Wealden council and landowners go head to head

Ashdown forest
Ashdown forest

A consortium of local landowners went head to head with Wealden District Council in a High Court battle last week over housing strategies throughout the district.

A Judicial Review of Wealden’s ‘Core Strategy’ - the blueprint for development in the district - was brought by Ashdown Forest Economic Development LLP (AFED.) If their challenge succeeds, the council’s housing plans for the next 16 years could go back to the drawing board.

The consortium comprises the Nevill Estate Company Ltd, Baycliffe Limited, the 9th Earl De La Warr 1963 Discretionary Settlement Trust and Birchgrove House Estate Limited. The action was defended by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Wealden District Council and South Downs National Park Authority.

The Review was sought initially after landowners opposed Wealden’s 7km protection zone around the Ashdown Forest which was incorporated into the Local Plan. They say it stifles the economy of the North Weald. The ruling saw small schemes refused, including those in the pipeline such as a new village hall in Buxted and a new rectory. A study undertaken by Property Consultant Richard Thirkell, together with Lawson Commercial, shows no new residential planning permissions were granted in 2013 in North Wealden, continuing the previous year’s trend. A similar commercial property picture emerged with no consents for any net increase in floor space, a direct result of the 7km policy according to Mr Lawson.

The legal challenge focused on the belief the Plan does not provide enough additional housing for the area with the overall requirement of 9,440 falling short of the 11,000 figure they claim is needed.

Representing the council, James Pereira told Mr Justice Sales it was a ‘peculiar case’ as landowners were primarily relying on alleged breaches of two EU directives aimed at promoting protection of the environment and saying the council has been ‘over-precautionary’ in its approach.

In written submissions he argued the group based its drive for more homes on a housing target that is no longer in force since the South East Plan was revoked. He said further information which might justify a higher figure would take several years to obtain and would be very costly.

Representing the consortium, David Elvin QC told the judge the 9,440 figure was ‘irrational’ and the council had failed in its legal requirement to produce a Core Strategy Local Plan ‘in general conformity’ with the South East Plan.

He said the council’s reason for a lower figure came from concerns about increased traffic that would result from extra development, including on the A26 which runs through the Ashdown Forest Special Area of Conservation. He claimed the council failed to carry out extra work deemed necessary before ruling out the possibility that a higher figure would harm the Forest. And they failed to carry out a Strategic Environmental Assessment of alternatives that might have come closer to meeting the 11,000 requirement, dubbing the failure a ‘serious shortcoming’.