What if your development were subject to a section 106 agreement that provided for a commuted sum to be paid towards affordable housing, the precise amount payable to be calculated in accordance with a formula; at the date that the agreement was completed in 2003 the formula would have arrived at a commuted sum of between £500,000 and £700,000 but by the time that it was triggered the basis for calculating the formula had been abolished and so there was no way of arriving at an appropriate figure? Would you go to the High Court and Court of Appeal to seek to resist a claim from the local planning authority that was seeking a sum of £533,058 plus interest?
Well that was what the developer did in the Council of the City of York v Trinity One (Leeds) Limited (Court of Appeal, 21 February 2018). Not only that but they pursued a separate section 106BA and BC application and appeal, before the 30 April 2016 deadline for applications under that procedure, to seek to argue that in any event it should be released from the obligation in order to prevent its development from being economically unviable (a process where it is separately currently pursuing a second judicial review). I don’t know the facts beyond what is stated in the Court of Appeal’s judgment but I would suspect that this saga must pretty much have cost the parties in legal fees the sum being fought over and there remains the possibility of the local planning authority losing out on a substantial contribution towards affordable housing. Mediation anyone?
Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing but the dispute has arisen from not enough “what if?” questions being asked when the agreement was negotiated in 2003.
The relevant clause in the agreement provided that the commuted sum “shall be calculated on the amount of Social Housing Grant necessary to secure affordable rented homes of an equivalent type and size on another site [in a similar residential area in the City of York] which grant for the avoidance of doubt shall be calculated at normal grant levels from regional TCI tables provided on an annual basis by the Housing Corporation or such equivalent grant calculation current at the time and supported by the Housing Corporation”.
Social Housing Grant was defined as “the grant that may be provided in respect of affordable housing in the Council’s administrative area in accordance with Government and Housing Corporation Guidance.”
Some of you may remember the Total Cost Indicator tables that were previously used by the (now defunct) Housing Corporation as a basis for calculating the level of (now defunct) Social Housing Grant.
The lawyers negotiating the agreement at least had asked themselves what if TCI tables were no longer provided on an annual basis by the Housing Corporation but beyond that there was little imagination as to how far the affordable housing funding arrangements might change: if TCI tables ceased to be published, the calculation was to be done on the basis of “such equivalent grant calculation current at the time and supported by the Housing Corporation”. Hmm. No “what if social housing grant and/or the Housing Corporation cease to exist“? No provision for the parties to agree another reasonable benchmark, with the ability to go to an independent expert in the event of dispute?
The Court of Appeal identified that the issue “turns on the balance between giving effect to the intention of the parties and the language of the contract“. It upheld the ruling of the High Court that the clause was not unenforceable due to the lack of certainty as to how the sum was now to be calculated. The court sets out in some detail the approach to be taken, drawing upon principles articulated by the Supreme Court in Arnold v Britton (Supreme Court, 10 June 2015).
The Supreme Court in that case had considered the interpretation of service charge contribution provisions in the leases of a number of chalets in a caravan park in South Wales, and whether annual increases in service charge were to be calculated on a compound basis, resulting in absurdly high increases. Lord Neuberger summarised the correct approach as follows:
“When interpreting a written contract, the court is concerned to identify the intention of the parties by reference to “what a reasonable person having all the background knowledge which would have been available to the parties would have understood them to be using the language in the contract to mean”, to quote Lord Hoffmann in Chartbrook Ltd v Persimmon Homes Ltd  UKHL 38,  1 AC 1101, para 14. And it does so by focussing on the meaning of the relevant words, in this case clause 3(2) of each of the 25 leases, in their documentary, factual and commercial context. That meaning has to be assessed in the light of (i) the natural and ordinary meaning of the clause, (ii) any other relevant provisions of the lease, (iii) the overall purpose of the clause and the lease, (iv) the facts and circumstances known or assumed by the parties at the time that the document was executed, and (v) commercial common sense, but (vi) disregarding subjective evidence of any party’s intentions.”
Lord Neuberger set out six principles and the Court of Appeal in Trinity One drew particularly the first and sixth:
“First, the reliance placed in some cases on commercial common sense and surrounding circumstances (eg in Chartbrook, paras 16-26) should not be invoked to undervalue the importance of the language of the provision which is to be construed. The exercise of interpreting a provision involves identifying what the parties meant through the eyes of a reasonable reader, and, save perhaps in a very unusual case, that meaning is most obviously to be gleaned from the language of the provision.”
“Sixthly, in some cases, an event subsequently occurs which was plainly not intended or contemplated by the parties, judging from the language of their contract. In such a case, if it is clear what the parties would have intended, the court will give effect to that intention. An example of such a case is Aberdeen City Council v Stewart Milne Group Ltd UKSC 56, 2012 SCLR 114, where the court concluded that ‘any … approach’ other than that which was adopted ‘would defeat the parties’ clear objectives’, but the conclusion was based on what the parties ‘had in mind when they entered into’ the contract (see paras 17 and 22).”
Applying these principles, the Court of Appeal in Trinity One identified that:
⁃ the intention of the parties was that a commuted sum was to be paid.
⁃ the uncertainty related to quantification rather than the principle of payment.
⁃ “It would defeat the underlying purpose of the Agreement if the clause were unenforceable due to lack of certainty. The consequence would be that TOL would receive the benefit of planning permission without providing affordable housing or a commuted sum. In simple terms, that was not the bargain.”
⁃ “…the quantification of that sum should be that which is equivalent to the amount of money which would have been provided had the SHG remained in being. Although this is a departure from the literal words of the contract, this is the only sensible solution to the problem posed by the abolition of the SHG on which the clause is premised. The clause provides that the developer should pay enough money so that the Council can provide equivalent affordable housing: the best the court can do is work out a roughly equivalent figure for that sum.”
⁃ The figure that had been arrived at of £533,508 was a “reasonable attempt to reach a figure equivalent to the SHG which would have been payable before 2006“.
To a non-lawyer this may all seem obvious, but who wants to go to the Court of Appeal to establish what a provision means, just because not enough “what if” questions weren’t asked at the outset?
York Council isn’t yet entirely out of the woods. I mentioned the pending judicial review in relation to the developer’s section 106BC appeal. The Court of Appeal held that if the section 106BC appeal is ultimately successful, it will have retrospective effect notwithstanding that the council’s rights to be paid had already accrued. That seems strange to me, but given that the section 106BA and BC procedure is no longer available, this issue is of limited continuing wider relevance.
So please remain patient when your solicitor asks you yet another series of “what if” questions. In another part of our legal world, the European Medicines Agency is reported to be seeking to set aside its lease at Canary Wharf on the basis that Brexit will amount to an event of frustration. It was reported elsewhere that the “what if” question may in fact have been asked and then set on one side. Now that can be even more awkward.
This blog post is a belated companion to my 14 October 2017 post, Flawed Drafting: Interpreting Planning Permissions.
Simon Ricketts, 8 September 2018
Personal views, et cetera