Maximus: Dove J Ruling On PINS Validation Approach

My 14 April 2018 blog post Telephone Kiosks v Homes commented on the rash of prior approval applications for “telephone kiosks” under Part 16 Class A of Schedule 2 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015. I queried in passing as to whether some of these applications met the test in the General Permitted Development Order that the development should be for the purpose of the electronic communications code operator’s electronic communications network. I didn’t know at the time that a more basic (and surely from the operator’s perspective entirely avoidable) dispute was under way between one operator and the Planning Inspectorate.

The background to Maximus Networks Limited v Secretary of State (Dove J, 25 July 2018) was that Maximus had lodged around 390 appeals in situations where either the relevant local planning authority had not determined a prior approval application within the statutory period or had decided not treat the application as valid. The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham had declined to validate the applications on the basis that Maximus had, in submitting their applications, not met the statutory requirement to provide evidence that notice had been served on the relevant land owner (which in every case was either the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham or Transport for London). Maximus “contended that since the land the subject of the application was in the ownership of the highway authority who were also the local planning authority there was no need for compliance with this condition.” The Planning Inspectorate refused to validate the appeals.

Maximus took the position that whilst it is unlawful for a local planning authority to accept an application which does not meet the statutory validation requirements (section 327A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990) the position is different on appeal, in that the Secretary of State is not constrained by section 327A and, pursuant to section 79 of the 1990 Act, “may deal with the application as if it had been made to him in the first instance” and therefore has a discretion to waive any procedural irregularity. By the time of the court hearing before Dove J, issues had been resolved in all save 53 appeals.

Maximus relied on three grounds of challenge:

1. PINS had wrongly approached the appeals on the basis that they did not have a discretion to treat them as validly made.

2. “even if PINS did, in reality, recognise that there was a discretion which had to be exercised as a consequence of the legislative framework and authorities which are set out below, the discretion was in fact exercised irrationally.”

3. In the event that the court were to find that the appeals were not validly made, Maximus was entitled to refund of the application fees that it had paid to the local planning authorities.

Dove J accepted that PINs did have a discretion to treat the appeals as valid:

“...section 79 of the 1990 Act provides the defendant with a discretion to exercise as to whether or not to accept an appeal even if it is found to be wanting in relation to any procedural aspect. This discretion arises both under section 79(1) which contains a wide discretion for the Secretary of State to allow or dismiss an appeal, reverse or vary the local planning authority’s decision or any part of it, and deal with the application as if made to the defendant in the first instance. A discretion also arises under section 79(6) which provides that the defendant has a discretion to decline to determine an appeal or proceed with its determination if it emerges during the course of the appeal’s determination that the local planning authority could not have granted planning permission…

However, he considered that PINS had indeed exercised its discretion:

“It needs to be borne in mind that this was an administrative decision and thus an overly forensic scrutiny of its terms would be inappropriate. It is particularly pertinent in my judgment that, without being a detailed legal treatise, the decision sets out the nature of the statutory discretion set out in section 79 and summarises the decision of the Court of Appeal in Bath v North East Somerset. I am unable to accept that what follows in terms of PINS’ decision involves a complete negation of the exercise of discretion under section 79. The decision goes on to note the view that had been formed that there had been a failure to comply with the formal requirements in relation to notice under part 16 of schedule 2 of the GPDO and in my judgment that is not evidence of PINS assuming that they only have power to conclude that there was no jurisdiction to entertain appeals, but rather explaining their justification for concluding in applying section 79 of the 1990 Act that the applications have not been valid and therefore the appeals should not be entertained.

In my judgment a fair reading of the decision leads to the conclusion that it is a concise analysis of the basis upon which PINS were declining to accept jurisdiction in respect of the appeals, rather than an assertion that PINS had no power at all to do anything other than refuse to accept the appeals. ”

Dove J accepted that PINS had exercised its discretion rationally in determining that a local authority could be prejudiced in circumstances where it was not served with notice of the making of an application in its capacity as landowning highways authority:

A local authority as a land owner may have very different interests and concerns to take account of in exercising its powers to own and control land. It cannot be assumed that when an application of this kind is made to a local planning authority that the element of the local authority exercising its planning functions will automatically or of necessity consult that part of the council concerned with protecting its interests as a land owner or automatically be aware of all matters which the department responsible for safeguarding the council’s interests as land owner would wish to draw to their attention. Certainly that assumption is not contained within the statutory framework which, uncontroversially, by implication provides for the separate notification of the land owner when it is a local authority as part and parcel of the formalities for the application itself. […] It is a wholly unproved hypothesis that simply because the local planning authority is part of the same organisation as the affected landowner no prejudice from failing to notify the land owner could conceivably arise. It may be that the local authority as land owner would have different concerns and observations to draw to the attention of the local planning authority exercising its development control functions. I am unable to accept therefore that this observation in the pre-action protocol letter betrays circular reasoning or an irrational approach. ”

