Stonehenge Road Tunnel Consent Quashed

This is a month in which we have seen the Government announce that it would be reviewing its National Networks (i.e. roads and rail) National Policy Statement to take account of net zero carbon commitments and in the meantime fend off a challenge to its current road investment strategy (RIS2): R (Transport Action Network Limited v Secretary of State for Transport (Holgate J, 26 July 2021).

This has also been a month in which we have seen UNESCO remove Liverpool from its world heritage list.

Now at the end of the month, another significant ruling from Holgate J in R (Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site Limited) v Secretary of State (Holgate J, 30 July 2021), concerning both the National Networks NPS and a world heritage site.

The court has quashed the decision of the Secretary of State (“SST”), against his examining authority’s recommendations, to “grant a development consent order (“DCO”) […] for the construction of a new route 13 km long for the A303 between Amesbury and Berwick Down which would replace the existing surface route. The new road would have a dual instead of a single carriageway and would run in a tunnel 3.3 km long through the Stonehenge part of the Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites World Heritage Site (“WHS”)“. I had written about the SST’s decision to grant the DCO in my 14 November 2020 blog post, Minister Knows Best (It is interesting to look back – all three of the DCO decisions I mentioned in that post have now been quashed, the others being Norfolk Vanguard Windfarm (also by Holgate J, in R (Pearce) v Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (18 February 2021) and also in February 2021 the quashing by consent order of the Manston Airport DCO).

The SST’s decision to grant the A303 (Amesbury to Berwick Down) Development Consent Order 2020, to give it its formal title, was challenged on five grounds, some of those with sub-grounds. They were, in full:

Ground 1

(i) The SST failed to apply paragraph 5.124 of the NPSNN (see [43] above) to 11 non-designated heritage assets;

(ii) The SST failed to consider the effect of the proposal on 14 scheduled ancient monuments (i.e. designated heritage assets);

(iii) The SST failed to consider the effect of the proposal on the setting of the heritage assets, as opposed to its effect on the OUV of the WHS as a whole;

(iv) The SST’s judgment that the proposal would cause less than substantial harm improperly involved the application of a “blanket discount” to the harm caused to individual heritage assets.

Ground 2– lack of evidence to support disagreement with the Panel

The claimant submits that the SST disagreed with the Panel on the substantial harm issue without there being any proper evidential basis for doing so. Mr. Wolfe QC advances this ground by reference to the SST’s acceptance of the views of IP2 in DL 34, 43, 50 and 80. He submitted that IP2’s representations did not provide the SST with evidence to support his disagreement with the Panel on “substantial harm” in two respects. First, he said that HE only addressed the spatial aspect of the third main issue and did not address harm to individual assets or groups of assets. Second, he submitted that SST had misunderstood IP2’s position: it had never said that the harm would be less than substantial.”

Ground 3 – double-counting of heritage benefits

The claimant submits that the SST not only took into account the heritage benefits of the scheme as part of the overall balancing exercise required by para. 5.134 of the NPSNN, but also took those matters into account as tempering the level of heritage disbenefit. It is said that this was impermissible double-counting because those heritage benefits were placed in both scales of the same balance.”

Ground 4 – whether the proposal breached the World Heritage Convention

“The claimant contends that the SST’s acceptance that the scheme would cause harm, that is less than substantial harm, to the WHS involved a breach of articles 4 and 5 of the Convention and therefore the SST erred in law in concluding that s.104(4) of PA 2008 was not engaged. It was engaged and so, it is submitted, the presumption in s.104(3) should not have been applied in the decision letter.”

Ground 5

(i) The SST failed to take into account any conflict with Core Policies 58 and 59 of the Wiltshire Plan and with policy 1d of the WHS Management Plan;

(ii) The SST failed to take into account the effect of his conclusion that the proposal would cause less than substantial harm to heritage assets on the business case advanced for the scheme;

(iii) The SST failed to consider alternative schemes in accordance with the World Heritage Convention and common law.

The 39 Essex chambers press statement (this being a case well represented by barristers from that chambers: five of the seven appearing!) summarises the outcome as follows:

The claim was allowed on two grounds:

· Part of ground 1(iv): that the Minister did not receive a precis of, or any briefing on, heritage impacts where the Examining Authority agreed with Highways England but did not summarise in their report. He therefore could not form any conclusion upon those heritage assets, whether in agreement or disagreement;

· Ground 5(iii): The Examining Authority and the Minister limited their concluded consideration of alternatives to whether an options appraisal had been carried out and whether there was information on alternatives. However, they did not go on to consider the relative merits of the scheme and alternatives, in particular extending the proposed tunnel farther westwards. Mr Justice Holgate considered it was irrational not to have drawn conclusions in relation alternatives, particularly given that third parties had raised them and the Examining Authority had addressed the information about them in its Report. The Judge held that the circumstances were wholly exceptional. In this case the relative merits of the alternative tunnel options compared to the western cutting and portals were an obviously material consideration which the Minister was required to assess and draw conclusions upon.

