A traveller community has lost a High Court bid to turn nearly four acres of green belt land in north Surrey into a caravan site, after a judge backed the local Council and Planning Inspectorate.
Both Runnymede Borough Council and a government inspector had previously ruled that the group's actions in felling trees, ripping out vegetation and laying hardstanding on the land in the village of Lyne breached planning rules.
This week Mrs Justice Lang, in the High Court Queen's Bench Division Planning Court agreed, dismissing their appeal on all grounds
The 86-strong group, members of the Light and Life Evangelical Church, had brought individual plots of land at Adas Farm in Chertsey from its owner in the years before 2017. Their intention was to live together on the site in their caravans.
After clearing the land of most of its trees and other vegetation and laying hard standing over the course of a Bank Holiday weekend, the group applied for retrospective permission for 13 pitches. This would have accommodated up to 23 households in caravans.
As the local planning authority, Runnymede Borough Council obtained a High Court Injunction requiring the group to leave the land before it considered and then refused planning permission in March 2018. The group then appealed to the Planning Inspectorate which reviewed the Council's decision.
After a 12-day planning inquiry, an inspector found in favour of the Council, but the group appealed again to the High Court. In a significant decision this week, High Court judge Mrs Justice Lang ruled in the Council and Planning Inspectorate's favour.
The Judge also spoke against the group's barrister's "forensic, over-critical analysis" of the Planning Inspector's decision. She said "the courts have deplored on many occasions", such approaches by legal teams.
Protecting and enhancing our environment
Cllr Myles Willingale, Chairman of the Council's planning committee said: "This group's desire to live together as family and friends is understandable but, like all members of society, they have to operate within democratically agreed rules and the law.
"In this case, they did not, and we rightly took action to stop an important section of green belt land being blighted. We are committed to protecting and enhancing our environment and standing up for people in the village of Lyne, where this illegal action was taken.
"Our expectation now is that the group will return the land to its previous legally-defined purpose."
In setting out her ruling, Mrs Justice Lang said: "Over the Bank Holiday weekend at the beginning of May 2017, members of the group went ahead and developed the site for their use, and entered into occupation of it, in breach of planning controls. The site, which was previously predominantly wooded, with a grassed clearing, was stripped of most of its trees and other vegetation, and largely covered with hardstanding."
As part of legal debate during the High Court hearing, the Council's lawyers argued that had the group wished for the Planning Inspector to consider a smaller scheme, they could have submitted those details to the Inspector for his consideration. Mrs Justice Lang said: "The Appellant (traveller group), who had the benefit of a planning consultant, solicitor and Queen's Counsel, all of whom had experience of planning applications, including on behalf of Gypsy and Traveller communities, did not at any stage submit any details of an alternative proposal."
She added: "Since this was previously an entirely undeveloped site, comprising woodland and green space, the Inspector was entitled to make the planning judgment that even a reduced scheme would still require significant infrastructure (access road, hard standing for pitches, structures etc), and would cause unacceptable harm to the green belt, which would not be outweighed by any of the other considerations, including inter aliathe personal circumstances of members of the group.
"It is apparent that the Inspector gave careful and conscientious consideration to the personal circumstances of the members of the Group, both on an individual basis and collectively."
The group now has 21 days from the date of the Judge's ruling (28/1/2020) to apply for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal.