Neutral Citation No:  NIQB 22
Judgment: approved by the Court for handing down
(subject to editorial corrections)*
" . develop an attractive and prosperous rural area, based on a balanced and integrated approach to the development of town, village and countryside in order to sustain a strong and vibrant rural community, contributing to the overall wellbeing of the region as a whole."
The Introduction continues:
"An approach which strikes a balance between the need to protect the environment while simultaneously sustaining a strong and vibrant rural community (is sustainable)."
"Planning permission will be refused for a building which creates or adds to a ribbon of development. An exception will be permitted for the development of a small gap site sufficient only to accommodate up to a maximum of two houses within an otherwise substantial and continuously built up frontage and provided this respects the existing development pattern along the frontage in terms of size, scale, siting and plot size and meets other planning and environmental requirements. For the purpose of this policy the definition of a substantial and built up frontage includes a line of three or more buildings along a road frontage without accompanying development to the rear."
Next the possibility of an "appropriate economic development" is recognised. This has no application to the present context.
"Ribbon development is detrimental to the character, appearance and amenity of the countryside. It creates and reinforces a built up appearance to roads, footpaths and private laneways and can sterilise back-land, often hampering the planned expansion of settlements. It can also make access to farm land difficult and cause road safety problems. Ribbon development has consistently been opposed and will continue to be unacceptable.
The policy continues:
"For the purposes of this policy a road frontage includes a footpath or private lane. A 'ribbon' does not necessarily have to be served by individual accesses nor have a continuous or uniform building line. Buildings sited back, staggered or at angles and with gaps between them can still represent ribbon developments, if they have a common frontage or they are visually linked."
The policy states, finally:
"Many frontages in the countryside have gaps between houses or other buildings that provide relief and visual breaks in the development appearance of the locality and that help maintain rural character. The infilling of these gaps will therefore not be permitted except where it comprises the development of a small gap within an otherwise substantial and continuously built up frontage. In considering in what circumstances two dwellings might be approved in such cases it will not be sufficient to simply show how two houses could be accommodated. Applicants must take full account of the existing pattern of development and can produce a design solution to integrate the new buildings."
"The proposal is for an infill dwelling and garage in the countryside. All material considerations have been considered including the comments made by way of representation. On balance, the proposal is considered to be acceptable and to comply with the development plan and relevant planning policies. It is recommended that planning permission is approved.
The case officer's report describes the physical characteristics and surroundings of the site in the following terms:
"3. The site is located on the south western side of the Dromara Road, and accessed via a long laneway known as Burnpipe Lane. There is an existing build up of development along this laneway. There are a number of dwellings in close proximity to the site. No. 17 Burnpipe Lane is sited to the south west of the site, No. 15 is to the north west of the site. Across the laneway is no. 16 Burnpipe Lane and the laneway also serves numerous other properties.
4. The application site benefits from mature natural boundaries, which provides some degree of enclosure from surrounding development. The land rises up to the northern corner of the site, to the south and west and towards the eastern corner. There is a hollow in the middle of the site. The land is overgrown and would appear to be marshy in the centre. Views of the site are restricted to the laneway across the site frontage due to the existing mature boundaries."
The case officer's report was supplemented by a series of slides explained and illuminated by accompanying text which takes the form of the officer's speaking notes for the presentation made to the Council's planning committee ("PC") at its public meeting held on 28 June 2017.
"23 It is contended that as you travel along Burnpipe Lane, moving from property number 11a to property number 17, there is a substantial and continuously built up frontage. Properties number 11a, 13, 15 and 17 all present a frontage onto Burnpipe Lane. Within this context, the proposed site is considered to be a gap within that frontage.
24. The plot layout of property number 17 is slightly different to the others however, in line with recent PAC decisions the garden extends to the laneway and presents a frontage, in combination with the dwellings to the north. It is considered that the gap could accommodate no more than two dwellings and is therefore considered to fit with the exception under Policy CTY 8.
25. The premise of Policy CTY 8 is to prevent the creation or addition of ribbon development. Policy CTY 8 states that planning permission will be refused for a building which creates or adds to a ribbon of development. It states that a ribbon does not necessarily have to be served by individual accesses nor have a uniform or continuous building line. Buildings sited back, staggered or at angles with gaps between them can still represent ribbon development. This is indeed the case along this stretch of laneway."
"25. Policy CTY 8 states that an exception will be permitted for the development of a small gap site sufficient to accommodate up to a maximum of 2 houses within an otherwise continuously built up frontage.
26. In this case the dwellings along the frontage are located at varying distances from the laneway. They do all however have a common frontage onto the laneway. The proposed site layout dated 13 March 2017 depicts the footprint of the proposed dwelling in relation to the surrounding context.
27. The site clearly has a frontage to the laneway and is considered to be a gap within a substantial and continuously built up frontage. The proposal therefore meet the exceptionality test contained within policy CTY 8 and as such meets policy CTY 1.
28. There is a varied plot size to the properties along Burnpipe Lane and the proposed site is considered to respect this. It is contented that the proposal complies with Policy CTY 8. Although the proposed dwelling will be closer to the laneway than other dwellings, it is still considered to be a gap site. A dwelling situated slightly closer to the road will not cause demonstrable harm."
"30. The objectors have raised concerns in that it is believed that the ribbon of development is to the west of the site. The garden of property number 17 extends down to Burnpipe Lane and therefore presents a frontage to Burnpipe Lane, and is included in the substantial and continuously built up frontage. Therefore the site presents a gap within the built up frontage that run from property number 11a to 17."
