The Secretary Of State & London

The Secretary of State wrote last year to the Mayor of London: “I am not convinced your assessment of need reflects the full extent of housing need in London to tackle affordability problems. I have listened carefully to yours, and others, representations, and I am clear that the public interest lies with ensuring you deliver the homes London needs, including in the short term, as quickly as possible.”

Do we see this same message being delivered in his recent interventions?

None of this is news to regular readers of Planning magazine but I give you:

Purley Baptist Church site, Croydon

A scheme by Thornsett Group and Purley Baptist Church for the “demolition of existing buildings on two sites; erection of a 3 to 17 storey development on the ‘Island Site’ (Purley Baptist Church, 1 Russell Hill Road, 1-4 Russell Hill Parade, 2-12 Brighton Road, Purley Hall), comprising 114 residential units, community and church space and a retail unit; and a 3 to 8 storey development on the ‘South Site’ (1-9 Banstead Road) comprising 106 residential units, and associated landscaping and works.”

Supported by the London Borough of Croydon and by the Mayor. But opposed by, amongst others, Conservative MP Chris Philp (Croydon South). The application was called in on 12 April 2017 and, despite inspector David Nicholson recommending approval, refused by the Secretary of State in his decision letter dated 3 December 2018, essentially on design and heritage grounds:

26. Given his serious concerns about the design of the scheme as set out above at paragraphs 13 to 15, for the reasons given above the Secretary of State does not consider that the application is in accordance with the development plan overall. He has gone on to consider whether there are material considerations which indicate that the proposal should be determined other than in accordance with the development plan.

27. In favour, the scheme will provide 220 new homes which he considers should be given significant weight. The Secretary of State also affords significant weight to the benefits to Purley District Centre arising as a result of the regeneration of the site. The provision of a new church and greatly enhanced community facilities are also benefits, to which the Secretary of State gives moderate weight. He considers the level of affordable housing and the potential effects on air quality to be neutral in the planning balance.

28. Against the scheme, however, the Secretary of State gives substantial weight to the poor design of the South Side proposals, and to the height and proportions of the tower set out in paragraphs 13 to 15 above, which he considers not to be in accordance with relevant policies in the development plan.

29. The Secretary of State has also considered whether the identified ‘less than substantial’ harm to the significance of Purley Library and surrounding Conservation Areas is outweighed by the public benefits of the proposal. In accordance with the s.66 LBCA duty, he attributes considerable weight to the harm the significance of Purley Library. However, he considers that the benefits of the scheme, as set out in Paragraph 22 of this letter, are insufficient to outbalance the identified ‘less than substantial’ harm to the significance of Purley Library and surrounding conservation areas. He considers that the balancing exercise under paragraph 196 of the Framework is therefore not favourable to the proposal.”

It always feels slightly odd when the Secretary of State, on a desk-based examination of a set of papers, and following a public inquiry, considers it appropriate to overrule the judgment of local planning authority, Mayor and inspector in relation to these sorts of issues

I understand that the decision has been challenged in the High Court by the applicants.

Sir William Sutton Estate, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

By contrast, a scheme opposed both by RBKC (which refused permission) and by the Mayor for “demolition of the existing [Sir William Sutton] estate (Blocks A-K, N and O) and ancillary office; delivery of 343 new residential homes comprising of 334 apartments and 9 mews within buildings of 4-6 storeys; provision of Class D1 community floorspace with associated café; new Class A1-A5 and B1 floorspace; creation of new adopted public highway between Cale Street and Marlborough Street; new vehicular access from Ixworth Place; creation of new basement for car parking, cycle parking and storage; new energy centre fuelled by CHP, and works to adjacent pavement“.

The developer, Clarion Housing Group (formerly Affinity Sutton Homes Limited), appealed. Curiously, the appeal was only recovered by the Secretary of State for his own determination on 1 May 2018, just over a week before the start of the inquiry. By his decision letter dated 18 December 2018 the Secretary of State accepted his inspector’s recommendation and dismissed the appeal.

