Live/Work, Repeat

Do you get that blurry feeling too?

I could have been dictating this piece for the overnight typing pool, slipping into the firm’s library to check the case references and tricky spellings, being brought printouts of drafts by a messenger in a firm-logo-branded shirt before the desktop publishing department do their weird stuff on The Firm’s Only Apple Mac.

Those were the days, working in a law factory, as we used dismissively to call our daytime workplace over an overpriced drink in a city bar after hours, incommunicado until the next morning.

Or I could be writing it at home in an hour or two of self-discipline away from an overnight stream of emails and an intertwined social media timeline of planning, law, politics, music, football and hopefully an amusing cat video or ten.

I don’t even know whether writing this blog is work or not.

We’re all grappling more than ever before with questions such as:

⁃ Where are the boundaries between work and home?

⁃ What is the continuing role for formal workspaces when the necessary components for core “office” work are simply a laptop, mobile phone and quiet space; for lockup shops when everyone can be their own etsy or e-bay business, or for studios and workshops where the work carried out may largely rely on nothing more than manual dexterity plus some tech?

⁃ In an age where the average household is having multiple home deliveries of all sorts of goods, what level of business activity is to be regarded as normal or appropriate for a residential area? Can you even generalise – or does it depend on the nature of the area and its dwellings?

⁃ Is this all a Good thing or a Bad thing and to what extent is it any business of the planning system? If it was the industrial revolution that brought about such a sharp delineation between where we live and where we work, are we now in a post-industrial revolution and are there indeed environmental, social and economic benefits to a greater degree of community, as opposed to commuter, living? How to reinvent the office so that it is about unique human communication, rather than as a left behind place, its complex physical functions, systems and gadgets long outsourced to laptop and phone?

Two recent cases led to these thoughts. The main one was Sage v Secretary of State (Sir Duncan Ouseley, 28 October 2021) (I know, one planning law Sage case was confusing enough and here comes another). I very much recommend and won’t repeat our Town Library case summary written by my colleague Stephanie Bruce-Smith (work-related plug: you can still subscribe for free to these brilliant weekly summaries by the Town Legal team of all Planning Court and relevant appellate judgments here).

Sir Duncan Ouseley in his ruling considers whether the advice in the Government’s Planning Practice Guidance is correct as to when planning permission is needed “to homework or run a business from home”. The guidance says this:

Planning permission will not normally be required to home work or run a business from home, provided that a dwelling house remains a private residence first and business second (or in planning terms, provided that a business use does not result in a material change of use of a property so that it is no longer a single dwelling house). A local planning authority is responsible for deciding whether planning permission is required and will determine this on the basis of individual facts. Issues which they may consider include whether home working or a business leads to noticeable increases in traffic, disturbance to neighbours, abnormal noise or smells or the need for any major structural changes or major renovations.”

Sound sensible to you? Then be wary, because the judge disagreed. He considered that the passage in brackets at the end of the first sentence is expressed too widely and also that the question of environmental impact (the matters referred to in the second sentence) is of limited relevance.

The facts as summarised by the judge were as follows:

Mr Sage, lives in a two-storey semi-detached house with a garden, about 20 metres deep, in a residential street in a primarily residential area of Beckenham in the London Borough of Bromley. At the rear of his garden is a timber out-building, with windows, which is used in part as a garden shed, and in part as a gym. Mr Sage keeps gym equipment there including a treadmill, cross-trainer, weights, balls, bench, and punch bag. It has no toilet or showering facilities. The garden, and the shed, can be accessed via a passage to the side of the house, shared with the neighbouring property. Mr Sage uses the gym himself and he permits family and friends to use it. He has used the gym part of the shed since 2016 for his business as a personal trainer, for paying clients, who attend at the premises.”

