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

Another Green World: The South Coast Nitrate Crisis

Local authorities in south Hampshire have been advised by a Government body not to grant permission for most forms of residential development until further notice. Perhaps absurdly, but in desperation, authorities have even been exploring amongst themselves whether they could at least grant planning permission subject to a condition restricting the homes from being occupied, or simply risk the consequences of ignoring the advice – the position is that bad.

I’m not sure that anyone can blame the EU, or lawyers, or local authorities, or developers, but no doubt they will. Rather, the problem arises from the apparent lack of adequate measures to ensure that, by virtue of its nitrate content, sewage generated as a result of new development does not harm the integrity of coastal waters protected as special areas of conservation and special protection areas under the Habitats and Birds Directives. Nitrate enrichment causes green algae, harmful to protected habitats and birds, through a process known as eutrophication. The chickens (not those in my 1 June 2019 blog post, although the same by product) are coming home to roost following a lack of priority for too long on the need by the Government and water companies to ensure that we have adequately funded and operated waste water treatment processes (see for instance the 25 June 2019 Guardian story Southern Water faces prosecution after record £126m penalty).

The issue was raised in a House of Commons debate on 17 June 2019 by Suella Braverman, Conservative MP for Fareham, but worryingly more from the perspective of seeking to suspend affected authorities’ housing targets rather than resolving the underlying issue:

“Planning applications that could deliver hundreds of new homes in Fareham are in limbo following advice from Natural England, which has instructed that planning permission should be refused unless developments are nitrate-neutral, after two rulings from the European Court of Justice. Will the Government work with me to look at suspending house building targets while affected councils work to find a solution to avoid being unfairly treated at potential appeals?

I’m not sure how reassured she we are by the response from the relevant Under-Secretary, Jake Berry: “We will happily work with my hon. Friend as she sets out. I believe that the housing Minister is already looking into this issue, and I am sure he will be in touch with her in due course.”

In south Hampshire the problem arises from a legal opinion obtained by Natural England and shared with relevant authorities on a confidential basis. If there is a copy in public circulation then do let me know and I will add it to this post. The opinion draws upon recent case law, particularly the ruling of Court of Justice of the European Union in Coöperatie Mobilisation for the Environment UA, Vereniging Leefmilieu V College van gedeputeerde staten van Limburg and Stichting Werkgroep Behoud de Peel v College van gedeputeerde staten van Noord-Brabant (CJEU, 7 November 2018).

Thankfully it’s known as the “nitrogen deposition” or the “Dutch” case. Whilst the case concerned nitrogen deposition effects arising from agricultural activities, there are two particular (unsurprising) parts of the ruling which are relevant for our purposes:

1. The Habitats Directive does not preclude “national programmatic legislation which allows the competent authorities to authorise projects on the basis of an ‘appropriate assessment’ within the meaning of that provision, carried out in advance and in which a specific overall amount of nitrogen deposition has been deemed compatible with that legislation’s objectives of protection. That is so, however, only in so far as a thorough and in-depth examination of the scientific soundness of that assessment makes it possible to ensure that there is no reasonable scientific doubt as to the absence of adverse effects of each plan or project on the integrity of the site concerned, which it is for the national court to ascertain.”

2. An appropriate assessment under the Habitats Directive “may not take into account the existence of ‘conservation measures’ within the meaning of paragraph 1 of that article, ‘preventive measures’ within the meaning of paragraph 2 of that article, measures specifically adopted for a programme such as that at issue in the main proceedings or ‘autonomous’ measures, in so far as those measures are not part of that programme, if the expected benefits of those measures are not certain at the time of that assessment.

The most detailed account that I could find of the legal advice and underlying issues is in Portsmouth City Council report to cabinet 11 June 2019. It explains that the Integrated Water Management Strategy published last year by the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire (PUSH) authorities, Natural England and the Environment Agency recognised that there were “significant uncertainties beyond the year 2020 relating to water quality, quantity, the capacity for accommodating future growth and the impacts on European nature conservation designations.

Following the CJEU ruling, Natural England (NE), the government’s adviser for the natural environment, advises that, under the requirements of the Habitat Regulations, the existing uncertainty about the deterioration of the water environment must be appropriately addressed in order for the assessment of a proposal to be legally compliant. They recommend that this is addressed by securing suitable mitigation measures to ensure that proposals achieve ‘nitrate neutrality’. It is recognised that it would be difficult for small developments or sites on brownfield land (which form the majority of applications in Portsmouth) to be nitrate neutral.

NE has therefore advised [Havant Borough Council that ‘planning permission[s] should not be granted at this stage’ whilst the uncertainty around this issue means that a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of a proposal cannot be satisfactorily carried out and while an interim strategic solution is being developed for the sub-region’. Natural England’s advice is that proposals for new employment or leisure uses which do not entail an overnight stay are generally not subject to these concerns.

Officers sought advice from Queen’s Counsel on the matter, which confirmed the validity of Natural England’s position (as of 05.05.19). As per the legal advice received, and in the absence of any pre-existing mitigation strategy, the City Council has temporarily ceased granting planning consent for additional dwellings (or an intensification of dwellings), tourism related development and development likely to generate an overnight stay at this time. Such applications can still be considered on an individual basis if they are able to demonstrate that the development would be ‘nitrate neutral’. It is understood that other Local Authorities within the Solent catchment have also temporarily stopped granting planning consent for development affected by this matter whilst mitigation strategies are being developed.”

