A Promise Is A Promise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Ricketts, 5 October 2018

Personal views, et cetera

Pic courtesy of Mixology

The Town Library: Planning Court Case Law Resource

If you are a user of this blog, you may be interested in our new resource: The Town Library. It has been a labour of love.

In starting up as a planning law firm, what we really wanted was a case law service providing weekly summaries of, and hypertext links through to, all final judgments of the Planning Court from the previous week, as well as all subsequent appellate judgments and other court rulings of relevance to planning lawyers, together with access to a complete chronological list of all rulings since the Planning Court was established in April 2014. We found that this sort of focused resource is not available, even on a paid subscription basis from commercial providers of legal information services.

But rather than giving up, we embarked on creating our own service, helped by legal engineers Wavelength Law and the invaluable BAILII case law resource (to which we have made a charitable donation).

Our summaries (prepared by my colleagues Susie Herbert and Harriet Ballard) start in March 2018, although the list of cases in the Town Library goes back to 2014.

For the last couple of months we have been testing and using the Town Library internally but now, and until further notice, we are opening this up as a free service to all. The system please just requires your details for subscription to the weekly update (click here).

Some restrictions and disclaimers:

⁃ Summaries are provided for information only rather than to be relied upon as legal advice.

⁃ This is a free service and we depend on the goodwill of BAILII. Please abide by their reproduction and copyright policy and consider a donation – the Government should take responsibility for ensuring that there is free access to rulings of our courts, but it doesn’t.

⁃ Weekly updates may be sparse between now and the new court term starting on 1 October (although there have been a few interesting cases this week which will appear in next week’s update).

⁃ We are learning as we go. Feedback is welcome. Please don’t be surprised if there is the occasional glitch or omission.

We hope soon to be able to draw upon all of this information so as to provide some statistical analysis that I hope will help regular users of the Planning Court. My 8 July 2018 blog post raised an eyebrow at what little specific information there is as to how the court is performing.

Further wings of the Town Library are…planned.

Simon Ricketts, 2 August 2018

Personal views, et cetera

The Planning Court

Time flies. The Planning Court started life on 6 April 2014, as a specialist list within the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court.

The Queen’s Bench Division includes the Administrative Court, which is responsible for public law claims, which are usually pursued by way of judicial review or by way of a quasi- judicial review statutory challenge or appeal, allowed for in a specific piece of legislation. As described in detail in a February 2014 piece by Richard Harwood QC, the Planning Court evolved from the Administrative Court’s fast track procedure which had been established to allocated important planning cases to be heard quickly before specialist judges.

As defined in Part 54 of the Civil Procedure Rules, a ‘Planning Court claim’ means:

“a judicial review or statutory challenge which —

(a) involves any of the following matters —

(i) planning permission, other development consents, the enforcement of planning control and the enforcement of other statutory schemes;

(ii) applications under the Transport and Works Act 1992;

(iii) wayleaves;

(iv) highways and other rights of way;

(v) compulsory purchase orders;

(vi) village greens;

(vii) European Union environmental legislation and domestic transpositions, including assessments for development consents, habitats, waste and pollution control;

(viii) national, regional or other planning policy documents, statutory or otherwise; or

(ix) any other matter the judge appointed under rule 54.22(2) considers appropriate; and

(b) has been issued or transferred to the Planning Court.”

Since February 2017, Holgate J has been the Planning Liaison Judge, overseeing the operation of the Planning Court and allocating cases to judges with appropriate expertise.

His “no nonsense” approach might be discerned from this blistering passage in R (Network Rail Infrastructure Limited v Secretary of State (Holgate J, 8 September 2017):

I regret the need to have to make some observations on the inappropriate manner in which the claim was put before the court. I do so in order to make it plain to litigants that the practices that were followed in this case, and regrettably sometimes in others, are not acceptable. Notwithstanding the clear statement by Sullivan J (as he then was) in R (Newsmith Stainless Ltd) v Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions[2001] EWHC (Admin) 74 at paragraphs 6-10, this claim was accompanied by six volumes comprising over 2,000 pages of largely irrelevant material. The Claimant’s skeleton argument was long, diffuse and often confused. It also lacked proper cross-referencing to those pages in the bundles which were being relied upon by the Claimant. The skeleton gave little help to the court.

