Bad Timing: More On Appropriate Assessment From Court & Govt Post POW

This is intended to be an update as to appropriate assessment under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 rather than a blog post on the domestic effect of EU environmental law post-Brexit.

But I’ll address that briefly first:

EU environmental law post-Brexit

The position remains pretty much as summarised in my 18 September 2018 blog post Planning, Brexit, supplemented by my 22 December 2018 blog post The Office For Environmental Protection. Whilst there is a general initial saving for EU-derived domestic legislation and whilst section 16 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 sets a process for maintaining EU environmental principles, the “no deal” risks are still that:

(1) the latter depends on an Environment Bill being laid before Parliament and enacted (we so far have only seen draft provisions of the most directly relevant parts of what is proposed), a set of draft environmental principles being consulted upon and approved and the new Office for Environmental Protection being established, all before 31 October 2019 and

(2) post-Brexit, all EU-derived domestic legislation will be reviewed as to its continuing appropriateness and the degree of protection as regards this, presently provided by the environmental principles and governance mechanism in section 16, could easily be amended, replaced or sidestepped by this or a subsequent government.

DEFRA published an Environment Bill summer policy statement on 23 July 2019 but, whilst I am sure the war cabinet talks of little else, there simply is not the time available for the environmental principles and governance machinery to be up and running by the end of October 2019. Even when the machinery is established, it is susceptible to subsequent tinkering and dismantling by way of subsequent legislation.

Appropriate assessment

The immediate implications of the European Court of Justice’s ruling in People Over Wind were covered in my 20 April 2018 blog post EU Court Ruling: Ignore Mitigation Measures In Habitats Screening.

In England and Wales the main problems caused by the judgment have revolved around:

(1) authorities being caught out through no longer being able to screen out the need for appropriate assessment by relying upon commitments to introduce mitigation measures;

(2) until the February 2019 changes to the NPPF, the disapplication of the NPPF’s “tilted balance” where appropriate assessment is required.

MHCLG has now included within its Planning Practice Guidance a specific section dealing with appropriate assessment (22 July 2019).

By coincidence, two days after the new guidance was published, two separate judgments were handed down by the High Court on different aspects of the appropriate assessment regime, both cases stemming from People Over Wind issues and both cases examples of plain bad timing.

Gladman Developments Limited v Secretary of State (Dove J, 24 July 2019) was a challenge by Gladman to the dismissal by the Secretary of State of its appeal in respect of a proposed development of 225 dwellings in Cliffe Woods, Kent.

The inquiry had been held in November 2017, pre People Over Wind. The parties agreed that the tilted balance applied in favour of the proposal as there was a shortfall in the Medway Council’s five year housing land supply. The parties also agreed that a condition requiring an environmental construction management plan was sufficient to mitigate any ecological concerns. Following an HRA screening process that took into account a financial contribution towards a strategic access management and mitigation strategy (SAMMS) “no adverse consequences were identified in respect of the impact of any additional recreational pressures on the Thames Estuary Marshes SPA/RAMSAR and the Medway Estuaries and Marshes SPA/RAMSAR sites.”

The inspector recommended approval in his report dated 29 March 2018. The People Over Wind judgment was handed down on 12 April 2018. The Secretary of State invited representations from the parties as to whether appropriate assessment was now required in the light of the judgment, and on their views as to the correct application of planning policy in the light of it – a reference to paragraph 119 in the 2012 NPPF which disapplied the tilted balance in circumstances in the case of development requiring appropriate assessment.

Gladman submitted as part of its representations a report prepared by its ecologists, information to ensure that the inspector could carry out appropriate assessment and reach a conclusion that there were no likely significant effects on the integrity of of the SPAs. It also submitted that it would be “illogical and perverse to disengage the tilted balance in these circumstances”.

Before the Secretary of State reached his decision on the appeal, more generally on 26 October 2018 he embarked a technical consultation as to potential changes to the methodology for assessing local housing need and as part of that consultation he sought views on his proposal to amend the NPPF to make it clear that the tilted balance “is disapplied only where an appropriate assessment has concluded that there is no suitable mitigation strategy in place”, having missed the opportunity to make that change in the 24 July 2018 version (within which paragraph 177 simply replicated the old paragraph 119).

The Secretary of State’s decision letter was issued on 9 November 2018. He found that appropriate assessment was required and stated that on the basis of the appropriate assessment which he had carried out he could “safely conclude that the proposed development would not adversely affect the integrity of any European site”. He noted that under paragraph 177 of the 2018 NPPF “the presumption in favour of sustainable development does not apply where development requiring appropriate assessment is being determined”. He dismissed the appeal.

Gladman challenged the decision on a number of grounds, including irrationality in his application of paragraph 177 in the circumstances of the appeal, failure to have regard to the contents of the technical consultation, failure specifically to consult Gladman in relation to the technical consultation and contending that People Over Wind was wrongly decided, requiring a reference to the CJEU to clarify the position.

Dove J rejected all of the grounds. There was nothing unlawful in the way in which the Secretary of State had applied paragraph 177. It was “applied in a straight forward and uncomplicated manner to the circumstances of the present case”. The technical consultation was only a consultation. Indeed:

I see nothing wrong, and indeed much to commend, in an approach whereby a decision-taker continues to apply existing policy whilst it is subject to review, and await the outcome of a consultation process on the review of a policy before applying any new policy which might emerge. For a consultation exercise to be lawful it must be engaged in with an open mind. That must contemplate a number of potential outcomes from the consultation process, (including, potentially, no change to the policy) which could be undermined by the premature second guessing of its outcome through the application of a policy which was being consulted upon. In my view the First Defendant’s approach in applying his existing policy in the present case was in principle entirely correct.”

