Policies Map:

There you learn that the Policies Map has not yet been created and there is no timetable for its creation:

‘Whilst the Policies Map is an LDD it is not proposed to set out a detailed timetable for its preparation. The Policies Map will be revised as necessary upon the adoption of each DPD, as the DPD tables below show. The adopted Policies Map will be revised as and when new LDDs, or their revisions, are themselves adopted.’ (Bold emphasis added. No tables below are apparent!)

LDD = Local Development Document (required by law)
DPD = Development Plan Document

The proposed Green Belt boundary changes are not set out on the Policies Map – because it does not yet exist.

The Public is being consulted about potential boundary changes that have not yet been justified. GBC reserves the right to change the Green Belt boundaries at some later date by reference to an as yet unpublished map which in turn is subject to HRA and Heritage Assessments (and still other stuff) which have not yet been produced (or even started?).

GBC should be accountable for its proposals to move the Green Belt Boundaries. It needs to set out its justification now in the draft local plan not at some point in the future as part of some other document which the Public may never look at.
Why is the draft LP conspicuously silent on the exceptional circumstances upon which GBC purports to rely?

I asked a Guildford Borough Councillor where the exceptional circumstances upon which the Council is relying are set out. This was the response:

‘GBC could now reasonably say they have now set out the ‘exceptional circumstances’ in the Topic paper, but of course these should have been available to all councillors BEFORE we were asked to agree to consultation on the draft Local Plan.’

The Green Belt Topic paper says this (at para 2.13) about the purported exceptional circumstances:

1)
‘There is no definition of what constitutes exceptional circumstances, as this will vary from locality to locality.’

That’s not accurate. The Court of Appeal has defined what exceptional circumstances are in this context.

2)
‘Housing (or employment land) need can be an exceptional circumstance to justify a review of Green Belt boundaries.’

In theory it can. But does it? At this point GBC has not yet completed its Strategic Housing Market Assessment and cannot as yet know whether that gives rise to exceptional circumstances, unless it has prejudged the outcome which would make a mockery of the consultation.

3)
‘There is a combination of factors that exist locally that together constitute the exceptional circumstances that requires us to amend our Green Belt boundaries. This includes the high level of housing need, including affordable homes, exacerbated by a significant backlog of unmet need, the lack of suitable alternative land, the general lack of affordability across the borough, issues with housing mix and employment needs.’

That’s an unsupported assertion. It does not state exactly what the exceptional circumstances are either individually or collectively. Neither evidence nor argument is set out to show that affordable homes constitute an exceptional circumstance. There may in fact be no backlog of unmet housing need contrary to GBC’s assertions. General lack of affordability is not an exceptional factor since it is well known that house prices are cyclical. No evidence or logic for Housing mix and employment needs being exceptional circumstances are set out

I made a Freedom of Information request of GBC to discover what exceptional circumstances it is relying on :

‘Please set out the Legal advice taken by GBC in full stating a) the author of Appendix 4 of the document [which I quoted – which has almost identical wording to the Topic Paper] b) the author of the cited legal advice c) the substance of the legal advice.’

This was the response:
‘The Council’s solicitor considers that the advice is covered by legal privilege and that failure to disclose would not be a breach of the Code of Conduct.’

What about accountability to the public during a public consultation? This is a matter of public policy affecting the entire borough. This is a matter of public interest. Legal privilege is a flimsy pretext not a serious argument. Why does GBC not want to disclose this? Other Councils have disclosed legal opinion. Why won’t GBC?

Many people consider that the ‘public consultation’ is a sham. GBC’s failure to set out and consult upon its case for exceptional circumstances reinforces that impression. It has a public duty to be accountable and transparent about its justifications for the radical changes it proposes, changes which profoundly affect the property rights of everyone living in the Green Belt.

Yours faithfully,

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