Shortly before the hearing the court ordered the production of a core bundle for the hearing not exceeding 250 pages. During the hearing, it was necessary to refer to only 5 or 6 pages outside that core bundle. Ultimately, as will be seen below, the claim succeeds on one rather obvious point concerned with the effect of the Grampian condition in the 2016 permission. But this had merely been alluded to in paragraph 76 and the first two lines of paragraph 77 of the skeleton. Indeed, the point was buried within the discussion of Ground 3 of the claim, a part of the Claimant’s argument to which it does not belong. Nevertheless, Mr Tim Buley, who appeared on behalf of the Defendant, acknowledged that he had appreciated that this point could be raised. He was ready to respond to it.

Certainly, for applications for statutory review or judicial review of decisions by Planning Inspectors or by the Secretary of State, including many of those cases designated as “significant” under CPR PD 54E, a core bundle of up to about 250 pages is generally sufficient to enable the parties’ legal arguments to be made. In many cases the bundle might well be smaller. Even where the challenge relates to a decision by a local planning authority, the size of the bundle need not be substantially greater in most cases.

Prolix or diffuse “grounds” and skeletons, along with excessively long bundles, impede the efficient handling of business in the Planning Court and are therefore contrary to the rationale for its establishment. Where the fault lies at the door of a claimant, other parties may incur increased costs in having to deal with such a welter of material before they can respond to the Court in a hopefully more incisive manner. Whichever party is at fault, such practices are likely to result in more time needing to be spent by the judge in pre-reading material so as to penetrate or decode the arguments being presented, the hearing may take longer, and the time needed to prepare a judgment may become extended. Consequently, a disproportionate amount of the Court’s finite resources may have to be given to a case prepared in this way and diverted from other litigants waiting for their matters to be dealt with. Such practices do not comply with the overriding objective and the duties of the parties (CPR 1.1 to 1.3). They are unacceptable.

The Court has wide case management powers to deal with such problems (see for example CPR 3.1). For example, it may consider refusing to accept excessively long skeletons or bundles, or skeletons without proper cross-referencing. It may direct the production of a core bundle or limit the length of a skeleton, so that the arguments are set out incisively and without “forensic chaff”. It is the responsibility of the parties to help the Court to understand in an efficient manner those issues which truly need to be decided and the precise points upon which each such issue turns. The principles in the CPR for dealing with the costs of litigation provide further tools by which the Court may deal with the inappropriate conduct of litigation, so that a party who incurs costs in that manner has to bear them.”

However, the lack of recent statistics as to the performance of the Planning Court is frustrating.

Anecdotally, I would suspect that there is a small reduction in the overall number of claims, no doubt partly due to the toughened approach to costs protection for claimants since 28 February 2017 . For those claims that are brought, the permission stage appears to be an increasingly difficult hurdle and (particularly with that stage having been introduced since 26 October 2015 into statutory challenges) fewer claims are getting to a full hearing. On the other hand, increasingly, controversial or complex cases are being actively case managed so that they proceed directly to a “rolled up” hearing. Despite the increasingly small pool of specialist judges, we are not seeing particular delays in case listings. However, this is an individual reaction not rooted in data and your experience may be different?

Last month the Ministry of Justice published its quarterly justice statistics (to March 2018) but they do not separate out the performance of the Planning Court.

There is a table showing the success rate of “planning and related” statutory challenges (ie not judicial reviews but applications under specific statutory provisions such as to quash inspectors’ and the Secretary of State’s decision letters, local plans and so on) that went to a full hearing. Most, but not necessarily all, of these will be been heard by the Planning Court. The statistics do indeed show a decreasing number of statutory challenges that go to a full hearing.

What is more problematic is that the data on judicial review does not separately identify Planning Court cases, simply breaking down judicial review cases into “civil – immigration and asylum”, “civil – other” (which includes planning), criminal and “unknown”.

It would be good to have for example reliable statistics as to overall numbers of judicial review claims in the Planning Court, the proportion that fall at the permission hurdle, overall success rates and timescales.

After all, one of the objectives behind the establishment of the court in 2014 was to provide for a speedier process. For “significant” claims there are specific target timescales.

Significant cases are defined as those which:

“(a) relate to commercial, residential, or other developments which have significant economic impact either at a local level or beyond their immediate locality;

(b) raise important points of law;

(c) generate significant public interest; or

(d) by virtue of the volume or nature of technical material, are best dealt with by judges with significant experience of handling such matters.”