In a subsequent specific agenda item on the issue in its report to planning committee on 19 June 2019 members were updated:

“3.11  Immediate actions being progressed are as follows:

a)  Portsmouth and the PUSH authorities to lobby central government on the approach to the matter. There appears to be disconnect between government agencies on their advice to Local Authorities, including a clear conflict between the approach to the water quality issue and the pressure to meet the government’s housing delivery targets. We will be urging Government to examine the sources of the nitrates problem, including its own environmental permitting regimes and insufficient wastewater treatment practices by statutory undertakers, rather than solely focusing on the planning system/ development industry to present solutions.

b)  PUSH authorities have agreed to explore a strategic solution to the nitrates problem that can be used as mitigation by all authorities.

c)  Officers are identifying and exploring with Natural England and other relevant parties short term measures which could enable planning consents to resume in the short term while a more comprehensive and strategic solution is determined.

d)  Officers are arranging to meet with Southern Water to explore any existing capacity for improvements in the operation of the existing waste water treatment infrastructure and the scope, timescales and mechanisms to improve the existing treatment”

The Partnership for Urban South Hampshire (“PUSH”) comprises Hampshire County Council, Portsmouth, Southampton, Eastleigh, East Hampshire, Fareham, Gosport, Havant, New Forest, Test Valley and Winchester.

PUSH held a joint committee meeting on 4 June 2019. The minutes make interesting reading. The meeting was joined by Graham Horton from Natural England and Philip James from Southern Water. Philip James made it clear that any solution arrived at by Southern Water would need to be acceptable to its regulator, the Environment Agency. I suspect this issue is not going to be resolved quickly…

As discussion continued, Members sought views from Graham Horton whether there is a short-term solution which might mitigate risk but allow housing to be built. Members were advised that an option could be that Natural England prepares a form of words which, whilst it would not remove the risk of challenge, may give reassurance to legal advisers to support Local Planning Authorities deliver housing.

The suggestion was put to the meeting that a possibility could include Local Planning Authorities granting permission with conditions of no occupation until this matter is resolved and Graham Horton was asked whether if this approach was taken whether Natural England would challenge LPAs.

The Committee was advised that if Natural England agree and sign up to this then there would not be a challenge, but they will reserve judgment at this time until a joint position is developed and agreed which allows the issue to be resolved. This will not eliminate the risk but should give Local Planning Authorities some comfort and allow them to determine their planning consents.

At the conclusion of the discussion on this item, the Chairman summarised that it was a matter for individual Local Authorities whether they started to issue planning consents, that the best approach was to collectively work on a form of wording and it was agreed this would form joint working and the that the PUSH Planning Officers’ Group would take the lead on the preparation of this Assessment as a matter of priority. ”

It was further resolved that the Chairman should write “on behalf of PUSH to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to outline how we balance the need for housing and the need to protect the environment and to request consideration of respite from the Housing Delivery Test until this is resolved.”

I can foresee a practical veto for some time to come in relation to housing proposals in the area, bar those which are big enough so as to be able to incorporate their own measures to ensure nitrogen neutrality.

But is anyone focusing on this huge issue, an issue not just for the environment but for the breakdown in practice of the normal planning system in a number of authorities? There has been one piece in the mainstream media, a 14 June 2019 BBC report, Hampshire housing developments on hold over nitrate as well as a more detailed subsequent 19 June 2019 article in Planning magazine (which provided my way into much of this post, thank you Mark Wilding).

It’s not as if Parliament is blind to the issue. After all the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a detailed and pretty direct set of recommendations in its 6 November 2018 report UK Progress on Reducing Nitrate Pollution.

But what chance of any solutions to the immediate crisis on the south coast, please?

Simon Ricketts, 29 June 2019

Personal views, et cetera

Lessons From The Heathrow Cases

In my 15 October 2016 blog post Airports & Courts I made the obvious prediction that publication by the Secretary of State for Transport of the Airports National Policy Statement (“ANPS”) would inevitably lead to litigation. The ANPS is important because under the Planning Act 2008 it sets the policy basis for a third runway at Heathrow to the north west of the current runways (the “NWR Scheme”).

It was always going to be important for the High Court to be able to rise to the (in a non-legal sense) administrative challenge of disposing of claims efficiently and fairly. The purpose of this blog post is to look at how that was achieved (no easy feat) and what we can learn more generally from the court’s approach to the litigation

The ANPS was designated on 26 June 2018 and five claims were brought seeking to challenge that decision:

⁃ A litigant in person, Neil Spurrier (a solicitor who is a member of the Teddington Action Group)

⁃ A group comprising the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, Greenpeace and the Mayor of London

⁃ Friends of the Earth

⁃ Plan B Earth

⁃ Heathrow Hub Limited and Runway Innovations Limited [unlike the other claimants above, these claimants argue for an extension of the current northern runway so that it can effectively operate as two separate runways. This scheme was known as the Extended Northern Runway Scheme (“the ENR Scheme”)]

Arora Holdings Limited joined as an interested party to each set of proceedings in pursuance of their case for a consolidated terminal facility to the west of the airport.