Bromley had refused Mr Sage’s application for a certificate of lawful use, disagreeing that either the use was ancillary to the primary residential use of his property or that that the use fell within section 55 (2)(d) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990: “the use of any buildings or other land within the curtilage of a dwellinghouse for any purpose incidental to the enjoyment of the dwellinghouse as such;…

(In passing, it’s not just about working from home, be careful about your hobbies: “Wallington v Secretary of State for Wales (1991) 62 P&CR 150, CA, concerned an enforcement notice alleging that the keeping of 44 dogs as a hobby was not incidental to the use of a dwelling house “as such”, that is as a dwellinghouse. The notice was upheld and the dogs limited to 6. The fact that the owner genuinely regarded this as a hobby “cannot possibly suffice to prove by itself” that the purpose was incidental to the enjoyment of the dwelling house as a dwellinghouse. Significance had to be given to the words “as such”.”)

An inspector dismissed Mr Sage’s appeal and he challenged that decision.

“This latter Guidance suffers from two main problems. The first question is what use is being made of the land, including its ancillary uses, and, in the case of a dwelling house, whether any purposes to which it is put are reasonably incidental to its use as a dwelling house. The passage in brackets at the end of the first sentence of this guidance is correct but too readily capable of leading to the concept, of a material change of use or a purpose incidental to the use of dwellinghouse as such, being misunderstood. This is because a business use in a dwellinghouse may well be secondary to the primary residential use of the dwellinghouse; but may still create a material change of use, be for a non-incidental purpose. A secondary use will involve a material change of use of the dwellinghouse to a mixed or composite use, as was found to have occurred here, unless it is so secondary that it is merely ancillary to the residential use as a dwelling house such that there is still just that one use; or in the case of a dwelling house, the purpose at issue is reasonably incidental to the enjoyment of the dwelling house as such. This is a crucial point which the Guidance ignores or blurs badly.

Second, a material change of use can be made without any adverse environmental impact at all. Treating environmental impact as the seemingly crucial issue for the judgment as to whether a material change of use has occurred, or a purpose is reasonably incidental is not consistent with clearly established law. The crucial test is whether there has been change in the character of the use. Environmental impact can be relevant as evidence that a material change has occurred, because a use of the new character may be capable of yielding environmental impacts or have done so already. The Guidance as written is apt to mislead as to what the real question is, and as to the true but limited relevance of environmental impact.

Once the use of the outbuilding for the business of a personal training studio for paying visitors is accepted as an ancillary to or reasonably incidental to the use of a dwellinghouse as such, the difficulty of measuring the materiality of a change in the scale of the activities or their mode of operation points to the limitations of using environmental impact as the measures not of impact but of materiality of the change of use. It appears quite difficult to contend that using the garden for exercise, warming up and warming down, post-exercise conversation, refreshment, or using the outbuilding with the doors open in hotter weather or if the air-conditioning is inadequate, or enabling visitors to traipse to the lavatory and back, involves a material change of use, when use of the outbuilding for 6 days a week for personal training did not. This is the more so if others, who are not commercial clients, do so. It is difficult to see that an increase in numbers and disturbance would be of itself a material change of use. The neighbours might change; a new owner of the house could intensify the use. There could be, as here, a local difference of view about the effect of the business. This all is grist to the mill of the limitations of the role of environmental impact in resolving the materiality of a change in use and the incidental nature of the additional use. The Guidance is far too loose to reflect the true focus of the question at issue.”

There is then this final fascinating passage:

I also appreciate that there are many forms of service offered within a dwelling house, from private tuition, including in music or singing, child minding, medical services. I accept that what is normal or reasonably incidental now may have shifted with changes in work habits as a result of Covid. This is not relevant to this particular case. And an important distinction would have to be drawn between working from home, where work-related visitors were few and far between, and working from home which took the form of routine and frequent work-related visitors, notably customers. However, the question of how much actual noise the music or maths teacher and pupil make, how much actual disturbance is generated by young children or dogs being minded, is not the touchstone of the materiality of the change of use, although it may point to a nature or degree of use which is materially different from that of a dwellinghouse or its incidental purposes. One is a residential use, and the other is a residential and commercial use. Of course, they both may vary in their intensity and impact, but one cannot be controlled through the need for planning permission and the other can and should be.

