Clean Air: Promises, Promises

Lindblom LJ gave a short speech this week at drinks hosted by Cornerstone Barristers to mark the publication of Ashley Bowes’ A Practical Approach To Planning Law 14th edition. He made a nice joke about how many of the footnote references were to articles by one Dr Ashley Bowes.

No doubt Lindblom LJ’s judgment in Gladman Developments Limited v Secretary of State (Court of Appeal, 12 September 2019), where Ashley appeared for the successful third respondent, CPRE Kent, will now get a good airing in the 15th edition.

The case is an important addition to the growing jurisprudence in relation to the relevance of air quality issues to decision making on planning applications and appeals – and indeed is of wider relevance.

I last summarised the case law, as it was then, in my 2 February 2019 blog post What To Do About Poor Air Quality? The Shirley Case, supplemented by references to the High Court’s rulings in the Heathrow cases in my 4 May 2019 blog post Lessons From The Heathrow Cases.

In Gladman the developer had challenged an inspector’s decision letter which had dismissed its appeal in relation to a proposed residential and extra care development at Pond Farm, Newington, near Sittingbourne. The challenge was to the inspector’s conclusion as to the “effect of the appeal proposals, including any proposed mitigation measures, on air quality, particularly in the Newington and Rainham Air Quality Management Areas”.

The claim was rejected at first instance. The grounds of appeal raised “three broad issues: first, whether the inspector erred in failing to grasp the significance of Garnham J.’s decision in the ClientEarth proceedings, and the policy in paragraph 122 of the NPPF (grounds 1 and 2); second, whether he failed to deal properly with the proposed mitigation, whether he should have considered a condition preventing the development going ahead until effective mitigation had been secured, and whether his decision is vitiated by procedural unfairness (grounds 3, 4 and 5); and third, whether he failed properly to explain how Gladman’s approach to mitigation departed from the air quality action plans (ground 6).”

Or, perhaps, more plainly: was the inspector more sceptical than was legally permissible as to whether national air quality targets will be met and as to whether the developer’s proposed mitigation measures would be effective?

National air quality targets

Garnham J in the ClientEarth proceedings had ordered that the Secretary of State publish a modified air quality plan and aim to achieve compliance with the Air Quality Directive by the soonest date possible, must choose a route to that objective which reduces exposure to non-compliant air quality levels as quickly as possible and must take steps which mean that meeting the value limits is not just possible but is likely.

The inspector considered the air quality improvement objectives within Swale Borough Council’s action plans for the two relevant air quality management areas. He thought it “optimistic… to expect that NO2 concentrations will fall by the amount” predicted by Gladman in a “without development” scenario.

“The sensitivity scenarios are probably too pessimistic: as the appellants’ witness pointed out, tightening of emission standards for new vehicles should, over time, bring about substantial further reductions in NO2 emissions from traffic. But I was given no firm data on the rate at which this is likely to occur. In the absence of any conclusive evidence on this point, I consider it would be unsafe to rely on emission levels falling between 2015 and 2020 to the extent that informed the modelling of original Scenarios 2 to 5. My view is reinforced by the High Court’s finding on the excessive optimism of future emissions modelling. This means that original Scenarios 3 and 5 cannot be taken as reliable projections of the likely impacts of the appeal proposals on air quality.”

The judge at first instance did not accept Gladman’s submissions that this approach by the inspector was unlawful in that he did not take into account the extent of the duty on the Secretary of State to secure that air quality value limits were likely to be met as soon as possible. The inspector “was not required to assume that local air quality would improve by any particular amount within any particular timeframe”. The Court of Appeal agreed:

It was not known what measures the new draft national air quality plan would contain, let alone what the final version would contain following public consultation. The inspector did not know how any new national measures would relate to local measures, nor what would be “the soonest date possible” by which the new national air quality plan would aim to achieve compliance. He could not reach any view on whether the measures in the new national air quality plan were likely to be effective in securing compliance by any particular date (paragraph 31 of the judgment). In the judge’s view, the inspector had “properly engaged with the ClientEarth (No.2) decision”; had “understood what the judgment required”; had “carefully analysed the evidence that was presented before him (DL 99-106)”; had “formed a judgment as to what the air quality is likely to be in the future on the basis of that evidence”; and was “entitled to consider the evidence and not simply assume that the UK will soon become compliant with [the Air Quality Directive]” (paragraph 32).

I can see no error in any of those conclusions of the judge. In my view, as was submitted to us by Mr Richard Moules on behalf of the Secretary of State and Dr Ashley Bowes for CPRE Kent, the inspector did see the true significance and effect of Garnham J.’s judgment in ClientEarth (No.2). In deciding Gladman’s appeals, he had to consider the evidence before him, in the particular circumstances of the local area, including local air quality. That is plainly what he did. He was not obliged to embark on predictive judgments about the timing and likely effectiveness of the Government’s response to the decision in ClientEarth (No.2), and the requirement to produce a national air quality plan compliant with the Air Quality Directive.”

