A case last month arising from a howler of a permission for the erection of three marquees in the grounds of a hotel, a permission that was intended to be temporary but was issued without any condition to that effect, has potentially created a real mess.
Pretty much the main thing that the commercial and financial world always wants from any consenting or licensing system, and certainly the planning system, is certainty as to when any necessary consent or licence, such as a planning permission, is free from legal challenge. Central to the legal due diligence work in relation to any operational business with a bricks and mortar presence, for instance in connection with its financing or acquisition, and certainly in relation to any property or development financing or acquisition, will be the need to report on the operative planning permissions and whether they are now beyond risk of being quashed by the courts. Once the judicial review period has passed, it is assumed that a permission can safely be relied upon, money can be lent or invested, properties or companies can be acquired. If the judicial review period has not yet expired, transactions will often be made conditional on its expiry without proceedings having been commenced.
Judicial review periods are deliberately short so that we can all safely rely on public bodies’ decisions after a relatively short period. Compared with the six or twelve years’ limitation periods that are common in private law, the traditional principle in relation to judicial review is that proceedings must be brought promptly and in any event not later than three months after the grounds upon which the claim is based first arose (Civil Procedure Rules Part 54.4).
In our planning world, time limits are usually even tighter:
– In relation to statutory challenges, for instance under section 288 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 for challenges of decisions of the Secretary of State and his inspectors on planning appeals and called-in planning applications, or under section 113 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 for challenges of adopted development plans, the relevant time limit is six weeks.
– Since 2013, the deadline for bringing judicial review proceedings in relation to other matters arising under the Planning Acts (care needed over that definition) is six weeks.
But it isn’t quite as easy as assuming that, if these deadlines have passed, the relevant decision is free from any risk of judicial review. CPR rule 3.1 (2) (a) gives judges some discretion. Except where the rules provide otherwise, the court may “extend or shorten the time for compliance with any rule, practice direction or court order (even if an application for extension is made after the time for compliance has expired)“.
A separate form needs to be submitted with the claim, asking for a time extension and explaining why it is justified. The Administrative Court Judicial Review Guide states:
“The Court will require evidence explaining the delay. The Court will only extend time if an adequate explanation is given for the delay, and if the Court is satisfied that an extension of time will not cause substantial hardship or prejudice to the defendant or any other party, and that an extension of time will not be detrimental to good administration.”
The Court of Appeal last year in Connors and others v Secretary of State (17 November 2017) stressed the extent to which the onus is on the claimant to justify being allowed to bring a claim out of time and waiting to learn the outcome of another case was not a sufficient ground:
“In the context of planning decision-making, this court has made it very clear that the exercise of judicial discretion to permit very late challenges to proceed by way of claims for judicial review will rarely be appropriate – regardless of whether the claimant has had available to him and acted upon legal advice (see the judgment of Sales L.J., with whom Lord Dyson M.R. and Tomlinson L.J. agreed, in R. (on the application of Gerber) v Wiltshire Council  1 W.L.R. 2593, at paragraphs 45 to 58).”
R (Gerber) v (1) Wiltshire Council (Court of Appeal, 23 February 2016) was a case I mentioned in my 24 March 2018 blog post Once More Unto The Breach Of Legitimate Expectation, Dear Friends. The claimant sought to challenge a planning permission for a solar farm project over a year after the permission had been issued. At first instance, Dove J had been persuaded to allow the claim, accepting that the delay was justified first because there had been a breach of legitimate expectation, established by the council’s statement of community involvement, that he would be consulted at application stage about the proposal and so had an excuse for not knowing about the permission being granted and secondly that part of the delay had been caused by a first firm of solicitors having given ‘incomplete’ advice as to his potential remedies. The parties all accepted that there were in fact errors with the permission which made it unlawful.
The Court of Appeal rejected on the facts the SCI breach of legitimate expectation argument and thought that the abortive approach to the first firm of solicitors was not a sufficient excuse for the delay. Refusing to allow the claim to be brought out of time it took on board took into account that “substantial hardship or prejudice” would be caused to the solar farm operator, which in the meantime had built its facility:
“On 23 July 2014 Terraform completed an Initial Public Offering on the NASDAQ Global Select Market based on a prospectus listing Norrington as a project generating cash flow in the United Kingdom. Terraform and Norrington make the point in these proceedings that if the planning permission is quashed, that will harm the ability of companies seeking to invest in green energy generation in the United Kingdom to attract investors to fund such projects, because of the uncertainty whether they will be able to rely on planning permissions granted by planning authorities to carry out such developments even though they have gone without challenge within the time provided for in CPR Part 54.5 and indeed, as in this case, for a considerably longer period.”