Practice Direction 54E, which governs claims in the Planning Court states:

3.4 The target timescales for the hearing of significant (as defined by paragraph 3.2) Planning Court claims, which the parties should prepare to meet, are as follows, subject to the overriding objective of the interests of justice—

(a) applications for permission to apply for judicial review or planning statutory review are to be determined within three weeks of the expiry of the time limit for filing of the acknowledgment of service;

(b) oral renewals of applications for permission to apply for judicial review or planning statutory review are to be heard within one month of receipt of request for renewal;

(c) applications for permission under section 289 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 are to be determined within one month of issue;

(d) planning statutory reviews are to be heard within six months of issue; and

(e) judicial reviews are to be heard within ten weeks of the expiry of the period for the submission of detailed grounds by the defendant or any other party as provided in rule 54.14.”

Anecdotally, yes claims are indeed largely dealt with pretty quickly compared with elsewhere in the High Court but are these specific targets being met? And is the proportion increasing of claims that are failing at the permission stage (and, if so, what does that tell us)?

So, what do the general JR statistics show?

This is an extract from a table showing success rates:

In 2017 there were 4,196 claims lodged. 15% (615) were granted permission on the papers and 59% (2,484) were refused. Of those 2,484 claims, 146 obtained permission at oral renewal stage. Of those 761 claims, only 181 went to a full hearing and of those only 88 were found in favour of the claimant. Of course at each stage, proceedings are often settled, perhaps some were still waiting to be heard and a few may subsequently succeed on appeal, but that is quite some sieving, with only 2% of the total number of claims lodged resulting in a finding for the claimant.

Another table starts to break down those 4,196 claims, showing that well over half of JR claims still relate to immigration and asylum claims. Only 1,722 of them related to other civil claims (ie including Planning Court JR claims).

Who are the defendants? The commentary says this:

Local Authorities had 713 applications lodged against them (third largest recipient), down 6% on the previous year. Of these cases, 216 were granted permission to proceed to final hearing (30% of applications), and of these, 33 were found in favour of the claimant.

Finally, what about timescales? There is just this table:

The cases that went to a full hearing in 2017 took on average 194 days (working days I assume) from being lodged to a final hearing decision, although the figures may end up slightly worse than that if some cases have not yet concluded.

Am I missing a whole level of detail or is this really the best that we have in terms of the High Court’s performance in relation to planning law matters? And are up to date statistics for the Planning Court really not publicly available?

Simon Ricketts, 6 July 2018

Personal views, et cetera

Challenging Plans Before They Are Hatched

Can you challenge a draft local plan in the High Court before it is submitted to the Secretary of State for examination? When does the ouster in section 113 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 kick in, which prevents development plan documents from being “questioned in any legal proceedings” except by way of an application for leave made before the end of six weeks beginning with the date that the document is adopted by the local planning authority?

These ouster provisions in legislation cause problems. For instance, in my 4 February 2017 blog post Hillingdon JR: Lucky Strike Out?, I reported on a case where the equivalent provision in relation to challenges to national policy statements under the NSIPs regime was relied upon to strike out a challenge to the Government’s announcement of a decision to publish a draft airports NPS.

R (CK Properties (Theydon Bois) Limited) v Epping Forest District Council (Supperstone J, 29 June 2018) concerned a challenge by a developer to Epping Forest District Council’s decision on 14 December 2017 to proceed with regulation 19 consultation of the submission version of its draft local plan prior to its submission to the Secretary of State for examination.

For those not familiar with the process, in summary authorities first have to carry out consultation in relation to their proposed development plans under Regulation 18 of the Town and Country Planning (Local Planning) (England) Regulations 2012 and take that consultation into account in preparing a revised version either for further Regulation 18 consultation or, if they consider that the document is ready for examination, for submission to the Secretary of State – in which case they must then carry out further consultation, under Regulation 19, before submitting the plan along with the representations received in response to that further consultation.

Remember back when many local planning authorities were racing to submit their local plans before a deadline of 31 March 2018, when the Government was indicating that its proposed standardised methodology for assessing housing needs would need to be used for plans submitted after that date? Of course that date then slipped with the delays to the draft revised NPPF to a date which will now be six months after the new NPPF is published but that’s another story.

Epping Forest was one of those authorities rushing to submit its plan, a district where the new standardised methodology would apparently increase the required housing provision over the plan period from some 11,400 to 20,306 homes. Some difference.

CK Properties have a site which was not allocated for residential development. Its complaint in the legal proceedings was that the appendix to the council’s site selection report that assessed the various sites considered for allocation and explaining its reasoning was not available at the time the council made its decision to consult on the submission version of its plan, despite assurances in its statement of community involvement that such background documents would be made available. The claimant secured an order from the Planning Court on 20 March 2018 restraining the council from submitting the plan for examination until the claim had been determined.