The Speaker for the House of Commons intervened in the Heathrow Hub Limited claim to object to various statements made to Parliament and Parliamentary Committees being admitted in evidence.

The first four claims raised 22 separate grounds of challenge. The fifth claim raised a further five grounds of challenge.

As Planning Liaison Judge, ie effectively lead judge within the Planning Court, Holgate J in my view has played an extremely effective role. Following a directions hearing, ahead of a subsequent pre-trial review three months later, he laid down a comprehensive set of directions on 4 October 2018 which provided for:

⁃ the first four claims to be heard at a single rolled up hearing, followed by the fifth claim

⁃ the cases to be heard by a Divisional Court (ie two or more judges, normally a High Court Judge and a Lord Justice of Appeal. In the event, the four claims were heard by a Divisional Court comprising Hickinbottom LJ and Holgate J. The fifth claim was heard immediately afterwards by a Divisional Court comprising Hickinbottom LJ, and Holgate and Marcus Smith JJ.)

⁃ video link to a second court room and (paid for jointly by the parties in agreed proportions) live searchable transcripts of each day’s proceedings

⁃ procedure to be followed in relation to expert evidence sought to be submitted in support of the first claim

⁃ statements of common ground

⁃ amended grounds of claim, with strict page limits and against the background of a request from the judge to “review the extent to which they consider that any legal grounds of challenge previously relied upon remain properly arguable in the light of the Acknowledgments of Service“, and with specific claimants leading on individual issues

⁃ bundles and skeleton arguments complying with strict page limits and other requirements

⁃ payment of security for costs by Heathrow Hub Limited in the sum of £250,000

⁃ cost capping in the other claims on Aarhus Convention principles

The main proceedings were heard over seven days in March, with the Heathrow Hub proceedings then taking a further three days (followed by written submissions). As directed by Holgate J, hearing transcripts were made publicly available.

Less than six weeks after close of the Heathrow Hub hearing, judgment was handed on 1 May 2019 in both case:

R (Spurrier & others) v Secretary of State (Divisional Court, 1 May 2019)

R (Heathrow Hub Limited & Runway Innovations Limited) v Secretary of State (Divisional Court, 1 May 2019)

The transcript of the first judgment runs to 184 pages and the transcript of the second judgment runs to 72 pages.

I am not going to summarise the judgments in this blog post but happily there is no need as the court at the same time issued a summary, which serves as a helpful précis of the claims and the court’s reasoning for rejecting each of them.

The Divisional Court found that all but six grounds were unarguable (the six being two Habitats Directive grounds from the first case, two SEA grounds from the first case and two from the second case (legitimate expectation and anti-competition). “All the other grounds were not considered not to have been arguable: the claimants may apply for permission to appeal against the Divisional Court’s decision concerning those grounds to the Court of Appeal within 7 days. The remaining six grounds were ultimately dismissed. The claimants may apply to the Divisional Court for permission to appeal within 7 days. If the Divisional Court refuses permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal, the claimants may re-apply directly to the Court of Appeal.”

The Secretary of State for Transport gave a written statement in the House of Commons on the same day, welcoming the judgments.

The two judgments will be essential reading in due course for all involved in similar challenges; the 29 grounds, and various additional preliminary points, cover a wide range of issues frequently raised in these sorts of cases and each is carefully dealt with, with some useful textbook style analysis.

In the Spurrier judgment:

– the scope for challenge of an NPS (paras 86 to 90)

⁃ relationship between the NPS and DCO process (paras 91 to 112)

⁃ extent of duty to give reasons for the policy set out in the NPS (paras 113 to 123)

⁃ consultation requirements in relation to preparation of an NPS (paras 124 to 140)

⁃ standard of review in relation to each of the grounds of challenge (paras 141 to 184)

⁃ the limited circumstances in which expert evidence is admissible in judicial review (paras 174 to 179)

⁃ whether updated information should have been taken into account (paras 201 to 209)

⁃ whether mode share targets were taken into account that were not realistically capable of being delivered (paras 210 to 219)

⁃ the relevance of the Air Quality Directive for the Secretary of State’s decision making (paras 220 to 285)

⁃ compliance with the Habitats Directive (paras 286 to 373)

⁃ compliance with the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive (paras 374 to 502)

⁃ whether consultation was carried out with an open mind (paras 503 to 552)

⁃ whether the decision to designate the ANPS was tainted by bias (paras 553 to 557)

⁃ the relevance of the Government’s commitments to combat climate change (paras 558 to 660)

⁃ whether there was a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (paras 661 to 665)

In the Heathrow Hub judgment:

⁃ legitimate expectation (paras 113 to 138)

⁃ use of Parliamentary material in the context of Article 9 of the Bill of Rights (paras 139 to 152)

⁃ competition law (paras 157 to 209).

As we wait to see whether any of these claims go further, I note that Arora has commenced pre application consultation ahead of submitting a draft DCO for a “consolidated terminal facility to the west of the airport, which we are calling Heathrow West, related infrastructure and changes to the nearby road and river network.” Now that is going to be another interesting story in due course. I’m not sure we have previously seen duelling DCOs…

Simon Ricketts, 4 May 2019

Personal views, et cetera

Biodiversity Net Gain: A Ladybird Guide

Whoops I did it again: agreed to give a talk on a subject before researching it. These are no more than my notes but I hope the links at least are useful.

