Strong Beer: London Tall Buildings & The Master Brewer Case

If you are dealing with any proposal for a building of six storeys or more in London, R (London Borough of Hillingdon) v Mayor of London (Lang J, 15 December 2021) is a vital case, because it resolves for now the question of how the relevant policy in the London Plan, policy D9, is to be interpreted. Is it right, as have some have contended, that tall buildings may only be developed in locations identified as suitable in boroughs’ local plans? Lang J says no.

The three relevant parts of the policy for the purposes of this issue, as quoted in the case, read as follows:

Definition

A

Based on local context, Development Plans should define what is considered a tall building for specific localities, the height of which will vary between and within different parts of London but should not be less than 6 storeys or 18 metres measured from ground to the floor level of the uppermost storey.

Locations

B

1) Boroughs should determine if there are locations where tall buildings may be an appropriate form of development, subject to meeting the other requirements of the Plan. This process should include engagement with neighbouring boroughs that may be affected by tall building developments in identified locations.

2) Any such locations and appropriate tall building heights should be identified on maps in Development Plans.

3) Tall buildings should only be developed in locations that are identified as suitable in Development Plans.

Impacts

C

Development proposals should address the following impacts:

1) visual impacts […]

2) functional impact […]

3) environmental impact […]”

(there is also a fourth part – as to provision for public access).

The big question has been whether the first and second parts of the policy have to be passed before a scheme can be judged as against the detailed criteria in part C.

The text underlined had been added pursuant to a direction by the Secretary of State dated 10 December 2020 before the plan was then adopted on 2 March 2021.

Quoting from the judgment:

The Secretary of State’s covering letter, dated 10 December 2020, said as follows:

“….. I am issuing a new Direction regarding Policy D9 (Tall Buildings). There is clearly a place for tall buildings in London, especially where there are existing clusters. However, there are some areas where tall buildings don’t reflect the local character. I believe boroughs should be empowered to choose where tall buildings are built within their communities. Your draft policy goes some way to dealing with this concern. In my view we should go further and I am issuing a further Direction to strengthen the policy to ensure such developments are only brought forward in appropriate and clearly defined areas, as determined by the boroughs whilst still enabling gentle density across London. I am sure that you share my concern about such proposals and will make the required change which will ensure tall buildings do not come forward in inappropriate areas of the capital.”

DR12 set out a “Direction Overview” as follows:

The draft London Plan includes a policy for tall buildings but this could allow isolated tall buildings outside designated areas for tall buildings and could enable boroughs to define tall buildings as lower than 7 storeys, thus thwarting proposals for gentle density.

This Direction is designed to ensure that there is clear policy against tall buildings outside any areas that boroughs determine are appropriate for tall buildings, whilst ensuring that the concept of gentle density is embodied London wide.

It retains the key role for boroughs to determine where may be appropriate for tall buildings and what the definition of tall buildings are, so that it is suitable for that Borough.”

The ‘statement of reasons’ for DR12 stated inter alia:

“……The modification to policy D9 provides clear justification to avoid forms of development which are often considered to be out of character, whilst encouraging gentle density across London.”

The issue had come before the court in the context of planning permission granted by the Mayor of London for the redevelopment of the former Master Brewer Motel site in Hillingdon – a development promoted by Inland Homes for a series of buildings of up to 11 storeys in height. Hillingdon Council had resolved to refuse planning permission on the basis that tall buildings in this location would be contrary to its local plan but the Mayor had recovered the application for his own determination and approved it on 30 March 2021.

There were three grounds to the judicial review brought by the Council:

i) The Defendant misinterpreted Policy D9 of the London Plan 2021 by concluding that, notwithstanding conflict with Part B of that policy, tall buildings were to be assessed for policy compliance against the criteria in Part C.

ii) The Defendant erred in failing to take into account a material consideration, namely, the Claimant’s submissions and accompanying expert evidence as to air quality.

iii) The Defendant acted unlawfully and in a manner which was procedurally unfair in that he failed to formally re-consult the Claimant or hold a hearing, prior to his re-determination of the application, following the adoption of the London Plan 2021.”

I am only focusing on the first ground but the third ground may also be of interest on the question of when an application needs to be re-consulted upon or re-considered in the light of changes in policy.

The analysis carried out by the judge is interesting.

First of all she considers whether the meaning of the policy was “clear and unambiguous” such that under legal principles of interpretation, the courts should not have regard to extrinsic materials to assist in interpretation. She recorded that “[a]ll parties contended that the meaning of Policy D9 was clear and unambiguous, despite the differences in their interpretation of it. In those circumstances, applying the principles set out above, I consider that I ought not to have regard to the letter from the Secretary of State to the Defendant dated 10 December 2020 (paragraph 46 above) as it is not a public document which members of the public could reasonably be expected to access when reading Policy D9. Furthermore, it is of limited value as, taken at its highest, it sets out the Secretary of State’s intentions, whereas the Court must consider the meaning of the words actually used in Policy D9, as amended by DR12, which in my view did not give effect to the expressed intentions in the letter.”

