Legal challenge lost over building on Oxfordshire green belt

photo of a sheep in the middle of a field

In Cherwell Development Watch Alliance v Cherwell District Council & Anor [2021] EWHC 2190, the High Court ruling on 30th July has dashed all hopes of preventing the building of 4,400 new homes on Green Belt land to the north of Oxford.

Cherwell District Council can now go ahead with its plans to build the 4,400 houses that were allocated in 2016 by the Oxfordshire Growth Board, a committee of six Oxfordshire councils and other bodies, following an assessment of housing need and a perceived shortage of houses in Oxford.

The assessment looked at sites with development potential, not just for housing but also for student accommodation. At the time, the number of new homes estimated to be needed by 2031 stood at 32,000 and Oxford City Council called for an urgent review of the city’s Green Belt.

The proposal was adopted as part of the Cherwell Plan in September 2020, and earmarked homes to be built on the greenbelt around Kidlington, Begbroke and Yarnton, and on the site of North Oxford Golf Course. In addition, 30 hectares of agricultural land was reserved for a replacement golf course.

A high profile legal challenge was mounted by the Cherwell Development Watch Alliance (CDWA), a coalition of five local campaign groups, that includes residents’ associations and land owners.

The CDWA brought the case under section 113 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. The group’s claim for a judicial review was on two grounds:

  • a fall in the level of Oxford’s housing need based on demographic growth and affordable housing need, that had reduced by 28% and 34% respectively;
  • the allocation of the North Oxford golf course for development despite inadequate provision for a replacement site, which was described by the CDWA as ‘irrational and unreasoned’ and failed to take into account detailed evidence.

In relation to housing need, Mrs Justice Thornton said the inspector had taken into account the evidence of reduced need, although this “did not matter because the housing crisis remained”. She concluded that this was sufficient to be considered the exceptional circumstances required to justify alteration of Green Belt boundaries.

With regard to the golf course, the judge considered that the evidence was sufficient for the inspector to have made a rational decision. He did not consider the constraints on the replacement golf course to be “insurmountable”. On both grounds she noted that, in law, inspectors have considerable latitude to exercise their planning judgement and were not required to give detailed reasons.

The judge said: “Firstly, it is not wrong in principle, let alone unlawful, for a local planning authority to incorporate in the housing requirements set out in its local plan a proportion of the unmet housing need in another authority’s area.

“Secondly, in these sorts of ‘cross border’ housing need cases, the assessment of unmet housing need in a neighbouring authority’s area is no more an exact science, and may often be less so, than the assessment of housing needs in an authority’s own area. It may be less so because the evidence to inform it may be more limited.

“It is, in any event, a classic process of evaluation undertaken not by the court but by a planning decision maker, inherently imprecise and for which there is no prescribed, uniform approach.”

In response to the ruling, the CDWA said it was disappointed. Its chairperson, Suzanne McIvor, said: “Most cases fail to get to court, so we did well to get as far as we did. We had to show that the decision was not just wrong but taken unlawfully. We faced powerful interests with substantial resources and a system which can ignore both local opinion and rational argument.”

In a statement, Cherwell District Council said: “The court’s decision confirms the planning inspectorate’s finding when the plan was examined; that it is legally sound. The plan continues to have full weight in any planning decisions.”

The CDWA now expects a series of planning applications to be submitted on the sites allocated in the Cherwell Plan. It said there were ‘ominous signs’ that more building may follow on Green Belt in the consultation documents for the Oxfordshire 2050 Plan.