At the full hearing, the council sought to argue that regardless of the position in relation to the matters complained of, the effect of section 113 was that any challenge would have to await adoption of the plan.

It’s an important issue – can those aggrieved by a decision by a local planning authority to submit its plan to the Secretary of State for examination, challenge that decision by way of judicial review or do they have to store up their complaint until the plan is finally adopted?

The High Court had previously considered a challenge to a decision taken at an earlier stage in the development plan process in The Manydown Company Limited v Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council (Lindblom J, 17 April 2012), allowing judicial review proceedings to be brought of a decision by a council to approve a pre-submission draft core strategy for consultation (the equivalent of what is now the regulation 18 stage under the 2012 Regulations). The judge postulated that the position might be different in relation to the submission draft of a plan but considered that section 113 did not preclude challenges to pre-submission drafts.

Indeed the judge saw good sense not closing out the potential for an early challenge:

In a case such as this, an early and prompt claim for judicial review makes it possible to test the lawfulness of decisions taken in the run-up to a statutory process, saving much time and expense – including the expense of public money – that might otherwise be wasted. In principle it cannot be wrong to tackle errors that are properly amenable to judicial review, when otherwise they would have to await the adoption of the plan before the court can put them right.”

The High Court had also considered in IM Properties Development Limited v Lichfield District Council (Patterson J, 18 July 2014) the different question as to whether judicial review proceedings could be brought in relation to main modifications to a local plan or whether the challenge could only be brought post plan adoption by way of section 113. The court determined that the latter position was correct:

Once a document becomes a Development Plan document within the meaning of section 113 of the 2004 Act the statutory language is clear : it must not be questioned in any legal proceedings except in so far as is provided by the other provisions of the section. Sub-section (11)(c) makes it clear that for the purposes of a Development Plan document or a revision of it the date when it is adopted by the Local Planning Authority is the relevant date from when time runs within which the bring a statutory challenge.

It is quite clear, in my judgment and not inconsistent with the Manydown judgment, that once a document has been submitted for examination it is a Development Plan document. The main modifications which have been proposed and which will be the subject of examination are potentially part of that relevant document. To permit any other interpretation would be to give a licence to satellite litigation at an advanced stage of the Development Plan process.”

Having considered the scope of section 113 and these two previous authorities (neither covering the situation of an authority’s decision to proceed with a submission draft plan), Supperstone J concluded that the authority’s decision to prepare for submission of the plan could indeed be challenged by way of judicial review and was not closed out by section 113.

Whilst the claim ultimately failed because the judge did not find any of the grounds of challenge to be made out, the potential implications of the ruling are significant. There is very clearly now a window for judicial review of a local planning authority’s decision to embark on regulation 19 consultation (the formal precursor to submission of the plan for examination). The window closes when the plan is submitted for examination and any subsequent challenge can only be brought once the plan has been adopted. If there are clear grounds for challenge (for instance on the basis of procedural failings in the process to that date) why wait for submission of the plan and its eventual adoption? Indeed, might claimants challenging an adopted plan be criticised and even denied relief if they could have brought proceedings at the earlier stage?

Whilst there is something to be said for the Lindblom LJ (as he now is) view, expressed in Manydown, that early challenge (rather than having potential challenges stored up) can be a good thing, it can surely also be a bad thing if it slows down the process, particularly if, as is so often the case, the challenge is ultimately dismissed.

I assume that one reason why the claimant brought the early challenge in Epping Forest, and secured the interim order obtained from the court preventing submission of the plan until the full hearing had taken place into the challenge, was to seek to ensure that the plan was not submitted until the deadline had passed after which the Government’s standardised methodology for assessing housing needs had been introduced – given that the new methodology would require additional housing sites to be found. However, such have been the delays with the introduction of that methodology and such has been the speed of the court process to date (I do not know whether permission to appeal is being sought) it is very likely that the council will still be in a position to submit its plan on the basis of the old methodology.

Simon Ricketts, 30 June 2018

Personal views, et cetera

So Who Did Win The SPG JR?

Isn’t it heartwarming when the opposing parties in litigation all claim to have won? He said wryly.

Ouseley J’s judgment in McCarthy & Stone Retirement Lifestyles Limited, Churchill Retirement Living Limited, Pegasus Life Limited and Renaissance Retirement Limited v Mayor of London was handed down at 10.30 am on 23 May.

The Mayor rapidly issued a press release that morning, Judge rules in favour of Mayor’s threshold approach to housing.

