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Planning inspectors were wrong to water down West Oxfordshire Council’s net zero plans for Salt Cross Garden Village, judge rules

Rights and climate collective Rights: Community: Action (RCA) has won its legal challenge to a decision to water down the net zero ambitions of West Oxfordshire District Council in its plan for Salt Cross Garden Village.

Posted on 20 February 2024

A High Court judge has ruled that Government’s planning inspectors acted unlawfully when they said the garden village to be built north of the A40, halfway between Witney and Oxford, did not need to be built to the net zero standards suggested by the council.

She said if inspectors had properly understood and applied national policy, then they might well have reached a different set of conclusions on Salt Cross Garden Village.

The inspectors decided the net zero ambitions of West Oxfordshire District Council applied to Salt Cross were too rigorous in light of a 2015 Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) setting out national policy on energy efficiency, which RCA had argued in their judicial review hearing was out of date.

In a judgment handed down today, Tuesday 20 February 2024, Mrs Justice Lieven said the inspectors were wrong to base their decision on the WMS. She said that error infected the entirety of their analysis.

West Oxfordshire District Council said the village should be fossil fuel-free and 100 per cent of the energy consumption required by buildings should be generated using on-site renewables. It listed specifications for building fabric, energy efficiency and measures to address risks of overheating.

However the planning inspectors, in a report published in March 2023, questioned whether the council’s Area Action Plan policies relating to net zero carbon development, zero waste, green infrastructure, and protecting and enhancing environmental assets were justified, effective, and consistent with national policy.

The inspectors said the standards demanded by the scheme were significantly higher than those required in the 2013 Building Regulations and conflicted with the 2015 WMS.

The judge agreed that the planning inspectors had misunderstood the 2015 WMS and that West Oxfordshire’s plans for Salt Cross Garden Village do not present a conflict with the WMS or national policy.

The judge agreed that the inspectors were wrong to see the WMS as an expression of national policy without recognising that it has been overtaken by law and policy in the eight years since it was made.

She said if inspectors had properly understood and applied national policy, then they might well have reached a different set of conclusions on Salt Cross Garden Village.

Naomi Luhde-Thompson of RCA said:

“This case was David v Goliath; on one side, a community and local council fighting for the most ambitious net zero standards for a new local area. On the other, a developer seemingly concerned only about profit, and a lame-duck government determined to undermine local democracy and local voices.

“As an organisation, we truly understand that the most practical and effective way forward for delivering net zero is through making every local development decision matter on climate change. We want to support local community and local council visions for net zero.

“This judgment affirms what we already know needs to happen across the country. Local action from communities and local councils, developing and adopting zero-carbon plans, needs government support – not nonsensical barriers, which run contrary to everything that needs to happen now, to achieve climate safety and security for us all.”

RCA is represented by Leigh Day planning law specialist, solicitor Ricardo Gama who said:

“The judge has found that the government’s planning inspectors were wrong to hold that national planning policy prevented local authorities from setting climate-compatible energy efficiency requirements for new buildings. The case is a frustrating example of a local authority trying to take ambitious action on climate change and being hamstrung by confusion in central government and so it’s welcome that the judge has clarified the legal position. The government updated its policy in between the High Court hearing and the judgment and the lawfulness of that policy is also being examined by our client.”

Ricardo Gama November 2021
Climate change Environment Judicial review Planning

Ricardo Gama

Ricardo specialises in environmental claims and planning law

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