“It was not within the inspector’s duty as decision-maker to resolve the “tension”, as Mr Kimblin put it, between the Government’s responsibility to comply swiftly with the limit values for air pollutants and the remaining uncertainty over the means by which, and when, the relevant targets would be met. In different circumstances, and on different evidence, an inspector might be able to assess the impact of a particular development on local air quality by taking into account the content of a national air quality plan, compliant with the Air Quality Directive, which puts specific measures in place and thus enables a clear conclusion to be reached on the effect of those measures. But that was not so here.”

The Court of Appeal also held that Supperstone J at first instance was right to reject the submission that “the inspector failed to apply the principle that the planning system assumes other schemes of regulatory control will operate effectively. This policy, in his view, was directed at a situation where there is a parallel system of control…, the essential principle being that the planning system should not duplicate those other regulatory controls, but should generally assume they will operate effectively. As the judge saw it, the Air Quality Directive was “not a parallel consenting regime to which paragraph 122 is directed”. There was “no separate licensing or permitting decision that will address the specific air quality impacts of [Gladman’s] proposed development.

As Mr Moules and Dr Bowes submitted, the Air Quality Directive and the 2010 regulations are not a licensing or permitting regime of that kind. The Air Quality Directive is “programmatic in nature”. It imposes obligations on the state to comply with the relevant limit values within the shortest possible time, and by the means chosen to achieve compliance. In the United Kingdom the approach adopted by the Government is to promulgate an air quality plan for the relevant zones or agglomerations. Paragraph 122 of the NPPF, properly understood, did not contemplate any assumption being made about that process. It does not require a planning decision-maker to assume that the Government will have acted expeditiously to take the action required to discharge its own responsibilities under the legislative scheme for air quality.”

Proposed mitigation measures

Gladman submitted that “the inspector, in finding Gladman’s financial contribution to mitigation was unlikely to be effective, failed to grapple properly with its approach to mitigation, which was based on DEFRA’s “damage cost analysis”.”

The first instance judgment goes into more detail as to the mitigation measures. They amounted to a financial contribution of £311,018.80. There was no detail as to how the money was to be effectively spent.

The judge at first instance referred to Gladman’s expert witness’s own acknowledgement as to “the difficulty in predicting the effectiveness of the mitigation. The likely effectiveness of that mitigation was a “live issue” at the inquiry. The inspector had to reach his own conclusion on the matter, exercising his planning judgment – as did the Secretary of State in Shirley and the inspector in Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government v Wealden District Council [2017] EWCA Civ 39 (paragraph 50 of the judgment). In paragraphs 104 to 106 of his decision letter he had reached a conclusion on the evidence that he was entitled to reach, and he had explained what was wrong with the proposed mitigation. As the judge put it, the “contributions had not been shown to translate into actual measures likely to reduce the use of private petrol and diesel vehicles and hence reduce the forecast NO2 emissions …”

The Court of Appeal agreed:

It was not the methodology that was in contention. It was the likely effectiveness of the financial contributions themselves when translated into practical measures. The thrust of the objection by CPRE Kent, which the inspector accepted, was that it could not be demonstrated that the financial contributions would produce practical mitigation sufficient to overcome the likely effects of the development on local air quality.

This was a classic matter of planning judgment. The inspector did not have to accept that because an appropriate arithmetical method had been used in calculating the level of financial contributions, the mitigation measures themselves would be effective. It was for him to consider, in the exercise of his planning judgment, whether the mitigation would be effective. He was not confident that it would. Disagreement with this conclusion is not a proper basis for complaint in proceedings such as these.”

Lastly, should the inspector have imposed a Grampian-style condition of his own volition, to address his concerns, rather than simply dismiss the appeal?

The Court of Appeal disagreed:

There is no statutory requirement, or principle of law, to the effect that in determining an appeal under section 78 of the 1990 Act, the Secretary of State, or his inspector, must always – and even if entirely unprompted by any of the parties – seek to make an unacceptable proposal acceptable by imposing a planning condition in “Grampian” form to prevent the development going ahead until a particular objection to it is overcome.

Nor is there any statement of national planning policy creating such a requirement.”

Concluding remarks

An interesting case, the relevance of which goes beyond air quality matters:

⁃ a decision maker, in determining what is the baseline position, is not required to assume that targets in Government policy will actually be met.

⁃ a decision maker can of course decide not to have regard to proposed mitigation measures if the decision maker is not confident that they will achieve their intended objective.

Finally, a procedural point. CPRE Kent had been a rule 6 party at the inquiry. They chose to become an interested party in the litigation, given their particular interest in the issues and, quite possibly, a concern that the Secretary of State might not hold the position in terms of validity of the inspector’s approach (after all, the local planning authority was not represented at either stage of the proceedings). It’s a brave step for an NGO – unlikely to recover its costs for participating and indeed at risk of an adverse costs award in some circumstances – but no doubt here vindicated.

Simon Ricketts, 22 September 2019

Personal views, et cetera

Lindblom LJ & (in written form) Ashley Bowes

Author: simonicity

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

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