The Chancellor announced in his Spring Statement that “following consultation, the government will use the forthcoming Environment Bill to mandate biodiversity net gain for development in England, ensuring that the delivery of much-needed infrastructure and housing is not at the expense of vital biodiversity.”

A DEFRA blog post was published the same day, quoting Michael Gove:

Mandating biodiversity net gain will ensure wildlife thrives at the same time as addressing the need to build new homes. Whether it’s through planting more trees or creating green corridors, developers will now be required to place the environment at the heart of new developments.

This new approach will not only improve habitats for wildlife and create healthier places to live and work, but is central in our ambition to leave the environment in a better state for future generations.

This is what we have committed to do in any event so as to comply with our obligations under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity which we ratified in 1994. In order to seek to meet the Aichi 2015 – 2020 biodiversity targets the UK has committed as one of its “priority actions“, that it will, “through reforms of the planning system, take a strategic approach to planning for nature within and across local areas. This approach will guide development to the best locations, encourage greener design and enable development to enhance natural networks. We will retain the protection and improvement of the natural environment as core objectives of the planning system.”

The UK’s Joint Committee for Nature Conservation reported on progress in its 6th National Report to the Convention on Biological Diversity (January 2019), submitted to the Convention’s Secretariat on 11 March 2019.

The principle of requiring biodiversity net gain is supported not just by environmental groups but by development industry bodies – see for instance UK Green Building Council open letter dated 1 March 2019 to the Chancellor:

We […] look to the Government to establish the long-term legal framework needed to fulfil its pledge to “leave the environment in a better state than we found it” – and the proposed Environment Bill is the opportunity to do so. The Bill can provide the foundation for a shift from an economy in which business aims to limit its impact on the environment towards an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.

We are calling on the Government to use the Bill to set legally binding targets for the achievement of environmental objectives – including tackling biodiversity loss, improving water and air quality and cutting down resource use and waste. By setting binding targets, the Government can give the construction and property sector the confidence and certainty we need to help drive nature’s recovery, and set a level playing field that enables businesses who do the right thing to be rewarded.”

The letter was signed by representatives of the following organisations (a pretty good list!):

Argent (Property Development) Services LLP

Atelier Ten

BAM Construct UK

BAM Nuttall Ltd

Barratt Developments Plc

Bennetts Associates

Berkeley Group Holdings

BRE

British Land

Clarion Housing Group

Colliers International

GS8

Hoare Lea

Interface

JLL

Kingspan Insulation Ltd

Lendlease

Linkcity

Redrow plc

Telford Homes Plc

William Hare Ltd

Willmott Dixon

WSP

So what lies ahead? This is an initiative which has real momentum, but requires careful implementation if it is not on the one hand to be adding unreasonably to the burden of applicants and authorities (in terms of what further documentation and analysis is required and/or in terms of placing the hurdle for an acceptable scheme impossibly high) or on the other hand to be so lax as to be providing nothing over and over present policy requirements.

DEFRA published on 2 December 2018 its Net gain: consultation proposals document, giving a deadline for responses of 10 February 2019.

The document defines net gain as follows:

Net gain is an approach to development that aims to leave the natural environment in a measurably better state than beforehand. This means protecting existing habitats and ensuring that lost or degraded environmental features are compensated for by restoring or creating environmental features that are of greater value to wildlife and people. It does not change the fact that losses should be avoided where possible, a key part of adhering to a core environmental planning principle called the mitigation hierarchy. Net gain is not a new concept. Several countries around the world have already adopted biodiversity net gain policies and net gain for biodiversity is already supported through national planning policy.”

A footnote to passage notes:

NPPF paragraph 170 states that planning policies and decisions should minimise impacts on and provide net gains for biodiversity; paragraph 174 requires plans to pursue opportunities for securing measurable net gains; paragraph 175 requires planning decisions to encourage biodiversity improvements in and around developments and paragraph 118 states that the planning system should take opportunities to secure net environmental gains“.

The consultation document is a detailed document, but this inset within it summarises the proposed role of biodiversity net gain in the planning system:

Our proposal is that biodiversity net gain will be delivered within the existing planning and development process. This summary is illustrated in the infographic that follows.

When assessing potential development sites, habitat surveys will identify habitats and their condition as is already done for much development. Surveys help identify opportunities for enhancement as part of green infrastructure as well as possible constraints.

Development design will proceed as normal, but better informed by figures for biodiversity losses and gains. A standard biodiversity metric will be populated with habitat information from the site assessment and landscape plans. This will help demonstrate at an early stage that harm has been avoided as far as possible and that new green infrastructure will be of good environmental quality. The metric could also help to anticipate the costs of achieving net gain to factor these into land purchase where possible. No existing planning protection for the environment will be weakened and the principle of avoiding harm first (known as the “mitigation hierarchy”) will continue to ensure that preventing damage to nature will always be prioritised, wherever possible.

If net gain cannot be achieved on site, the metric would provide the right information to discuss habitat enhancement or creation with local providers or with the local authority during pre-application negotiations. The tariff rate would offer a guide for the upper limit of habitat compensation costs, alongside information from growing habitat creation markets.

When preparing local plans, local authorities are able to identify opportunities for habitat improvement that would benefit local people and support nature recovery. They would be able to choose to bring improvement sites forward themselves or work with other providers.

