Bad Timing: More On Appropriate Assessment From Court & Govt Post POW

This is intended to be an update as to appropriate assessment under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 rather than a blog post on the domestic effect of EU environmental law post-Brexit.

But I’ll address that briefly first:

EU environmental law post-Brexit

The position remains pretty much as summarised in my 18 September 2018 blog post Planning, Brexit, supplemented by my 22 December 2018 blog post The Office For Environmental Protection. Whilst there is a general initial saving for EU-derived domestic legislation and whilst section 16 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 sets a process for maintaining EU environmental principles, the “no deal” risks are still that:

(1) the latter depends on an Environment Bill being laid before Parliament and enacted (we so far have only seen draft provisions of the most directly relevant parts of what is proposed), a set of draft environmental principles being consulted upon and approved and the new Office for Environmental Protection being established, all before 31 October 2019 and

(2) post-Brexit, all EU-derived domestic legislation will be reviewed as to its continuing appropriateness and the degree of protection as regards this, presently provided by the environmental principles and governance mechanism in section 16, could easily be amended, replaced or sidestepped by this or a subsequent government.

DEFRA published an Environment Bill summer policy statement on 23 July 2019 but, whilst I am sure the war cabinet talks of little else, there simply is not the time available for the environmental principles and governance machinery to be up and running by the end of October 2019. Even when the machinery is established, it is susceptible to subsequent tinkering and dismantling by way of subsequent legislation.

Appropriate assessment

The immediate implications of the European Court of Justice’s ruling in People Over Wind were covered in my 20 April 2018 blog post EU Court Ruling: Ignore Mitigation Measures In Habitats Screening.

In England and Wales the main problems caused by the judgment have revolved around:

(1) authorities being caught out through no longer being able to screen out the need for appropriate assessment by relying upon commitments to introduce mitigation measures;

(2) until the February 2019 changes to the NPPF, the disapplication of the NPPF’s “tilted balance” where appropriate assessment is required.

MHCLG has now included within its Planning Practice Guidance a specific section dealing with appropriate assessment (22 July 2019).

By coincidence, two days after the new guidance was published, two separate judgments were handed down by the High Court on different aspects of the appropriate assessment regime, both cases stemming from People Over Wind issues and both cases examples of plain bad timing.

Gladman Developments Limited v Secretary of State (Dove J, 24 July 2019) was a challenge by Gladman to the dismissal by the Secretary of State of its appeal in respect of a proposed development of 225 dwellings in Cliffe Woods, Kent.

The inquiry had been held in November 2017, pre People Over Wind. The parties agreed that the tilted balance applied in favour of the proposal as there was a shortfall in the Medway Council’s five year housing land supply. The parties also agreed that a condition requiring an environmental construction management plan was sufficient to mitigate any ecological concerns. Following an HRA screening process that took into account a financial contribution towards a strategic access management and mitigation strategy (SAMMS) “no adverse consequences were identified in respect of the impact of any additional recreational pressures on the Thames Estuary Marshes SPA/RAMSAR and the Medway Estuaries and Marshes SPA/RAMSAR sites.”

The inspector recommended approval in his report dated 29 March 2018. The People Over Wind judgment was handed down on 12 April 2018. The Secretary of State invited representations from the parties as to whether appropriate assessment was now required in the light of the judgment, and on their views as to the correct application of planning policy in the light of it – a reference to paragraph 119 in the 2012 NPPF which disapplied the tilted balance in circumstances in the case of development requiring appropriate assessment.

Gladman submitted as part of its representations a report prepared by its ecologists, information to ensure that the inspector could carry out appropriate assessment and reach a conclusion that there were no likely significant effects on the integrity of of the SPAs. It also submitted that it would be “illogical and perverse to disengage the tilted balance in these circumstances”.

Before the Secretary of State reached his decision on the appeal, more generally on 26 October 2018 he embarked a technical consultation as to potential changes to the methodology for assessing local housing need and as part of that consultation he sought views on his proposal to amend the NPPF to make it clear that the tilted balance “is disapplied only where an appropriate assessment has concluded that there is no suitable mitigation strategy in place”, having missed the opportunity to make that change in the 24 July 2018 version (within which paragraph 177 simply replicated the old paragraph 119).

The Secretary of State’s decision letter was issued on 9 November 2018. He found that appropriate assessment was required and stated that on the basis of the appropriate assessment which he had carried out he could “safely conclude that the proposed development would not adversely affect the integrity of any European site”. He noted that under paragraph 177 of the 2018 NPPF “the presumption in favour of sustainable development does not apply where development requiring appropriate assessment is being determined”. He dismissed the appeal.

Gladman challenged the decision on a number of grounds, including irrationality in his application of paragraph 177 in the circumstances of the appeal, failure to have regard to the contents of the technical consultation, failure specifically to consult Gladman in relation to the technical consultation and contending that People Over Wind was wrongly decided, requiring a reference to the CJEU to clarify the position.

Dove J rejected all of the grounds. There was nothing unlawful in the way in which the Secretary of State had applied paragraph 177. It was “applied in a straight forward and uncomplicated manner to the circumstances of the present case”. The technical consultation was only a consultation. Indeed:

I see nothing wrong, and indeed much to commend, in an approach whereby a decision-taker continues to apply existing policy whilst it is subject to review, and await the outcome of a consultation process on the review of a policy before applying any new policy which might emerge. For a consultation exercise to be lawful it must be engaged in with an open mind. That must contemplate a number of potential outcomes from the consultation process, (including, potentially, no change to the policy) which could be undermined by the premature second guessing of its outcome through the application of a policy which was being consulted upon. In my view the First Defendant’s approach in applying his existing policy in the present case was in principle entirely correct.”

There was no basis for asserting that Gladman should have been specifically consulted as part of the technical consultation and in any event they had not been prejudiced by any failure to consult.

Lastly, he was unpersuaded that there was any justification for the reference sought to the CJEU or that People Over Wind was wrongly decided: “the need for full and precise analysis removing all reasonable scientific doubt, reflects a consistent line of authority in the CJEU emphasising these features of the requirements of the Habitats Directive…Whilst there may be cases in which the existence of significant effects could be addressed by the examination of mitigating measures at the Appropriate Assessment screening stage that is not, in principle, any justification for not undertaking the Appropriate Assessment itself.” Furthermore, as also relied upon by the CJEU in People Over Wind, “the taking account of mitigation measures and exclusion of the Appropriate Assessment process may also deprive the public of a right to participate in the decision-taking process.”

The final kick in the teeth for Gladman must have come when, after the 24 July 2018 version of the NPPF missed the obvious opportunity to resolve the widespread problems caused by People Over Wind, it was finally put right in the 19 February 2019 version. So if the decision letter had been issued either at least six weeks before the 12 April 2018 ruling in People Over Wind (such that the decision was beyond the legal challenge period) or after 19 February 2019, the chances are they would have had their permission. A Secretary of State who actually wanted to see housing would surely have sorted out the policy issue more quickly – or delayed the decision letter. Bad timing indeed.

The timing was similarly awkward in R (Wingfield) v Canterbury City Council & Redrow Homes South East (Lang J, 24 July 2019). Outline planning permission was obtained on 5 July 2017 for up to 250 dwellings and associated development at Hoplands Farm, Westbere, Kent. The site is near SPAs and an SAC. On the basis of mitigation proposals, Canterbury City Council concluded, having taken advice from Natural England, that appropriate assessment was not required.

The judicial review period expired without challenge and the site was sold to the interested party, Redrow Homes. Reserved matters approval was sought in December 2017 for the first phases of development. Then came that People Over Wind ruling on 12 April 2018. In the light of the judgment, the council carried out an appropriate assessment and concluded that, with mitigation, the project would have no adverse effect on the integrity of the European protected sites. Reserved matters approval was granted on 12 February 2019.

The claimants argued that “the Council acted in breach of EU law by failing to conduct an HRA before granting outline planning permission and impermissibly taking into account mitigation measures when screening the proposed development, contrary to the CJEU judgment in the People over Wind case. The effect of the judgment of the CJEU was to render the grant of outline planning permission a nullity, which could no longer be relied upon. Further or alternatively, when the Council realised its error, it should have revoked the outline planning permission and re-considered the application. Instead, it unlawfully conducted an HRA at the reserved matters stage, when it should have been conducted at the earliest possible stage, before the grant of outline planning permission.

