The site of the former Hazeldens Nursery on the London Road in Albourne is set to become home to a Retirement Villages Extra Care development of up to 84 units following a grant of outline planning permission after one of the first virtual planning inquiries to take place during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The decision is an important one for the retirement living sector, illustrating in particular the importance of a strong case on need.

The development was found to conflict with the development plan which was itself very recent; the Mid Sussex District Plan 2014-2031 having been adopted in March 2018 and the Albourne Parish Council Neighbourhood Plan made in September 2016. It was considered by the Inspector to be up-to-date both as a whole and in terms of the basket of most important policies for deciding the appeal. As a result of that conclusion, and that the Council had a five-year housing land supply, the tilted balance was not engaged.

The development was not considered to be a natural extension to the village, though there would be a degree of community integration from a proposed shop, lockers, electrical charging points and workshops on the site which the public could access. The Inspector also found there to be some adverse visual impacts, though limited and localised, as well as some harm to the landscape character, albeit relatively small and reducing over time. Less than substantial harm at the low end of the scale was present in respect of a number of Grade II listed buildings as well as a small degree of harm to a further heritage asset.

Nonetheless, the conflict with the development plan and harm were trumped by the significant unmet need for Extra Care housing and a number of other material considerations to which significant weight was applied. As to the latter, highway improvements, social and economic benefits, on-site facilities, and freeing up family homes were given significant weight. The unmet need for Extra Care housing was given the utmost weight, placed at substantial. The assessment of that need can be found in paragraphs 81 through to 93 of the decision and is definitely worth a read.

Of particular importance is the recognition of tenure split. In Mid Sussex, the housing market is heavily owner-occupier. The Inspector rightly noted that extra care properties for rent in the District were managed by housing associations and thus existing homeowners would be unlikely to qualify and that the pipeline supply appeared to be all social rented (paragraph 90). A tenure split favouring rental units would be unlikely to allow realistic alternative options for the majority of older people who are currently homeowners and the Appellants’ assessment of demand in terms of tenure, compared with the Council’s argument that tenure split was of less importance than the headline figure, was “more credible” (paragraph 90).

In summary, the decision will no doubt provide pause for thought for local planning authorities who have up-to-date development plans yet which do not consider an appropriate tenure split or where matters have changed in that regard since the plan was made. Just because a development plan has been recently adopted, does not mean that an appeal cannot succeed.

Christopher Young QC and Leanne Buckley-Thomson of No5 Barristers’ Chambers joined a strong team of Retirement Villages Ltd, Barton Willmore, Transport Planning Associates, Newsteer, RPS, Connect Consulting, Kernon Countryside Consultants Ltd, Aardvark Planning Law and Thrive Architects Limited.