The main issue was in relation to the level of affordable housing proposed. After the appeal was submitted, the appellant had attempted to improve the position with changes to the scheme:

The key changes relate to the quantum of social rented housing and the number of mews houses. The Revised Scheme proposes 2,825 m2 more social rented floorspace, an increase from 237 to 270 social rented homes. The 9 private mews houses would be removed and replaced with social rented flats. Elements of the building design would be changed. The Revised Scheme results in an increase in the overall number of homes from 343 to 366.

The non-residential floorspace in the Appeal Scheme and the Revised Scheme would be the same in respect of Classes A1-A3 and B1 workspace, but there would be a decrease in the community floorspace in the Revised Scheme.”

However, applying ‘Wheatcroft‘ principles (“the main, but not the only, criterion on which… judgment should be exercised is whether the development is so changed that to grant it would be to deprive those who should have been consulted on the changed development of the opportunity of such consultation”) the Secretary of State, agreeing with the recommendation of his inspector, refused to consider the revised scheme due to concerns as to the adequacy of the consultation that had been carried out. (One legitimate criticism was of “skewed” questioning of the public in a Feedback Form which asked “Do you support the proposals to amend the scheme to provide 33 additional homes for social rent?“, although I have seen similarly skewed questioning in MHCLG consultation documents…).

The Secretary of State did not accept the appellant’s position as to whether there was existing affordable housing on the site:

vacation of a property by a Registered Provider as a preliminary step towards estate renewal cannot reasonably be a basis for disregarding that floorspace for the purposes of affordable housing policy. He further agrees, for the reasons given at IR206-218, that the AS fails to comply with the ‘no net loss’ element of development plan policy.”

He considered that for the same reason the benchmark land value for the purposes of viability appraisal should be “based on the current situation, that is based on social housing development, as the Council contends.”

He concluded that the appeal scheme failed “to satisfy the policy aims of no net loss of social housing and maximum reasonable provision, largely for reasons related to the way in which the exiting [sic] vacant units of social housing are treated.”

Newcombe House, Notting Hill

Still in RBKC and back to the saga of Newcombe House. As summarised in my 18 June 2017 blog post, an appeal in relation to the proposed development of the site had been rejected by inspector David Nicholson (as of the Purley Baptist Church site case above). The refusal had partly been on similar grounds to the dismissal of the Sir William Sutton Estate appeal.

A new scheme was brought forward by the developer, Notting Hill KCS Limited, for “demolition of existing buildings and redevelopment to provide office, 46 residential units, retail uses, and a flexible surgery/office use, across six buildings (ranging from ground plus two storeys to ground plus 17 storeys), with two-storey basement together with landscaping to provide a new public square, ancillary parking and associated works.”

RBKC resolved to refuse the new application on 31 January 2018, on townscape, heritage and affordable housing grounds. On 26 March 2018 the Mayor of London intervened and took over the application. The applicant varied the scheme to increase the humber of homes and amount of affordable housing and the Mayor resolved to approve it on 18 September 2018 subject to completion of a section 106 agreement.

However, following representations by RBKC, the local residents group and Emma Dent Coad MP, the Secretary of State has issued a holding direction so that he can consider whether to call in the application for his own determination.

Kensington Forum Hotel

Another RBKC saga. An application by Queensgate Bow Propco Limited for the redevelopment of the Kensington Forum Hotel for “comprehensive redevelopment and erection of a part 30, part 22 and part 7 storey building comprising hotel bedrooms and serviced apartments (Class C1) with ancillary bar, restaurants, conferencing and dining areas, leisure facilities and back of house areas; residential accommodation (Class C3); with associated basement, energy centre, plant, car parking, cycle parking, refuse stores, servicing areas; associated highway works and creation of new publicly accessible open space with associated hard and soft landscaping“. The scheme included 46 homes.

On 27 September 2018 RBKC resolved to refuse planning permission – as with Newcombe House on townscape, heritage and affordable housing grounds. As with Newcombe House, the Mayor of London intervened and took over the application, on 5 November 2018.

