The Bridge To Nowhere Case

Sliced salami anyone?

Defining what is the “project” for the purposes of ascertaining whether environmental impact assessment is required and, if it is, carrying it out appropriately, can be more difficult than one might think.

The Government’s planning practice guidance summarises the position as follows:

How should multiple applications be treated?

An application should not be considered in isolation if, in reality, it is an integral part of a more substantial development (Judgment in the case of R v Swale BC ex parte RSPB [1991] 1PLR 6). In such cases, the need for Environmental Impact Assessment must be considered in the context of the whole development. In other cases, it is appropriate to establish whether each of the proposed developments could proceed independently (R (Candlish) v Hastings Borough Council [2005] All ER (D) 178 (Jul); Baker v Bath & North East Somerset Council [2009] All ER (D) 169 (Jul)).

Paragraph: 025 Reference ID: 4-025-20170728

I’m going to consider in this blog post the Court of Appeal’s ruling last week in R (Ashchurch Rural Parish Council) v Tewkesbury Borough Council (Court of Appeal, 7 February 2023), but the caselaw references in the guidance have been out of date for some time, in not referring to a number of recent cases, for instance the Court of Appeal’s ruling in R (Larkfleet Limited) v South Kesteven District Council (Court of Appeal, 6 August 2015), which concerned a proposal for a bypass on which significant residential development was dependent.

The court in Larkfleet referred to the relevant EU legislation and case law, in accordance with which the EIA Regulations were to be interpreted:

“What is in substance and reality a single project cannot be “salami-sliced” into a series of smaller projects, each of which falls below the relevant threshold criteria according to which EIA scrutiny is required”.

In that case, the court found that the construction of the bypass and the carrying out of the residential development were indeed to be treated as separate “projects”:

“Mr Kingston QC, for the Appellant, sought to rely on these passages in support of his submission that SKDC was obliged to assess the proposal for the link road and the proposal for the residential site as a single project. However, in my view the argument is unsustainable. It is clear from the terms of the EIA Directive that just because two sets of proposed works may have a cumulative effect on the environment, this does not make them a single “project” for the purposes of the Directive: the Directive contemplates that they might constitute two potential “projects” but with cumulative effects which need to be assessed. The passages from Ecologistas to which I have referred also contemplate that two sets of proposed works may constitute different projects for the purposes of the Directive. What these passages are directed towards is avoiding a situation in which no EIA scrutiny is undertaken at all. However, if the two proposed sets of words are properly to be assessed as two distinct “projects” which meet the threshold criteria in the Directive, there will be EIA scrutiny of the cumulative effects of the two projects.

It is true that the scrutiny of cumulative effects between two projects may involve less information than if the two sets of works are treated together as one project, and a planning authority should be astute to ensure that a developer has not sliced up what is in reality one project in order to try to make it easier to obtain planning permission for the first part of the project and thereby gain a foot in the door in relation to the remainder. But the EIA Directive and the jurisprudence of the Court of Justice recognise that it is legitimate for different development proposals to be brought forward at different times, even though they may have a degree of interaction, if they are different “projects”, and in my view that is what has happened here as regards the application for permission to build the link road and the later application to develop the residential site.

The EIA Directive is intended to operate in a way which ensures that there is appropriate EIA scrutiny to protect the environment whilst avoiding undue delay in the operation of the planning control system which would be likely to follow if one were to say that all the environmental effects of every related set of works should be definitively examined before any of those sets of works could be allowed to proceed (and the disproportionate interference with the rights of landowners and developers and the public interest in allowing development to take place in appropriate cases which that would involve). Where two or more proposed linked sets of works are in contemplation, which are properly to be regarded as distinct “projects”, the objective of environmental protection is sufficiently secured under the scheme of the Directive by consideration of their cumulative effects, so far as that is reasonably possible, in the EIA scrutiny applicable when permission for the first project (here, the link road) is sought, combined with the requirement for subsequent EIA scrutiny under the Directive for the second and each subsequent project. The adequacy and appropriateness of environmental protection by these means under the EIA Directive are further underwritten by the fact that alternatives will have been assessed at the strategic level through scrutiny of relevant development plans (here, the Core Strategy and Masterplan) from an environmental perspective under the SEA Directive.”

