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Very Special Circumstances

posted 26 May 2010, 11:11 by Mike M
Earlier this week I wrote to St.Albans District Council's Planning Department seeking clarification on the un-approved Green Belt development associated with the new Westminster Lodge project.

For background, here is a quick summary of my understanding of this issue based on my research so far:
  • The whole Westminster Lodge site is Green Belt land which, normally, would have very severe restrictions on any new development.
  • However, some years ago, the Council, as part of a development plan, defined the detailed boundary of a section of this land to be used for future sport and leisure development, and this land has already been pre-approved for such development by central government (the current Westminster Lodge building lies within this region).
  • Despite this, roughly half of the proposed new leisure centre building sticks outside of the boundary of this pre-approved area and into un-approved Green Belt land.
Here is a visual guide that hopefully makes all of this a bit clearer:

[I have based the above on PDF58 from the original planning application. Photo credit for the map underlay: Google Maps UK]

Alan Moorhouse, Council's non-political Development Control Manager, has made no secret of this. In his comprehensive report on the new project's planning application (which can be found included in the meeting agenda document here) he states (p43 under 'Metropolitan Green Belt', my emphasis):

[...] Consideration must be focussed, however on that smaller section of the development to the north east which extends beyond the area allocated for the Leisure centre. This is inappropriate development in the Green belt and very special circumstances do need to be made to justify this aspect. [...]

By 'very special circumstances' I believe he is referring to terminology used in Government planning rules, and in particular to the rules in  Planning Policy Guidance 2: Green belts (also known as PPG2). Basically, he's saying in the report that in this case the Council believe that 'very special circumstances' exist to justify the overspill, that he agrees with them, and that it will therefore be OK for them to proceed with the new building (though here at PoolTooSmall I must say we can't see anything special about the circumstances of having to borrow masses of cash to build a poor value-for-money leisure centre based on an inadequate assessment of water-space needs and a stage-managed tick-box community consultation).

However, special circumstances aside, Government rules on Green Belt development (PPG2) state, in paragraph 3.3 (my emphasis):

Section 3: Control Over Development- Presumption against inappropriate development
3.3 Green Belt policies in development plans should ensure that any planning applications for inappropriate development would not be in accord with the plan. These exceptional cases would thus be treated as departures from the development plan, to be referred to the Secretary of State under the Town and Country Planning (Development Plans and Consultation) Directions 1992 (see DOE Circular 19/92).

Given Alan Moorhouse's statement above that this development is indeed 'inappropriate' then it seems to me that PPG2 may be saying that the new project would have to be referred to the Secretary of State. This is why I have written to Alan Moorhouse to seek clarification.

In the meantime, as ever, anyone with any further information, views, corrections or expertise in this area is more than welcome to contact us (I make no claim for professional expertise in planning- I am just a nerd).