When developers and local planning authorities are consulting with the local community prior to submitting a planning application, it will be possible to use biodiversity net gain figures and habitat enhancement measures to explain the benefits and costs of a development proposal more transparently.

With clearer expectations, developers will be able to submit planning applications with greater confidence that proposals can be supported on biodiversity grounds.

For local authorities, transparent figures for biodiversity losses and gains can be quickly checked and provide confidence that impacts will be positive. Figures will also indicate the environmental quality of green infrastructure as part of development design.

As part of the planning permission, developers would sign up to predictable conditions, obligations or a tariff payment to secure biodiversity net gain. The availability of a tariff would prevent planning permission from being delayed by net gain requirements, and local authorities will be able to demonstrate that positive impacts to help improve the environment for local communities have been secured.”

The full list of the 45 consultation questions within the document demonstrates the potential complexity of what is proposed:

From a practical perspective, key issues are plainly going to include

⁃ establishing a robust ‘biodiversity unit’ metric

⁃ determining what would the required level of improvement (where does 10% come from?)

⁃ determining the circumstances in which a tariff or other off-site arrangement is appropriate and calculating its quantum

⁃ arriving at practical delivery mechanisms, by way of planning conditions, section 106 obligations and/or CIL, that meet relevant legal and policy requirements.

What I would love to understand is really how “mandated” the proposed requirements will be in practice. Does the Government envisage that the detailed regime can be bolted into the existing planning system by way of amendments to the PPG (which seems implausible given the potential nature of the tariff measures in particular) or will the Environment Bill be prescriptive in terms of what precisely will be required?

DEFRA is apparently due to respond to the consultation shortly, with the Bill likely to be published before the summer recess but, dear reader from the near future, you are possibly looking back at this blog post thinking “well that didn’t age well…”

Simon Ricketts, 30 March 2019

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.

MHCLG Consults On A Changed Basis For Assessing Local Housing Need & Other Urgent Repairs

I’m not sure anyone was expecting MHCLG to act quite so quickly to try to mend a number of problems that have been arising from the July 2018 NPPF (although perhaps problems of its own making).

Its technical consultation on updates to national planning policy and guidance (26 October 2018) invites comments by 7 December 2018 on the following:

Local housing need assessment

I referred in my 29 September 2018 blog post OAN Goal to the confusion caused by the publication by the ONS on 20 September 2018 of updated 2016-based household projections that resulted in the national minimum housing need calculated by the NPPF’s standard method falling significantly from data published in September 2017 which had been based on 2014 household projections.

There was widespread concern that the updated figures were not reliable. The Government had indicated that the figures would not lead to a reduction in the national 300,000 new homes target. A revision to the standard method was to be made so that the new household projections did not cause that target to be missed but in the meantime how were authorities to plan?

The consultation paper is unambiguous: the Government has decided that it is not right to change its aspirations and the ONS figures are indeed misleading due to the way that they only draw from two censuses (rather than previous projections based on five censuses) “which focuses it more acutely on a period of low household formation where the English housing system was not supplying enough additional homes“. In addition:

⁃ “Household projections are constrained by housing supply

⁃ “The historic under-delivery of housing means there is a case for public policy supporting delivery in excess of household projections, even if those projections fall“.

⁃ “Other things being equal a more responsive supply of homes through local authorities planning for more homes where we need them will help to address the effects of increasing demand, such as declining affordability, relative to a housing supply that is less responsive“.

⁃ “The above factors have led to declining affordability…This indicates that the Government should not be less ambitious for housing supply“.

The Government has decided that the best way of responding to the ONS household figures is to ignore them completely, ie in its language:

1. For the short-term, to specify that the 2014-based data will provide the demographic baseline for assessment of local housing need.

2. To make clear in national planning practice guidance that lower numbers through the 2016-based projections do not qualify as an exceptional circumstance that justifies a departure from the standard methodology; and

3. In the longer term, to review the formula with a view to establishing a new method […] by the time the next projections are issued.”

So for local plans submitted from 24 January 2019, the 2014-based household projections as per the September 2017 data are to be used but with current figures used for the calculation of the ratio of local median house prices to local median earnings (where the ratio exceeds four the standard method formula will continue to increase local need above household projections). This all provides authorities with welcome clarity – ignore the September 2018 ONS projections and no need to wait for tweaks to the methodology.

Housing land supply

The 2018 NPPF provides that in calculating how many years’ supply of housing land supply each authority has, the standard method for assessing local housing need is to be used as the baseline for housing land supply calculations where plans are considered to be out of date. The NPPF is to be amended (and updated planning guidance is to be published) so as to clarify that whilst in exceptional circumstances authorities can use a justified alternative approach to the standard method for calculating housing need, this only applies to plan making rather than in the calculation of need in the determination of applications and appeals where the scale of housing land supply is relevant.

