Introduction

In 2019-2020, East Suffolk District Council adopted new Local Plans, containing new rural cluster policies. These new rural housing policies provide a more permissive approach to new housing in rural areas, outside of Settlement Boundaries. Since 2020, Planning Direct has won three separate planning appeals concerning East Suffolk’s cluster policies, SCLP5.4 and WLP8.7. In each appeal case, Planning Direct has convinced the Planning Inspectorate that East Suffolk has failed to correctly interpret and apply their policies. All three of the council’s planning refusals have consequently been overturned, with planning permission granted for each scheme.

Read on to find out more about East Suffolk’s cluster policies and the relevant appeal cases.

What are East Suffolk’s cluster policies and where do they apply?

Cluster policy SCLP5.4 applies throughout those parts of the new East Suffolk District that were formerly part of Suffolk Coastal District. This includes Felixstowe, Kesgrave, Woodbridge, Aldeburgh, Wickham Market, Framlingham, Saxmundham and surrounding areas.

The former Waveney area – which includes Lowestoft, Beccles, Bungay, Halesworth and Southwold – has its own, very similar cluster policy, WLP8.7.

Policy SCLP5.4 supports small housing developments (1 – 5 dwellings) within existing “clusters” in the countryside. “Clusters” are defined as lines or close groups of at least 5 dwellings that are:

  • adjacent to an existing highway AND
  • outside of a defined Settlement Boundary.

The policy includes a few other requirements. Most importantly:

  • The application site must consist of a clear gap within the cluster OR have existing development along at least two of its sides (this could be separated by a highway)
  • The development must not extend the built-up area into the surrounding countryside
  • Undue harm to the character and appearance of the cluster must be avoided
  • There should be no harmful visual intrusion into the surrounding landscape.

The wording of policy WLP8.7 is slightly different but its main requirements are the same.

The requirements of East Suffolk’s cluster policies are not especially strenuous. There are hundreds – potentially thousands – of rural sites throughout East Suffolk District that are capable of demonstrating compliance. This includes sites that have had planning permission for new housing refused in the past, especially if this was prior to adoption of the new Local Plans in 2019-2020. Appeal case 2 is one such example!

Appeal case 1: Witnesham

The planning application

In February 2021, Planning Direct submitted a planning application for a new dwelling on part commercial, part residential land located on the outskirts of Witnesham. Having appraised the site, Planning Direct determined that it was able to take advantage of cluster policy SCLP5.4. Following a close reading of the policy, the site boundary was carefully drawn to ensure compliance with all its requirements.

East Suffolk rural cluster policy SCLP5.4
Witnesham application site outlined in red

The council’s decision

Unfortunately, the council took the view that the development did not comply with the cluster policy. They consequently refused planning permission. In the council’s opinion, the houses within the group were not located within close enough proximity to constitute a “cluster”. The council also insisted that all the sites within the cluster all had to border the same highway, which was not the case here. In addition, the council found that because there was no existing development to the south of the site, the proposal would extend the built-up area into the surrounding countryside. For these reasons, planning permission was refused.

The grounds of appeal

We completely disagreed with the policy assessments of the council and urged our client to appeal their decision. Our client agreed and an appeal was promptly submitted. In the appeal, Planning Direct argued:

Firstly, the council is obliged to interpret and apply their policy sensibly, having regard only to its wording and supporting text. They are not permitted to “over-interpret” the policy by adding any additional or alternative meaning to it.

Secondly, we directed the Inspector to the policy’s own supporting text which specifically confirmed that houses within a close group could be separated by garden space. It is only when houses are separated by “fields or open land” that they would not be considered to form a close group. We provided a variety of maps and planning drawings to demonstrate that the houses in our close group were separated only by their gardens.

Thirdly, we strongly refuted the council’s claim that all the dwelling sites within the cluster must border the same highway. This was not what the policy stated. Whilst the cluster must be adjacent to a highway, this cluster could still include plots set away from the road, behind another site or fronting another highway. We provided a variety of diagrams to highlight the flaws in the council’s logic.