There was no basis for asserting that Gladman should have been specifically consulted as part of the technical consultation and in any event they had not been prejudiced by any failure to consult.

Lastly, he was unpersuaded that there was any justification for the reference sought to the CJEU or that People Over Wind was wrongly decided: “the need for full and precise analysis removing all reasonable scientific doubt, reflects a consistent line of authority in the CJEU emphasising these features of the requirements of the Habitats Directive…Whilst there may be cases in which the existence of significant effects could be addressed by the examination of mitigating measures at the Appropriate Assessment screening stage that is not, in principle, any justification for not undertaking the Appropriate Assessment itself.” Furthermore, as also relied upon by the CJEU in People Over Wind, “the taking account of mitigation measures and exclusion of the Appropriate Assessment process may also deprive the public of a right to participate in the decision-taking process.”

The final kick in the teeth for Gladman must have come when, after the 24 July 2018 version of the NPPF missed the obvious opportunity to resolve the widespread problems caused by People Over Wind, it was finally put right in the 19 February 2019 version. So if the decision letter had been issued either at least six weeks before the 12 April 2018 ruling in People Over Wind (such that the decision was beyond the legal challenge period) or after 19 February 2019, the chances are they would have had their permission. A Secretary of State who actually wanted to see housing would surely have sorted out the policy issue more quickly – or delayed the decision letter. Bad timing indeed.

The timing was similarly awkward in R (Wingfield) v Canterbury City Council & Redrow Homes South East (Lang J, 24 July 2019). Outline planning permission was obtained on 5 July 2017 for up to 250 dwellings and associated development at Hoplands Farm, Westbere, Kent. The site is near SPAs and an SAC. On the basis of mitigation proposals, Canterbury City Council concluded, having taken advice from Natural England, that appropriate assessment was not required.

The judicial review period expired without challenge and the site was sold to the interested party, Redrow Homes. Reserved matters approval was sought in December 2017 for the first phases of development. Then came that People Over Wind ruling on 12 April 2018. In the light of the judgment, the council carried out an appropriate assessment and concluded that, with mitigation, the project would have no adverse effect on the integrity of the European protected sites. Reserved matters approval was granted on 12 February 2019.

The claimants argued that “the Council acted in breach of EU law by failing to conduct an HRA before granting outline planning permission and impermissibly taking into account mitigation measures when screening the proposed development, contrary to the CJEU judgment in the People over Wind case. The effect of the judgment of the CJEU was to render the grant of outline planning permission a nullity, which could no longer be relied upon. Further or alternatively, when the Council realised its error, it should have revoked the outline planning permission and re-considered the application. Instead, it unlawfully conducted an HRA at the reserved matters stage, when it should have been conducted at the earliest possible stage, before the grant of outline planning permission.

Lang J rejected both arguments. The submission that “the effect of the judgment of the CJEU in People Over Wind was to render the grant of outline planning permission a nullity was both contrary to authority, and wrong in principle. A decision made by a public body is valid unless and until it is quashed”. Further, “the Council could lawfully conduct an appropriate assessment at the reserved matters stage, in the circumstances of this case”.

In considering whether the Council could legitimately remedy its earlier error by conducting an appropriate assessment at reserved matters stage, instead of revoking the grant of outline planning permission, I have taken into account that the consequences of revoking planning decisions long after they have been made, and the time limits for challenge have expired, are disruptive and undermine the principle of legal certainty. As Laws J. said in R v Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, ex parte Greenpeace Ltd [1998] Env LR 415, at [424], applicants for judicial review must act promptly, so as to ensure that the proper business of government and the reasonable interests of third parties are not overborne or unjustly prejudiced by litigation brought in circumstances where the point in question could have been exposed and adjudicated without unacceptable damage.

In this case, the IP acquired its interest in the Site after outline planning permission had been granted and the time for bringing a judicial review challenged had expired. Although building operations have not yet commenced, time and money has been spent in bringing this project to fruition. The Council considers that the development will bring tangible benefits to the community, although local residents, such as the Claimant, take a different view.

In my judgment, the Council’s decision to remedy its earlier error by conducting an appropriate assessment at reserved matters stage was permissible under EU and domestic law, and it was a proportionate and effective remedy for the breach of EU law […]

Alternatively if my analysis is not correct, I would nonetheless refuse relief in this case. The Court may refuse relief where there has been a breach of EU law, if the substance of the EU right has been complied with.”

The claimant also sought to argue that the HRA was deficient. It was not:

the HRA conducted by the Council was appropriate for the task in hand, particularly bearing in mind that the Council was able to draw upon the detailed research and assessment in the ‘Report to inform a Habitats Regulations Assessment’, as well as the further reports submitted by the IP. Its findings were complete, precise and definite and there were no significant lacunae. The Council was entitled to rely upon Natural England’s endorsement of its HRA, particularly since Natural England had initially raised concerns about the evidence-base provided by the applicants, and those concerns were addressed by the further evidence produced by the IP. Natural England, as the custodian of the Stodmarsh designated sites, was particularly well placed to judge the risks from the proposed development. In my view, the Claimant’s challenge did not come close to meeting the high threshold of Wednesbury irrationality; it was primarily a disagreement with the Council’s exercise of its planning judgment.”

So bad timing in this case for the claimant, unable to take advantage of the windfall that People Over Wind appeared to represent.

Even if we leave the EU, I suspect that we will not be leaving behind these sorts of arguments for a good time yet – and it is apparent from the Gladman case that (1) the resulting trip hazards are as often those introduced by our own domestic policies and (2) when it comes to CJEU cases such as People Over Wind, however inconvenient, our domestic courts are not going to be turning the clock back.

Simon Ricketts, 2 August 2019

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

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

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