“The most important feature of this case is that there is a strong planning imperative for the construction of the link road as part of the Grantham by-pass which has nothing to do with the development of the residential site. It is clear from the evidence that the residential site could not be granted planning permission unless the link road is constructed, but the converse is not true: there is a strong independent planning need for the construction of the link road (to complete the Grantham by-pass) whether or not the residential site is developed. In the context of this planning rationale, it makes obvious sense to regard the main function of the link road as being to form part of the Grantham by-pass and hence to regard the relevant project as the “construction of a road” (in the terminology in section 10 of Annex II to the EIA Directive). Since the main functional purpose of the link road, as part of the Grantham by-pass, is to provide a new passage for traffic to avoid Grantham this approach to identification of the project is supported by the references to roads and other transportation projects such as railways, tramways and so on in Annex I and Annex II to the EIA Directive as set out above.”

“As to the design connections, given that it is part of SKDC’s local plan that the residential site should be developed for housing (with some community and employment uses as well), it is simple planning good sense that an application should have been made for the link road (as part of the Grantham by-pass) to skirt the site, to avoid jeopardising those discrete planning objectives, and for the link road to include the roundabout and the stub, to avoid extra costs which are foreseeable if the residential site is developed in accordance with the local plan documents.”

“The fact that funding for the construction of the link road will depend to a significant degree on contributions in due course from the developer of the residential site does not lead to the conclusion that they must be regarded as part of a single “project”. The funding arrangements are contingent matters which do not bear on the planning merits of the proposal to construct the link road to complete the Grantham by-pass.”

“As regards the references in the local plan documents and other documentation to the connections between the link road and the residential site proposals, in my view they are just reflections of the points of linkage between the link road and the residential site referred to above. For example, it is unsurprising that in seeking planning permission for the link road LCC should have emphasised not just the desirability of constructing the Grantham by-pass but also how well that project fitted with other aspects of SKDC’s local plan and the other benefits for SKDC’s area which it would bring; and it is unsurprising that in seeking central government funding for the Grantham by-pass LCC should have emphasised both the need for the by-pass to ease traffic congestion in Grantham and also the other wider benefits which would be likely to be associated with its construction.”

“As further support for the identification of the link road as a distinct “project”, I think it is relevant that the applicant for planning permission is LCC, which is the highway authority with responsibility to promote the public interest in relation to the road network. LCC is not a private developer and has no commercial interest in the residential site. This tends to indicate that the two projects are distinct. I also think it is relevant that at the time of the link road application the detail of the proposals for the development of the residential site had not been worked up to the point at which an application for planning permission could be made by Buckminster, and it cannot be said that this was any part of some deliberate plan to “salami-slice” the applications so as to subvert the proper operation of planning controls.”

I set out all of the above from Larkfleet in some detail as context for, and in part a counter to, those who try to read to much into the implications of, the Court of Appeal’s ruling this week in R (Ashchurch Rural Parish Council) v Tewkesbury Borough Council (Court of Appeal, 7 February 2023).

The case is possibly an unwelcome and no doubt not unusual example of the perverse incentives on local authorities arising from time-limited government funding.

The case concerned a challenge to the grant of planning permission by the council for a road bridge over the Bristol to Birmingham mainline railway north of Ashchurch, Tewkesbury.In March 2019, Tewkesbury has been “awarded Garden Town status for a potential development of up to 10,195 new homes, around 100 ha of employment land, and related infrastructure. This was based on the Tewkesbury Area Draft Concept Masterplan Report (“the Masterplan”), which sets out potential largescale development over an area described as the “North Ashchurch Development Area””.

“The Masterplan expressly recognises that delivery of the northern development plots for Phase 1 development relies on “the provision of a northern link over the main rail line, overcoming severance and completing the link between existing local roads”. It identifies the bridge as one of the “short-term enabling interventions”. The bridge is therefore an essential prerequisite to the delivery of any housing development in the Phase 1 area. It is common ground that the sole purpose of its construction is to facilitate such development.”

In the normal course of events, one might have expected any application for planning permission to be made only after [progress with the joint core strategy] and the adoption of a local plan, and for TBC to seek permission for the Phase 1 development of which the bridge would form an integral part, including the link road and any other vital transport infrastructure. Instead, the application was made, and granted, for the bridge alone.

[Paul Brown KC, acting for the claimant] told the Court that the bridge is known locally as “the bridge to nowhere,” because after it has been constructed, the temporary haul roads will be removed and there will be no connecting roads on either side, just a bridge in the middle of a field, which will be fenced off. Without a functioning highway unlocking the land within the Phase 1 area on the eastern side of the railway, the bridge will serve no useful purpose.