How is this distinction really to be drawn, clearly, in practice?

The second case is a judgment of the Central London County Court. AHGR Ltd v Kane Laverack (HHJ Johns QC, 27 September 2021). The judgment is unreported but summarised in County Court at Central London considers Live/Work units (Landmark chambers, 27 October 2021). Nostalgia time for some of us – “live/work units” are now a rather outmoded concept but were once given favourable policy status by certain London authorities in specific areas.

In leafing through books in the library (ok, by googling) I came across this excellent 2005 report by Andrew Lainton prepared for the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, Does Live/work? Problems and Issues concerning Live/Work Development in London:

“ The concept took off in London during the late 1990s. The concept was initially welcomed by many planning officers as they saw it meeting multiple employment and housing objectives. Initially proposals were by individual and artists, however developers soon became involved as it became seen as a means of securing planning permission in areas where existing zonings made development difficult.

There was a gradual disillusionment with the concept and many planners began to see the concept as a ‘fig leaf’ for primarily housing schemes. Policies in most boroughs have significantly tightened.

Some developers are quite open that Live/Work is simply a ruse for securing planning permission. There is widespread evidence of large scale residential reversion and little evidence of continued employment occupancy, other than in areas where there is a strong market for small offices where units are more likely to revert to employment use. The search for examples of good ‘work/ live’ practice has proven a largely barren one.”

AHGR was a landlord and tenant case which concerned the proper interpretation of a user clause in a lease required use “as a live/work unit in accordance with the terms and conditions of the planning permission”.

Excitingly for us lawyers, but leading to a rather curious outcome, it revolved around the interpretation of “/“: does “live/work” means “live and work” or “live and/or work”? A salutary lesson for users of the dreaded slash…

To quote from the summary:

The live/work unit had been built out as a flat, without apparent regard to the requirements set out in building regulations for commercial premises at the time. The user clause required use “as a live/work unit in accordance with the terms and conditions of the planning permission”. The Defendants (a barrister and doctor) had resided in the live/work unit primarily as their home, albeit that they had undertaken various work-related activities in their open-plan living space and spare room, such as writing books, publishing papers, and undertaking triaging and consultation of patients by phone. There was no designated work space in the unit and despite inspections over the years, no objections had been raised by the landlord’s agents to such use.”

After a 4 day trial, HHJ Johns QC dismissed the claim. He concluded the planning permission meant “live and/or work”. The construction of the planning permission was central to the construction of the leasehold covenant and particular regard was had to: (i) the planning policy background to the permission, (ii) the absence of conditions, (iii) the fact that the plans marked the whole area as live/work, (iv) the fact that other plans referred to in the permission used a “/” to indicate “and/or”, (v) the planning framework (including the fact that a breach of planning control can have criminal sanctions) (vi) the fact that a “live and/or work” construction still serves a purpose of allowing a business to be run from the premises; and (vii) how the planning permission had been implemented. A 1999 Supplementary Planning Guidance document, which was relied on by the Claimant, did not alter that interpretation.

The Judge also held that if the clause had mandated work, the planning permission did not require running a business from the unit and the activities undertaken by the Defendants were sufficient.”

Given that the whole purpose of “live/work units” was to require an element of employment use, rather than just use for residential purposes the judgment does not sit well with any purposive approach to interpretation of the documents but life, and the nature of work, has certainly moved on.

I wrote a long time ago about the many definitional problems within the Use Classes Order C-classes, in my 1 July 2016 blog post Time To Review The “C” Use Classes? Those problems are multiplying. What new boundary lines do we need, if any?