The definition of deliverable

In order to determine whether an authority has a five year supply of deliverable sites, the definition of “deliverable” is critical. The Government has held its hands up: the definition of “deliverable” in the 2018 NPPF could be clearer. It proposes the following revised definition:

To be considered deliverable, sites for housing should be available now, offer a suitable location for development now, and be achievable with a realistic prospect that housing will be delivered on the site within five years. In particular:

a) sites which do not involve major development and have planning permission, and all sites with detailed planning permission, should be considered deliverable until permission expires, unless there is clear evidence that homes will not be delivered within five years (for example because they are no longer viable, there is no longer a demand for the type of units or sites have long term phasing plans).

b) where a site has outline planning permission for major development, has been allocated in a development plan, has a grant of permission in principle, or is identified on a brownfield register, it should only be considered deliverable where there is clear evidence that housing completions will begin on site within five years.”

There will be further guidance in due course “to provide further information on the way that sites with different degrees of planning certainty may be counted when calculating housing land availability“.

Development requiring Habitats Regulations Assessment

The Government belatedly intends to address a problem that has arisen from the European Court of Justice’s ruling in People Over Wind (see my 20 April 2018 blog post EU Court Ruling: Ignore Mitigation Measures In Habitats Screening). The 2018 NPPF followed the 2012 NPPF in disapplying the presumption in favour of sustainable development where appropriate assessment is required, even though the effect of People Over Wind is that appropriate assessment is now routinely required in relation to proposed developments where mitigation will avoid any potential from harm, thereby removing the presumption in relation to many more development proposals than had previously been the case.

Paragraph 177 is now proposed to be amended to read:

The presumption in favour of sustainable development does not apply where the plan or project is likely to have a significant effect on a habitats site (either alone or in combination with other plans or projects), unless an appropriate assessment has concluded that there will be no adverse effect from the plan or project on the integrity of the habitats site.”

So now the need for appropriate assessment will not be a bar to the presumption applying. The wording in fact now allows the presumption to apply to more schemes than was the case pre People Over Wind.

The Government could have dealt with this issue before the 2018 NPPF was published. It makes the rather weak excuse: “Although some consultation responses asked for an amendment to the Framework in the light of the ruling, there was not an opportunity for all interested parties to comment at the time.” Well, why was there not even a written ministerial statement to clarify the position? I’m sure I am not the only one to have lost a planning appeal partly due to the absurd position that arose.

The government also indicates that it is “considering what other changes to regulations and guidance may be necessary following the European Court’s ruling“.

In my view MHCLG should take some credit for trying to sort out all of these issues. It is also interesting that the previous approach of avoiding making running repairs to the NPPF has been abandoned – we can soon expect NPPF version 2.1.

Simon Ricketts, 26 October 2018

Personal views, et cetera

What Is Mitigation?

If you are asking this in the context of People Over Wind (EU Court of Justice, 12 April 2018), you are asking the wrong question. Whilst the reference to “mitigation” is useful shorthand (as in my 20 April 2018 blog post, EU Court Ruling: Ignore Mitigation Measures In Habitats Screening), the precise position is more complicated and, despite a helpful judgment of the High Court this week, not easy to resolve in a practical way.

The People Over Wind ruling can be summarised very briefly by paraphrasing its final paragraph: In order for a competent authority to determine whether it is necessary to carry out an appropriate assessment of the implications, for a site protected under the Habitats Directive or Birds Directive, of a plan or project, it is not appropriate, at the screening stage, to take account of the measures intended to avoid or reduce the harmful effects of the plan or project on that site.

In that case the measures which the court held could not be taken into account were requirements to be contained in a construction management plan to “provide details of intended construction practice for the development, including … (k) means to ensure that surface water run-off is controlled such that no silt or other pollutants enter watercourses …’.

In referring the case to the EU Court of Justice, the Irish High Court had referred to the requirements as “mitigating measures“. The promoter of the scheme which was under challenge had described them as “protective measures“, but the EU Court of Justice disregarded the distinction:

25     […] Article 6 of the Habitats Directive divides measures into three categories, namely conservation measures, preventive measures and compensatory measures, provided for in Article 6(1), (2) and (4) respectively. It is clear from the wording of Article 6 of the Habitats Directive that that provision contains no reference to any concept of ‘mitigating measure’ (see, to that effect, judgment of 21 July 2016, Orleans and Others, C‑387/15 and C‑388/15, EU:C:2016:583, paragraphs 57 and 58 and the case-law cited).

26      It follows that, as is apparent from the reasoning of the request for a preliminary ruling, that the measures which the referring court describes as ‘mitigating measures’, and which Coillte refers to as ‘protective measures’, should be understood as denoting measures that are intended to avoid or reduce the harmful effects of the envisaged project on the site concerned.

The court’s position was clear: “full and precise analysis of the measures capable of avoiding or reducing any significant effects on the site concerned must be carried out not at the screening stage, but specifically at the stage of the appropriate assessment.”

So the big question is whether there are any measures which can be taken into account at the screening stage which are not caught as avoidance or reduction measures.

There was a judgment of the High Court this week, R (Langton) v Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and Natural England (Sir Ross Cranston, 15 August 2018), where this is dealt with briefly in the context of a broader series of challenges arising from DEFRA’s badger culling programme and (more relevant for the purposes of this blog post) decisions in August and September 2017 by Natural England to grant badger culling licences. I only address the latter below, although I may come back in a later blog post to other parts of the judgment in the context of the requirements of a lawful consultation process.

The claimant argued that in granting licences in Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation, Natural England had not carried out adequate assessment under the Habitats Regulations.