Lang J rejected both arguments. The submission that “the effect of the judgment of the CJEU in People Over Wind was to render the grant of outline planning permission a nullity was both contrary to authority, and wrong in principle. A decision made by a public body is valid unless and until it is quashed”. Further, “the Council could lawfully conduct an appropriate assessment at the reserved matters stage, in the circumstances of this case”.

In considering whether the Council could legitimately remedy its earlier error by conducting an appropriate assessment at reserved matters stage, instead of revoking the grant of outline planning permission, I have taken into account that the consequences of revoking planning decisions long after they have been made, and the time limits for challenge have expired, are disruptive and undermine the principle of legal certainty. As Laws J. said in R v Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, ex parte Greenpeace Ltd [1998] Env LR 415, at [424], applicants for judicial review must act promptly, so as to ensure that the proper business of government and the reasonable interests of third parties are not overborne or unjustly prejudiced by litigation brought in circumstances where the point in question could have been exposed and adjudicated without unacceptable damage.

In this case, the IP acquired its interest in the Site after outline planning permission had been granted and the time for bringing a judicial review challenged had expired. Although building operations have not yet commenced, time and money has been spent in bringing this project to fruition. The Council considers that the development will bring tangible benefits to the community, although local residents, such as the Claimant, take a different view.

In my judgment, the Council’s decision to remedy its earlier error by conducting an appropriate assessment at reserved matters stage was permissible under EU and domestic law, and it was a proportionate and effective remedy for the breach of EU law […]

Alternatively if my analysis is not correct, I would nonetheless refuse relief in this case. The Court may refuse relief where there has been a breach of EU law, if the substance of the EU right has been complied with.”

The claimant also sought to argue that the HRA was deficient. It was not:

the HRA conducted by the Council was appropriate for the task in hand, particularly bearing in mind that the Council was able to draw upon the detailed research and assessment in the ‘Report to inform a Habitats Regulations Assessment’, as well as the further reports submitted by the IP. Its findings were complete, precise and definite and there were no significant lacunae. The Council was entitled to rely upon Natural England’s endorsement of its HRA, particularly since Natural England had initially raised concerns about the evidence-base provided by the applicants, and those concerns were addressed by the further evidence produced by the IP. Natural England, as the custodian of the Stodmarsh designated sites, was particularly well placed to judge the risks from the proposed development. In my view, the Claimant’s challenge did not come close to meeting the high threshold of Wednesbury irrationality; it was primarily a disagreement with the Council’s exercise of its planning judgment.”

So bad timing in this case for the claimant, unable to take advantage of the windfall that People Over Wind appeared to represent.

Even if we leave the EU, I suspect that we will not be leaving behind these sorts of arguments for a good time yet – and it is apparent from the Gladman case that (1) the resulting trip hazards are as often those introduced by our own domestic policies and (2) when it comes to CJEU cases such as People Over Wind, however inconvenient, our domestic courts are not going to be turning the clock back.

Simon Ricketts, 2 August 2019

Personal views, et cetera

What To Do About Poor Air Quality? The Shirley Case

In this week of all Brexit weeks it was interesting to see the approach of the Court of Appeal in a case, R (Shirley) v Secretary of State (Court of Appeal, 25 January 2019), which turned on the practical extent of the Secretary of State’s duty to give effect to the objectives of the Air Quality Directive. The UK is under binding commitments in the Air Quality Directive to improve air quality, transposed into domestic law by way of the Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010. Was he required to call in for his own determination a planning application for development that would worsen or prolong breaches of limit values in an Air Quality Management Area (“AQMA”) for nitrogen dioxide or PM10?

Before we turn to the ruling, a quick update may be useful on the continuing saga of the Government’s continued failure to prepare a lawful Air Quality Plan in compliance with its duties under the Air Quality Directive (its deadline having been 1 January 2010) since my 4 November 2016 blog post The UK Government & Air Quality (ahem). At the point I wrote the blog post, the Supreme Court had ordered in April 2015 that the Government should prepare a legally compliant Air Quality Plan by the end of 2015, the Government had purported to publish compliant proposals on 17 December 2015 which were then found to be legally inadequate by Garnham J in his judgment in ClientEarth v Secretary of State (No. 2) (Garnham J, 2 November 2016). He gave the Government a further deadline of 31 July 2017.

The Government purported to comply by that deadline but Garnham J held that attempt too was deficient in a number of respects, in R (ClientEarth) v Secretary of State (No. 3) (Garnham J, 21 February 2018). He made a declaration as to the deficiencies as against the requirements of the Directive and Regulations, ordered the urgent production of a supplement to rectify the deficiencies and that the balance of the plan should remain in force in the meantime to avoid any delay in its implementation. His judgment concluded:

I end this judgment where I began, by considering the history and significance of this litigation. It is now eight years since compliance with the 2008 Directive should have been achieved. This is the third, unsuccessful, attempt the Government has made at devising an AQP which complies with the Directive and the domestic Regulations. Each successful challenge has been mounted by a small charity, for which the costs of such litigation constitute a significant challenge. In the meanwhile, UK citizens have been exposed to significant health risks.

It seems to me that the time has come for the Court to consider exercising a more flexible supervisory jurisdiction in this case than is commonplace. Such an application was made to me when the November 2016 judgment was handed down. I refused it on that occasion, opting for a more conventional form of order. Given present circumstances, however, I would invite submissions from all parties, both in writing and orally, as to whether it would be appropriate for the Court to grant a continuing liberty to apply, so that the Claimant can bring the matter back before the court, in the present proceedings, if there is evidence that either Defendant is falling short in its compliance with the terms of the order of the Court”.

The Government published a supplement to its plan on 5 October 2018 and as far as I know there has been no legal challenge to it or application back to Garnham J pursuant to his liberty to apply. So we may finally now have a legally compliant Air Quality Plan?

In the meantime, the European Commission has commenced infringement proceedings against the UK and other member states for delays in implementing the Directive.

To bring the narrative right up to date, the Government published its Clean Air Strategy on 14 January 2019, setting out proposed measures that will in due course form part of the forthcoming Environment Bill. On an initial reading there seems to be a deliberate shift away from the areas where the Government has found it difficult to comply with the Air Quality Directive, particularly in relation to polluting emissions from vehicles. From the foreword by Michael Gove:

We often think of air pollution as a problem caused by road transport and industrial level burning of fossil fuels. These are two of the central sources of pollution, but industry and government have worked together to remedy many of the worst problems by incentivising the use of clean fuels and investing in new technology. We have already secured a significant reduction in emissions since the 1970s. But now this trajectory has slowed.

Now we need to tackle other sources of air pollutants that damage human health and the environment. Air pollution can be caused by intensive agricultural food production, heating our homes or even cleaning with certain solvents

Whether that is well based is for others to judge.

But perhaps more of that another day and now back to Shirley. The appeal before the Court of Appeal concerned an application by Corinthian Mountfield Limited for planning permission for 4,000 dwellings and associated development that had been resolved to be approved by Canterbury Borough Council.

Dove J had rejected the appellants’ claim for judicial review of the Secretary of State’s decision not to call in the application. The Court of Appeal considered three grounds of appeal:

(1) whether the preparation and implementation of an air quality plan complying with Article 23 of the Air Quality Directive would be a sufficient response to breaches of limit values (ground 1 in the appellant’s notice);


(2) whether the Secretary of State had a duty as “competent authority” to use his planning powers to avoid the worsening or prolongation of breaches of the limit values, and was therefore obliged to call in Corinthian Mountfield’s application for planning permission (ground 2); and


(3) whether it was irrational for the Secretary of State to assume that any errors in the city council’s approach could be put right if it reconsidered the application, or could be brought before the court in a claim for judicial review if planning permission were granted (ground 3)
.”

The point is an important practical one – if a project is likely to increase exceedances of pollutant limit values, does that by itself lead to the risk of call in or legal challenge?

“Is the preparation and implementation of an air quality plan complying with article 23 of the Air Quality Directive a sufficient response to breaches of limit values?

Article 13 of the Directive, transposed by Regulation 17 of the Regulations, requires the Secretary of State to ensure that levels of specified pollutants do not exceed defined limit values. In zones where levels are below the limit values the Secretary of State must “ensure that levels are maintained below those limit values and must endeavour to maintain the best ambient air quality compatible with sustainable development“.

Article 23 of the Directive, transposed by Regulation 26 of the Regulations, requires that where exceedances of annual mean limit values of specified pollutants occur, the Secretary of State must draw up and implement an air quality plan to achieve the limit value.