This time however RBKC has issued proceedings for judicial review, seeking to quash the Mayor’s decision to take over the application. From the 7 December 2018 pre-action letter it appears that the grounds are (1) alleged errors of fact as to the number of homes which RBKC has recently delivered and (2) a failure to take into account RBKC’s programme for building new homes (including homes for social rent).

In the meantime it is reported that the Secretary of State has, again as with Newcombe House, issued a holding direction so that he can consider whether to call in the application for his own determination.

Getting messy isn’t it?

Simon Ricketts, 26 January 2018

Personal views, et cetera

The Purley scheme, image from inspector’s report

A Promise Is A Promise

I set out the principles of legitimate expectation in my 24 March 2018 blog post Once More Unto The Breach Of Legitimate Expectation, Dear Friends and referred to 29 November 2017 Lang J’s judgment at first instance in Save. The Court of Appeal has now partly overturned that judgment, in R (Save Britain’s Heritage) v Secretary of State (Court of Appeal, 4 October 2018). The case resulted from the Secretary of State’s decision not to call in the application for planning permission for the proposed Paddington Cube development, although given that planning permission and listed building consent was subsequently granted by Westminster City Council for that development, which was beyond challenge, these proceedings continued to the Court of Appeal on a basis which was only academic as far as that development was concerned.

Lang J had reached a curious conclusion. She accepted that a legitimate expectation had arisen, as a result of statements in 2001 (first in a green paper and then in ministerial statements), repeated in a 2010 ministerial statement, that the Secretary of State would give reasons when deciding not to exercise his power to call in planning decisions. But she found that “in 29 February 2014, in the course of preparation for the High Court case of Westminster City Council v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government [2014] EWHC 708 (Admin), a departmental decision was made to cease the practice of giving reasons” and therefore the earlier statements and practice relied upon by the claimant “could no longer found an expectation that reasons would be given. If any such expectation was held, it had ceased to be a legitimate one, because of the change in practice.”

Lang J accordingly dismissed the claim, in effect concluding that a promise could be publicly given by Government and privately retracted.

The Court of Appeal took a different view. The judgment of Coulson LJ is pretty scornful as to the Government’s position and the circumstances of the alleged 2014 change in policy:

It is the SoS’ case that, at some unknown date early in 2014, a decision was taken not to give reasons for a decision declining to call in an application and that, since then, such decision letters have been issued without giving reasons. The confused circumstances in which this change came about, and the extent to which it could fairly be said to be a change of policy at all, are dealt with in greater detail in Section 5 below.”

“…it is a recipe for administrative chaos if a legitimate expectation can be generated by an unequivocal ministerial promise, only for it then to be lost as a result of an unadvertised change of practice.”

“…it is worth noting how and why the SoS says that this change of practice occurred. It appears that, in the Westminster case, the Minister had given reasons for not calling in the decision which were plainly wrong on their face. As a result of this error, somebody (and it is quite unclear who) within the Department for Communities and Local Government decided that it would be more prudent for reasons not to be given under s.77. In consequence, changes were made to the template letter sent out (to the relevant LPAs, or to the objectors who had requested call in) when a decision was made not to call in an application under s.77. Mr Harwood QC was therefore right to say that this was not an open or transparent way to withdraw a public ministerial promise made in Parliament.”

“…a close textural analysis of the samples included in the court bundle only serves to confirm that the alleged change of practice relied on by the SoS was negligible.

From the SoS’ point of view, therefore, so far, so bad: but it gets worse. Ms Lieven QC was counsel for the SoS in the Westminster case. When Lang J asked her how it was that the change in practice had occurred, it was apparent from her answers (given on instructions) that, at the time of the Westminster case in 2014, nobody in the Department recalled or had in mind the unequivocal promise made in 2001 (and repeated in 2010). Thus, Mr Harwood QC was right to submit that the change in practice relied on by the SoS was brought about in ignorance of the 2001 policy promise. So, even on the SoS’ case, the promise to give reasons was never consciously withdrawn, whether for good reason or not; it had instead been forgotten altogether. In consequence, neither of the typical answers to a legitimate expectation claim identified in paragraph 39 above (a conflict with other statutory duties or a reasonable decision not, after all, to honour the promise) can arise on the facts of this case. It is difficult to see how a person can be said to have changed a policy of which they were unaware at the relevant time.”