However, the subsequent press releases by McCarthy & Stone Judge rules in favour of retirement consortium’s judicial review of the Mayor of London’s SPG and by Renaissance Retirement later that day seemed to tell a different story.

So that they can be checked for factual, typographical or grammatical errors or ambiguities, Planning Court judgments are usually issued in draft to the parties at least 24 hours ahead of being handed down, under conditions of strict confidentiality. Disclosure beyond the lawyers and parties themselves is a contempt of court and can bring criminal sanctions. However, what that advance sight does mean is that, by the time that the judgment is formally handed down (often with the parties not needing to be present and with submissions about remedies, costs orders and so on dealt with separately by email), the parties have got to grips with the often complex analysis within it and are ready to influence the way in which the narrative appears in traditional and social media, particularly the breaking online news items in the specialist press.

Planning law can be difficult in its abstractions and it can take time and strong coffee to arrive at a full understanding of the implications of a judgment (particularly without a familiarity with the evidence presented and submissions made to the court). This blog always includes links to the judgment transcripts because, however detailed the summary, there is no substitute for reading the document itself, but even then it can be hard. All credit to Holgate J in Parkhurst for appending parts of the inspector’s report to provide readers with the necessary context, but that was still a complex judgment (there have been some glib summaries!) and always of course watch for the political spin (Cheshire East Council’s “Cheshire East wins landmark legal judgement for residents in fear of housing sprawl” press release, following its loss in the Supreme Court in Suffolk Coastal , with ultimately an award of costs against it, being a classic of the genre!).

Back to the case in hand. So who really did win?

The claimants are all developers of specialist housing for the elderly. Their main concern with the Mayor’s 2017 affordable housing and viability SPG was that their schemes, usually on small sites, are caught by its requirement for a late stage viability review but were not caught under the adopted London Plan, which refers to the mechanism in the context of schemes which “in whole or in part…are likely to take many years to implement“.

[I summarised the SPG in my 20 August 2017 blog post 20 Changes In The Final Version Of The London Mayor’s Affordable Housing & Viability SPG. (Warning: the Mayor of London’s SPGs are not subject to the same legal regime that applies to local planning authorities in preparing SPDs, summarised in the first part of my 1 December 2017 blog post What’s For The Plan, What’s Supplementary?)]

The claimants’ evidence was that they developed smaller sites – “usually brownfield, higher build costs, significant communal facilities and spaces which were not for sale – making them more costly per square metre than most market housing, and particularly so in London. These schemes were constructed in a single phase, and could not meet affordable specialist housing accommodation requirements on-site, as had been accepted for years; they always provided viability appraisals to justify off-site contributions to affordable housing, and always had to be completed as a whole before any elderly occupiers moved in; they had a markedly slower selling rate. This made the Claimants less able to compete with general house builders in site acquisition.”

Their evidence was that “the acute pressures, on the viability of specialist housing schemes, made it essential that the risk of the development’s returns falling significantly below expectations was reduced to a minimum. They relied on various forms of borrowing to fund site purchases. The standard but notional 20 percent development return used in such appraisals was the bare minimum “on the basis that the risk associated with the affordable housing cost is known…If there is a risk that [that] cost might rise significantly, the risk profile becomes unacceptable….” Mr Warren emphasised that it is the risk which matters when deciding on what price to pay for a site. And it is that extra risk which Mr Burgess said affected them more than those in the general market. The effect of the late stage review was felt by the Claimants at the stage of bidding for the sites in the first place; the uncertainty about the amount of money which might have to be paid over at the late stage review affected the calculation of risk for borrowing, in such a way as to make the funding impossible.”

The judge made no ruling as to whether these concerns were justified and they were not accepted by the Mayor but this was the claimants’ explanation as to why the issues mattered to them.

[I note at this point that the proceedings were brought in the knowledge that the emerging new London Plan would in any event be proposing an equivalent late stage review mechanism. The parameters of that mechanism will no doubt be considered as part of the examination into the draft Plan (rumoured as likely to take place from November 2018 to February 2019)].

So the claimants’ objective plainly was to challenge that requirement for a late stage review of viability in relation to schemes like theirs which could not be said to be “likely to take many years to implement” (although the claimants sought to argue that it was single phase schemes that should not be caught).