Simon Ricketts, 6 November 2021

Personal views, et cetera

Our clubhouse session this Tuesday at 6pm will be another good one: CIL horror stories. Story tellers will include Tom Dobson, Zenab Hearn, Claire Petricca-Riding, Professor Samer Bagaeen and Graham Cridland. Link here.

Simonicity Towers

Angelic: Public Benefits Of Unlawful Demolition In Conservation Area

There was an interesting piece this week by Sarah Townsend on the Planning Resource website: Why planning enforcement notices have dropped to their lowest-ever level (subscription only, 29 August 2019).

There was also an interesting ruling from the High Court, London Borough of Tower Hamlets v Secretary of State and Angelic Interiors Limited (in administration) (Kerr J, 27 August 2019), which will have made every enforcement officer, and indeed conservation officer, blink. Although perhaps the facts are unusual.

In June 2016, enforcement officers at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets were tipped off that the buildings comprising 2, 4 and 6 East Ferry Road London E14, within the Coldharbour conservation area, had been demolished without planning permission. It is of course a crime, as well as a breach of planning control, to cause or permit demolition of a building in a conservation area without planning permission.

The council wasn’t certain who had done it, although an individual has since admitted responsibility, and it did not prosecute.

As was reported at the time (BBC website, 27 September 2017), the council served various enforcement notices, requiring that within 18 months the owner was to “rebuild the building so as to recreate in facsimile the building as it stood immediately prior to its demolition on 26 June 2016 with reference to the photographs and plans (LBTH file reference PA/84/00512 & PA/81/00497 originals of which are available at the Tower Hamlets Council’s Town Hall)

In fact there had been a long-running dispute as to who owned the property, which was only resolved in October 2018, in favour of a company called, ironically, Angelic Interiors Limited, which had been in administration since July 2016. Angelic’s administrators appealed against the enforcement notices.

Enforcement appeal decision letter

The inspector, Simon Hand, allowed the appeals in a decision letter dated 17 December 2018.

In order to place Kerr J’s judgment this month into context, it is illuminating to read the decision letter.

Here are some key passages:

Nos 2-6 were the last surviving remnant of the once large area of Victorian workers housing in Cubitt Town which occupied the whole of the south-eastern side of the Isle of Dogs.”

There is […] no dispute the removal of the buildings causes less than substantial harm to the Coldharbour conservation area. The conservation area is a designated heritage asset and paragraph 193 of the NPPF makes it clear that great weight should be given to any less than substantial harm to the significance of a heritage asset. Paragraph 194 goes on to say that any loss of significance to a heritage asset should require clear and convincing justification (my emphases). Paragraph 196 explains that where there is less than substantial harm to a heritage asset is should be weighed against the likely public benefits arising from that harm.”

If they were to be rebuilt then they would undoubtedly be very nice, but the issue is what role do they play in the significance of the conservation area and the answer would seem to me to be very little.”

Had the demolished buildings been of historic interest in their own right they would have been worth preserving simply for that reason, but they would still have told us little or nothing about Cubitt Town, its development, or its morphology. The development of Cubitt Town does not seem to have been unusual in any way, nor any of its buildings particularly special, it is not until this Inquiry that anyone at the Council has made any mention of it at all. To my mind the dwellings were not the last fragment of a historically significant but now lost development. They were simply three remnant buildings in a sea of modern development. To suggest that this makes it all the more important to preserve them is to adopt a collector’s mentality, particularly as they seemed to have no great historic significance themselves due to the substantial modern changes they had undergone.”

Both parties accepted the loss of the buildings had caused less than substantial harm to the significance of the conservation area, and I would not like to suggest their loss causes no harm at all, but I consider that the harm is very much at the lowest end of that scale. It was argued that if the site is left vacant or redeveloped there would be no reason to retain it in the conservation area and this would seem to be true, but it does call into question the motivation for extending the conservation area in the first place. Had it been deliberately to protect this remnant of Cubitt Town, then I would have expected somewhere for this to have been explained. I accept the conservation area appraisal is lacking in detail, but if Cubitt Town was of such importance as Mr Froneman argued, then I find it hard to believe the reason for the extension to this allegedly key part of the Isle of Dogs is deliberately not mentioned as the appraisal explains only that the extension was in order to protect Glen Terrace. It seems to me more likely the Council just saw these Victorian looking buildings and took the opportunity to include them, as there was nothing else of any historic interest in the area. Whatever the truth of the matter whether or not the vacant site remains worthy of conservation area status is of little importance in this case.”