Natural England’s standard form assessments, undertaken in May 2017. “In each case the conclusion to these screening assessments was that the licensed culling of badgers was unlikely to have a significant effect on the qualifying features of the relevant site. In none of the areas was an in-combination assessment considered applicable.” (paragraph 79)

The assessments identified the possible disturbance effects of badger culling as follows:

disturbance to the species (firearm report, lamping, vehicles, humans), physical damage to habitats/species (vehicles, trampling, digging-in of traps), physical damage to non-target species, and “indirect damage to species from an increased abundance of other mammalian predators (in particular foxes) due to reduced badger population density.”” (paragraph 81)

Each of the assessments referred to “mitigation measures” which had been incorporated into the proposal and stated that complying “with the mitigation measures will ensure that there is no significant likely effect alone“.

The measures were various restrictions proposed to be included as conditions on licences, including:

⁃ limiting shooting activities to outside the bird breeding season

⁃ restricting vehicles to existing tracks

⁃ various restrictions on the location of traps and of activities. (paragraph 83)

Sir Ross Cranston sets out the law on Habitats Regulations Assessment at paragraphs 94 to 96 and then addresses the challenge to the validity of the decisions from paragraph 126 onwards.

The claimant argued that Natural England hadn’t adopted a precautionary approach (particularly in relation to the risks arising from a greater proliferation of foxes as a result of badger culling), and as a consequence had not even carried out HRA screening in relation to a number of SACs and SPAs, and that the screening process had improperly taken into account avoidance or reduction measures in breach of People Over Wind.

The court said this on the precautionary principle:

The precautionary principle in this context is fundamental, but “[i]t is for a third party who asserts that there is a risk which cannot be excluded on the basis of objective information to produce credible evidence to the court that the risk is a real one…”: R (on the application of DLA Delivery Ltd.) v Lewes District Council [2017] EWCA Civ 58, [30], Lindblom LJ (with whom Lewison LJ agreed), Boggis v Natural England[2009] EWCA Civ 1061, [37], per Sullivan LJ (with whom Longmore and Mummery L.JJ agreed).” (paragraph 133)

The court considered that “Natural England’s failures, even if only to record that no consideration of the risk was necessary with these close-by sites to cull areas, was a breach of its duty under the Habitats Regulations.” (paragraph 133).

However, it found that, on the evidence, the outcome would not have been substantially different if it had considered fox predation risk arising from granting culling licences

The court then turned to the implications of People Over Wind from paragraph 154 onwards. It referred to the Hart judgment from 2008, approved by the Court of Appeal in Smyth (2015) finding that there was no legal reason why preventative safeguarding measures incorporated into a project should be ignored at the initial screening stage.

It has of course been widely assumed that this approach has been overruled by People Over Wind. It is therefore intriguing how Sir Ross Cranston addresses the issue.

In paragraph 155 he refers to the measures in People Over Wind as measures “which seem to have involved reducing run-off” and indicates that the EU Court of Justice had found that they “should be understood as denoting measures intended to avoid or reduce the harmful effects of the envisaged project on the site concerned“.

He records at paragraph 156 the claimant as submitting that “the conditions which Natural England had attached to the cull licences, following advice to applicants, fell within the People Over Wind ruling and should not have been taken into account at the screening stage. These were that no culling activity would take place in certain locations (e.g., Severn Estuary SPA) or at certain times of the year (e.g., bird-breeding season with Dorset Heathlands SPA and Poole Harbour SPA).”

In the final paragraph of a 76 page judgment he then simply concludes:

In my view the licence conditions which Natural England attached to the licences in Areas 16 and 17 are not the mitigating or protective measures which featured in the People Over Wind ruling. They are properly characterised as integral features of the project which Natural England needed to assess under the Habitats Regulations. I accept Natural England’s submission that it would be contrary to common sense for Natural England to have to assume that culling was going to take place at times and places where the applicants did not propose to do so.”

So what do we take from this? On this basis we have up to date first instance authority (I do not know whether permission to appeal is being sought) for asserting that integral features within a scheme can be taken into account. But how is it to be determined when a condition restricting operations is or is not an integral feature? I can see that conditions that define the temporal and physical limits of a permitted activity can be said to be integral features but there is not always a clear dividing line. Were the construction management plan requirements in People Over Wind so very different?

What I do take from it is the potential willingness of our judiciary (or at least one judge, technically retired – which is why he is not referred to as “Mr Justice Cranston“) to seek to push back against the ruling and seek to retain the traditional, more pragmatic, approach from Hart.

Are our courts going to be able to hold that line? The approach in Langton appears to me to be potentially less restrictive than for instance the Planning Inspectorate’s advice to inspectors (9 May 2018), which states at paragraph 17 that “there is no definition of what constitutes avoidance and reduction measures and what could be viewed as an integral part of a works or development proposal. If a measure is being introduced to avoid or reduce an effect on a European site then it can be viewed as mitigation. This includes measures outlined in SPDs such as the provision of Sustainable Alternative Natural Greenspace and Strategic Access Management and Monitoring as in the Thames Basin Heaths approach. However it can also include ‘embedded mitigation’ such as a commitment within a development proposal to employing standard methods to prevent run-off from vehicles contaminating watercourses.”