Dove J had “concluded that when the limit values in the Air Quality Directive are exceeded, if article 13 is read with articles 22 and 23, the preparation and implementation of an air quality plan with a view to overcoming those exceedances and keeping their duration as short as possible is the “specific and bespoke remedy”. There was, he said, “no room within the scheme” of the Air Quality Directive for any “freestanding responsibility” to take any specific action on “permits” or “development consents”. He was “unable to read into the legislation any requirement to take particular actions in relation to permits or development consents”.

For the appellants, Mr Robert McCracken Q.C. submitted that the judge had erred in his understanding of the Air Quality Directive and the 2010 regulations. He had failed to adopt a suitably purposive approach, failed to recognize the high level of environmental protection required by EU law, and failed to follow the approach taken by the Court of Justice of the European Union in relevant authority. He had not grasped that the Air Quality Directive requires the taking of action, not merely the preparation of air quality plans, and that the adoption and implementation of an air quality plan is a necessary but not a sufficient response to breaches of limit values…”

As referred to in my 4 November 2016 blog post, this has been Robert McCracken QC’s position for a long time – indeed in my blog post I included a link to his 2015 legal opinion to that effect.

Lindblom LJ examines in detail the Court of Justice of the European Union case law before agreeing with Dove J and rejecting the “purposive approach” argument:

Dove J.’s description of article 23 as providing the “specific and bespoke remedy” for a breach of article 13 therefore seems apt. This does not mean that Member States may not also adopt other measures to address a breach of article 13, in addition to preparing and putting into effect an air quality plan complying with article 23. But nor does it mean that Member States are compelled by any provision of the Air Quality Directive to do that. A demonstrable breach of article 13 does not generate some unspecified obligation beyond the preparation and implementation of an air quality plan that complies with article 23. The case law does not suggest, for example, that in such circumstances a Member State must ensure that land use planning powers and duties are exercised in a particular way – such as by imposing a moratorium on grants of planning permission for particular forms of development, or for development of a particular scale, whose effect might be to perpetuate or increase exceedances of limit values, or by ensuring that decisions on such proposals are taken only at ministerial level“.

Did the Secretary of State have a duty as “competent authority” to use his planning powers to avoid the worsening or prolongation of breaches of limit values?

Again, the answer was no:

I cannot accept that argument. It finds no support in relevant case law. In my view, as Mr Maurici and Mr Pereira submitted, it is not possible to construe the provisions of the Air Quality Directive and the 2010 regulations as constraining the Secretary of State’s very wide discretion either to call in or not to call in an application for planning permission when the limit values under article 13 have not been complied with, or when an air quality plan under article 23 has not yet been put in place or has proved to be deficient or ineffective. The air quality legislation does not do that. It does not have the effect of narrowing the Secretary of State’s call-in discretion in such circumstances, let alone of transforming that discretion into a duty, or of requiring a particular application for planning permission to be refused. None of the provisions of the Air Quality Directive engages with the process of making decisions to authorize individual projects of development. If a proposed development would cause a limit value to be breached, or delay the remediation of such a breach, or worsen air quality in a particular area, neither the Air Quality Directive nor the 2010 regulations states that planning permission must be withheld or granted only subject to particular conditions. These may of course be material considerations when an application or appeal is decided, and so too the measures in an air quality plan for the relevant zone, if there is one, or in an action plan prepared under the Environment Act 1995. But the Air Quality Directive and the 2010 regulations do not, in those or any other circumstances, compel the decision-maker to refuse planning permission, or impose on the Secretary of State an obligation to make the decision himself.”

Was the Secretary of State’s decision not to call in the application irrational?

Given that planning permission had not yet been granted by the city council, it was open to the council to take the application back to committee if it was not called in.

Lindblom LJ held that the Secretary of State’s freedom to exercise his call-in discretion is considerable. “The Secretary of State also knew that if he did not call in the application, the city council would be able to consider it again, taking account of any further representations made to it, and, with the advice of its officers and professional consultants, revisiting the committee’s resolution to grant planning permission. And if planning permission were to be granted, it could be challenged by a claim for judicial review. It was not perverse for the Secretary of State to have these considerations in mind when he made his decision not to call in.”

Lastly, the Court of Appeal considered and rejected for four reasons the appellants’ submission that a reference should be made on the first ground of appeal to the Court of Justice of the European Union:

⁃ the appeal failed in any event on the other grounds so a decision on the questions in the reference would not be necessary to enable this court to give judgment;

⁃ the issue was in the court’s view “acte clair” (ie reasonably clear and free from doubt)

⁃ a reference would cause unjustifiable delay in a case where the decision under challenge was procedural, not substantive

⁃ a reference was opposed by all four respondents.

Concluding thoughts

The case is an interesting example of the way in which EU law has become so familiar to the lawyers and judges of our domestic courts. Nearly all of our environmental law is EU-derived. Post-Brexit, when EU-derived legislation such as the Air Quality Standards Regulations will continue to apply (unless and until amended or revoked) on a free-standing basis and without the backing of the Directive, it is inconceivable to imagine that we will not all in practice still draw upon the CJEU’s case law to assist in matters of interpretation.

Over time this may change, once our legislation starts to diverge with that of the EU (we see already the deliberately differing objectives and approaches of DEFRA’s Clean Air Strategy) and once differing strands of judicial interpretation start slowly to open up. It’s going to get complicated. Our judges will always be more resistant to the purposive approach to interpretation – legislation should mean what it says – which is why in our common law system it is so important that our laws are precise rather than broad statements of principle in the way that has led to so much litigation in relation to EU Directives.

The case also illustrates the scale of the hurdles to be cleared in persuading our courts to refer issues to the Court of Justice of the European Union. If there had been a reference in Shirley, could we have completely ruled out the prospect of a surprise finding, à la People Over Wind? I’m still grumbling, five years on, about the Supreme Court’s refusal in the HS2 Action Alliance case to refer the Strategic Environmental Assessment issues that we raised to the CJEU. The risk/prospect of referral is generally a low one.

The earlier ClientEarth sequence of cases (within which there was in fact a reference) raises the separate question as to whether it is sufficient for responsibility for compliance with environmental targets to remain with Parliament and whether the proposed Office for Environmental Protection would have sufficient power as against a future Government that is dragging its heels. Would the OEP be able to fulfil that supervisory role that Garnham J has had to take in the ClientEarth litigation?

But in the meantime, it is helpful to have the Court of Appeal’s clarification that non-compliance by the Government with its international responsibilities does not lead to what would effectively been an embargo on any form of development where it could be argued that there might be an adverse effect on air quality in an AQMA, regardless of the local improvement measures to which the relevant local authorities had committed under the Directive and Regulations, and regardless of the usual statutory requirement for decision makers to determine applications in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise. It would have led to decision-making chaos.

But that shouldn’t let anyone off the hook. The onus really must continue to rest with the Government and local authorities to take the necessary steps to ensure that roadside emissions are reduced to acceptable levels, no matter how politically unpopular the implications (eg further charging zones, making it more expensive and less convenient to use a polluting vehicle and the reverse for users of public transport – and priority being given to pedestrians and cyclists in our cities). The onus must also rest with developers to seek to ensure that their proposals are, in the language of the draft London Plan, air quality neutral or positive.

Clean air may be invisible but surely, one day, it will be seen as a vote winner?

Simon Ricketts, 2 February 2019

Personal views, et cetera

The Office For Environmental Protection

And through it all the Office for Environmental Protection

A lot of love and affection

Whether I’m right or wrong..”

The Secretary of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, presented the draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill to Parliament on 19 December 2018.

It is important that we understand the new regime that is proposed and start to form views as to whether it is fit for purpose, given that (1) its provisions will replace the environmental protections currently provided by way of EU law and that (2) it would be unfortunate if any new system were to introduce additional uncertainties, unnecessary requirements or causes of delay. What will the implications be for the English planning system?

Having said that we don’t yet have the full picture.

First, because (following a commitment given by the prime minister in July 2018) this draft Bill is going to be rolled into a wider Environment Bill in 2019 which, according to the draft Bill’s foreword by Michael Gove, “will contain specific measures to drive action on today’s crucial environmental issues: cleaning up our air, restoring and enhancing nature, improving waste management and resource efficiency, and managing our precious water resources better.”

