Community open spaces and leisure facilities are heavily protected by planning law. However, as a High Court ruling showed, even they must sometimes make way for strategic developments that are considered to serve the wider public interest.
The case concerned planning permission granted for the replacement of a football club's stadium. On the site of the existing stadium, 219 homes would be built, at least a third of them affordable. However, the proposal would involve the loss of a synthetic grass football pitch which had proved an asset of real value to local people who were cooped up at home during COVID-19 lockdown periods.
A planning officer's report, on which the council based its decision, noted that it was only in 2018 that the pitch was opened to the public for informal play and recreation. It was in poor condition and a modern, multi-functional kickabout pitch would be provided in part substitution. The report stated that the new facility, although much smaller, would amount to a positive improvement.
Dismissing a local resident's judicial review challenge to the permission, the Court noted that the overall development was of significant strategic importance. The pitch is classified as Metropolitan Open Land and enjoys the same high level of planning protection as the Green Belt. The local authority, however, found that there were very special circumstances justifying its loss.
The Court rejected arguments that the planning officer's report made a mistake of fact when it noted that there was no open space deficiency in the area. That assertion rested on a hyper-critical reading of one passage in the report, which merely pointed out to councillors that there were other open spaces in the area that could also be used for informal recreation.
The council took proper account of planning policies designed to protect open and recreational public spaces. It acknowledged that the development was in conflict with the development plan as a whole but went on to conclude that the significant benefits of the proposal justified a grant of planning permission.
It was further argued that, in reaching its decision, the council failed to comply with the Public Sector Equality Duty enshrined in the Equality Act 2010. There was evidence that the pitch was particularly well used by members of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community. However, the Court found on the evidence that, in substance, the council had due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity between those sharing protected characteristics.