FIVE key housing sites in north east Somerset have been scrubbed from planning policies following a judicial review.

Mendip District Council identified 37 sites that could deliver additional housing in its Local Plan Part II, which was ratified by councillors in December 2021, writes Daniel Mumby.

Norton St Philip Parish Council launched a judicial review against the council, believing the planning inspector had not followed the proper processes regarding five of the sites – including one contentious parcel in the village.

The High Court has now ruled in the parish council’s favour, meaning the five sites will be removed from the plan, making it harder for development in those areas.

What does the Local Plan Part II say?

Mendip District Council, like all other local authorities in Somerset, has a Local Plan which specifies how many new homes should be delivered across its area within a set number of years.

Mendip’s Local Plan Part I was approved in December 2014, laying out the principle that the majority of new development in the district should be concentrated around its five main settlements – namely Frome, Glastonbury, Shepton Mallet, Street and Wells.

The smaller villages in the district – such as Beckington, Norton St Philip and Rode – were expected to take “proportionate” housing growth to preserve their character and prevent existing infrastructure from becoming overwhelmed.

The plan included a broad commitment that these smaller settlements between them would deliver a combined total of 505 homes over the lifetime of the plan – which, in Norton St Philip’s case, amounted to delivering 45 new homes by 2029.

This commitment was built into the Local Plan Part II, with the inspector identifying five sites in the north-east of the district where 505 new homes could be delivered.

The sites are:

  • Land south of Great Dunns Close, Beckington (minimum 28 dwellings) – permission for 32 homes was dismissed on appeal in October 2022
  • Land near the White Post Inn, A367 Green Park Road, Midsomer Norton (minimum 250 dwellings) – permission for 270 homes was granted in July 2022.
  • Land east of A367 Fosseway South, Midsomer Norton (minimum 145 dwellings) – decision pending on plans for 190 homes.
  • Land south of Underhill Lane, Midsomer Norton (minimum 60 dwellings) – decision pending on plans for 60 homes.
  • Land west of Mackley Lane, Norton St Philip (minimum 27 dwellings) – decision pending on plans for 27 homes.

What did the High Court say?

Mr Justice Houlgate heard the legal arguments at the High Court in mid-October 2022, and published his ruling just before Christmas.

He found the Planning Inspectorate’s appointed inspector had “misinterpreted” the commitment to 505 homes within the Local Plan Part I.

The “legal errors” that resulted within the Local Plan Part II made the council’s decision to adopt it “unlawful”.

Mr Houlgate also ruled that the district council had “misinterpreted” its own policies, engaging in “self-misdirection” over the allocation of the five sites.

He concluded that the council should have sought additional legal advice before voting to adopt the plan.

How has the parish council responded?

Cllr Ian Hasell, chairman of Norton St Philip Parish Council, said he was “absolutely delighted” with the court’s ruling.

He said: “Challenging the inspector’s flawed approach to the local housing policies has not only occupied a huge amount of time and money for the parish council for more than three years, but has also contributed to holding up the Neighbourhood Plan for the parish for a similar amount of time.

“The judge’s decision indicates the consistent approach which we have taken throughout the Local Plan Part II examination process and the court proceedings.

“This action could not have been brought by us unless we had the consistent backing of our residents, who understood the importance of us launching this legal challenge against the district council’s decision. I wish to thank them for their unstinting support.

“We now wish to concentrate on working with the district council and the new unitary authority in progressing the draft Neighbourhood Plan to referendum, and look forward to collaborating with them on that process.”

How has the district council reacted?

The district council will have to pay a total of £60,000 costs following the ruling – £25,000 of its own expenses, and £35,000 to cover costs incurred by Norton St. Philip Parish Council.

Council leader Cllr Ros Wyke said: “We had no realistic option but to follow the opinion of the planning inspector and the statutory Local Plan process.

“We had to do this in order to achieve an adopted Local Plan. Our hands were tied.

“A legal error was made in the direction given by that inspector – who is appointed by central government – and it’s us  that’s been left to pick up the pieces, and the costs.

“To say we are extremely disappointed would be an understatement. This outcome is baffling, it’s irrational and contradictory.

“It’s loaded against local councils and challenges the Local Plan process.”

What happens now?

In light of this ruling, the five sites are removed from the Local Plan Part II – meaning there is less justification for developers applying to build homes on them.

The planning permission for the White Post Inn site will remain in place, since this was granted before the judicial review was undertaken and is compliant with other council planning policies.

The remainder of the Local Plan Part II remains in effect, though it will have to be formally re-adopted by either the district council or its unitary successor.