Secondly, because this draft Bill does not yet include the Government’s commitment in the withdrawal agreement to “non regression” from current EU environmental laws (see my 16 November 2018 blog post Big EU News! (Latest CJEU Case on Appropriate Assessment & A Draft Withdrawal Agreement))although of course we wait to see what happens to that agreement, yet to be approved by Parliament.

Thirdly, because the provisions in the draft Bill are a framework for more detail to come forward by way of, for instance, a Government policy statement on environmental principles and a strategy to be prepared by the proposed Office for Environmental Protection setting out how it intends to exercise its functions. More on this later. What this draft Bill does do is discharge the requirement in section 16 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 for draft legislation to be published setting out the way in which environmental principles will be maintained post-Brexit, and the statutory body that will be established to police them (see my 18 September 2018 blog post Planning, Brexit).

Deal or no deal?

The intention is that this new legal regime should in place ready for when we leave the jurisdiction of EU law. Whilst if we have a withdrawal agreement this will be at the end of any transition period, we could be left with a potential hiatus in the case of a “no deal” Brexit. If there’s no deal there will be more urgently newsworthy issues than the implications of that situation for the environment (it was noteworthy that the publication of the draft Bill last week attracted no real attention from the mainstream media as far as I could see) but this was rightly a matter of concern for the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in its report on the Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment, to which the Government in its 6 November 2018 Response said this:

Government is confident of leaving the EU with a deal on an implementation period, which the EU has also confirmed it would like to agree. However, we are stepping up preparations within government and Defra to make sure that a new statutory body is in place as soon as is practically achievable in the event of a no deal exit, with the necessary powers to review and, if necessary, take enforcement action in respect of ongoing breaches of environmental law after the jurisdiction of the CJEU has ended. This will mean that the Government will be held accountable as under existing EU law from the day we leave the EU.

As mentioned previously, the EU (Withdrawal) Act will ensure existing EU environmental law continues to have effect in UK law after exit, providing businesses and stakeholders with maximum certainty as we leave the EU. Until the new body is in place, for example, existing mechanisms will continue to apply: the Parliamentary Ombudsman will process complaints about maladministration; and third parties will be able to apply for Judicial Review against government and public authorities.”

The draft Bill

If you click into the draft Bill – and please do because this blog post is not a complete summary – you will see that the draft legislation itself (34 clauses and a schedule) is sandwiched between:

⁃ Michael Gove’s foreword – the first paragraph will give you an idea of the tone:

Leaving the European Union is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this country to help make our planet greener and cleaner, healthier and happier. We are seizing this chance to set a new direction for environmental protection and governance, in line with the government’s ambition to leave our environment in a better state than we inherited it.”

⁃ A long set of explanatory notes which include an explanation of the policy and legal background as well as a detailed commentary on the provisions of the draft Bill, including much by way of statements of what is intended that is absent from the draft Bill itself.

The foreword describes the two main strands of the draft Bill (although in the reverse order to how they are actually dealt with).

Firstly, we will establish a world-leading, statutory and independent environment body: the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). This body will scrutinise environmental policy and law, investigate complaints, and take action where necessary to make sure environmental law is properly implemented.

Secondly, we will establish a clear set of environmental principles, accompanied by a policy statement to make sure these principles are enshrined in the process of making and developing policies

Definitions

The “environment” can often have a broad meaning.

For instance in the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive the following factors need to be addressed in environmental impact assessment:

“(a) population and human health;
(b) biodiversity, […];
(c) land, soil, water, air and climate;
(d) material assets, cultural heritage and the landscape;

(e) the interaction between the factors referred to in points (a) to (d).”

However, in the draft Bill a much narrower definition is adopted:

“31 (2) Environmental matters are—

(a)  protecting the natural environment from the effects of human activity;

(b)  protecting people from the effects of human activity on the natural environment;

(c)  maintaining, restoring or enhancing the natural environment;

(d)  monitoring, assessing, considering, advising or reporting on anything in paragraphs (a) to (c).”

So this is just about the “natural environment“, defined in clause 30 as

“(a)  wild animals, plants and other living organisms,

(b)  their habitats,

(c)  land, water and air (except buildings or other structures and water or
air inside them),

and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact.”

Environmental law” is even narrower, as it is defined as any legislative provision (other than legislation devolved to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly or, without the Secretary of State’s consent, the Northern Ireland Assembly) that is mainly concerned with an environmental matter and that is not concerned with an excluded matter – excluded matters are:

⁃ greenhouse gas emissions;

⁃ access to information;

⁃ the armed forces, defence or national security;

⁃ taxation, spending or the allocation of resources with government.

The Secretary of State can by regulations specify specific legislative provisions as falling within or outside the definition of “environmental law“.

The explanatory notes to the draft Bill say that, based on these provisions “most parts of legislation concerning the following matters, for example, would normally be considered to constitute environmental law:

⁃ air quality (although not indoor air quality);

⁃ water resources and quality;

⁃ marine, coastal or nature conservation;

⁃ waste management;

⁃ pollution;

⁃ contaminated land.

They go on to assert that the following matters would not normally constitute environmental law:

⁃ forestry;

⁃ flooding;

⁃ navigation;

⁃ town and country planning;

⁃ people’s enjoyment of or access to the natural environment;

⁃ cultural heritage;

⁃ animal welfare or sentience;

⁃ animal or plant health (including medicines and veterinary products);

⁃ health and safety at work.

“”Environmental principles” means the following principles—

(a)  the precautionary principle, so far as relating to the environment,

(b)  the principle of preventative action to avert environmental damage,

(c)  the principle that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source,

(d)  the polluter pays principle,

(e)  the principle of sustainable development,

(f)  the principle that environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of policies and activities,

(g)  the principle of public access to environmental information,

(h)  the principle of public participation in environmental decision-making, and

(i)  the principle of access to justice in relation to environmental matters”

What the Secretary of State must do

The draft Bill provides that Secretary of State must prepare a policy statement on environmental principles. “The statement must explain how the environmental principles are to be interpreted and proportionately applied by Ministers of the Crown in making, developing and revising their policies.” It may also explain how ministers, “when interpreting and applying the environmental principles, are to take into account other considerations relevant to their policies.” Ministers must “have regard” to the policy statement “when making, developing or revising policies dealt with by the statement“. Nothing in the statement shall require a minister to take (or to refrain from taking) any action if it “would have no significant environmental benefit” or “would be in any way disproportionate to the environmental benefit“.

Wow! Regardless of how robust or otherwise the policy statement turns out to be, count the get-outs in that last paragraph.

The draft Bill also provides that the Secretary of State must prepare an environmental improvement plan. The first one will be the current document entitled “A green future: our 25 year plan to improve the environment” (11 January 2018). It must be kept under review, with the next to be completed by 31 January 2023 and thereafter at least every five years.

The Office for Environmental Protection

Details of the membership, staffing and functions of this new body are set out in the schedule to the draft Bill.

The Office for Environmental Protection would monitor and report on environmental improvement plans, monitor the implementation of environmental law, and advise on proposed changes to environmental law. It would also have an important enforcement role.

It must prepare a strategy setting out how it intends to exercise its functions, including its complaints and enforcement policy, having regard to “the particular importance of prioritising cases that it considers have or may have national implications, and the importance of prioritising cases—

(a)  that relate to ongoing or recurrent conduct,

(b)  that relate to conduct that the OEP considers may cause (or has caused) significant damage to the natural environment or to human health, or

(c)  that the OEP considers may raise a point of environmental law of general public importance.”

The explanatory notes suggest that individual planning decisions will not be a focus of the OEP’s attention:

The definition of national implications will be for the OEP to determine, but this provision is intended to steer the OEP to act in cases with broader, or more widespread significance, rather than those of primarily local concern. For example, an individual local planning or environmental permitting decision would not normally have national implications, whereas a matter with impacts or consequences which go beyond specific local areas or regions could have.

Anyone except public bodies can raise a complaint with the OEP where a public authority has failed to comply with environmental law. The public authority’s internal complaints procedure must first have been exhausted. The explanatory notes state:

A wide range of bodies including the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Planning Inspectorate, for instance, operate complaints procedures which will apply to their functions concerned with the implementation of environmental law.”

Complaints must be made within a year of the failure complained of, or within three months of when any internal complaints procedure was exhausted. The OEP “may” carry out an investigation if in its view the complaint indicates that the authority has failed to comply with environmental law and “the failure is serious“. It must provide to the authority a report as to whether it considers that the authority has failed to comply with environmental law, its reasoning and recommendations (whether for the authority or generally) in the light of its conclusions. There will be a process of information notices and decision notices. The authority receiving a decision notice must respond within two months or such later timescale is given, setting out whether it agrees with the notice and what steps it intends to take.