So, PINS was perfectly entitled to turn the appeals away. However, there was a sting in the tale for the authorities; Dove J accepted that the application fees paid were as a result refundable:

In my view where, as here, the defendant concludes that an appeal is to be rejected on the basis that application is invalid (and he declines to exercise his discretion under section 79 to nonetheless continue to consider the appeal) then that is in effect a conclusion that the application was and should have been rejected as invalid and therefore falls within the scope of regulation 14(3) of the 2012 Regulations. It follows the claimant’s case in relation to Ground 3 should succeed, leading to a declaration that in respect of those applications made to the first interested party they are entitled to have their fees refunded.”

As mentioned, an avoidable dispute, but an interesting reminder of the slightly different approach to validation requirements that applies on appeal. And something other to write about than the NPPF.

Simon Ricketts, 29 July 2018

Personal views, et cetera

Telephone Kiosks vs Homes

Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” (Edward Lorenz)

Congratulations to Trudi Elliott for her well-deserved appointment as independent chair of the Planning Inspectorate’s board of directors on 1 April 2018. She is uniquely qualified for the role and it is such a crucial time for the Planning Inspectorate.

As far as I’m concerned PINS has been one of the country’s most impressive bodies, truly independent in its decision-making, rigorous and non partisan in its approach and in recent years increasingly open as to the targets it is working to and the challenges it faces. Sarah Richards appears to be a competent chief executive and in the best traditions of the organisation.

However, I am worried that all is not well. Current average performance timescales for appeals by way of written representations, informal hearings and inquiries are reported to be as follows, as at 20 March 2018:

– written representations are taking 24 weeks overall (with the first ten weeks being to start date)

– hearings are taking 36 weeks overall (with the first 17 weeks being to start date)

– inquiries are taking 49 weeks overall (with the first five weeks being to start date).

Whilst the numbers do not appear to be worsening materially over the last year or so, they are certainly not materially improving, at a time when you would think that the Government should be pulling every lever. Furthermore the most frustrating delays are between validation of the appeal and receipt of the ‘start date’ letter, which sets the procedural deadlines for the appeal process itself. Until the start date, you’re just sitting in the in-tray.

Whilst individual experiences are inevitably anecdotal, we are acting on one appeal, in relation to a scheme for around 70 apartments (refused by members against the officers’ recommendation), where an appeal was submitted on 14 December 2017, with the written representations appeal procedure requested, validated on 9 January and yet still no start date.

Not quite the flap of a butterfly’s wing, but I posted a frustrated tweet on 20 March commenting on the delay.

Various people responded to the tweet with their own similar recent experiences, which led Mark Wilding to write a good piece in Planning magazine on 28 March Why new inspectorate data substantiates complaints about lengthening appeal delay. That in turn for instance led to a former inspector writing to the magazine with his own speculation as to the reasons for the current problems.

After the Mark Wilding piece, I wrote on 3 April to Sarah Richards to provide more details about the particular appeal in case something could be done to unlock the continuing delay in obtaining a start date. Sarah responded very quickly on 6 April. She made clear that of course she could not intervene in the particular appeal but she took the opportunity to set out the challenges which PINS is currently facing. As she said in her response that she would do, she adapted the response into an open letter to Planning magazine which it published online on 12 April.

One particular passage in her letter was news to me:

The demand on our resources has been compounded by the unexpected receipt of more than 1,000 prior approval appeals for phone kiosks, and that number is likely to increase. Currently these have been absorbed into our normal planning appeal work, with consequent delays. We are now adopting a different model to process these appeals which will use our non-salaried inspectors, and this should release capacity back to mainstream work. This will have a positive impact on the overall time taken to determine appeals over the coming months.”

So one of the reasons that there are currently delays in the processing of appeals for housing and no doubt other forms of development is a deluge of prior approval appeals for phone kiosks??

Who uses a phone kiosk any more, I naively thought. Well of course advertising companies do, for a start.

I did a little digging and I now see that there is this huge drain on the resources of local planning authorities as well as PINS caused by somewhat of a gold rush.

The Local Government Association raised a concern earlier this year, LGA: call for crackdown on ‘trojan’ telephone boxes amid 900 per cent rise in some areas (27 January 2018).