Compensatory measures

Aside from the issue arising from People Over Wind as to what are “mitigation” (short-hand for “avoidance or reduction“) measures, which need to be disregarded in the screening process (but can be taken into account as part of appropriate assessment if the need for appropriate assessment is not screened out) there is the issue as to what “mitigation” measures are in fact “compensatory” measures which cannot even be taken into account at the appropriate assessment stage.

This was the subject matter of the latest relevant EU Court of Justice case, which in short-hand I will refer to as Grace, Sweetman (25 July 2018) arising from yet another challenge brought by Irish environmental campaigner Peter Sweetman, this time against the Irish national planning board’s decision to grant permission for a wind farm project on land that stretches from Slieve Felim in Limerick to Silvermines Mountains in Tipperary, that was designated as a Special Protection Area because it hosts the natural habitat of the hen harrier.

The proposal would result in the permanent and temporary loss of habitat (directly through clearance of trees at each turbine location and indirectly on the assumption that foraging hen harriers would not come within 250m of a wind turbine) but a species and habitat management plan was proposed that envisaged the restoration of various areas to blanket bog, particularly suitable for hen harriers, and a ‘sensitive’ management regime that would provide suitable foraging habitat and an ecological corridor between two areas of open bog.

Ms Grace and Mr Sweetman argued that the management plan measures amounted to compensatory measures and therefore could not be taken into account at appropriate assessment stage by the planning board in its ruling that there would be no adverse effect on the integrity of the SPA.

The Irish Supreme Court referred the issue to the EU Court of Justice as to whether Article 6(3) of the Habitats Directive “is to be interpreted as meaning that the measures proposed in the management plan relating to the contested development which seek to ensure that the total area providing suitable habitat will not be reduced and could even be enhanced may, in the circumstances of the present case, be classified as mitigating measures, or whether they must be regarded as compensatory measures within the meaning of Article 6(4) of the Habitats Directive.”

As in People Over Wind, the EU Court of Justice noted that “mitigating measures” is not referred to in the Directive. It indicated that “the Court has previously observed that the effectiveness of the protective measures provided for in Article 6 of the Habitats Directive is intended to avoid a situation where competent national authorities allow so-called ‘mitigating’ measures’ — which are in reality compensatory measures — in order to circumvent the specific procedures laid down in Article 6(3) of the directive and authorise projects which adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned“.

It interpreted the referring court’s question “as asking, in essence, whether Article 6 of the Habitats Directive must be interpreted as meaning that, where it is intended to carry out a project on a site designated for the protection and conservation of certain species, of which the area suitable for providing for the needs of a protected species fluctuates over time, and the temporary or permanent effect of that project will be that some parts of the site will no longer be able to provide a suitable habitat for the species in question, the fact that the project includes measures to ensure that, after an appropriate assessment of the implications of the project has been carried out and throughout the lifetime of the project, the part of the site that is in fact likely to provide a suitable habitat will not be reduced and indeed may be enhanced may be taken into account for the purpose of the assessment that must be carried out in accordance with Article 6(3) of the directive to ensure that the project in question will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned, or whether that fact falls to be considered, if need be, under Article 6(4) of the directive.

It noted that “there is a distinction to be drawn between protective measures forming part of a project and intended avoid or reduce any direct adverse effects that may be caused by the project in order to ensure that the project does not adversely affect the integrity of the area, which are covered by Article 6(3), and measures which, in accordance with Article 6(4), are aimed at compensating for the negative effects of the project on a protected area and cannot be taken into account in the assessment of the implications of the project“.

As a general rule, any positive effects of the future creation of a new habitat, which is aimed at compensating for the loss of area and quality of that habitat type in a protected area, are highly difficult to forecast with any degree of certainty or will be visible only in the future.”

It held that the measures were compensatory and could not be taken into account at the appropriate assessment stage. Article 6 was to be interpreted as meaning that, “where it is intended to carry out a project on a site designated for the protection and conservation of certain species, of which the area suitable for providing for the needs of a protected species fluctuates over time, and the temporary or permanent effect of that project will be that some parts of the site will no longer be able to provide a suitable habitat for the species in question, the fact that the project includes measures to ensure that, after an appropriate assessment of the implications of the project has been carried out and throughout the lifetime of the project, the part of the site that is in fact likely to provide a suitable habitat will not be reduced and indeed may be enhanced may not be taken into account for the purpose of the assessment that must be carried out in accordance with Article 6(3) of the directive to ensure that the project in question will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned; that fact falls to be considered, if need be, under Article 6(4) of the directive.”

For some projects this is potentially as problematic a ruling as People Over Wind, given that unless any adverse effect on the integrity of any SPA or SAC cannot be ruled out without relying on measures of this nature, the scheme can only proceed if it can be demonstrated that there are imperative reasons of overriding public interest – a high test.

In conclusion, when dealing with plans and schemes with potential effects on SPAS and SACs, precise analysis is needed of the true nature of any proposed measures being relied upon to “mitigate” (short-hand) the potential harmful effects of the development. The relevant question at screening stage is whether they are measures intended to avoid or reduce those effects or can they be said to be measures which are integral features of the project? The relevant question at appropriate assessment stage is whether they are in fact measures intended to compensate for a reduction in the parts of the site that will be able to provide a suitable habitat for the relevant species?

Simon Ricketts, 18 August 2018

Personal views, et cetera

Image courtesy of http://www.badgerwatchdorset.co.uk