There is then a curious clause, clause 25, which deals with enforcement. Within three months of the deadline for the authority responding to the decision notice, the OEP can make an application to the High Court for judicial review. After any such proceedings, the relevant authority must publish a statement “that sets out the steps (if any) it intends to take in light of the outcome of those proceedings“.

So what would these proceedings seek to achieve? A declaration from the court or something more, some kind of enforcing order? Would the authority’s decision that is the subject of the complaint be liable to be quashed? If so, plainly concerns arise that decisions will no longer be able to be safely relied upon by parties where the usual judicial review period has expired – it would be worrying if decisions could be at risk for much longer via this elongated OEP complaints procedure.

Concluding thoughts

Without seeing the rest of what will be in the eventual Environment Bill, and without see the nature of any “non regression” commitment (if indeed it survives the current politics), I’m left feeling entirely unclear what practical role the mechanisms in the draft Bill will really have. There are certainly numerous questions:

⁃ Are the definition of environmental matters and environmental law too narrow?

⁃ Will the policy statement on environmental principles either be too weak or alternatively extend its reach into other regimes, for instance leading to the risk of causing confusion as to the application of principles set out in the National Planning Policy Framework?

⁃ Are there too many get-outs on the part of Government?

⁃ Will the OEP really be able to influence the Government’s approach when it comes to politically contentious issues? The Committee on Climate Change has not been a good precedent.

⁃ Is there confusion as to the role of the OEP when it comes to investigating possible breaches of environmental law, in that surely this is a matter for existing enforcement bodies such as the Environment Agency and for the courts?

And whilst from the explanatory notes the intention appears to be that this regime would not directly affect town and country planning, in reality matters such as environmental impact assessment, strategic environmental assessment and the treatment of protected nature conservation sites are central to the planning process, so it seems to me that unfortunately this isn’t a debate that planners and planning lawyers can ignore.

Simon Ricketts, 22 December 2018

Personal views, et cetera

Big EU News! (Latest CJEU Case on Appropriate Assessment & A Draft Withdrawal Agreement)

The European Court of Justice is certainly turning the screws this year via various cases in relation to the Republic of Ireland, with now three rulings against its Planning Board, An Bord Pleanála. Following People Over Wind (see my 20 April 2018 blog post EU Court Ruling: Ignore Mitigation Measures In Habitats Screening) and Grace, Sweetman (see the second half of my 18 August 2018 blog post What Is Mitigation?) we now have Holohan (CJEU, 7 November 2018).

In basic summary:

People Over Wind has removed the ability for the competent authority to screen out the need for appropriate assessment, under the Conservation of Habitats Regulations 2017, on the basis that a significant effect on a Special Protection Area or Special Area of Conservation is unlikely, where that conclusion is reliant on proposed mitigation measures. The result has been far more projects and plans requiring appropriate assessment to ascertain that they will not adversely affect the integrity of the relevant SPA or SAC.

Grace, Sweetman has removed the ability for the competent authority to reach a conclusion at appropriate assessment stage that there will be no adverse effect on integrity, where mitigation measures are relied on that in reality amount to compensatory measures for the loss of habitat.

Holohan now imposes more detailed requirements on the competent authority at appropriate assessment stage:

1.  […] an ‘appropriate assessment’ must, on the one hand, catalogue the entirety of habitat types and species for which a site is protected, and, on the other, identify and examine both the implications of the proposed project for the species present on that site, and for which that site has not been listed, and the implications for habitat types and species to be found outside the boundaries of that site, provided that those implications are liable to affect the conservation objectives of the site.

2.  […] the competent authority is permitted to grant to a plan or project consent which leaves the developer free to determine subsequently certain parameters relating to the construction phase, such as the location of the construction compound and haul routes, only if that authority is certain that the development consent granted establishes conditions that are strict enough to guarantee that those parameters will not adversely affect the integrity of the site.

3.   […] where the competent authority rejects the findings in a scientific expert opinion recommending that additional information be obtained, the ‘appropriate assessment’ must include an explicit and detailed statement of reasons capable of dispelling all reasonable scientific doubt concerning the effects of the work envisaged on the site concerned.

If you are relying on an appropriate assessment in relation to a project or plan, I suggest that you urgently check that it addresses these three requirements. An decision taken in reliance upon an appropriate assessment which does not cover off these points will be susceptible to legal challenge. If caught at the right time, deficiencies should be able to be addressed by some extra work. But it will be too late to rectify matters once the appropriate assessment is reached and the decision taken.

These CJEU rulings are unambiguous in their stated conclusions on the law, very different from our common law approach.

They are also likely to continue to be relevant, regardless of what happens with Brexit. After all, as set out in my 18 September 2018 blog post Planning, Brexit, Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Environment, Fisheries and Rural Affairs has committed that:

Where environmental principles are contained in specific pieces of EU legislation, these will be maintained as part of our domestic legal framework through the retention of EU law under the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Any question as to the interpretation of retained EU law will be determined by UK courts in accordance with relevant pre-exit CJEU case law and general principles, subject to the other exceptions and restrictions within the Bill. For example, CJEU case law on chemicals, waste and habitats includes judgments on the application of the precautionary principle to those areas. This will therefore be preserved by the Bill“.

As set out in that blog post, we are still waiting for the draft Bill, required by section 16 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act to be published by Boxing Day 2018, that will set out the environmental principles to be applied post Brexit and the body that will enforce them.

What we now have seen of course is the draft withdrawal agreement published on 14 November 2018. Who knows whether it will be concluded but it envisages that the CJEU will continue to have jurisdiction in any proceedings brought against the UK during the transition period to 31 December 2020.

In the event of the backstop being triggered at the end of the transitional period if the Irish border issue hasn’t been settled, a series of commitments in relation to environmental protection will kick in, as set out in Part 2 of Annex 4 to the Protocol on Northern Ireland/Ireland (pages 356 to 360 of the overall draft agreement). The commitments include:

– Non-regression in level of environmental protection subsisting at the end of the transitional period.

– The principles to be reflected in legislation:

a)  the precautionary principle;
b)  the principle that preventive action should be taken;

c) the principle that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source; and
d)  the “polluter pays” principle

– The Joint Committee shall adopt decisions laying down minimum commitments for:

a)  the reduction of national emissions of certain atmospheric pollutants;
b)  the maximum sulphur content of marine fuels

c) those best available techniques, including emission limit values, in relation to industrial emissions

– Commitment to meet international obligations as to addressing climate change

– Commitment to carbon pricing and trading of allowance consistent with EU system

– Finally, although much of this is already in hand via section 16 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act and/or the subject of other international obligations, a commitment to effective enforcement of environmental laws as well as the following:

The United Kingdom shall ensure that administrative and judicial proceedings are available in order to permit effective and timely action by public authorities and members of the public against violations of its laws, regulations and practices, and provide for effective remedies, including interim measures, ensuring that any sanctions are effective, proportionate and dissuasive and have a real and deterrent effect.

The United Kingdom shall implement a transparent system for the effective domestic monitoring, reporting, oversight and enforcement of its obligations pursuant to this Article and to Article 2 by an independent and adequately resourced body or bodies…

The independent body shall have powers to conduct inquiries on its own initiative concerning alleged breaches by public bodies and authorities of the United Kingdom, and to receive complaints for the purposes of conducting such inquiries. It shall have all powers necessary to carry out its functions, including the power to request information. The independent body shall have the right to bring a legal action before a competent court or tribunal in the United Kingdom in an appropriate judicial procedure, with a view to seeking an adequate remedy.”

Professor Colin Reid’s 15 November 2018 blog post Environmental Commitments in the Withdrawal Agreement is a very good commentary on all of these provisions.

Finally, fabulous timing on the part of UKELA to have secured for next week’s annual Garner lecture Professor Juliane Kokott, Advocate General at the CJEU (who has been at the centre of so much EU case law, including the People Over Wind and Holohan cases referred to above). It will be fascinating to hear her perspective.

Simon Ricketts, 16 November 2018

Personal views, et cetera

PS David Elvin QC has since reminded me that the CJEU also on 7 November handed down its judgment in the Dutch Nitrogen Deposition case, which also contains important rulings in relation to appropriate assessment, for instance the extent to which agricultural activities amount to a “project”, as well as the extent of certainty required if conservation measures are to be relied upon as mitigation. See James Maurici QC’s blog post.