Accordingly, it seems to me that the legitimate expectation rightly identified by Lang J did not come to an end as a result of the confusion and muddle generated by the Westminster case and/or the apparent decision to make, at best, minor changes to the template letter. An unequivocal promise was made, and that unequivocal promise should have been publicly withdrawn when (or if) a conscious decision was taken no longer to give reasons for not calling in applications under s.77. For these reasons, I consider that SAVE’s legitimate expectation case has been made out.”

A separate ground of appeal, that Lang J was wrong not to find that there was a general duty to give reasons, quite aside from any legitimate expectation, failed.

The 2014 Westminster case referred to in Save did indeed cause “confusion and muddle“. That case related to a challenge by English Heritage to the decision of the then Secretary of State not to call in an application for planning permission made to Lambeth Borough Council for the redevelopment of Elizabeth House, next to Waterloo Station. In that case Westminster City Council was an objector, having objected to the application and having sought call-in without success.

Whilst it was accepted that there was no general duty to give reasons, the argument made was that the Secretary of State had volunteered reasons and therefore they had to be adequate.

The Secretary of State’s letters to Westminster City Council and Lambeth Borough Councils, informing them that the application would not be called in, were said by Collins J to be “badly drafted” and on their face showing errors in the application of the Secretary of State’s call in policy.

The judgment contains this classic sentence in relation to the letter sent to Lambeth:

It is so obviously wrong particularly, as will become apparent, when read with the advice given that it cannot and does not reflect the defendant’s thinking.”

Collins J accepted the submissions of Nathalie Lieven QC, on behalf of the Secretary of State, that the letter was so bad that it could not have been intended to contain any reasoning!

Ms Lieven supported by Mr Harris and Mr Simons submitted that the letter was doing no more than informing the recipient LBL that the defendant had decided not to call in the application. She accepted as was inevitable that it was poorly drafted and that in effect that part of it should be ignored. It was not purporting to give reasons. She relies on the advice given to the defendant and in effect submits that since neither the defendant nor Mr Boles could conceivably have believed that it did not engage some of the matters which required consideration to be given to calling in the application it could not have set out the defendant’s thinking nor could it properly have done so.

Mr Cameron understandably expressed surprise that it was said that the letter was so obviously wrong that the defendant could not have meant what is set out in it. However, I am satisfied that regrettably that is the case. The letter cannot be regarded as one which was intended to give reasons. The defendant was relying on his right not to give reasons and the letter must be read accordingly. It is plain when the advice to him is seen that he could not have been unaware of nor could he have misunderstood his policy. It follows that the first three grounds relied on must fail since in addition there is no question of giving reasons. While it may be that it would be desirable if the defendant were required to give reasons why he decided not to call-in in a case which did meet the criteria for call-in but it is not open to me in the light of the existing authorities to impose such a duty.”

A brave but successful defence. No wonder that in the context of those letters being under the microscope, civil servants presumably decided that it would be safer to stay well away from giving reasons – although the Secretary of State was fortunate that the claimant did not argue breach of legitimate expectation, because surely, on the basis now of Save, that case was wrongly decided

So what is the practical effect of the Court of Appeal’s ruling in Save? It is a useful statement of the law in relation to legitimate expectation where that expectation arises by way of a promise and of immediate effect in relation to future decisions which the Secretary of State may make as to whether or not to call in planning applications for his own determination but of course the Secretary of State can change his policy on giving reasons at any time, as long as he does it formally and openly. Will he?

Simon Ricketts, 5 October 2018

Personal views, et cetera

Pic courtesy of Mixology