“The evidence for Norrington and Terraform, the substance of which was accepted by the judge, is that if the planning permission is quashed and they are required to dismantle the solar farm, the cost of dismantling it and restoring the Site to agricultural use would be around £1.5 million. In addition, the cost of installing the solar farm of about £10.5 million would have been wasted and lost. In addition, a premium of £2000 paid for an option to take the lease and locked-in rental payments of approximately £36,300 under the lease would also be wasted.”
Sales LJ concluded:
“In my judgment, where proper notice of an application for planning permission has been given pursuant to the 2010 Order it is not appropriate to extend time for bringing a legal challenge to the grant of such permission simply because an objector did not notice what was happening. Extending time in such a case so that a legal objection could be mounted by someone who happened to remain unaware of what was going on until many months later would unfairly prejudice the interests of a developer who wishes to rely upon a planning permission which appears to have been lawfully granted for the development of his land and who has prudently waited for a period before commencing work to implement the permission to ensure that no legal challenge is likely to be forthcoming, as happened here. Prompt legal action after grant of a planning permission to challenge its lawfulness will be required in all cases, unless very special reasons can be shown of a kind which are wholly absent in this case. Especial speed will be expected in the case of objectors who have been involved in the planning process throughout, as emphasised by Keene LJ in Finn-Kelcey at , but it does not follow that the strong requirement of prompt action will be substantially relaxed in the case of someone who, despite a planning authority’s compliance with the notification rules laid down in law, remained in ignorance.”
The Court of Appeal did extend the time for bringing a claim in Croke v Secretary of State (Court of Appeal, 6 June 2017) which was, as so often, somewhat of a comedy of errors. Given that the deadline for lodging the claim was 23 March 2016, this is what happened:
“The Applicant, who is acting in person, wished to challenge the Inspector’s decision. He proposed to do so by issuing a section 288 claim in the Administrative Court Office at the Royal Courts of Justice, in person, on 23 March 2016. However, that day, he missed his train. Therefore, he emailed the relevant documents to a friend, Mr Miller, who was apparently located only a few minutes from the court; and he asked him to file the claim. It is the Applicant’s case, accepted by the judge below for the purposes of the application before her and by Mr Mills for the Secretary of State today, that Mr Miller arrived at the Royal Courts of Justice at 4.25pm; but, although the advertised closing time for the court was 4.30pm, he was refused entry at the main front entrance of the building, the security guard there informing Mr Miller that the counters were closed.
The following day, Thursday 24 March, the Applicant personally attended the Administrative Court Office, where he arrived at 3.30pm. It was Maundy Thursday and, for the court office, the last working day before the Easter break. Due to the volume of people in the queue, he was not seen until about 5pm, when he was informed by a member of staff that he had used an out-of-date claim form, and he would need to complete a different form. He was given a copy of the new form, and he asked if he could complete it there and then. He was told that he would have to return the next working day. The following day was Good Friday, and the next day upon which the court office was open was Tuesday 29 March. The Applicant attended the Administrative Court Office that day, and filed the claim.”
The court at first instance struck out the claim as out of time. The Court of Appeal however granted permission to Mr Croke to appeal, taking into account that there did not appear to be any legal authority applying to these precise facts:
“Having considered the ground of appeal with particular care – and not without some hesitation – I am persuaded that this appeal is arguable, particularly given the absence of authority on this point. It is also noteworthy that this issue affects not just section 288 claims, but a variety of proceedings where there are strict time limits. Therefore, although the Applicant himself accepts that the merits of his particular case may not be the strongest or attract great sympathy, the issue of principle involved does or may have some broader importance.”
(I don’t know what then happened with Poor Mr Croke’s claim. Deadlines, the risk of missing or incorrect paperwork (or an incorrectly drawn cheque), reduced court hours for filing out of court terms and the current long queues at the Royal Courts of Justice to file claims all combine to give solicitors nightmares – clients, please don’t leave it to the last moment!).
All this brings us to last month’s case, R (Thornton Hall Hotel Limited) v Wigan Metropolitan Council (Kerr J, 23 March 2018).
The claimant operates Thornton Hall Hotel and the interested party, Thornton Holdings Limited, operates Thornton Manor. The hotels are competitors for wedding bookings and other functions.