Planning, Brexit

In all the Brexit noise, like me you may have missed that a draft Bill of Parliament is shortly to be published by DEFRA that will have direct relevance for English planners and planning lawyers.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 was enacted on 26 June 2018. As a result of amendments to the Bill introduced in the House of Lords and substantially accepted when the Bill returned to the Commons, section 16 of the Act seeks to secure that “environmental principles” are maintained once we leave the EU and we no longer have the monitoring and enforcement functions currently being carried out by the European Commission and European Court of Justice. It provides as follows:

Maintenance of environmental principles etc.

(1) The Secretary of State must, within the period of six months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, publish a draft Bill consisting of—

(a)  a set of environmental principles,

(b)  a duty on the Secretary of State to publish a statement of policy in relation to the application and interpretation of those principles in connection with the making and development of policies by Ministers of the Crown,

(c)  a duty which ensures that Ministers of the Crown must have regard, in circumstances provided for by or under the Bill, to the statement mentioned in paragraph (b),

(d)  provisions for the establishment of a public authority with functions for taking, in circumstances provided for by or under the Bill, proportionate enforcement action (including legal proceedings if necessary) where the authority considers that a Minister of the Crown is not complying with environmental law (as it is defined in the Bill), and

(e)  such other provisions as the Secretary of State considers appropriate

(2) The set of environmental principles mentioned in subsection (1)(a) must (however worded) consist of—

(a)  the precautionary principle so far as relating to the environment,

(b)  the principle of preventative action to avert environmental damage,

(c)  the principle that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source,

(d)  the polluter pays principle,

(e)  the principle of sustainable development,

(f)  the principle that environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of policies and activities,

(g)  public access to environmental information,

(h)  public participation in environmental decision-making, and

(i)  access to justice in relation to environmental matters.”

This was not a big concession for the Government to make. In January 2017 the Commons Environmental Audit Committee recommended that the Government introduce an Environmental Protection Act to ensure that environmental enforcement and governance mechanisms were not lost after leaving the European Union.

The Government committed to consulting “early in 2018” on “establishing a new, world-leading, independent, statutory body to give the environment a voice, championing and upholding environmental standards as we leave the European Union” in DEFRA’s 25 Year Environment Plan (11 January 2018)

In England DEFRA on 10 May 2018 started a consultation process, Environmental Principles and Governance after EU Exit, which closed on 2 August 2018. The consultation paper indicates that the proposed Environmental Principles and Governance Bill will be published in draft in “Autumn 2018“, although as a result of section 16 the absolute statutory deadline for publication of the draft is 26 December.

The Environmental Principles and Governance Bill will need to provide for:

⁃ the formulation of a set of environmental principles to be adhered to; and

⁃ the establishment of an independent body to enforce environmental law.

The DEFRA consultation paper does not go into much detail. It sets out the following basic position:

Where environmental principles are contained in specific pieces of EU legislation, these will be maintained as part of our domestic legal framework through the retention of EU law under the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Any question as to the interpretation of retained EU law will be determined by UK courts in accordance with relevant pre-exit CJEU case law and general principles, subject to the other exceptions and restrictions within the Bill. For example, CJEU case law on chemicals, waste and habitats includes judgments on the application of the precautionary principle to those areas. This will therefore be preserved by the Bill.” (paragraph 26)

The consultation paper invites views from consultees as to whether the environmental principles (without giving any detail as to what these principles will look like) should be articulated in the Bill itself or should be left to be addressed in a subsequent statutory policy statement.

The list of environmental principles in section 16 (2) is plainly potentially relevant to every aspect of the planning system, but we need to see the detail!

The consultation paper proposes the following in relation to the proposed independent body:

Objectives for the establishment of the body are that it should:

⁃ Act as a strong, objective, impartial and well-evidenced voice for environmental protection and enhancement.

⁃ Be independent of government and capable of holding it to account.

⁃ Be established on a durable, statutory basis.

⁃ Have a clear remit, avoiding overlap with other bodies.

⁃ Have the powers, functions and resources required to deliver that remit.

⁃ Operate in a clear, proportionate and transparent way in the public interest, recognising that it is necessary to balance environmental protection against other priorities. ”

There is a specific section in the consultation paper in relation to the potential relevance of the body to the operation of the planning system:

Interaction with the planning system

133. Planning aims to ensure that the right development happens in the right place at the right time, benefiting communities and the economy. It plays a critical role in identifying what development is needed and where, what areas need to be protected or enhanced and in assessing whether proposed development is suitable.

134. The new body’s functions in relation to environmental aspects of the planning framework would need to work alongside, while ensuring clear boundaries between, the established systems in place for scrutiny of and appeal against planning decisions and development plans. The intention would be that individual decisions made under relevant planning legislation would continue to be handled under the existing processes.

135. As with other areas of environmental law, we need to consider how the body would interact with the existing planning system in relation to environmental laws that apply to planning activities, notably those concerning implementation of habitats regulations assessments, environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments. This should not be a case-by-case review of decisions regarding development plans and proposals, which would be duplicative and would amount to another tier in the planning process. The body would have no role in individual planning policy decisions. The focus of the new body would therefore be on ensuring the correct application of relevant environmental law within the planning system.

136. In relation to wider planning policy, the body could have two roles. Firstly, it could be a key consultee, when certain planning policy is being considered, for example when the National Planning Policy Framework is updated. Furthermore, if the body has a wider policy role, it could provide advice on the implementation of the environmental aspects of existing planning policy and suggest future potential changes. The government would not be bound to agree to such suggestions, but should consider them alongside wider policy aims

All sorts of questions of course arise from these proposals:

– how detailed will the environmental principles be? Will the principles contain targets in the manner of DEFRA’s 25 Year Environment Plan (11 January 2018) or will they be a generic summary of the principles currently underlying EU environmental legislation along the lines of, for instance article 191 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (and if so how useful will they be?).

⁃ to the extent that the principles, such as the “principle of sustainable development” overlap with existing guidance, for instance within the NPPF, will the principles (having a statutory basis) be relevant to decision making in relation to applications and appeals and to plan making? How can we avoid unanticipated effects in that regard? Even if the intention is to retain the status quo, at least for the time being, how easy will that be?

⁃ will Parliament kick the can down the road by relegating the principles to a statutory policy statement, for how long will this be, what will be the consultation process, what voting process will be required within Parliament and what will be the mechanism for making subsequent amendments?

⁃ Surely it is for the courts to ensure “the correct application of relevant environmental law within the planning system“? Non-legally binding views from this new authority on the way in which the law is to be interpreted, beyond views already formally expressed by ministers or government bodies such as the Environment Agency, Natural England or Historic England, may just add confusion.

⁃ how can a body be created which does not overlap with existing bodies such as the Environment Agency, has a “baked in” constitutional status and which is not susceptible to lobbying and repeated judicial reviews?

⁃ whilst the proposed body is not intended to be embroiled in individual planning decisions, what safeguards will there be as to its potential influence on planning outcomes in other ways, for instance through expressing views on types of development?

⁃ to what extent will there be coordination and consistency as between England and the devolved nations?

⁃ depending on the nature of any Brexit transitional arrangements, what about the interregnum between the cessation of the European Commission and European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction and the establishment of new regimes within England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? 26 December 2018 is only the deadline for the draft Bill. How long before the Bill itself is introduced, enacted and brought into force, with this new body up and running? If we have a “deal” and a transition period, time will be tight but there may not be a gap. If there is “no deal”, there will be a period before the promised structure is in place, indeed there will be no environmental principles in place, nor an independent body to ensure compliance.

The Commons Environmental Audit Committee has been conducting the Environmental Governance Consultation Paper Inquiry seeking answers to a number of questions along these lines. Michael Gove gave evidence to the inquiry on 11 July 2018. The session is pretty unedifying with much attempted point scoring but there are some interesting exchanges.

For example, the Committee chair asked how the policy statement for the principles will be developed and scrutinised:

Michael Gove: I think that it would be developed within the Government, like any other policy statement. An analogy has been drawn—no analogy is perfect—with the National Planning Policy Framework. I would propose or suggest that the Government draw up their policy statement. Obviously it would be up to any Government Minister as to how they would set about gathering evidence, consulting, and making clear what the means might be for shaping that policy statement. Then I hope that it would be presented to the House of Commons and then debated and voted on in the House of Commons.