The inspector found this to be an area of high housing need and “there would appear to be no constraints that would prevent a housing scheme of significantly greater density than 3 units from being successful on the site.”

it would seem highly likely that a suitable development proposal could be found and there are no obvious reasons why the landowner would not want to realise the development potential of the site.”

Paragraph 196 of the NPPF requires that the harm should be weighed against any public benefits. In this case those benefits are the redevelopment of the site with a much larger number of dwellings than would be the case if the demolished houses were rebuilt, including much needed affordable housing, all of which would be in accord with the prevailing policy ethos for the area. I accept these benefits are speculative, but in my view there is a good chance they would be realised. It seems likely to me that even had the buildings still been in place, given their poor condition and lack of any historic significance, they would have been demolished to make way for a comprehensive redevelopment scheme. Consequently, I consider these benefits outweigh the harm identified. The demolition of the three dwellings is thus in accord with the NPPF and the development plan for the area and so I shall grant planning permission accordingly.

So he found that the potential for redevelopment for housing purposes of the unlawfully cleared site amounted to a sufficient public benefit to outweigh the “great weight” to be attached to the (very much) less than substantial harm that had been caused to the character or appearance of the conservation area.

High Court

The council challenged the decision letter.

Kerr J identified the main issue before him as “whether the “public benefits of the proposal” (in the words of NPPF paragraph 196) should extend to likely benefits of new development of a site, facilitated by demolition of buildings on the site, where there is no current application for planning permission to develop the site; or whether those words are restricted to the public benefits of demolishing the buildings, without considering any likely future development.

The judge did not find this to be an easy case:

It is counter-intuitive to propose that unlawful (and criminal) demolition of buildings forming part of a conservation area, harming the significance of that conservation area, can do more good than harm. No sensible planning application to demolish would be made on that basis and a planning consultant suggesting such an application would soon be short of clients.

Still, for the inspector’s decision to be lawful, and for the challenges to fail, it has to be a defensible conclusion that demolition without replacement, leaving the site razed to the ground and vacant, without any replacement development, and doing harm to the significance of the conservation area, is more good than bad. Baldly stated in that way, the proposition is remarkable.

My first thought on hearing argument was that the proposition cannot be correct. If only demolition is on the table, and demolition is harmful, how then can it do more good than harm? Can it be good and bad at the same time, and more good than bad?

The judge concluded that it was simply a matter for factual evaluation for the inspector.

I accept the respondents’ interpretation of the heritage provisions in the NPPF with a degree of hesitation. I am conscious that it is a liberal construction and not a strict pro-heritage construction such as the council is advocating. Nevertheless, on balance I think the respondents’ is the correct one, bearing in mind that the NPPF provisions are statements of policy not law and the language of the provisions is not restricted in the way the council contends.”

He considered whether the inspector’s decision could be said to have been irrational:

I reject the council’s free standing contention that, quite apart from the interpretation of the NPPF provisions, it was irrational to decide that the market would produce suitable and beneficial housing development soon. It is true that the inspector could not say what type of development that would be, nor that it would certainly occur; but those were points he was entitled to weigh when considering the public benefit side of the balance.

I do not see any want of rationality in reasoning that the site would soon attract developers like flies to a honeypot and that this would probably have led to demolition of the three houses soon anyway. The circumstantial evidence supporting that finding was not lacking: the prime location, the pressing need to build housing in the borough, the appetite shown by other housing developments nearby, the indicative Turner scheme and the intention to sell and strong likelihood of sale of the site for development.”

