The Unfortunate Case Of The Council’s Sports Hub

It’s easy for a planning lawyer to summarise R (Boot) v Elmbridge Borough Council  (Supperstone J, 16 January 2017). The High Court confirmed what we already know from paragraph 89 of the NPPF – that “the provision of appropriate facilities for outdoor sport, outdoor recreation and for cemeteries, as long as it preserves the openness of the Green Belt and does not conflict with the purposes of including land within it” is not inappropriate development, but that conversely, if harm is caused to the openness of the Green Belt, even limited harm, the development is inappropriate and permission should be refused save in very special circumstances.
The court duly quashed a planning permission granted on 26 January 2016 for the “Elmbridge Sports Hub” – a proposed athletics stadium, ‘league’ football pitch and training pitches (grass and artificial) for Walton Casuals FC, Walton and Hersham FC and Walton Athletics club to replace their current facilities, on a former landfill site in Waterside Drive, Walton-on-Thames.

However, scratch beneath the surface of any case and there are usually some interesting factors. 

This is not a developer-led proposal. It’s being promoted by Elmbridge Borough Council, on land that it owns. The development is proposed to be funded by the sale by the Council, for the development of 52 homes, of Walton and Hersham FC’s present ground at Stompond Lane. 
Most developers would not take the risk of starting construction work ahead of their permission being free from legal challenge. However, Elmbridge embarked on construction on 21 March 2016, despite the scheme already at that stage having become significantly controversial. Indeed the claimant’s solicitors, renowned claimant firm Richard Buxton & Co, were already on board for objectors and had previously scored an early blow by securing an EIA screening direction from the Secretary of State in July 2015, when the application had already initially gone to committee, requiring environmental impact assessment to be carried out. The Secretary of State ruled:
“Whilst this is a finely balanced case, the proposal does raise concerns to suggest the potential for significant environmental impacts through surface disturbance of the former landfill site, uncertainty about the extent of the contamination of the site and the potential for gas migration to both the River Thames and nearby residential properties.”
Why did development start when the permission was still at risk, presumably when proceedings had already been served, or at least a pre-action protocol letter? I don’t know any of the details but I do note that the local elections took place a little afterwards in May 2016. Was this at all relevant?
Rolling ahead to 2017, by the time that the permission was quashed, the construction project was significantly advanced. With the developer a local planning authority, responsible for planning enforcement, this is surely hardly a comfortable position.  

Image from Get Surrey website

Elmbridge had tried unsuccessfully to delay the court hearing, fixed for 6 December 2016, to allow a second planning application to be determined, for a revised version of the scheme, a request that was rejected by Ouseley J in November.  
The second application eventually went to committee on 17 January 2017, the day after the first permission was quashed and on the basis of a detailed officers’ report, resolved to approve it (perhaps no surprise there). Having delayed the scheme first on an EIA point and secondly on the council’s flawed approach to green belt policy, no doubt objectors will be looking for their next line of attack. 
So a straight-forward ruling by Supperstone J but the situation on the ground is plainly a mess. How does a local planning authority get itself into this sort of position? To what extent is this about financial or political imperatives and, against the backdrop of a construction project in mid flow (one dreads to think of the financial consequences under its construction contract if the authority now pauses or abandons the project), how easy was it for members to determine the second application with open minds but on the contrary how difficult it may be for objectors to prove to a court that minds were already made up?
Simon Ricketts 21 January 2017
Personal views, et cetera

(EIA + SEA) – EU = ?

Deadlines, deadlines. 
The EU’s 2014 amending directive on environmental impact assessment  has to be transposed by member states into domestic law by 16 May 2017. 
Given that Theresa May has announced that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will be invoked by the UK government by the end of March 2017, which would see us out of the EU by the end of March 2019, does the 16 May 2017 deadline matter?
The Scottish Government is currently consulting  on transposition, with a consultation deadline of 31 October 2016. The Welsh Government is consulting  with a consultation deadline of 11 November 2016. 
I have seen no signs of any equivalent work underway for England or Northern Ireland, despite the lengthy lead-in period to the transposition process if it is to be done in accordance with the UK government’s own guidance .

This can only be deliberate but is going to lead to problems for developers and LPAs alike. 
What does the amending Directive change?
The changes are significant. For instance:
– More information is to be provided with requests for screening opinions, requiring more analysis and work at an earlier stage

– Mitigation measures considered at the screening stage need to be specified and retained in the final development proposals

– Reasoning for screening opinions and directions are expressly required

– If a scoping opinion is obtained, the ES must comply with it

– The Environmental Statement becomes an ‘EIA Report’

– It will need to be prepared by ‘accredited and technically competent experts’

– Decision makers in reaching decisions will need to decide whether the environmental information is up to date or whether further updated information is required

– The decision maker will need to decide whether to impose monitoring obligations to cover the implementation and management of the project

– The minimum public consultation period in relation to the EIA report will be 30 days (whereas the UK minimum period is of course 21 days).

It is not of course unknown for a member state to be late in transposing a Directive, but there are real consequences. The state can be fined for its failure to transpose. But, of more specific relevance to developers and LPAs, the failure to transpose the Directive by the deadline can in some circumstances lead to grounds of challenge for a claimant when, for instance, seeking to challenge a planning permission on the basis that the LPA has not complied with the requirements of the Directive. The Directive applies where projects have not been screened or scoped – or the subject of an ES submitted – by 16 May 2017. 
So, pre 16 May 2017, the 2011 Regulations will continue to apply (as long as you have screened, scoped or submitted) and post 16 May 2017 it would be prudent to comply with the substance of the amending Directive. 
But what will happen once we have left the EU? Well of course we have been promised the ‘Great Reform Bill’ which seems designed to retain UK legislation that transposes EU legislation in some holding pen, from which laws will be taken out individually over time to be amended or repealed. Accordingly, even after March 2019 (or whenever our exit from the EU turns out to be) the 2011 EIA Regulations (as amended from time to time) will continue to apply until further notice.
In my view it would be a mistake to envisage any substantial repeal of environmental impact assessment legislation, as opposed to attempts no doubt at streamlining. 
Accordingly, the stream of EIA case law will undoubtedly continue. Some 2016 highlights:
R (XY) v Maidstone Borough Council  (Deputy High Court Judge Rhodri Price-Lewis QC) – held that negative screening opinion was lawful – on the facts no requirement to treat proposal for gypsy site as inevitably part of a larger development proposal given other similar proposals in the area. 
R (Jedwell) v Denbighshire County Council  (Hickinbottom J, 16 March 2016) – reasons for negative screening opinion not given within a reasonable period of time but permission not quashed. 
R (Licensed Taxi Drivers Association) v Transport for London  (Patterson J, 10 February 2016) – challenge to London’s east-west cycle superhighway failed – determination of adverse environmental effects was for the LPA.
SEA
The SEA Directive  is fully transposed into law in England by the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004  – also destined for the Great Repeal Bill holding pen. 
In the meantime the cases continue. According to a Landmark Chambers update  we await the outcome of R (RTE Built Environment Limited) v Cornwall Council in relation to the St Ives Neighbourhood Plan, with its proposed second homes ban, following a hearing on 6 October 2016. 
More selfishly, a number of us who have contributed chapters to the forthcoming book by Greg Jones QC and Eloise Scotford, The Strategic Environmental Directive: A Plan For Success?  are hoping that it has a long and relevant shelf-life….

Simon Ricketts 8.10.16
Personal views, et cetera