This unusual state of affairs has arisen because TBC wished to avail itself of funding from the Government which was only available for a limited period. In July 2017, the Government launched a £2.3 billion Housing Infrastructure Fund (“HIF”) in order to support housing delivery through the funding of vital physical infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, with the opportunity to facilitate the development of some 100,000 homes in England. The fund was split into two key areas, namely, forward funding (for larger schemes up to £250 million) and marginal funding (for schemes up to £10 million). The deadline for applications was September 2017.

“It follows, therefore, that at the time when the application for planning permission for the bridge was considered, there was a clear expectation that the bridge would serve at least 826 houses, to be built within the Phase 1 area on the eastern side of the railway track, and the road infrastructure, including the link road over the bridge, would need to cater for at least that number.

Prior to making the application for planning permission, TBC commissioned an Environmental Impact Assessment Screening Report, for the purpose of determining whether an Environmental Impact Assessment (“EIA”) was required. The Screening Report was produced in May 2020. The Judge quotes relevant extracts at paras 17 to 26 and para 33 of his judgment. The Screening Report noted that the bridge would not be used until future development came forward to make it operational. It recorded that the current proposals identified that the development area was anticipated to provide 826 new houses. Nevertheless it treated the bridge as a stand-alone “project”, to be considered independently from any environmental assessment of the highway and residential elements of the development that it was envisaged the bridge would facilitate. It noted that an assessment of those elements would be carried out in future, as and when it was envisaged that any development under Phase 1 of the Masterplan would be implemented.

The Screening Report recognised that the bridge was Schedule 2 development under the EIA Regulations, but concluded that, looked at in isolation, it was not likely to have significant effects on the environment. It was therefore unnecessary to carry out an EIA.”

There were basically two grounds of challenge to the grant of planning permission, both successful.

I’m not going to consider in detail the first ground (grounds 1 and 2 in the judgment), which was that the officer’s report had advised members to take into account the benefits of the bridge in terms of facilitating the housing development, but not any adverse effects arising from the housing development. Andrews LJ:

In this particular case, I am satisfied on an appropriately benevolent reading of the [officer’s report] as a whole that the Planning Officer in substance directed the members of the Planning Committee that they could not or must not take account of the harms of the proposed development that the bridge would facilitate. That went beyond mere advice or the expression of a personal view about relevance. Those harms were at least potentially relevant: materiality was a matter for the Committee to determine, and they were being told that they must not consider something to be material which they might otherwise have regarded as material.

The second ground (ground 3 in the judgment) was that the local planning authority had incorrectly characterised the “project” for EIA purposes as being simply the bridge. You will see the approach that the court took in relation to that matter from the following passages, which I suspect will be widely cited:

The identity of the “project” for these purposes is not necessarily circumscribed by the ambit of the specific application for planning permission which is under consideration. The objectives of the Directive and the Regulations cannot be circumvented (deliberately or otherwise) by dividing what is in reality a single project into separate parts and treating each of them as a “project” – a process referred to in shorthand as “salami-slicing””.

In Larkfleet, it was held that a proposed urban extension development and a link road were not a single project because despite the connections between them, there was a “strong planning imperative” for the construction of the link road as part of a town by-pass, which had nothing to do with the proposed development of the residential site. By contrast, in Burridge v Breckland District Council  [2013] EWCA Civ 228, (“Burridge”) the Court of Appeal held that a planning application for a biomass renewable energy plant and a planning application for a combined heat and power plant linked to it by an underground gas pipe were a “single project,” on the basis that they were “functionally interdependent and [could] only be regarded as an “integral part” of the same development.

It follows that the identification of the “project” is based on a fact-specific inquiry. That means other cases, decided on different facts, are only relevant to the limited extent that they indicate the type of factors which might assist in determining whether or not the proposed development is an integral part of a wider project.

Lang J, in her judgment in R(Wingfield) v Canterbury City Council and another [2019] EWHC 1975 (Admin), [2020] JPL 154, (“Wingfield”) stated at [63] that the question as to what constitutes the “project” is a matter of judgment for the competent planning authority, subject to challenge on grounds of Wednesbury rationality or other public law error. At [64] she set out a non-exhaustive list of potentially relevant criteria, which serves as a useful aide-memoire. These include whether the sites are owned or promoted by the same person, functional interdependence, and stand-alone projects. In relation to the last of these factors she said:

“where a development is justified on its own merits and would be pursued independently of another development, this may indicate that it constitutes a single individual project that is not an integral part of a more substantial scheme”.