Lastly, he considered whether the inspector’s decision was adequately reasoned:

As for the reasons challenge, did the inspector properly set out his thinking? Manifestly, he did. The reasoning need not be discursive. It is commendably succinct but clear and full. He explained exactly why he was confident that delivery of the public benefit he anticipated could be left to the market. He made all the points I have just mentioned, in support of his conclusion. The council cannot complain that it does not know why it lost the appeals.

I did consider carefully whether the reasoning touches adequately on the possibility of a development scheme that would leave the three houses intact, whereby the developer would build round them and keep them in place. If the inspector had simply assumed, without considering the issue properly, that the public benefits derived from anticipated development would be lost unless the demolition were permitted, that could have been a flaw in the reasoning.

However, I have concluded that the inspector did adequately, though briefly, consider this point and that it was a matter for his planning judgment. His consideration of likely development proposals such as the one illustrated by the Turner scheme (involving 22 new dwellings) included the council’s 2005 discussions which would have involved demolition of the three houses.”

He dismissed the challenge, albeit with a final bit of judicial hand-wringing:

I do so without much enthusiasm, reminding myself that the enforcement system is remedial not punitive. I must put aside the affront to the rule of law and criminal activity seen in this case, as well as the loss of the three houses and their contribution to our historic environment, however limited some may consider it. My discomfort does not make the inspector’s decision unlawful and I must and do uphold it.”

Implications

Plainly, unlawful actions should in principle not go unpunished and it is disappointing that there have been no prosecutions.

Plainly also, Angelic’s administrators now have an unearned windfall by virtue of a cleared site for development with no obligation to reconstruct the buildings that others had unlawfully demolished on the site.

That is not to say that the enforcement notices should have stood and that replicas of these apparently unexceptional buildings should have been required, simply to discourage others from similar conduct, but what is there in this unfortunate chain of events to encourage appropriate behaviour on the part of future Angelics?

Simon Ricketts, 31 August 2019

Personal views, et cetera

POCA Face

If you are in a position where you may be criminally liable for breach of planning control (whether justified or not – I’ve heard all the stories), you really need to be aware of the implications of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and its potential influence on the approach taken by local planning authority enforcement teams. This post only gives a general overview as in my day job I do not generally act on criminal planning law matters so please take appropriate advice. The focus of this post is more on that “potential influence” issue: the raised stakes now in seeking to negotiate a practical solution to avoid enforcement and/or prosecution.

The Act provides that if the Crown Court convicts a defendant, the Crown Court (if requested by the prosecutor or if it considers it appropriate):

1. must decide whether the defendant has a criminal lifestyle;

2. if it decides that he has a criminal lifestyle, must decide whether he has benefited from his general criminal conduct;

3. if it decides that he does not have a criminal lifestyle, must decide whether he has benefited from his particular criminal conduct.

If the defendant has benefited from his general or particular criminal conduct, the court arrives at a figure as to the extent of that benefit and how much of that is “available” – determined by considering “all the free property” held by the defendant deducted only by any fines due and any preferential debts within the meaning of the Insolvency Act 1986. That amount is then payable, with the time for payment only generally being capable of extension to six months. Failure to pay is likely to result in imprisonment.

Enforcement teams within local planning authorities are well aware of the potential for POCA confiscation orders and indeed authorities are incentivised to seek them. This is not just because of their deterrent effect as regards other potential miscreants but more directly because the authority is likely to receive 37.5% of the receipts (which can then be used by the authority on a non-hypothecated basis). This is because the Home Office’s Asset Recovery Incentivisation Scheme splits the proceeds from confiscation orders as follows:

– Home Office 50%

– Prosecuting authority 18.75%

– Investigating authority 18.75%

– HM Court Service 12.5%

The local planning authority will generally be both prosecuting and investigating authority.