(I’m scratching my head as to how the various parties to litigation can be arguing as to the meaning of a policy but can agree that the meaning of the policy is “clear and unambiguous”. In saying that the Secretary of State’s direction letter “was not a public document which members of the public could reasonably be expected to access when reading Policy D9”, I take it that she was not saying that it was not a “public document”, which of course it was, but that a member of the public should not be expected to go searching for such documents to assist with interpretation of a policy if it is indeed clear and unambiguous).

She then concludes that the council’s interpretation of the policy “cannot be correct”:

Read straightforwardly, objectively and as a whole, policy D9:

i) requires London Boroughs to define tall buildings within their local plans, subject to certain specified guidance (Part A);

ii) requires London Boroughs to identify within their local plans suitable locations for tall buildings (Part B);

iii) identifies criteria against which the impacts of tall buildings should be assessed (Part C); and

iv) makes provision for public access (Part D).

There is no wording which indicates that Part A and/or Part B are gateways, or pre-conditions, to Part C. In order to give effect of Mr Howell Williams QC’s interpretation, it is necessary to read the words underlined below into the first line of Part C to spell out its true meaning:

Development proposals in locations that have been identified in development plans under Part B should address the following impacts.”

But if that had been the intention, then words to that effect would have been included within the policy. It would have been a straightforward exercise in drafting. It is significant that the Secretary of State’s direction only required the addition of the word “suitable” to Part B(3). It did not add any text which supports or assists the Claimant’s interpretation, even though the Secretary of State had the opportunity to do so.

In my view, the context is critical to the interpretation. Policy D9 is a planning policy in a development plan. By section 70(2) TCPA 1990 and section 38(6) PCPA 2004, there is a presumption that a determination will be made in accordance with the plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Thus, the decision-maker “will have to decide whether there are considerations of such weight as to indicate that the development plan should not be accorded the priority which the statute has given to it”: per Lord Clyde in City of Edinburgh at 1459G. Furthermore, the decision-maker must understand the relevant provisions of the plan “recognising that they may sometimes pull in different directions”: per Lindblom LJ in BDW Trading Ltd at [21], and extensive authorities there cited in support of that proposition. As Lord Reed explained in Tesco Stores Ltd v Dundee City Council, “development plans are full of broad statements of policy, many of which may be mutually irreconcilable, so that in a particular case one must give way to another”.

The drafter of Policy D9, and the Defendant who is the maker of the London Plan, must have been aware of these fundamental legal principles, and therefore that it was possible that the policy in paragraph B(3) might not be followed, in any particular determination, if it was outweighed by other policies in the development plan, or by material considerations. It seems likely that policy provision was made for such cases, given the importance of the issue.

In considering whether to grant planning permission for a tall building which did not comply with paragraph B(3), because it was not identified in the development plan, it would surely be sensible, and in accordance with the objectives of Policy D9, for the proposal to be assessed by reference to the potential impacts which are listed in Part C. The Claimant’s interpretation leads to the absurd result that a decision-maker in those circumstances is not permitted to have regard to Part C, and must assess the impacts of the proposal in a vacuum.”

Therefore:

Notwithstanding the non-compliance with Part B of Policy D9, the Defendant determined that the proposal accorded with the provisions of the development plan when read as a whole. That was a planning judgment, based on the benefits of the proposal, such as the contribution of much-needed housing, in particular affordable housing, and the suitability of the Site (brownfield and sustainable, with good transport). The Defendant was satisfied, on the advice of the GLA officers, that sufficient protection from air quality impacts would be achieved. The Defendant was entitled to make this judgment, in the exercise of his discretion.”

Accordingly, boroughs do not have a veto, by virtue of their local plans, as to where tall buildings may be located in their boroughs – policy D9 is not to be interpreted in a way automatically treats proposals for tall buildings as contrary to the development plan where they are not supported in the local plan.

Whether or not this is what the previous Secretary of State intended with his direction may be another matter but of course the London Plan is adopted and free from the possibility of legal challenge (and, pragmatically, the Secretary of State could have course chosen to call in the application but did not) – and if parts A and B were indeed to be a necessary gateway there would be the immediate issue that any development of buildings of six storeys or more would be stymied as contrary to the development plan until boroughs’ plans had caught up with, and been examined in the context of, the new policy approach – hardly consistent with the Secretary of State’s urging for London to achieve a significant increase in housing delivery.

To mark the end of 2021 and, self-indulgently, the 5th anniversary of my firm, we have a unique Clubhouse event planned for 6 pm this Tuesday 21 December: “START ME UP: how Town Legal started 5 years ago – & why”. There will be a stageful of “day one” Townies: Clare Fielding, Patrick Robinson, Meeta Kaur, Benita Wignall, Spencer Tewis-Allen, our former chairman (and ex Herbert Smith Freehills COO) John Mullins and former associate Ricky Gama (now Leigh Day) as well as our good friends, without whom…, Drew Winlaw (Simmons Wavelength) and Beau Brooke (Kindleworth). If you ever wondered what it takes to create a professional services firm from scratch, do tune in. Link to app here.

Simon Ricketts, 17 December 2021

Personal views, et cetera

Photo by Jon Parry courtesy Unsplash

Author: simonicity

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

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