The reverse may also be true, and that reflects the position in this case.”

“There is no reference in the Screening Report to Larkfleet or Burridge, nor to the factors identified in Wingfield. The author did not address the question whether the bridge and the highway that was envisaged to run across it were “functionally interdependent”; nor the question whether building a non-functioning bridge in the middle of a field was justified on its own merits, as a stand-alone project, without regard to the development it facilitated; nor the question whether the application for permission would have been pursued in the absence of the proposed development of Phase 1 of the Masterplan.

“I reject the proposition that in a case in which the specific development for which permission has been sought clearly forms an integral part of an envisaged wider future development, without which the original development would never take place, there can only be a single “project” for the purposes of the Directive and the Regulations if the contemplated wider development has reached the stage where an application has been made or could be made for planning permission. That proposition appears to me to be antithetic to the approach taken in Rochdale and inherently illogical. The question “is this application part of a larger project?” can still be answered even if planning permission has not yet been sought for the larger project or the details of the larger project have not been finalised.”

“Insofar as the author of the Screening Opinion, and the Development Manager, decided that the “project” must be confined to the bridge because “any future contemplated development could not be [robustly] assessed at the time of the screening decision”, they fell into error by conflating two separate inquiries, namely, “what is the project?” and “what are the environmental impacts of that project?” The difficulty of carrying out any assessment of the impacts of a larger project which is lacking in detail, is a matter which is separate from and irrelevant to the question whether the application under consideration forms an integral part of that larger project.”

“The Phase 1 project may not be easy to define in detail because it is at a relatively early stage, which explains why the Screening Report refers to a “lack of definition”. That may affect the way in which the overall assessment of whether there is a significant impact on the environment is carried out – it would necessarily be based on less concrete information than an assessment at a later stage of the planning process would be. However, in my judgment it cannot affect the answer to the initial question at the screening stage, “is this application part of a larger project”? If and to the extent that TBC treated it as if it did, they fell into error.

The fact that the Planning Practice Guidance addresses the potential relevance of “other existing or approved developments” and tells local planning authorities that they should always have regard to the possible cumulative effects arising from any existing or approved development, should not be taken as restricting consideration of the impact of larger projects to “existing or approved” developments.

I accept that there was no evidence of any deliberate attempt by TBC to “salami-slice” in the present case. There were cogent justifications provided for hiving off and accelerating the application for the bridge, which had nothing to do with a wish to avoid the impacts of a full EIA assessment. But it does not follow from the fact that the application for the bridge was hived off in that way that its relationship to Phase 1 of the Masterplan, which provided the sole underlying justification for its existence, could be lawfully ignored when deciding on the identity of the “project””

“In conclusion on Ground 3, I am satisfied that TBC did not take a legally correct approach to the decision whether an EIA assessment was required. They never asked themselves the right questions. If and insofar as they justified treating the bridge as a stand-alone “project” by reference to (a) the difficulty of assessing the environmental impacts of the wider project (b) the fact that the Masterplan has no formal planning status or (c) the fact that EIA assessments will be carried out in future as and when Phase 1, or other aspects of it, become the subject of planning applications, they fell into error.”

What are the main implications of the Ashchurch case?

  • Care is needed in relation to the EIA scoping and screening process for a start, analysing the particular factual situation against this case law.
  • Clarity is needed as to whether there is any functional interdependence on other proposals – whether the proposals the subject of the planning application would be likely to proceed absent wider proposals – whether it forms an integral part of a larger project (to my mind that remains, as per Larkfleet, a high test, but it needs to be properly considered by the decision maker)
  • Caution should be exercised – in particular that those matters set out in the final passage I quote above are not relied upon as justification for arriving at a narrow project definition.

As always, this is not an “opening of the floodgates” moment. This was about a piece of infrastructure which only had one potential purpose. It was not, for instance, one parcel of development within a wider development allocation as in Wingfield.  What matters is that decision makers should arrive at a reasoned, rational, conclusion as to the extent of the project for the purposes of the EIA Regulations, rather than simply take what is given to them on a plate by way of the planning application.

I do not like sliced-salami, Sam-I-Am.

Simon Ricketts, 11 February 2023

Personal views, et cetera

Courtesy Dr Seuss

Author: simonicity

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

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