The case that really opened people’s eyes to the potential financial scale of confiscation orders arising from breaches of planning control was R v Del Basso (Court of Appeal, 19 May 2010). Failures to comply with a enforcement notice relating to an unauthorised parking business led to a confiscation order of £760,000.

There have been various orders made for higher amounts – big money whether you are the defendant or the cash-strapped local planning authority.

Of course, the potential for a POCA confiscation order should not taken into account by an authority in deciding whether to enforce against a potential breach of planning control, whether to prosecute and/or in determining its approach to negotiations which might potentially resolve the underlying concerns. However, in the recent cases the Court of Appeal has expressed concern at particular authorities’ behaviour.

R v The Knightland Foundation (Court of Appeal, 26 July 2018) concerned the failure to comply with an enforcement notice served by the London Borough of Islington, relating to the unauthorised use as 18 self-contained dwellings of a development which had planning permission for HMO use. An appeal against the enforcement notice had been dismissed but the owners submitted a fresh application for planning permission for change of use of the building to a hotel.

“In September 2017, a planning officer, Mr Shaxted, indicated to the respondents that the principle of an 18 room hotel seemed acceptable to him. Email traffic between the enforcement officers and members of the Planning Team that month revealed that the Enforcement Team were determined to press ahead with the prosecution and to apply for a confiscation order under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (“POCA”), whatever the result of the 2016 planning application.”

“We do not have any material from the legal department or from the person who took the decision to prosecute but we do know that their decision was based on a report from Mr Kettani and Mr Jarrett. The judge found that report to be flawed and that the decision to prosecute and to continue the prosecution based on it had an improper motive namely the financial advantage to the applicant of a POCA order. Those who advised the person who took the decision to prosecute failed to take into account a relevant factor, namely, the possibility that the respondents’ position could be regularised and allowed an irrelevant factor, namely, the possibility of their obtaining a POCA order to the authority’s financial advantage, to carry significant weight. On the judge’s findings, having taken the decision to prosecute, officers of the same authority then attempted, improperly, to influence the determination of the planning application so that it would not impact adversely upon the prosecution and/or the prospects of their obtaining a POCA order. In their eyes the grant of planning permission was intrinsically linked to the prosecution and possible penalty. The judge agreed and so do we. Had planning permission been granted and the respondents’ position regularised, this could have been a significant factor in mitigation and any attempt by the respondents to persuade the court that it would not be proportionate to make a sizeable POCA order.

Specialist planning enforcement lawyers Ivy Legal have written an interesting commentary on the judgment, querying the basis for the court’s conclusions and seeking to limit its implications for other cases.

However, by coincidence the judgment was in fact handed down at precisely the wrong moment for another local planning authority, Wokingham Borough Council, between the Crown Court hearing and handing down of judgment following an application to stay a set of criminal proceedings (within which a POCA confiscation order was contemplated) for abuse of process. These proceedings concerned non-compliance with an enforcement notice relating to unauthorised uses at the Hare Hatch Sheeplands garden centre in Berkshire.

In that case the defendants had been persuaded to withdraw an appeal against the enforcement order in order to submit an application for a certificate of lawfulness to seek to resolve the issues but then the authority determined that it could not lawfully issue the certificate and continued with its enforcement steps. The Crown Court judge set aside the proceedings for a number of reasons.

[One] “very significant area of her concern was fact that the possibility of an order being made under POCA was one of the principal factors in the decision to prosecute. She accepted that by the conclusion of the High Court proceedings a considerable amount of public money had been expended on the case and expressed sympathy for hard-pressed local authorities facing competing claims on ever-decreasing resources. WBC had the duty to police planning controls and do so in the public interest.

If the prosecution resulted in a conviction and a POCA order made, WBC would have received 37½% of the fruits of the order. In the judge’s view, this lent support to the defence submission that WBC was seeking to prosecute the Respondents to claw back public money already expended on the case. She observed that the POCA provisions apply only after conviction, and she stated that the possibility of an order should never form any part of the prosecutorial decision-making process, particularly where the prosecutor and the beneficiary are one and the same. To take into account the possibility of a financial benefit, in her view, ran contrary to an objective analysis of the merits of the case as required under the Code for Crown Prosecutors.”