Fourthly, we argued that it was wholly irrelevant that there was no development to the south of the site. The site was already part of a developed plot so there was no extension into “open countryside” in this respect. Furthermore, there was already residential development to the east of the site. The proposed development would extend no further south, into open countryside, than its eastern neighbour. Therefore, the built-up area would not be extended into open countryside.

The appeal decision

The appeal was allowed in December 2021. The Inspector agreed that the development was in compliance with cluster policy SCLP5.4 and granted planning permission on this basis. The Inspector’s decision letter included the following useful policy assessments:

On separation of plots within the cluster by gardens:

It is evident that the group of properties identified by the appellant adjoin one another by its respective garden area. Thus, having regard to paragraph 5.25 of the Local Plan, as such garden areas are an accepted form of space between dwellings, the properties are considered to be adjacent to one another.

On the relationship of plots within the cluster to highways:

There is nothing before me to suggest that the properties all need to form a cluster in their own right or that they need to be sited along the same highway, rather that they are a close group of existing dwellings adjacent to an existing highway that contains five or more dwellings.

On extension of the built-up area and visual impact:

The development would largely replace existing buildings and would not extend beyond the existing built up area into the surrounding countryside. Moreover, although not a matter raised by the Council, given the presence of landscaping at the site, the development would not cause significant harm to the character and appearance of the area.

Appeal case 2: Woodbridge

Planning permission refused in 2017 & appeal dismissed

Back in 2017, the owners of a rural dwelling located close to Woodbridge had submitted a planning application for a new home in their large rear garden. This previous application had been refused by East Suffolk Council due to conflict with a former rural housing policy. The applicants promptly appealed this refusal. Unfortunately, the Planning Inspectorate upheld the council’s decision and also refused planning permission.

The new planning application

With the adoption of the new Local Plan in 2020, however, the much stricter rural housing policy had been replaced by the more permissive cluster policy, SCLP5.4. Aware of this change in circumstance, the site owners contacted Planning Direct in late 2021 with a view to submitting another similar planning application for a new dwelling.

Following a thorough site appraisal, Planning Direct advised that their site was within a “cluster” and the development could be designed to comply with all other relevant provisions of East Suffolk’s new cluster policy, SCLP5.4. On this basis, the applicants resolved to proceed. A full planning application was prepared by Planning Direct and submitted in early 2022.

East Suffolk's rural cluster policy SCLP5.4
Woodbridge application site outlined in red

A comprehensive explanation of the development’s compliance with cluster policy SCLP5.4 was submitted to the local council with the planning application. By this time, the council had adopted a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) which provided further explanation of the cluster policy, alongside diagrammatic examples of both compliant and non-compliant sites. We were able to use key extracts of this SPD to provide strong support for our policy assessment.

The council’s decision

Unfortunately, the council took the view that the development failed to meet the cluster policy. Although they conceded that the site was within a “cluster”, they found conflict with other requirements of the policy. In the council’s opinion, the site was not a clear gap within the cluster. Nor, according to the council, did it have existing development along at least two of its sides. The development also required removal of a small stretch of mature hedgerow in order to provide vehicular access to the plot. The council considered the partial loss of this hedge would “erode the semi-rural charm” of the lane, causing undue harm to the character and appearance of the cluster. They also relied heavily on the Inspector’s dismissal of the 2017 appeal, suggesting that the unfavourable comments of the previous Inspector provided clear reasons to refuse the new proposal. For these reasons, planning permission was refused.

The grounds of appeal

We completely disagreed with the policy assessments of the council and urged our client to appeal their decision. Our client agreed and an appeal was promptly submitted. In the appeal, Planning Direct argued:

Firstly, that the comments of the previous Inspector were closely related to the previous local policy. The new proposal sought to rely on the new cluster policy which was incomparable to the policy it had replaced. The 2017 appeal did not, consequently, weigh against the new application.