On 7 September 2011 Wigan Council’s planning committee resolved to grant planning permission for three marquees to be erected in the grounds of Thornton Manor. The hotel is in the green belt (as well as being listed grade II* – any Fawlty Towers references in this blog post are by the way wholly inappropriate as will be seen from the above image, courtesy of hitched.co.uk). According to the judgment the committee resolved that very special circumstances existed to allow for the erection of the marquees for a limited period of five years so as to secure “the “generation of an income stream” to enable restoration of the gardens, which were in decline and at risk“. The proposed permission with appropriate conditions was drafted. Indeed, a draft in that form was annexed to a section 106 agreement that was entered into on 11 November 2011. However, the actual permission that was issued on 20 December 2011 and placed on the council’s website omitted any conditions whatsoever, no restriction to five years, no nothing.
The agent for Thornton Holdings cottoned onto this immediately and said nothing. However the problem was it seems not apparent to the council until the five years period expired and the marquees were not dismantled. The council took a report to committee in July 2017 accepting that a mistake had occurred. A little over a month later (and almost six years after the decision complained of, ie the issue of the incomplete permission) Thornton Hall Hotel Limited brought its proceedings, which were not opposed by the council – so the hearing was purely hotel versus competitor hotel.
Kerr J allowed the late challenge, and quashed the permission, for nine reasons:
1. The error had been made in issuing the flawed permission.
2. Permanent permission would not granted and would not have been in the public interest.
3. “If the marquees are now allowed to stay permanently, the proper operation of the planning process will have been subverted.”
4. That would be contrary to the public interest.
5. The interested party was aware of the error.
6. “it follows that the interested party ran its commercial operation at Thornton Manor from 22 December 2011 knowing that the presence of the marquees after 19 December 2016 would be, at the very least, a matter of possible controversy and possible legal challenge. It was not, in my judgment, realistic to rely on expiry of the three month limitation period without also bringing the issue into the open, which the interested party decided not to do.”
7. It follows that the interested party cannot say that it would be prejudiced by the quashing due to lost bookings.
8. “it is said by the interested party that it would be detrimental to good administration if the marquees have to be removed. Normally, detriment to good administration in public law cases relates to the undesirability of interfering with the provision of public services rather than commercial interests. I see no detriment to good administration in rectifying the error. I think it is detrimental to good administration that the marquees are still there. Good administration includes correct implementation of planning decisions.”
9. “the interested party signed the section 106 agreement embodying the omitted conditions including the five year time limit. Yet, it proceeds in this litigation as if it were not bound by the terms of that agreement. That seems to me only to compound the unconscionability of its position. It undertook in private law the same obligations as it denies in public law.”
As they say, hard cases make bad law. Whilst clearly no-one should have any sympathy for the interested party, which saw that it had by luck gained something it never deserved, there are really serious repercussions and I can’t see that other factors were taken on board by the judge, for instance:
1. There is no discussion of the public interest in being able to rely on permissions once free from legal challenge. When acting on the acquisition of properties or businesses, what do we now need to do to ensure that our client isn’t going to find that its permission is similarly flawed? Sometimes it will not be at all obvious. Does the permission, even if many years old, need to be checked against the resolution to grant? What about other latent flaws in it?
2. Surely, the council should have sought a revocation or modification order. No doubt it would have had to pay substantial compensation to Thornton Holdings but is that relevant? The permission was on the website and could have been challenged within the deadline. No-one challenged it (and why indeed should it be down to a competitor to spend money at risk on a challenge? What if it hadn’t?). It used to be considered that authorities, in considering whether to make a revocation or modification order, couldn’t take their potential compensation liability into account. To my mind it was a sad day when that changed as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Health & Safety Executive v Wolverhampton City Council (Supreme Court, 18 July 2002). As a result, revocation and modification orders are almost unused.
3. There are of course many examples of flawed permissions which authorities issued in error where hitherto the possibility of a late challenge does not appear to have been considered. (See some of them in my 14 October 2017 blog post Flawed Drafting: Interpreting Planning Permissions). Is this ruling, even if only slightly, going to open the floodgates, particularly in relation to the errors that most frequently occur on section 73 permissions where it turns out that previous restrictive conditions have been lost, for example as to the types of goods that may be sold from a retail park?
Does anyone knows whether an application for permission to appeal has been made? I would welcome views as to how we all take on board the practical implications of this case. Or do we simply regard it as turning on fairly extreme facts? I’m not so sure.
Simon Ricketts, 7 April 2018
Personal views, et cetera