The authority appealed but the Court of Appeal, in Wokingham Borough Council v Scott (Court of Appeal, 17 January 2019), upheld the judge’s ruling:

We shall begin with what we consider to be one of the most important issues raised again in this application and addressed in Knightland, namely the role played by a POCA order in the decision to prosecute in the criminal courts.

It may come as a surprise to some that there are prosecuting authorities who may benefit financially from their decision to prosecute. It certainly came as a surprise to the members of the court in Knightland that a body given the power to prosecute should consider the possible financial advantage to itself as a relevant factor in the decision to prosecute. As the court held in Knightland, this flies in the face of the clear provisions of the Code for Crown Prosecutors, accepted by all prosecuting authorities as the applicable Code, that a prosecutor must be independent, fair and objective.

We endorse and repeat the observations of the court in Knightland. The decision to prosecute is a serious step and one that must be taken with the utmost care. We understand the argument that the making of a POCA order on conviction may act as a deterrent to offending and has the effect of extracting ill-gotten gains from offenders. This was no doubt Parliament’s intent in enacting the POCA. But where there is a potential conflict of interest, namely a financial interest in the outcome of the prosecution set against the objectivity required of a prosecutor, the prosecutor must be scrupulous in avoiding any perception of bias. The possibility of a POCA order being made in the prosecutor’s favour should play no part in the determination of the evidential and public interest test within the Code for Crown Prosecutors. We hope that this message will be relayed to all those making charging recommendations and decisions as soon as possible.

On the facts of this case, given we have heard nothing to justify the decision to prosecute at least ten of the Respondents after the injunctive relief was granted and Mr Scott was made subject to a suspended sentence of imprisonment, it raises the distinct possibility that making of a POCA order in WBC’s favour was one of the grounds for the decision to prosecute them. If it was, it should not have been.”

“We also have concerns about the approach taken by WBC to selecting those to be prosecuted. The Code for Crown Prosecutors also provides that prosecutors must be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction of each suspect on each charge and that in every case there is a public interest in prosecuting.”

“Finally, we add two things. First, the self-contained code in Part VII of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 confers on local planning authorities a wide range of powers for the enforcement of planning control. It is left to their judgment which power or powers it is appropriate to use in the particular circumstances of the case in hand. It should go without saying that in deciding which power or powers will best deal with a particular breach of planning control, having regard to the public interest, an authority should always act with fairness and realism.

Secondly, nothing we have said in this judgment should be seen as casting doubt on the value of informal discussions between officers of a local planning authority and an applicant for planning permission or a landowner who appears to be responsible for a breach of planning control. This judgment and Her Honour Judge Morris’s ruling were based entirely on the particular facts of this case. It is trite that discussions between planning officers and an applicant or landowner do not ultimately bind a local planning authority to a particular position or a particular course of action, in breach of the principles set out in Reprotech (see the speech of Lord Hoffmann, at paragraphs 27 to 38). But such discussions have, and will always have, an important role to play in the planning system – so long as they are conducted in good faith and with good sense on either side.”

For an authoritative account of the case, do read the article by Scott Stemp (the barrister who acted for the successful respondents) POCA and improper planning prosecutions (9 March 2019).

No doubt POCA will continue to be highly relevant to authorities seeking to make ends meet. In researching this post I came across a flyer for a local authority training course asserting that receipts from confiscation orders can go a long way to funding the planning enforcement team within an authority. But these cases do sound a note of caution. Notwithstanding the Home Office’s “incentivisation“, the point of these orders should surely be to influence the behaviour of offenders and potential offenders, not the behaviour of local planning authorities!

Simon Ricketts, 27 April 2019

Personal views, et cetera