In order to demolish that requirement, they contended that the SPG was unlawful and in so doing relied on three grounds:

(1) it constitutes policy which should only be in the London Plan, which is currently being revised; the SPG was also inconsistent with that Plan;

(2) the SPG is a “plan or programme” which required a Strategic Environmental Assessment, SEA, under the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations, SI 2004 No.1633 but which had not been undertaken; and

(3) it was produced without due regard being had to the constituent parts of the public sector equality duty, PSED, in s149 Equality Act 2010.”

Ouseley J rejected grounds 2 and 3 as unarguable and I’ll say no more about them.

In relation to ground 1, Rupert Warren QC for the claimants first argued that the SPG contained policies which could only be within the London Plan itself, namely “the 35 percent threshold, the fast-track, and the viability tested route, with three viability appraisals, (initial, early stage and late stage), the deliberately slow-track.”, all of which are indeed now proposed as policy in the draft London Plan.

The judge largely sidestepped this issue: “I do not want this judgment to be misread as holding that the SPG, and at this level of detail, must as a matter of law be in the London Plan or alternatively that the SPG cannot lawfully be included in the Plan as policy“. He did not interfere with the Mayor’s decision to treat the matters as appropriate for an SPG.

He commented that whether the emerging policies that reflect those SPG requirements are appropriately strategic for the Plan will be a matter for the inspector to determine following his or her examination of it: “They may contain a level of detail for the control of negotiations in quite small forms of development, and larger non-PSI developments, which excludes them from s334, though I do not doubt that the levels of affordable housing developed on new housing sites, can be seen as a strategic matter. In particular, when the draft London Plan goes for public examination, the question of whether draft policy H6, which takes the SPG into the draft Plan, is “strategic” and “general” may be one on which the inspector after the examination in public expresses a view. I would not want what I say to resolve the content of the draft London Plan, in advance of any inspector’s consideration and report.”

Rupert Warren QC’s second argument under ground 1 was that the SPG was inconsistent with the adopted London Plan. The judge stated:

I am not prepared to hold that conflict with development plan policy of itself makes a non-statutory document unlawful. If it states that it is in conflict with the development plan because that plan is now out of date, for example because of changes in Government policy as might be found in the NPPF, or because the review of the Plan was delayed for proper reasons, I see no basis for it to be unlawful. The weight to be given to it is quite another in the light of s38(6), but the NPPF contains advice which conflicts with development plans up and down the country, and is not on that account unlawful. If an authority seeks to put forward some policy to cover the period when it is out of date, which could happen very quickly with new government policy, I see no reason to hold its actions unlawful. The plan-led system is supported by the proper application of s38(6), which can readily accommodate expressions of policy in conflict with the development plan. It does so often when a new draft plan is issued.”

So, inconsistency of itself does not lead to an SPG being unlawful. However, as identified by the judge:

Here the Mayor clearly did not intend to produce SPG in conflict with the London Plan, let alone to avoid the development plan process. The Executive Summary of the SPG at [4] states that it is “guidance to ensure that existing policy is as effective as possible…it does not and cannot introduce new policy.” Indeed, the consistency of the SPG with the London Plan was a theme of the Defendant’s response to Grounds 2 and 3, SEA and PSED. It is inherent in the concept of SPG that it purports to supplement and not to contradict development plan policy. In so far as he did produce SPG in conflict with the London Plan, he would have misdirected himself as to the meaning and effect of either the Plan or the SPG and so failed, in promulgating it, to have regard to a material consideration. ”

So, inconsistency may well lead to an SPG being unlawful, if the policy-maker did not intend there to be any inconsistency, as was the case with this SPG.

Mr Warren is reported as pointing to two inconsistencies: “(1) the most important, is the introduction by the SPG of a late stage review to single phase sites where the London Plan only envisaged those for phased developments; (2) the adoption of a 35 per cent affordable housing on-site threshold at which no viability information was required, whereas the London Plan required each site to provide the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing, which could be greater than 35 percent.”

The judge did not find that the 35% threshold was inconsistent with the adopted Plan (hence the focus of the Mayor’s press release!) but he did find there was inconsistency in relation to the requirement for a late stage review:

By contrast, the language of the London Plan does not permit the imposition of a requirement for all sites over 10 homes, of a specific requirement to produce at least three viability appraisals, and more if the phases so turn out. Nor does it permit it exceptionally. It permits it only where, in general, the timescale or scale of development means that it is likely to take many years to complete a phase or the whole.”

So, he found for the claimants on the issue which had led them to bring the claim in the first place.

