Section 106 Agreements & Public Procurement

Faraday v West Berkshire Council (Court of Appeal, 14 November 2018) is essential reading for those advising on development agreements between local authorities and developers: the fact that the developer has the benefit of an option as to whether to take an interest in the relevant land and carry out the development does not prevent the agreement from being treated as a public works contract. Quite a reversal from Holgate J at first instance.

For planners and planning lawyers advising on section 106 agreements, the case is more reassuring than for those struggling with development agreements. The Court of Appeal considered that the position in relation to development agreements was to be distinguished with that in relation to section 106 agreement. It expressed the position more firmly than the High Court had previously needed to in Midlands Co-Operative Society Ltd, R (on the application of) v Birmingham City Council and Tesco Stores Limited (Hickinbottom J, 16 March 2012).

The Midlands Co-Operative case concerned a deal reached between Birmingham City Council and Tesco for the redevelopment of land in Stirchley owned by the council on which there was an indoor bowls and community centre. Part of the arrangements between the council and Tesco included a section 106 agreement to provide and fit-out a replacement community centre and indoor bowls facility. The decisions to enter into a contract to sell the site and to use CPO powers to assist with assembly of the remainder of the development site were challenged by a competing developer, the Co-op, which asserted that the arrangements amounted to a public works contract and that that public procurement requirements had been breached.

Hickinbottom J rejected the challenge, on the basis that whilst the council had exchanged contracts to sell the land to Tesco there was no legally enforceable obligation on Tesco to carry out the works unless it chose to proceed. Whether it proceeded with the scheme was at its discretion.

For those reasons, I do not consider that Tesco is now under any legally enforceable obligation to perform any relevant works that mean that the arrangements between it and the Council or any of them (including the contract for the sale of the Community Facility) fall within the scope of “public works contract” for the purposes of the 2006 Regulations; and, hence, the procurement provisions of those Regulations do not apply.

If there had been legally enforceable obligations to perform works, at least the three further potential issues would have arisen, namely (i) whether those obligations were mere planning obligations that would not invoke the provisions of the 2006 Regulations, (ii) whether the 2006 Regulations would not apply, because the main purpose of the arrangement was not the procurement of works, and (iii) whether the 2006 Regulations only give rise to private rights, such that a public law claim based upon them is inappropriate. In the light of my finding that the arrangement involved no legally enforceable obligation to perform works, those issues do not arise in this case; and it is unnecessary for me to consider them further.”

The Court of Appeal in Faraday rejected the notion that if the developer is not under a legally enforceable obligation there cannot be a public works contract. In the lead judgment, Lindblom LJ set out the court’s reasoning as follows:

The touchstone, then, is whether, in substance, the agreement in question, at the date it is concluded, provides for a relevant procurement.

In this case, judged by that test, the development agreement clearly did provide, at the date it was entered into, for a procurement by the council of the development it was intended to deliver. At that date, no further act of procurement by the council remained to be done, for which a lawful public procurement procedure could later be conducted. The time for that had passed. When it entered into the development agreement, the council had nothing more to do to ensure that a “public works contract” would come into being. It had, in fact, done all that it needed to do to procure. It had committed itself contractually, without any further steps being required of it, to a transaction that will fully satisfy the requirements of a “public works contract”. It had committed itself to procuring the development from St Modwen. The development agreement constitutes a procurement in its result, and a procurement without a lawful procurement procedure under the 2004 Directive and the 2006 regulations. The procurement crystallizes when St Modwen draws down the land. The ground lease entered into by St Modwen will contain an unqualified obligation to carry out works, and a corresponding obligation will also be brought into effect in the development agreement itself. The development agreement made that commitment on the part of the council final and provided also for a reciprocal commitment on the part of St Modwen. It did so without a public procurement process, and without affording any opportunity for such a process to be gone through before the “public works contract” materializes. At that stage it would be too late. Thus a “public works contract” will have come into being without a lawful procurement process. The regulation of the council’s actions in procuring the development will have been frustrated.

By entering into the development agreement, therefore, the council effectively agreed to act unlawfully in the future. In effect, it committed itself to acting in breach of the legislative regime for procurement. As Mr Giffin submitted, that is in itself unlawful, whether as an actual or anticipatory breach of the requirements for lawful procurement under the 2004 Directive and the 2006 regulations, or simply as public law illegality, or both. The only other possibility would be that a contracting authority is at liberty to construct a sequence of arrangements in a transaction such as this, whose combined effect is to constitute a “public works contract”, without ever having to follow a public procurement procedure. That would defeat the operation of the legislative regime.”

Whilst it was not necessary to deal with the point for the determination of this case, Lindblom LJ was careful not to suggest that this meant that the section 106 agreement in the Midlands Co-Operative case would on his reasoning have amounted to a public works contract:

The section 106 planning obligation was […] a very different kind of agreement. It had a distinct status and role in the statutory planning scheme. Its purpose was to regulate the development of land for which the local planning authority was granting planning permission. By its terms the developer, and its successors in title, would not be able lawfully to proceed with the development for which planning permission was granted, and in particular would not be able to demolish the existing community facilities on the development site, until it had constructed replacement facilities. The section 106 agreement did not oblige the developer to proceed with the development. But in any case it was not the kind of transaction that is governed by the public procurement regime. By its very nature, it was not a “public works contract”. Its essential object – and its necessary justification in the interests of the proper planning of the local planning authority’s area – was to ensure that the community facilities would be replaced if the planning permission were implemented. Otherwise, the proposed development itself would not have been acceptable, and planning permission should not have been granted for it. As Hickinbottom J. said (in paragraph 116 of his judgment), “the council’s primary objective was of a planning nature – to develop the Site – rather than having performed the works involved in replacing the community facility”. In this case, by contrast, when it entered into the development agreement, the council was not exercising any of the functions of a local planning authority under the statutory planning scheme. It was entering into a contract whose essential object was the execution of the works for which it provided. It therefore fell within the scope of the public procurement regime.”

That is an important paragraph, because if obligations on developers in section 106 agreements to carry out works were to trigger public procurement requirements, the whole practice of using planning obligations to achieve acceptable development would rapidly have come to a halt. Instead, we have clarity that there is not a problem.

Good news. And also good news that as a planning lawyer I may not now need to focus so much on the Public Procurement (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 – laid before Parliament on 13 December 2018 and prepared with the objective of continuing the current public procurement regime post Brexit.

Simon Ricketts, 12 January 2019

Personal views, et cetera

PS Some chat about the lawyers involved in these cases:

Leading counsel for the unsuccessful claimant in Midlands Co-Operative was David Holgate QC, as he was back in 2012 – and the position as a judge he later took at first instance in Faraday was very much in line with the approach that Hickinbottom J had taken in Midlands Co-Operative in the face of Holgate’s submissions – no legally binding obligation on the part of the developer, therefore no public works contract.

Junior counsel for the city council in Midlands Co-Operative was a very young Charlie Banner, who deservedly becomes Charles Banner QC on 11 March 2019. He was led in Midlands Co-Operative by David Elvin QC, whilst in Faraday Banner would appear for the claimant (and at first instance was given some of the treatment from Holgate that in Midlands Co-Operative Holgate had himself received from Hickinbottom) (with Elvin appearing on the other side for the defendant council).

Photograph via Sothebys

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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