The Court rejected other grounds of challenge holding:

· There was no failure to consider whether certain archaeological sites were of national importance;

· The effects on certain individual scheduled monuments had been considered;

· The examining authority and the Minister had considered the effect on scheduled monuments and other heritage assets in addition to the World Heritage Site;

· The Minister had correctly understood Historic England’s advice;

· Discussing the recent Court of Appeal judgment in Bramshill the judge considered that in some cases a decision maker could consider the harm and benefits to a particular heritage asset before deciding whether there was net harm to it and that harm could be assessed for different purposes in different parts of guidance. In Stonehenge the court held that there had been no improper double counting or consideration;

· Articles 4 and 5 of the World Heritage Convention confers obligations on member states towards World Heritage Sites. The Court considered that the Convention does not impose an absolute requirement of protection, but that a balance can be drawn against harm and public benefits.

· The Minister had also lawfully considered the development plan, the World Heritage Site Management Plan and the business case.”

For those who may misunderstand the supervisory role of the courts, there was this warning from Holgate J:

“Plainly, this is a scheme about which strongly divergent opinions are held. It is therefore necessary to refer to what was said by the Divisional Court in R (Rights: Community: Action) v Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government [2021] PTSR 553 at [6]:- “It is important to emphasise at the outset what this case is and is not about. Judicial review is the means of ensuring that public bodies act within the limits of their legal powers and in accordance with the relevant procedures and legal principles governing the exercise of their decision-making functions. The role of the court in judicial review is concerned with resolving questions of law. The court is not responsible for making political, social, or economic choices. Those decisions, and those choices, are ones that Parliament has entrusted to ministers and other public bodies. The choices may be matters of legitimate public debate, but they are not matters for the court to determine. The Court is only concerned with the legal issues raised by the claimant as to whether the defendant has acted unlawfully.”

The present judgment can only decide whether the decision to grant the DCO was lawful or unlawful. It would therefore be wrong for the outcome of this judgment to be treated as either approving or disapproving the project. That is not the court’s function.

I thought it might be interesting to pick out some of the passages where Holgate J sets out his reasoning for finding the decision to have been unlawful:

Ground 1(iv)

“Here, the SST did receive a precis of the ES [environmental statement] and HIA [heritage impact assessment] in so far as the Panel addressed those documents in its report. But the SST did not receive a precis of, or any briefing on, the parts of those documents relating to impacts on heritage assets which the Panel accepted but did not summarise in its reports. This gap is not filled by relying upon the views of IP2 in the Examination because, understandably, they did not see it as being necessary for them to provide a precis of the work on heritage impacts in the ES and in the HIA. Mr Wolfe QC is therefore right to say that the SST did not take into account the appraisal in the ES and HIA of those additional assets, and therefore did not form any conclusion upon the impacts upon their significance, whether in agreement or disagreement.

In my judgment this involved a material error of law. The precise number of assets involved has not been given, but it is undoubtedly large. Mr Wolfe QC pointed to some significant matters. To take one example, IP1 assessed some of the impacts on assets and asset groupings not mentioned by the Panel as slight adverse and others as neutral or beneficial. We have no evidence as to what officials thought about those assessments. More pertinently, the decision letter drafted by officials (which was not materially different from the final document – see [67] above) was completely silent about those assessments. The draft decision letter did not say that they had been considered and were accepted, or otherwise. The court was not shown anything in the decision letter, or the briefing, which could be said to summarise such matters. In these circumstances, the SST was not given legally sufficient material to be able lawfully to carry out the “heritage” balancing exercise required by paragraph 5.134 of the NPSNN and the overall balancing exercise required by s.104 of the PA 2008. In those balancing exercises the SST was obliged to take into account the impacts on the significance of all designated heritage assets affected so that they were weighed, without, of course, having to give reasons which went through all of them one by one.”

Ground 5 (iii)

“The focus of the claimant’s oral submissions was that the defendant failed to consider the relative merits of two alternative schemes for addressing the harm resulting from the western cutting and portal, firstly, to cover approximately 800m of the cutting and secondly, to extend the bored tunnel so that the two portals are located outside the western boundary of the WHS.”

“The relevant circumstances of the present case are wholly exceptional. In this case the relative merits of the alternative tunnel options compared to the western cutting and portals were an obviously material consideration which the SST was required to assess. It was irrational not to do so. This was not merely a relevant consideration which the SST could choose whether or not to take into account. I reach this conclusion for a number of reasons, the cumulative effect of which I judge to be overwhelming. “

Holgate J goes on to set out in detail nine reasons on which he relies (see paragraphs 278 to 288 of the judgment).

The Secretary of State has an uneasy summer ahead: whether or not he seeks permission to appeal, is this a scheme he is still wedded to, cheek by jowl with his transport decarbonisation plan and promised review of the National Networks NPS? Awkwardly, the prime minister had only recently referred to the project in his 15 July 2021 levelling up speech as “critical and overdue”.

Can you make a u-turn on a trunk road?

Simon Ricketts, 30 July 2021

Personal views, et cetera

We will be discussing the case on clubhouse on 10 August (link here), our regular Planning Law, Unplanned panellist Victoria Hutton having appeared for the successful claimant. However, this coming Tuesday, 3 August 2021, our topic will be ££ affordable workspace in section 106 agreements: Why? how? ££ led by my Town Legal colleague Lucy Morton and leading economist Ellie Evans (Volterra) plus other special guests. Join us! Link here.

Photograph courtesy of Highways England

Author: simonicity

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

One thought on “Stonehenge Road Tunnel Consent Quashed”

  1. Time to upgrade the parallel mainline railway which runs a parallel route from London waterloo to Exeter which is slow and stopping and single track in places to allow fast trains removing vehicles from the whole of the #a303 and westcountry roads

    Like

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