“We understand why many participants – not just local authorities, but statutory consultees and the Planning Inspectorate – are risk averse. Judicial review is expensive, and to lose a judicial review in the courts is bad for the reputation of either [sic]. And judicial reviews can be precedent setting, establishing a new interpretation of the law. We think the proposals set out in the document should remove the risk of judicial review substantially. Most judicial reviews are about imprecise and unclearly worded policies or law. Our plans for an overhaul of planning law to create simple and clear processes and for plans that set out clear requirements and standards will substantially remove the scope for ambiguity and therefore challenge.” (Planning For The Future white paper, paragraph 5.16)
You can’t really contemplate any reform on the planning system without considering the role of the courts in the way that the system works in practice. Plainly where a public body (whether the state or a local authority) acts outside its powers, someone thereby affected needs to have access to an effective remedy, usually an order that renders it to be of no legal effect. Quite apart from the rights and procedures deriving from domestic common law principles, UK has international obligations to maintain such processes under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights and, specifically in relation to access to environmental justice, under the third pillar of the Aarhus Convention. You can’t embark on a new system without a functioning mechanism to ensure that everyone plays by the rules.
Whilst essential as a backstop against abuse of power, the role of the courts in the operation of the planning system does of course need to be kept to a minimum. There are two areas in particular where there has always been scope to reduce the number of unnecessary claims:
1. As mentioned in that passage in the white paper, many (I’m not sure I would say “most”) “judicial reviews are about imprecise and unclearly worded policies or law.” As regards that first area, the aspiration in the white paper (“an overhaul of planning law to create simple and clear processes and for plans that set out clear requirements and standards will substantially remove the scope for ambiguity and therefore challenge”) is worthy but at present purely wishful thinking. We anticipate now a separate “Autumn” consultation into potential changes to EU-derived legislation, with a view to streamlining for instance SEA and EIA processes (no surprise – see e.g. my 4 July 2020 Have We Got Planning Newts For You: Back To Brexit blog post as well as Environment Secretary George Eustice’s 20 July 2020 speech). Of course, EU-derived environmental legislation (although, to be accurate, this is not about the EU – the relevant EU directives in turn implemented wider international treaty obligations) has been at the root of much planning caselaw, but the white paper’s proposals introduce a wide range of fresh tensions and uncertainties into the process – whether that be about the central imposition of housing requirements on local authorities, accelerated routes to development approvals or the proposed shift to a wholly new mechanism for the funding and delivery of affordable housing and infrastructure.
2. Claimants should be discouraged from using litigation simply as a tactic to secure delay or publicity, or in order to have a “low consequences” speculative last throw of the dice. Some steps have been taken to address this in recent years, most importantly the establishment of the Planning Court in March 2014 so that cases could be dealt with more quickly, by specialist judges, by the introduction of a permission stage in relation to section 288 challenges and by tightening the rules on costs protection (see my 22 June 2019 blog post No Time To Be 21: Where Are We With Aarhus Costs Protection?).
The lack of statistics as to the effectiveness of the Planning Court is frustrating. I went into this in my 8 July 2018 blog post The Planning Court and Richard Harwood QC has also recently expressed similar frustrations in the July 2020 39 Essex Chambers planning, environment and property newsletter, How common are High Court planning challenges?
At Town we recently decided to do something about it. Working alongside Landmark Chambers, on 13 August 2020 we unveiled what we call the Planning Court Case Explorer. The Case Explorer brings together, in one dataset, all judgments of the Planning Court after a full hearing, since its establishment in March 2014 to the end of June 2020 quarter by quarter (25 quarters), together with all subsequent appellate judgments. That amounts to 377 judgments by the Planning Court, 105 by the Court of Appeal and 11 by the Supreme Court. The data captured includes the length of time between the decision under challenge and the ruling, parties, judge and subject matter, with a link to the bailii transcript and usually our Town Library summary, and with a variety of search options so as to be able to interrogate the data, by way of clicking into the tables.
Only now, through this data, can it be seen that the average duration between a decision under challenge and the first instance ruling in relation to that decision is 293 days and can the extent of further delay be seen when a case goes to the Court of Appeal (an average of 726 days between the decision and the ruling) or there after to the Supreme Court (1,000 days!). In the context of a six weeks’ deadline for bring the claim in the first place and then the initial permission stage, that 293 days’ figure in my view is not unreasonable. The subsequent delays on appeal are in my view wholly unjustifiable.
Which judge in the High Court has handed down the most rulings? Lang J (69 judgments), followed a long way behind by Holgate J (28). Which Court of Appeal judge in relation to appeals from rulings by the Planning Court? Unsurprisingly Lindblom LJ (56). For each judge there is a list of his or her judgments.
Which are the most frequent parties? The Secretary of State is way ahead of the field, unsurprisingly, with 267 cases. Second, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (14 rulings). Third, Gladman Developments Limited (12).
There are limitations to the work – for instance we have not focused on win/lose statistics, given the variety of permutations of outcome, and we have not analysed the much larger number of claims which are sieved out at the permission stage. However, I hope that the analysis is a useful step towards greater transparency.
The work now has additional topicality. The Government is not just proposing to reform the planning system. On 31 July 2020 it launched an “independent panel to look at judicial review”.
As set out in the press statement:
“Specifically, the review will consider:
• Whether the terms of Judicial Review should be written into law
• Whether certain executive decisions should be decided on by judges
• Which grounds and remedies should be available in claims brought against the government
• Any further procedural reforms to Judicial Review, such as timings and the appeal process”
The panel’s detailed terms of reference make for potentially worrying reading in terms of their breadth. Don’t just take that from me – here are two recent posts by Mark Elliott, professor of public law and chair of Cambridge University’s law faculty: Judicial Review Review 1: The Reform Agenda & Its Potential Scope and The Judicial Review Review II: Codifying Judicial Review – Clarification Or Evisceration? The review also needs to be read in the context of the Policy Exchange’s agitations via its Judicial Power Project and most recently its 31 July 2020 document Reforming The Supreme Court (now let’s think about what motivation they might have for that? hmm…). This is all really important stuff – at least as important and potentially far reaching as planning reform, that’s for sure.
The panel comprises:
• Lord Faulks QC – Panel Chair
• Professor Carol Harlow QC
• Vikram Sachdeva QC
• Professor Alan Page
• Celina Colquhoun
• Nick McBride
It is very good to see Celina Colquhoun, as a well-respected and leading planning barrister, on the panel, and I hope that the operation of the Planning Court can perhaps be held out as a useful precedent, with its proactive, relatively quick, case management and judges familiar with our subject area, meaning quicker hearings with, in my view, a greater degree of predictability of outcome. 493 planning cases going to a full hearing (including appeals) in just over six years? That’s not many at all in my view, given the inherent contentious nature of our work and the extent to which there is room for dispute and uncertainty. Despite all the usual gnashing of teeth, isn’t this one aspect of our planning system that is actually working (or at least would be once the Court of Appeal adopts the same approach to timescales as the Planning Court)? In fact, where would we be without regular clarification from the courts as to what the legislation actually means?!
That leads neatly onto a reminder about our free weekly Town Library Planning Court rulings subscription service. The registration page for this and other Town Library updates (e.g. planning appeal decision letters) is here: https://www.townlegal.com/news-and-resources/#the-town-library .
Simon Ricketts, 15 August 2020
Personal views, et cetera