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Interpretation of planning policy wording: Consider the context

When does a site “immediately adjoin” another, even when separated?

Although this case turns on its facts, it is interesting to note that a physical interruption or division between two pieces of land may not prevent them “immediately adjoining” each other in planning policy terms. The differing construal of the phrase by the High Court and the Court of Appeal highlighted how interpretation can also differ between decision-makers when exercising planning judgment.

In order to define “immediately adjoining”, the High Court judge considered the definitions of “immediately adjoin”, “adjoin”, “adjoining” and “adjacent”, concluding they were wide enough to include “next to” or “very near”.  She concluded that the addition of the word “immediately” simply reinforced “adjoining”. The Court of Appeal further expanded the definition, finding that in this particular planning policy context, “immediately adjoining” was not inevitably “contiguous” or “coterminous” or “next to” or even “very near”.  Both courts agreed that the Council had been correct to consider the phrase in the context of the proposals and the proximity of the sites in question.

Hands working on development plans

Why Corbett v Cornwall Council is of interest to developers

The case should be of interest as well as a valuable reminder to developers of the approach to be taken when looking at the wording of development plan policies. As the courts agreed in this case, the literal interpretation of a phrase is not always the correct one when it comes to the application and interpretation of planning policy. Policy should not be considered in the same way as statute. It also provides a useful summary practical steps for a decision maker to take when using this approach.

What practical advice arises for the developers reviewing planning policy and development plans?

In the Court of Appeal judgment, Lord Justice Lindblom offered the following summary:

  • Development plan policy meaning is a matter of law for the court, but its application is for the decision-maker.
  • In establishing the meaning of a development plan policy, the court must not construe the policy strictly or exhaustively.
  • The words of the policy should be understood as they are stated and in context.

What happened in the particular case?

Planning permission was granted by Cornwall Council for the construction of a single dwelling.  The Council considered that the proposals were in accordance with development plan policy which was permissive towards development adjacent to an existing settlement.

The decision to grant planning was challenged by Mr Corbett, a local councillor, first in the High Court and then in the Court of Appeal. Corbett contended that the proposals were contrary to planning policy as the development was not immediately adjoining an existing settlement but separated by a road. He argued that the council had misinterpreted planning policy by not applying “immediately adjoining” in its narrowest sense.  He said the planning permission was, therefore, unsound.

The High Court and the Court of Appeal rejected Corbett’s arguments. Lord Justice Lindblom reminded the court that although ascertaining the meaning of a development plan policy is a matter of law for the court and its application for the decision-maker, the interpretation of planning policy should not be approached with the same linguistic rigour by the court as the interpretation of a statute or contract. The interpretation of planning policy wording by the Council involved the application of planning judgment to the individual site and the proposed development. The Council was correct in their approach that the words should not be construed in their narrowest sense, nor be given an excessively rigid meaning.

How we can help

Walker Morris’ expert Planning & Environment team advises on the full range of planning and environmental legal and practical issues.  The team is able to support clients from cradle to grave, offering strategic, risk management and practical advice in relation to projects and real estate/planning transactions, as well as dispute resolution and advocacy services in relation to queries or cases concerning planning, environmental and public law issues, including judicial review applications, court proceedings, investigations, inquiries and other regulatory procedures.

For further advice or information on the Corbett v Cornwall Council case and the interpretation of planning policy, or for tailored advice in connection with any development projects or planning proposals or concerns more generally, please contact Victoria Leam or any member of the Planning & Environment team.


[1] [2022] EWCA Civ 1069