The judgment indicates that he will now “hear submissions on the appropriate remedy, if any, for the inconsistency I have found to exist“. But it seems to me that whether the relevant parts of the SPG are formally quashed or not is neither here nor there – the effect of the ruling is that the Mayor cannot lawfully rely on the SPG in requiring a late stage viability review in relation to the sorts of schemes that they promote.

Of course, that may be a Pyrrhic victory. As the judge goes on to comment:

The status of SPG matters little now that the draft London Plan has been published and consulted upon, containing H6. Draft plans often are inconsistent with their predecessors and are given increasing weight as they progress, as outlined in the NPPF. Once the Mayor has considered the consultation responses to the draft Plan, the period for delivering which has expired, and has amended the Plan as he sees fit, it will have no lesser weight than the SPG. Giving some weight to draft policy which is inconsistent with the development plan is not uncommon. The NPPF contains material which is not consistent with developmental plans. The issue about the status and consistency of the SPG is not one of continuing importance.”

That may be so, but presumably the claimants went into the litigation with their eyes open, given the emerging draft London Plan. This will indeed be a temporary win if they do not persuade the inspector that late stage reviews are not appropriate in relation to smaller, usually single phased, schemes. But that will be an issue to be debated without pre-existing support in the form of the SPG.

Who won? The claimants on the point that I suspect they cared most about. The Mayor on the point that I suspect he cared most about: avoiding collateral damage from the proceedings, in the form of any wider adverse ruling on other matters such as the 35% threshold or the validity of the document as a whole.

Simon Ricketts, 26 May 2018

Personal views, et cetera

All About That Base

Good planning relies on good baselines. Determining the correct baseline or fallback position is the vital starting point for determining the effects that a development proposal would have, but is not easy – often involving the need for judgment as to what can be done in any event without planning permission or what the position would be in any event in terms of, for instance air quality, highways movements or the effect on the level of daylight and sunlight that existing properties enjoy.

In Wiltshire Waste Alliance Limited v Secretary of State (Sir Ross Cranston, 10 May 2018), an inspector had granted permission on appeal for the extension of a waste recycling plant.

Before him the company’s case was that if the appeal was dismissed the appeal site would continue to operate pursuant to a series of admittedly complicated planning permissions which, in any event, would allow a significant number of uses. The appeal was advanced on the basis of these “no project” baselines being in existence. No other grounds were advanced for the grant of planning permission. Essentially the claimant’s case against the appeal was that these baseline activities were not in fact permitted under the permissions operating. Further, for practical reasons what was permitted was limited and in any event could not take place.

In his decision letter the inspector had identified that it was crucial to the proper determination of the appeal that the effects of generated HGV traffic on the highway network and air quality were calculated “on a precautionary basis and compared with any planning fall-back position from which realistic baseline positions are drawn. It is established law that for a fall-back position to be taken into account it must be legally possible with respect to existing permitted land uses and also likely to occur on available evidence.”

The planning permission for the existing facility did not include any condition restricting the amount of waste that could be treated, but the application for it had indicated a figure of up to 25,000 tonnes per annum for one area, whereas the fallback position being relied upon by the operator at the appeal had assumed that this could be increased to 75,000 tonnes without the need for planning permission. It argued that the 25,000 figure was no limitation (applying the I’m Your Man case, recently approved of by the Court of Appeal in Lambeth LBC v Secretary of State). The claimant argued that the inspector had not considered whether such an increase in the quantity of material treated would have amounted to a material change of use by way of intensification. Retired High Court judge Sir Ross Cranston accepted the claimant’s argument, but also determined, as had been conceded by the Secretary of State, that the inspector had also wrongly noted that the application document referring to the 25,000 tonnes figure had not been incorporated by reference into the permission. Sir Ross Cranston’s summary of the arguments and reasoning is brief. (In the light of the Lambeth case I don’t see how incorporation by reference of the application document is relevant.)

As well as meaning that the inspector had made a legal error in the way that he had considered the fallback position, the judge accepted that the approach that had been taken “has the potential to infect the conclusions regarding the baseline scenarios” for the purposes of assessment of likely significant environmental effects in the environmental impact assessment.

It is a cautionary tale – ensure that you can justify any fallback or baseline position that you rely upon.

Whilst it didn’t matter for the purposes of the judgment, I assume that the proposal was assessed under the 2011 EIA Regulations. The 2017 Regulations are more prescriptive. EIA now needs to include a “description of the relevant aspects of the current state of the environment (baseline scenario) and an outline of the likely evolution thereof without implementation of the development as far as natural changes from the baseline scenario can be assessed with reasonable effort on the basis of the availability of environmental information and scientific knowledge“.

