Pickles' decision to scrap housing targets was unlawful, rules judge

The High Court today ruled that communities secretary Eric Pickles' decision to scrap regional spatial strategies (RSSs) was unlawful.

The judgement is the culmination of a case brought in August by housebuilder Cala Homes, which applied for a judicial review into Pickles’ decision.

In May, Pickles wrote to the leaders of local planning authorities informing them of the coalition Government’s intention to abolish RSSs, and telling them that they could disregard with immediate effect the housing targets laid out in regional plans.

But Cala Homes argued that the communities secretary acted outside his powers by removing a fundamental part of the planning system and claimed that Pickles breached his obligations under European Union law by failing to assess the environmental effects of withdrawing regional strategies and failing to put transitional arrangements in place.

Its challenge to the Government centred on a proposal to build 2,000 homes in Winchester that was rejected in June and would have gone to appeal. But no appeal can take place, Cala Homes argued, while there is an absence of planning policy in the form of the South East regional plan.

In court today, Justice Sales ruled that Pickles was not entitled to revoke regional strategies under existing planning law. He said: "Parliament has given no clear or sufficient indication that that principal [that each region should have a regional strategy] may be set aside by virtue of a contrary policy judgement."

He added: "The revocation of the South-East Plan is likely to have an immediate impact upon determination of planning applications…I consider that the secretary of state acted unlawfully by purporting to revoke the [RSS]."

Ian Ginbey, head of planning at Macfarlanes LLP, which acted for Cala Homes, said: "The High Court has recognised that the secretary of state’s unilateral revocation of regional strategies was unlawful and premature.

"[Pickles’] decision left a policy vacuum, caused confusion throughout the industry and directly resulted in proposals for tens of thousands of new homes being abandoned. Those housing proposals will now need to be revisited prior to the passage of any primary legislation."

And a statement from the Home Builders Federation (HBF) said: "Today’s High Court decision is a wake-up call for the Government to put in place clear transitional arrangements for the move from the old planning system towards its proposed localism-based system.

"The revocation of the RSSs, just weeks after the election, left a massive hole in the planning process and considerable confusion among everyone involved in the delivery of housing."

But Simon Randall, a consultant at law firm Winckworth Sherwood, said: "The court ruling will no doubt be a huge embarrassment to the Government but is unlikely to change anything in the long term.

"The Government is bringing forward its Localism Bill later this month and the decision will be rectified by way of a provision in this bill. Cala Homes has won a short reprieve, but RSSs will no longer play a role in determining local planning matters."

Local government minister Bob Neill said: "This judgement changes very little. Later this month we will be introducing the Localism Bill, which will sweep away the controversial regional spatial strategies. Top-down targets do not build homes.

"The Government remains firmly resolved to scrap this layer of confusing red tape. Instead, we will work with local communities to build more homes. This was a commitment made in the coalition agreement and we intend to deliver on it."


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