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Independent School Development: Clearing the Green Belt Bar in Addlestone

Making the case for building on green belt land can be challenging but it's not impossible. It requires a considered and determined methodical approach, with a keen eye for detail.

Securing planning permission for a green belt development sets the policy bar high, especially when you are making a case under ‘Very Special Circumstances’. This case shows how we helped our clients clear it.

The Brief and the Challenge

The client wanted to secure planning permission to demolish existing school buildings that were no longer fit for purpose and replace them with a new state of the art teaching block for an independent secondary school in Addlestone, Runnymede.

The site for the new block was in a Registered Park Garden, and on green belt land.

We had previously worked on another of the client’s buildings on the same site a few years ago. This was why they asked us to help them with the planning application for this project.

The application proposed to demolish three old, single-storey buildings and replace them with a single, new teaching block. This block would be three storeys high and contain a range of modern facilities, including classrooms, a food tech area and a drama studio.

But the site is located within a registered park garden, within the setting of a number of listed buildings and structures, and within the green belt. This meant that gaining planning permission would be more complicated and a robust case would need to be put forwards to justify the development.

Making the Case

We started off by making the case that the proposal came under one of the exceptions set out in the NPPF for developing on the green belt.

This exception enables existing buildings or previously developed land to be replaced with new buildings, providing the new development wouldn’t have a greater impact on the green belt’s openness than the existing buildings.

Our argument was that the planned new teaching block was sited closer to the main body of the school than the old buildings. This would draw the entire site in, consolidating the built form and reducing the spread of it across green belt land.

Consequently, the development would reduce the overall built footprint of the school, even though the new block included more floor space. We therefore put forward the case that the development wouldn't have a greater impact on the green belt's openness.

Ultimately, the council didn’t agree with our argument and didn’t agree that the development fell under one of the exceptions set out in the NPPF.

Our Answer

Because the council didn’t agree with our case that the development fell within one of the exceptions set out in the NPPF, we had to justify the development under what are known as ‘very special circumstances’ (VSC).

There aren't specific guidelines that set out what can and cannot be considered to be VSC. s Ultimately, it’s a judgement call as to whether the council agrees that the VSC are substantial enough to overcome the impacts the development causes to the green belt.

We put forward a robust VSC case covering several areas to maximise the potential that the council would support the development . The two that the council agreed on were:

  • The educational need to upgrade facilities to meet the needs of staff and pupils, and

  • The business case.

The business case was supported because it’s an independent school. The new facilities would help it compete effectively against other regional independent schools.

By allowing the school to build its new block, the council would enable it to continue to appeal to parents and to attract talented new teachers.

It was by no means a simple process. The council agreed with these two areas for justification but dismissed many other points we made.

The Outcome

The client was extremely pleased to be able to progress with the project for the new school block.

For us, it endorsed the success of our forensic and persistent approach to gaining planning permission.

We knew persuading the council would be tough, due to the land being green belt. But we approached the issue sequentially and consistently.

We tried to argue for the development's appropriateness during the pre-application process. But we also referred to the very special circumstances justification in our statement to the council. We had this as a fallback position.

When the first approach failed, we could switch to the alternative argument.

Making the case for green belt development boils down to applying a high level of detail, being consistent, systematic and not over-emotive.

That’s how we cleared the bar.

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