Secondly, it was very clear that the site was bordered by existing development along at least two of its sides. This assertion was supported by a variety of measured diagrams and map extracts. On this matter, Planning Direct also pointed out that:

  • Although one of the neighbouring plots was located across the lane, the policy’s supporting text was clear that sites could be separated by a highway
  • The council’s finding that the site did not consist of a clear gap within the cluster was irrelevant. This is because the policy requires the application site to EITHER consist of a clear gap within the cluster OR have existing development along at least two of its sides. So it was enough that the site had existing development along at least two of its sides.

Thirdly, the removal of the hedgerow would be appropriately mitigated by new tree and shrub planting. Overall, it would be possible to deliver net gains for soft landscape cover and biodiversity. Planning Direct also provided an appraisal of the existing character and appearance of the lane, concluding that the new plot would appear very much in keeping with its residential neighbours. In this way, the character and appearance of the cluster would be preserved and, in some respects, enhanced.

The appeal decision

The appeal was allowed in March 2024. The Inspector agreed that the development was in compliance with cluster policy SCLP5.4 and granted planning permission on this basis. The Inspector’s decision letter included the following useful policy assessments:

On the site belonging to a “cluster” and the presence of development along two sides:

Firstly, the Council appear to accept that the site is within a cluster and I consider this to be the case. The proposal therefore meets criteria a). Secondly, the appeal site is located adjacent to existing development on at least two sides with housing located to the north-west on the other side of
the lane and the host dwelling and its garden located to the north-east. The proposal therefore meets criteria b).

On the character and appearance of the cluster:

I acknowledge that the proposal would introduce built development to the south-eastern side of the lane. Dwellings are more familiar to the opposite side which is much more developed. However, the introduction of an additional dwelling on the appeal site would overall be very much in keeping with the
character and appearance of the cluster which is primarily residential in nature.

On the loss of hedgerow:

I acknowledge that some hedging and trees may have to be removed to build out the development and provide access to the lane, however, this would just replicate the arrangement of existing dwellings across the lane and any harm to the character and appearance of the cluster would be very limited in
extent. It would not cause undue harm and the proposal would therefore accord with criteria d).

Appeal case 3: Great Yarmouth

The planning application

In early 2022, planning permission was sought for a new dwelling on land previously used for commercial storage. The site was located within the rural area to the south of Great Yarmouth, within a small cluster of both residential and commercial development. The planning application was handled by another local planning agency, with whom Planning Direct frequently partners.

East Suffolk's rural cluster policy WLP8.7
Great Yarmouth application site outlined in red

The council’s decision

Unfortunately, the council took the view that the development did not comply with the cluster policy. They consequently refused planning permission. In the opinion of the council, the site did not consist of a clear gap within the cluster as there was a lack of existing residential development on its north, south and west sides. In addition, the council found that the site did not have existing development along at least two of its sides. The council also asserted that the development would not be in keeping with the pattern of development in the cluster, resulting in undue harm to its character and appearance. Finally, they found that the visual prominence of the site and increase in its built form would negatively impact the landscape.

For these reasons, planning permission was refused.

The grounds of appeal

Following the refusal of their planning application, the leading planning agency contacted Planning Direct – appeals specialists – to discuss the possibility of a planning appeal. Once again, we completely disagreed with the policy assessments of the council and urged the agent and site owner to appeal their decision. Based on our advice, the owner decided to proceed with an appeal which was promptly prepared and submitted. In the appeal, Planning Direct argued:

Firstly, the site was adjacent to residential development to its west. This adjacent development included existing dwellings and their gardens. The council had inexplicably chosen to exclude the gardens in their assessment of this matter. We argued that this approach was inappropriate and contrary to the wording of the policy and its supporting text. We also referred the Inspector to the Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) which directly supported our interpretation of the policy.

Secondly, the site was adjacent to existing residential development to its north. Although this adjacent development was separated by a highway, the policy’s supporting text clearly stated that this was acceptable.

