A High Court judge has quashed the decision to give the go-ahead for a cat charity’s proposed new Northern Ireland headquarters.
Mr Justice O’Hara ruled that planning chiefs failed to properly apply relevant policy statements in approving the development near Hillsborough, Co Down.
He also found no evidence to establish the Cat Protection League (CPL) facility was required to be based in the countryside.
The verdict came in a legal challenge mounted by a resident who lives adjacent to the proposed Carnbane Road site.
Planning permission was originally granted in 2001 for a veterinary centre to be built on the land.
A decade later the CPL submitted its application for a scheme several times bigger in scale.
It included three conference rooms, 15 toilets, and a cafe. Administration and education facilities, along with rooms for treating and housing cats also featured in the plans.
The CPL had advanced a case of need to justify the development, having outgrown its existing centre in Dundonald, Co Down.
But Carnbane Road resident Gregory Roberts was among many local objectors to the proposals.
Despite its location just off the dual carriageway between Sprucefield and Hillsborough, the road falls outside settlement limits and is classed as being in the countryside.
Even though a case officer initially recommended refusal of the application, planning permission was granted in September 2013.
The judicial review challenge centred on analysis of Planning Policy Statements dealing with development in the countryside and economic development in the countryside.
Predictions that the proposal had the potential to create 18-20 jobs had been taken into account during the process, the court heard.
But counsel for Mr Roberts argued there was no clear or coherent explanation of how planning permission had been granted and by reference to which policy.
David Scoffield QC also emphasised the difference in scale between the original veterinary centre proposals and the CPL application.
He pointed out how an application back in 1994 for an equestrian village on the same site was refused on traffic grounds, contending that the road had not changed since then.
In a ruling made last month but only published on Thursday, Mr Justice O’Hara said it was accepted that the proposed CPL development did not fit within the list of cases for which non-residential development can be approved.
He identified “flawed” reasoning in the Planning Service approach, the judge said the policy documents required exceptional circumstances before a proposal could be permitted beyond those specifically identified.
With the planning officer having considered this was not considered applicable, the judge said: “For that reason the decision to grant planning permission cannot stand.”
He held that Planning Service “significantly and wrongly diluted and minimised the standard by which the CPL application for planning permission was assessed”.
The potential for the development to create up to 20 jobs was based on nothing more than an assertion by the charity, Mr Justice O’Hara said.
He added: “On the issue of cat welfare, I do not accept that there was evidence before the respondent to establish that this facility was required to be in the countryside as opposed to being in or close to a settlement.
“That may be an entirely understandable preference on the part of the CPL but a preference does not equate to a need and no need was proved.”
Quashing the granting of planning permission, he advised: “Subject to appeal, the respondent will have to reconsider this application - if it is pursued - by reference to exceptional circumstances or overriding reasons or an equivalent approach.”