Chair: That is where the row is going to happen again, is it not? Across Government the rows will come back in from Treasury, from DCLG, and from Transport about how this is not going to be accepted by Ministers. Then you are going to have all the green groups and the NGOs rightly asking for much higher standards. What is the process of engaging with the public? You are saying there is a legal policy process in the Government. How long will the public have to look at this statement?

Michael Gove: That is a very fair point. One of the things is we want to have it debated and voted on in Parliament, to take the concerns you have. Were there to be a future Government Minister in another Government Department that wanted in some way to include in the policy statement things that you or I might think were not necessarily a good idea for the better protection of our environment, were that hypothetical future Minister to prevail in the shaping of the policy statement in a way that you or I might not altogether approve of, when it came to the House of Commons I think it would be the case that the NGOs that you mention and members of the public or you or I might say, “Hmm” and would seek therefore to say, “I am sorry, as you bring this forward, I do not think you will necessarily get a majority in the House of Commons for this provision, because it will be seen as weakening protection. Therefore, we in the House of Commons will not stand for it”.

In the same way as the House of Commons and the House of Lords together amended the EU (Withdrawal) Bill in a particular way, so I could see a situation in the future where the prospect of defeat in the House of Commons for a particular proposition might lead the Government to then amend their policy statement so that the hypothetical Minister in a future case who might have wanted to weaken protections would find that his or her ambitions were thwarted by the democratic majority in the House.”

The Committee had originally hoped to conclude the inquiry by DEFRA’s consultation deadline of 2 August but we still await its report. I hope that its conclusions will be able to be taken into account by DEFRA before it proceeds to publish its draft Bill, although I suspect we have a long way to go before an actual set of principles starts to emerge, alongside a clearer idea as to the nature of the authority that is to hold the ring on all of this.

In the meantime of course, existing legislation will need to be scrubbed free, via statutory instruments, of any references to EU law, to be replaced by references to the relevant EU legislation frozen at time of exit or relevant domestic legislation, but that will not be where the substantive effects are likely to be felt. Instead, watch out for the draft Bill and surrounding announcements and let’s be alert for any unintended implications for our town and country planning system.

Simon Ricketts, 18 September 2018

Personal views, et cetera

What If? The Trinity One Case

What if your development were subject to a section 106 agreement that provided for a commuted sum to be paid towards affordable housing, the precise amount payable to be calculated in accordance with a formula; at the date that the agreement was completed in 2003 the formula would have arrived at a commuted sum of between £500,000 and £700,000 but by the time that it was triggered the basis for calculating the formula had been abolished and so there was no way of arriving at an appropriate figure? Would you go to the High Court and Court of Appeal to seek to resist a claim from the local planning authority that was seeking a sum of £533,058 plus interest?

Well that was what the developer did in the Council of the City of York v Trinity One (Leeds) Limited (Court of Appeal, 21 February 2018). Not only that but they pursued a separate section 106BA and BC application and appeal, before the 30 April 2016 deadline for applications under that procedure, to seek to argue that in any event it should be released from the obligation in order to prevent its development from being economically unviable (a process where it is separately currently pursuing a second judicial review). I don’t know the facts beyond what is stated in the Court of Appeal’s judgment but I would suspect that this saga must pretty much have cost the parties in legal fees the sum being fought over and there remains the possibility of the local planning authority losing out on a substantial contribution towards affordable housing. Mediation anyone?

Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing but the dispute has arisen from not enough “what if?” questions being asked when the agreement was negotiated in 2003.

The relevant clause in the agreement provided that the commuted sum “shall be calculated on the amount of Social Housing Grant necessary to secure affordable rented homes of an equivalent type and size on another site [in a similar residential area in the City of York] which grant for the avoidance of doubt shall be calculated at normal grant levels from regional TCI tables provided on an annual basis by the Housing Corporation or such equivalent grant calculation current at the time and supported by the Housing Corporation”.

Social Housing Grant was defined as “the grant that may be provided in respect of affordable housing in the Council’s administrative area in accordance with Government and Housing Corporation Guidance.”

Some of you may remember the Total Cost Indicator tables that were previously used by the (now defunct) Housing Corporation as a basis for calculating the level of (now defunct) Social Housing Grant.

The lawyers negotiating the agreement at least had asked themselves what if TCI tables were no longer provided on an annual basis by the Housing Corporation but beyond that there was little imagination as to how far the affordable housing funding arrangements might change: if TCI tables ceased to be published, the calculation was to be done on the basis of “such equivalent grant calculation current at the time and supported by the Housing Corporation”. Hmm. No “what if social housing grant and/or the Housing Corporation cease to exist“? No provision for the parties to agree another reasonable benchmark, with the ability to go to an independent expert in the event of dispute?

The Court of Appeal identified that the issue “turns on the balance between giving effect to the intention of the parties and the language of the contract“. It upheld the ruling of the High Court that the clause was not unenforceable due to the lack of certainty as to how the sum was now to be calculated. The court sets out in some detail the approach to be taken, drawing upon principles articulated by the Supreme Court in Arnold v Britton (Supreme Court, 10 June 2015).

The Supreme Court in that case had considered the interpretation of service charge contribution provisions in the leases of a number of chalets in a caravan park in South Wales, and whether annual increases in service charge were to be calculated on a compound basis, resulting in absurdly high increases. Lord Neuberger summarised the correct approach as follows:

When interpreting a written contract, the court is concerned to identify the intention of the parties by reference to “what a reasonable person having all the background knowledge which would have been available to the parties would have understood them to be using the language in the contract to mean”, to quote Lord Hoffmann in Chartbrook Ltd v Persimmon Homes Ltd [2009] UKHL 38, [2009] 1 AC 1101, para 14. And it does so by focussing on the meaning of the relevant words, in this case clause 3(2) of each of the 25 leases, in their documentary, factual and commercial context. That meaning has to be assessed in the light of (i) the natural and ordinary meaning of the clause, (ii) any other relevant provisions of the lease, (iii) the overall purpose of the clause and the lease, (iv) the facts and circumstances known or assumed by the parties at the time that the document was executed, and (v) commercial common sense, but (vi) disregarding subjective evidence of any party’s intentions.”

Lord Neuberger set out six principles and the Court of Appeal in Trinity One drew particularly the first and sixth:

First, the reliance placed in some cases on commercial common sense and surrounding circumstances (eg in Chartbrook, paras 16-26) should not be invoked to undervalue the importance of the language of the provision which is to be construed. The exercise of interpreting a provision involves identifying what the parties meant through the eyes of a reasonable reader, and, save perhaps in a very unusual case, that meaning is most obviously to be gleaned from the language of the provision.”

Sixthly, in some cases, an event subsequently occurs which was plainly not intended or contemplated by the parties, judging from the language of their contract. In such a case, if it is clear what the parties would have intended, the court will give effect to that intention. An example of such a case is Aberdeen City Council v Stewart Milne Group Ltd[2011] UKSC 56, 2012 SCLR 114, where the court concluded that ‘any … approach’ other than that which was adopted ‘would defeat the parties’ clear objectives’, but the conclusion was based on what the parties ‘had in mind when they entered into’ the contract (see paras 17 and 22).”

Applying these principles, the Court of Appeal in Trinity One identified that:

⁃ the intention of the parties was that a commuted sum was to be paid.

⁃ the uncertainty related to quantification rather than the principle of payment.

⁃ “It would defeat the underlying purpose of the Agreement if the clause were unenforceable due to lack of certainty. The consequence would be that TOL would receive the benefit of planning permission without providing affordable housing or a commuted sum. In simple terms, that was not the bargain.”

⁃ “…the quantification of that sum should be that which is equivalent to the amount of money which would have been provided had the SHG remained in being. Although this is a departure from the literal words of the contract, this is the only sensible solution to the problem posed by the abolition of the SHG on which the clause is premised. The clause provides that the developer should pay enough money so that the Council can provide equivalent affordable housing: the best the court can do is work out a roughly equivalent figure for that sum.”

⁃ The figure that had been arrived at of £533,508 was a “reasonable attempt to reach a figure equivalent to the SHG which would have been payable before 2006“.

To a non-lawyer this may all seem obvious, but who wants to go to the Court of Appeal to establish what a provision means, just because not enough “what if” questions weren’t asked at the outset?

