Planning committees that resolve to approve planning applications against officers’ recommendations need to be careful not to fall foul of a JR if their reasoning is inadequate. The risks are particularly high in EIA cases and where there are other sensitive elements. Although Laws LJ described it as an “unusual case”, R (CPRE Kent) v Dover District Council & China Gateway International Limited (Court of Appeal, 14 September 2016) should be a watchword for caution.
The Court of Appeal quashed an LPA’s decision, taken contrary to officers’ advice, to approve a scheme for major development in the Kent Downs AONB. It was said to be uncontentious between the parties that “the scale of the proposed development is unprecedented in an AONB”. Officers had recommended that the scheme would only be acceptable with changes to its layout, which the applicant claimed would make the scheme unviable. The officers’ report analysed the issues in detail and set out out the policy tests in paragraphs 115 and 116 of the NPPF:
“115. Great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in… Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty…
116. Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated that they are in the public interest. Consideration of such applications should include an assessment of:
The need for the development, including in terms of any national considerations, and the impact of permitting it, or refusing it, upon the local economy;
The cost of, and scope for, developing elsewhere outside the designated area, or meeting the need for it in some other way;
Any detrimental effect on the environment, the landscape and recreational opportunities and the extent to which that could be moderated.”
The members’ reasoning for disagreeing with their officers’ recommendation was briefly summarised in the committee minutes, referring to the benefits flowing from the development, the belief that harm could be minimised with effective screening and concluding that the advantages outweighed the harmful impact on the AONB.
The Court of Appeal summarised the relevant law on the standard of reasoning required of a decision maker, setting out the classic passage from South Bucks v Porter (No 2) (2004):
“36. The reasons for a decision must be intelligible and they must be adequate. They must enable the reader to understand why the matter was decided as it was and what conclusions were reached on the ‘principal important controversial issues’, disclosing how any issue of law or fact was resolved. Reasons can be briefly stated, the degree of particularity required depending entirely on the nature of the issues falling for decision. The reasoning must not give rise to a substantial doubt as to whether the decision-maker erred in law, for example by misunderstanding some relevant policy or some other important matter or by failing to reach a rational decision on relevant grounds. But such adverse inference will not readily be drawn. The reasons need refer only to the main issues in the dispute, not to every material consideration. They should enable disappointed developers to assess their prospects of obtaining some alternative development permission, or, as the case may be, their unsuccessful opponents to understand how the policy or approach underlying the grant of permission may impact upon future such applications. Decision letters must be read in a straightforward manner, recognising that they are addressed to parties well aware of the issues involved and the arguments advanced. A reasons challenge will only succeed if the party aggrieved can satisfy the court that he has genuinely been substantially prejudiced by the failure to provide an adequately reasoned decision.”
The court referred to the recent judgment by Lang J in R (Hawksworth Securities plc) v Peterborough City Council (Lang J, 26 July 2016) where she had taken a light-touch approach to scrutiny of LPA decisions partly on the perhaps weak basis that it would be “unduly onerous to impose a duty to give detailed reasons…given the volume of applications to be processed”. The court didn’t suggest that her reasoning was “wrong in principle” but that “Lang J’s approach needs to be treated with some care. Interested parties (and the public) are just as entitled to know why the decision is as it is when it is made by the authority as when it is made by the Secretary of State”.
The court drew attention to features of the Dover case which pointed away from her approach:
– the nature of the development proposed as against the AONB policy tests
– the fact that the committee was departing from the officers’ recommendation, meaning that it should, “if but briefly”, engage with the officers’ reasoning
– the fact that here there was a statutory duty to give reasons by virtue of Regulation 24(1) of the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011 .
On the facts it was held that the reasoning was not adequate to show whether the Committee had accepted the officers’ assessment of the harm that would be caused, whether the Committee had gone wrong in carrying out a balancing exercise of harm versus benefits (which would not be sufficient to meet the policy tests) or how any screening would make a substantial difference. End of permission.
A few concluding comments:
1. An applicant in the happy position of having persuaded a committee to approve an application in the face of an officers’ recommendation to refuse should make sure that the committee’s reasoning is sufficient to address the main elements of the officers’ recommendations. Often this will not necessarily be the case. For example, at its most basic, varying approaches are taken by authorities as to the brevity of their minutes. If in doubt, err on the side of a full record of what was said. It is odd that many authorities still do not record debates digitally or make them available for subsequent scrutiny as a matter of course.
2. No reference was made in the judgment to the statutory duty on decision makers in section 85 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, in exercising or performing any functions in relation to, or so as to affect, land in an AONB, to “have regard to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the area of outstanding natural beauty”. It is a very broad test and I assume the court and the parties took the position that it was automatically met if the NPPF policy tests in paragraphs 115 and 116 were met.
3. Regulation 24(1) of the EIA Regulations 2011 is one of many elephant traps in the planning system:
“Where an EIA application is determined by a local planning authority, the authority shall—
(a)in writing, inform the Secretary of State of the decision;
(b)inform the public of the decision, by local advertisement, or by such other means as are reasonable in the circumstances; and
(c)make available for public inspection at the place where the appropriate register (or relevant section of that register) is kept a statement containing—
(i)the content of the decision and any conditions attached to it;
(ii)the main reasons and considerations on which the decision is based including, if relevant, information about the participation of the public;
(iii)a description, where necessary, of the main measures to avoid, reduce and, if possible, offset the major adverse effects of the development; and
(iv)information regarding the right to challenge the validity of the decision and the procedures for doing so.”
These requirements are easy to overlook.
4. Laws LJ concluded his judgment by remarking that the “scale of the proposed development is unprecedented in an AONB”. If I can be permitted a partizan remark, he would do well to see the implications of HS2 for the Chilterns AONB, in relation to which I would argue that the Commons Select Committee’s 22 February 2016 conclusions were inadequate…
Simon Ricketts, 16.9.16
Personal views, et cetera