Councils have been under sustained attack for some time from a variety of, usually pretty anonymous, companies, each with a licence to operate under the electronic communications code, each seeking approval for the erection of a large number of new style telephone kiosks. The main companies include such household names (not) as Maximus Networks Limited, Infocus Public Networks Limited, Euro Payphone Limited and New World Payphones.

Electronic communications code operators benefit from deemed planning permission for the installation of their telephone kiosks under Schedule 2, Part 16, Class A of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 2015, subject to prior approval by the local planning authority of siting and appearance. Need, or the lack of it, is irrelevant (see for example a decision letter dated 14 November 2017 relating to an appeal in Hackney by Euro Payphone Limited).

Operators then have deemed consent under the Advertisement Regulations for non-illuminated advertisements on the kiosks, but often apply for express consent for illuminated advertisements (see for example a decision letter dated 12 January 2018 in relation to an appeal in Eltham by New World Payphones).

Councils often understandably seek to resist these proposals but it is clearly difficult. The BBC reported last June Westminster City Council’s rejection of 80 proposals by Maximus Networks Limited as well as proposals by other companies:

Councils block ‘ugly and unwanted advert space’ phone boxes.

Whilst the issue has raised concern in local areas and provoked comment, I have not tracked down any recent Parliamentary debate when plainly something is not quite right is it?

This from the ChiswickW4 website about Infocus Public Networks Limited (I haven’t verified its accuracy):

The phone boxes, which are wheelchair accessible, have been rejected by a number of local authorities, and critics say their primary purpose is for the display of advertising rather than making phone calls.

The Warwickshire-based company, Infocus Public Networks Ltd, applied for ‘prior approval’ to site the phone boxes on the pavement at 120, 96, 135 Chiswick High Road (outside Insider Dealings Interior Design , Sainsbury Local, and the former Ballet Rambert) .

Local authorities, including Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, and Westminster have all said ‘No’ to the kiosks on grounds of siting and appearance – the only grounds on which a local authority can refuse ‘prior approval’. Councils are not allowed to consider any advertising benefits which may accrue from the phone boxes as they are already the beneficiaries of ‘deemed consent’ from the regulatory body Ofcom.

Infocus, which describes itself as the UK’s third public payphone operator, has challenged a number of local authorities for refusing to allow the phone boxes in their area. An attempt by the company to install fifteen phone boxes in Swindon, which was turned down by Wiltshire council, was partly overturned by the Planning Inspector who ruled that nine phone boxes could be sited in the town streets.

The payphone kiosks use mobile telephony for connection to other networks and the company says there are no invasive pavement works involved. They say the large windows deter the use of the kiosks for antisocial and criminal activity, and that there is still a need for public payphones for tourists, and ethnic minorities and those in wheelchairs.

The old-style kiosks are not allowed to be installed because they do not comply with disability regulations from Ofcom. BT has also removed hundreds of kiosks from UK streets due to the growth of mobile phone use.

Wiltshire Council has asked the government to give local authorities greater powers over the control of advertising on public payphones, following the Inspector’s reversal of its decision, according to the Swindon Advertiser. The City of London also lost its attempt, on appeal, to prevent seven similar boxes in the Lambeth area.

Critics of the scheme say the phone boxes are a lucrative method of attracting commercial advertising to the company which installs them, and are not of any public benefit to disabled users as they take up more pavement surface than traditional kiosks and add to ‘street clutter’.

Incidentally Infocus has possibly the world’s least informative website.

These kiosks are prime advertising space as is clear from Clearchannel’s website.

Do these payphones serve a legitimate function? If they aren’t “for the purpose of the operator’s electronic communications network” the permitted development right doesn’t apply in the first place.And what of some data privacy concerns (according to a piece in Wired, Stop replacing London’s phone boxes with corporate surveillance which might be considered alarmist if we weren’t currently highly sensitised by the Facebook data mining scandal)? Doesn’t the Government need to form a view and quickly? In the meantime these applications and appeals (1,000 appeals!) risk jamming up the system, quite apart from unnecessarily cluttering our streets. Of course PINS needs to do what it can to avoid the problem contaminating its mainstream caseload but why should it be forced to employ external consultants, at taxpayer cost? If ever there were a case for appeal fees!

One of the roles of the PINS board is “ensuring the Planning Inspectorate delivers against its strategic objectives and ensuring sufficient resources are available to achieve those objectives”. A brief scroll through previous minutes of its meetings will demonstrate the level of scrutiny given to every aspect of its performance, although no reference yet to these wretched kiosk appeals! Trudi, you have a crucial role to play in ensuring that resources are correctly prioritised.

Simon Ricketts, 14 April 2018

Personal views, et cetera