Thirdly, a thorough appraisal of both the site and the cluster’s established character, appearance and visual prominence was undertaken. In light of this appraisal, Planning Direct was able to argue that:

  • The increase in the site’s built form was very modest overall and most of its boundary hedgerows would be retained
  • The site’s existing buildings were part of a varied pattern of development in the area and its redevelopment would not make the site any less in keeping
  • The site’s existing buildings were of relatively low quality and poor visual condition. The proposed development would be of comparatively better quality and would thus improve the visual impact of the site.

The appeal decision

The appeal was allowed in April 2024. The Inspector agreed that the development was in compliance with cluster policy WLP8.7 and granted planning permission on this basis. The Inspector’s decision letter included the following useful policy assessments:

On adjacent development consisting of gardens:

To one side of the appeal site there is garden land behind a row of terraced houses. Therefore, there is residential property to this side of the appeal site even though the terraced houses themselves are around 30 metres away. This garden land and the terraced row extends for a quite considerable distance to the south-west of the appeal site.

On adjacent development being separated by a highway:

On the opposite side of the lane there is a bungalow and its associated plot with further residential properties either side of it. Therefore, although there is countryside to the south, there is existing
residential property on two sides of the site and the proposed development would not extend further into the undeveloped countryside than the existing extent of the built-up area surrounding the site.

    On its impact on the cluster’s character and appearance:

    As existing buildings are already on the site, their replacement with a dwelling would result in no significant increase in built development on the site. The appeal site is next to a road and so, like the other houses in the settlement, the proposed dwelling would line one of the roads running through it. With both bungalows and 2 storey houses nearby, there is a variety of house sizes in the area already. Terraced and detached properties are within the settlement and there is some variance in their design and use of building materials. For these reasons, I am satisfied that there is sufficient scope for the dwelling to be designed such that it would be sympathetic to the character and pattern of existing development in the area.

    On its impact on the wider landscape:

    Given the distances involved and the intervening hedgerows, the proposed dwelling would not
    feature prominently in the landscape. In closer vantage points, the upper parts of existing buildings within the settlement are seen above and between hedgerows and trees. I have no reason to
    conclude that much of the site’s existing boundary hedgerows could not be retained. Therefore, the proposed dwelling would only be partly seen above and beside landscape features. The dwelling would sit appropriately within the landscape.

    What does this all mean in practice?

    Planning Direct is expecting to receive their fourth appeal decision on East Suffolk’s cluster policies this summer so keep an eye out for our next news story!

    Whilst it’s always great to win appeals for our clients, we are also able to refer to previous appeal decisions in support of new, similar planning applications. Local planning authorities are obliged to give great weight to the decisions of the Planning Inspectorate. Our growing repository of East Suffolk appeal wins will help us to convince the local planning authority to accurately interpret and apply their rural cluster policies in future planning applications.

    If you have a site in East Suffolk that you think might comply with one of the rural cluster policies, please get in touch today. Our initial advice is free of charge.

    Or follow the link below to find out more about submitting a planning application with Planning Direct.

    Not in East Suffolk?

    Your Local Plan might still contain a permissive rural housing policy of which you could take advantage. Planning Direct is able to carry out a planning assessment on your behalf. This will include a detailed appraisal of planning policy and investigation of any other national or local planning provisions or circumstances that might support housing in the area.

    Follow the link below to find out more about our planning assessment service.

    Received a planning refusal or appeal dismissal in the past?

    Although a planning refusal is never easy to accept, it doesn’t necessarily mean the door is permanently closed to development. In certain circumstances, a revised application can be enough to overcome a previous refusal. If this is not the case, you should still keep a close eye on changes to national and local planning circumstances, especially new or emerging policies. It is frequently the case that a change in policy renders previously unacceptable development acceptable. If you’d like to discuss your options in the face of a planning refusal, please get in touch today. Our initial advice is free of charge.

    Back to top