This section of the case officer's report terminates with the following:
"31. An objector has expressed the view that the proposal would increase the visual linkage between existing buildings in the area and has the potential to create to exacerbate ribbon development. The proposal complies with the exception tests within policy CTY 8 Ribbon Development and is considered to be an acceptable development with all existing boundaries being retained as part of the application.
" The planning unit is of the view that there is indeed a substantial and continuously built up frontage either side of the proposed site along Burnpipe Lane .
There is an existing build up of development along this lane way. There are a number of dwellings in close proximity to the site. Number 17 Burnpipe Lane is sited to the south west of the site, number 15 is to the north west of the site. Across the lane way is number 16 Burnpipe Lane and the lane way also serves numerous other properties .
The built up frontage of development is evident. Numbers 11A, 13, 15 and 17 are located at varying distances to the edge of the laneway ranging from 42 to 120 metres. The curtilages of these dwellings extend down to the lane way and all the dwellings are visible when standing at the site proposed for development."
I interpose at this point the description of the site/location as being 100 metres north of number 17 Burnpipe Lane. Finally the officer's oral presentation to the PC reiterated the view expressed in her report that numbers 11A, 13, 15 and 17 constitute "a substantial and continuously built up frontage" onto Burnpipe Lane giving rise to the assessment that the site located 100 metres north of number 17, was considered to be "a gap within an otherwise substantial and continuously built up frontage".
"The Committee members have a substantial local and background knowledge including a working knowledge of the relevant planning policies and material considerations for this outline planning application."
See in this context Belfast City Council v Planning Appeals Commission (supra) at  .
"The policy does not insist that there has to be a uniform building line with buildings along the frontage being the exact same distance from the road or laneway in order for a proposal to be deemed an exception within the context of policy CTY8."
Mr Potter characterises the Applicant's principal objection to the proposed development as " the siting of the proposal relative to existing development does not respect the existing development pattern" and, from this foundation, contends that the impugned decision is legally incompatible with Policy CTY8. His submission is conveniently and lucidly formulated in the following passage in his skeleton argument:
"It appears the case officer has failed to distinguish between the materiality of alignment in respect of what constitutes ribbon development and the materiality of alignment in respect of the 'existing pattern of development' when considering a proposed small gap exception
The case officer has wrongly conflated the definition of an impermissible ribbon development with the scope of a small gap site exception .
Paragraph 5.33 [of Policy CTY8] relates to whether there is a ribbon development, not the matter of a permissible exception."
While I take cognisance of the fact that, in support of his case, the Applicant relies on certain decisions of the PAC relating to proposed developments in the general vicinity, this reliance has not translated to the formulation of a discrete ground of challenge and I derive no assistance from these case sensitive appeal decisions.
Consideration and Conclusions
"A 'ribbon' does not necessarily have to be served by individual accesses nor have a continuous or uniform building line. Buildings sited back, staggered or at angles and with gaps between them can still represent ribbon development, if they have a common frontage or they are visually linked."
"Ribbon" is an ordinary, unsophisticated member of the English language. It invites no special meaning in the Policy CTY8 context. Both Counsel concurred with the Court's formulation that, in this context, it denotes a strip of developed houses or other buildings.
" . detrimental to the character, appearance and amenity of the countryside [and] creates and reinforces a built-up appearance to roads, footpaths and private laneways and can sterilise back-land, often hampering the planned expansion of settlements [and] can also make access to farm land difficult and cause road safety problems".
This part of the policy is, by some measure, the most clearly formulated.
"An approach which strikes a balance between the need to protect the environment whilst simultaneously sustaining a strong and vibrant rural community."
Policy CTY8 must be construed and applied against this background. This discrete policy is, in a nut shell, a juggling act.
(a) It relates to a site sufficient only to accommodate two houses at most.
(b) The site is located within an otherwise substantial and continuously built up road frontage.
(c) The latter includes a line of three or more buildings along a road frontage without accompanying development to the rear.
(d) The proposed development must respect the existing development pattern along the frontage as regards size, scale, siting and plot size and satisfy other planning and environmental requirements.
(a) Is there a substantial and continuously built up frontage at the location under scrutiny?
(b) Is there a small gap between extant buildings sufficient to accommodate a maximum of two houses?
Focusing on the second of these questions, Mr Potter submitted that neither the vacant site nor that part of it proposed for physical building is "between" existing buildings and, therefore, there is no gap site with the result that the general prohibition applies. In response to probing from the court, Mr Potter clarified that the main feature of this argument is alignment: the site proposed for development is too far forward from, and out of alignment with, the existing buildings on both sides. Mr Potter agreed with the court's suggestion that he was in substance advocating the requirement of a pretty straight building line. He criticised the planning officer's report on the ground that it failed to engage with this issue of alignment.
"In relation to the application before you now for consideration, there is a clear build up of developments along this lane way. This application site is clearly a gap within this frontage. There is a clear line of buildings along the lane way, particularly at either side of the application site."
I consider it clear that in this passage the planning officer was addressing the terms of the exception to the general prohibition. Her presentation continued:
"The policy does not insist that there has to be a uniform building line with buildings along the frontage being the exact same distance from the road or lane way in order for a proposal to be deemed an exception within the context of policy CTY8."
She then reproduced paragraph 5.3 of the policy, unerringly.