York Council isn’t yet entirely out of the woods. I mentioned the pending judicial review in relation to the developer’s section 106BC appeal. The Court of Appeal held that if the section 106BC appeal is ultimately successful, it will have retrospective effect notwithstanding that the council’s rights to be paid had already accrued. That seems strange to me, but given that the section 106BA and BC procedure is no longer available, this issue is of limited continuing wider relevance.

So please remain patient when your solicitor asks you yet another series of “what if” questions. In another part of our legal world, the European Medicines Agency is reported to be seeking to set aside its lease at Canary Wharf on the basis that Brexit will amount to an event of frustration. It was reported elsewhere that the “what if” question may in fact have been asked and then set on one side. Now that can be even more awkward.

This blog post is a belated companion to my 14 October 2017 post, Flawed Drafting: Interpreting Planning Permissions.

Simon Ricketts, 8 September 2018

Personal views, et cetera

Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere: Devolution

The prospect of devolution can perhaps cause people to get too excited (Brexit; Catalonia) or perhaps not excited enough (the last Labour Government’s experiment with regional assemblies; the current roll-out of combined authorities). Predictably, this blog post focuses on the latter category. 
First of all, in order to understand planning in Great Britain you need to understand its post-devolution administrative structure, following the enormous changes of the last 20 years. 
It is now 20 years since referendums in Scotland and Wales led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales, with the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland Act 1998 following a year later, leading to the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly. 
Slowly but surely, four different planning systems have developed, summarised in a January 2016 House of Commons library briefing paper, Comparison of the planning systems in the four UK countries.
In relation to English devolution issues, perhaps dull is good, with arguments often focusing on worthy but dull questions of efficiency of administration and decision making, and the unlocking of funding streams. 

Directly elected regional administration of London was reintroduced in 2000 following a referendum in May 1998, in which there was a 72% majority vote (out of a 34% turnout) for the establishment of the Greater London Authority, to be led by an elected Mayor. Despite the low turnout, the size of the “yes” vote did seem to recognise the need for a unified voice for London that had been missing since the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986. 
The Labour Government of the time attempted to use elements of the London model to introduce directly-elected regional assemblies across England. However, it became plain that there simply was not the public appetite. Voters rejected the proposal for a regional assembly for the North East 77.9% to 22.1%, on a turnout of 48% in November 2004 and other proposed referendums for the North West and for Yorkshire and the Humber were then dropped. Whilst there is still some nostalgic harking back to the regional planning of the time, the ridiculously complicated structure in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 took the form of regional spatial strategies, prepared by ‘regional planning bodies’, comprising regional assemblies of co-opted local authority members. The process was closely overseen by central Government and indeed each final regional spatial strategy was published by the Government. So, hardly devolution – and with regional boundaries that often had no historic or emotional basis – although a potentially helpful administrative structure for coordinating local authorities and determining local authority housing targets.
Regional spatial strategies, along with all mentions of the “r” word including the regional planning boards, regional assemblies and regional development agencies (save for the London Development Agency, which survived a little longer) were swept away following the coalition Government coming into power in 2010. The new mantra of localism dictated the removal of top-down targets in favour of the bottom-up idea that it would be more effective for local authorities to determine how to meet their and their neighbours’ housing needs via the Localism Act 2011’s “duty to cooperate”, a Cheshire cat’s smile if ever one there was. Coordinated investment into the regions, including application of EU structural funds, became more difficult following the abolition of the regional development agencies, a vacuum only partly filled by LEPs (voluntary local economic partnerships between local politicians and business people). 
But local politicians (the public? I’m not so sure) continued to press for greater devolution of powers to the regions, particularly against the background of the greater autonomy given to Scotland in particular in the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum (where there was a 55% vote against independence on an 85% turnout – that was clearly a vote that clearly did matter to its electorate). The Government embarked on negotiating a series of ‘devolution deals’ with groups of local authorities. The first deal, to create the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, was announced in November 2014. 
The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 was, as set out its explanatory notes, “intended to support delivery of the Government’s [2015] manifesto commitment to “devolve powers and budgets to boost local growth in England”, in particular to “devolve far-reaching powers over economic development, transport and social care to large cities which choose to have elected mayors” and “legislate to deliver the historic deal for Greater Manchester”. The Act takes forward a number of reforms which are intended to allow for the implementation of devolution agreements with combined authority areas and with other areas. It is enabling legislation which provides a legislative framework which can be applied flexibly to different areas by secondary legislation.” 

The devolution deals to date are listed on the Local Government Association’s website. The powers agreed to be devolved have been different in each case. The position is well summarised in a House of Commons library briefing paper, Devolution to local government in England (23 November 2016):


It will be seen that some deals include the power to create a spatial plan for the area, and/or the power to establish Mayoral Development Corporations. Some deals will also permit the combined authority to use compulsory purchase orders, with the consent of the local authority in which the land or property is located.

I looked specifically at the West Midlands Combined Authority in my blog post Devo West Mids (24 October 2016). 
So far we have had mayoral elections for six combined authorities, which all took place in May 2017. Turnouts were all very low indeed:

Whilst regional devolution may not capture the attention of voters (in fact I’m sure it is utterly confusing to most), undoubtedly it presently brings the promise of significant funding streams from Government. Professor Janice Morphet has also pointed in her 2016 book Infrastructure Delivery Planning to the work of economist Paul Krugman in showing the growth in national GDP that can result from investment decisions being made at a sub-national level. More practically, big personalities are important. That has been the experience in London – and Greater Manchester and the West Midlands both now have strong Mayors, in the shape of Andy Burnham and Andy Street respectively, who will undoubtedly drive those great city regions in an equivalent way. 

A further election, in the Sheffield City Region, is due to be held in May 2018. Why the delay in Sheffield? The city region, which will control additional spending of £30m a year over the next 30 years, was originally going to include Chesterfield and Bassetlaw (which authorities would thereby be able to participate in the significant government funding available). However, Derbyshire County Council (which would automatically thereby be drawn into the arrangement and which opposed “powers for key services in the town being handed to a Sheffield City Region Mayor”) successfully judicially reviewed the process, alleging consultation flaws in R (Derbyshire County Council) v Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield Combined Authority, Secretary of State and Chesterfield Borough Council (Ouseley J, 21 December 2016). Chesterfield is in the county of Derbyshire and Bassetlaw is in the county of Nottinghamshire. Ouseley J accepted that the views of the public should have been, but were not, specifically sought as to whether Chesterfield Borough Council should be a part of the combined authority. The case led first to the Sheffield City Region mayoral election being delayed by a year and then to Chesterfield and Bassetlaw withdrawing their applications for full membership (in the case of Chesterfield after Derbyshire had resolved in June 2017 to carry out a full referendum of all Chesterfield residents). 
The momentum generally appears to have paused. Section 1 of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 places a duty on the Secretary of State to provide annual reports to Parliament setting out progress on devolution across England as soon as practicable after 31 March each year. The Local Government Association is concerned that this year’s report has not yet been published.   
We are at an interesting point. 

First, am I being too downbeat about the benefits of further devolution? I see that Lord Heseltine and Ben Rogers are speaking on Giving Power to the People: The Future of Devolution at the Future City Festival on 19 October 2017. Is there currently the political, or public, will?
Secondly, what now for London? In my view, the devolution of power to London (including reducing to an extent the powers of individual boroughs) has been a success. The moves towards greater powers for the Mayor of London have continued, which is welcome, but should there be more? Ben Rogers wrote an interesting FT piece Would more independence for London benefit the nation? on 3 October 2017.

Thirdly, and most importantly, what changes will Brexit bring? For a start we will see an end to EU structural funding, much of which was to be passed to local areas, although the Government has guaranteed any spending of these funds that is agreed before the UK leaves the EU. But more fundamentally, as again Professor Janice Morphet has pointed out, in her 2017 paper (not yet published) to the Oxford Joint Planning Law Conference we risk losing part of the drive towards devolution that arises from the EU’s principles of subsidiarity and fairness, which translate into for instance the application of structural funds and the development of the Trans European Networks which have been an impetus for transport infrastructure investment. 
Ultimately, might it be the case that some devolution is ruled by the heart and some by the head? English devolution may be in the latter category, described indeed this week in EG this week by Jackie Sadek as a “fragile flower”. Let’s hope it’s not trampled upon by politicians with only a March 2019 deadline in mind. 
Simon Ricketts, 6.10.17
Personal views, et cetera