More than just housing

What the Supreme Court judgment means for employment land

Modern industrial space: Birch Coppice at Tamworth

Turley recently commented on the eagerly awaited Supreme Court judgment in Suffolk Coastal District Council v Hopkins Homes Ltd and Richborough Estates Partnership LLP v Cheshire East Borough Council).

It concerns the effect of Government policy in paragraph 49 of the NPPF and the ‘tilted balance’ as applied in paragraph 14 if a local planning authority cannot demonstrate a five-year housing land supply.

The housing implications of the judgment have been reported and discussed widely because the issues at play were the supply of housing land and decisions about housing proposals, but little has been said about the implications for other land uses.

In this context, paragraph 55 of the judgment is particularly relevant as it states that “paragraph 14 is not concerned solely with housing policy”. It gives an example of a Local Plan’s policies for the supply of employment land “may become out of date, perhaps because of the arrival of a major new source of employment in the area”. The consequences, the judgment goes on to say, require the application of planning judgement unrelated to paragraph 49, but may have an effect on other ‘competing’ policies which may need to be given less weight as a result.

This has two possible interpretations from an employment land perspective. In the example given in paragraph 55, the ‘major new source of employment’ may increase the demand for employment land beyond that in the Local Plan’s policies, placing pressure to allow more development in the context of otherwise restrictive policies. Equally, it could shift demand away from previously protected employment sites which themselves might be more suitably redeveloped for other uses such as housing, but may continue to be protected simply because they are in the plan.

The Supreme Court judgment makes it clear that the development plan remains the starting point, but the assessment of weight has to be a matter of planning judgement, which should take into account changing circumstances and the extent to which policies might have become “out-of-date” even over quite a short timescale.

Research that Turley carried out in late 2015 (“The Land That Time Forgot”) showed that half of all employment land reviews across English authorities pre-dated the NPPF and 57% of adopted local plans were based on pre-NPPF employment land evidence. Whilst this research is now 18 months old, the ongoing tendency to focus on housing evidence as a priority means employment land work inevitably lags behind.

There is an opportunity to ensure that the identification of suitable and available housing sites, especially in urban areas, takes full account of employment land which no longer fulfils the requirements of existing and new businesses, particularly those contributing to economic growth and improved productivity. There is a tendency to call this “surplus” employment land but what it more often reflects is a change in the type and location of land required. Hence, where the supply of the best sites is diminishing due to strong recent take-up and business growth is at risk of being stifled, the local plan should address this positively by refreshing the portfolio of sites (identifying new sites whilst releasing those for which there is little or no market demand).

What is clear is that the datedness of much employment land evidence could lead to challenges arising from the Supreme Court judgement beyond those policies affected by paragraph 49.

The West Midlands employment land crisis

The West Midlands is a region facing both intense housing pressures as well as fierce competition for the best employment sites. There is a legacy of strategic sites from the old RSS including i54 at Wolverhampton (home to a new Jaguar engine plant), Birmingham Business Park, Blythe Valley Park in Solihull, Ansty at Coventry, Hams Hall and Birch Coppice near Tamworth.

Many are almost fully built out and the evidence of recent take-up shows there is an urgent need to identify a new generation of strategic sites to meet the requirements of modern businesses. This is particularly so in the automotive supply chain (with JLR having grown significantly in recent years with further investments planned across the sub-region) and the thriving logistics sector.

A recent report by the West Midlands Land Commission, set up by the new Combined Authority, concluded that “the shortfall of land for employment space is at least as pressing as the shortage of land for new homes, and possibly more so” (para 5.20). They went on to say that a credible pipeline of new sites in excess of 25 hectares was a “prerequisite for the future growth of the West Midlands” and these sites needed “larger-than-local planning and are unlikely to be delivered through the traditional planning activities of individual local planning authorities” (para 5.21).

Whether through a combination of local authorities, the three LEPs or the Combined Authority itself, we consider that the Supreme Court judgment gives added impetus to reviewing and updating the 2015 Strategic Employment Sites Study urgently with an output being recommendations on the number, scale and broad location of new sites.

24 May 2017