The more far-reaching and longer-term the effects of a project, the more complex the analysis ends up being, as can be seen from the Secretary of State’s decision dated 10 May 2018 to authorise the development consent order applied for by Transport for London in relation to the proposed Silvertown twin-bore road tunnel under the Thames (a scheme which also was promoted under the previous EIA legislation). The task of analysing what would be the position in terms of issues such as congestion and air quality is complex. There will be much focus on his conclusion on air quality effects in particular, namely that “greater weight needs to be placed on the impact of the Development on the zone [for the Greater Urban London area as a whole] rather than at individual receptors. The Secretary of States therefore places weight on the fact that whilst some receptors will experience a worsening in air quality as a result of the Development, overall the Development should have a beneficial impact on air quality and that the Development is not predicted to delay compliance with the [Air Quality Directive] in the timeframes that the Updated [Air Quality Plan], including the zone plan for the Greater Urban London area, sets out as being the quickest possible time.”

We have seen recently how assumptions as to air quality levels can be proved wrong in ways that are unexpected, such as the VW emissions scandal that threw into question the degree to which air quality levels would improve as newer vehicles replaced older ones on the road, or ways which are possibly less unexpected, such as the Government’s delayed compliance with the Air Quality Directive.

Accurate analysis is of course equally necessary with more routine non-EIA projects: that is, accurate analysis both in the relevant technical assessment, whatever it may be, and accurate analysis by the decision maker in taking it into account in reaching a decision. R (Rainbird) v London Borough of Tower Hamlets (Deputy Judge John Howell QC, 28 March 2018) was a recent example of a planning permission being quashed (that the council had granted to itself for an affordable housing development) because of incorrect conclusions being drawn from a report on sunlight and daylight issues, that in itself was held to be significantly misleading in a number of respects, both in relation to the relevant baseline position and in its analysis of compliance with the relevant BRE guidelines that had been incorporated into the council’s local plan. However, every case inevitably turns on its own facts and, as the judge identified, the threshold for challenge is high:

⁃ Baroness Hale in Morge v Hampshire County Council (Supreme Court, 19 January 2011: “reports obviously have to be clear and full enough to enable [members] to understand the issues and make up their minds within the limits that the law allows them. But the courts should not impose too demanding a standard upon such reports, for otherwise their whole purpose will be defeated: the councillors either will not read them or will not have a clear enough grasp of the issues to make a decision for themselves

⁃ Lindblom LJ in Mansell v Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council(Court of Appeal, 8 September 2017): “The question for the court will always be whether, on a fair reading of his report as a whole, the officer has significantly misled the members on a matter bearing upon their decision, and the error goes uncorrected before the decision is made. Minor mistakes may be excused. It is only if the advice is such as to misdirect the members in a serious way—for example, by failing to draw their attention to considerations material to their decision or bringing into account considerations that are immaterial, or misinforming them about relevant facts, or providing them with a false understanding of relevant planning policy—that the court will be able to conclude that their decision was rendered unlawful by the advice they were given.


Where the line is drawn between an officer’s advice that is significantly or seriously misleading—misleading in a material way—and advice that is misleading but not significantly so will always depend on the context and circumstances in which the advice was given, and on the possible consequences of it. There will be cases in which a planning officer has inadvertently led a committee astray by making some significant error of fact.., or has plainly misdirected the members as to the meaning of a relevant policy… There will be others where the officer has simply failed to deal with a matter on which the committee ought to receive explicit advice if the local planning authority is to be seen to have performed its decision-making duties in accordance with the law…. But unless there is some distinct and material defect in the officer’s advice, the court will not interfere
.”

⁃ Section 31 (2A) of the Senior Courts Act 1981 provides that the High Court “must refuse to grant relief on an application for judicial review…if it appears to the court to be highly likely that the outcome for the applicant would not have been substantially different if the conduct complained of had not occurred” unless it is appropriate to disregard this “for reasons of exceptional public interest.”

Simon Ricketts, 12 May 2018

Personal views, et cetera

Fawlty Powers: When Is A Permission Safe From Judicial Review?

A case last month arising from a howler of a permission for the erection of three marquees in the grounds of a hotel, a permission that was intended to be temporary but was issued without any condition to that effect, has potentially created a real mess. 
Pretty much the main thing that the commercial and financial world always wants from any consenting or licensing system, and certainly the planning system, is certainty as to when any necessary consent or licence, such as a planning permission, is free from legal challenge. Central to the legal due diligence work in relation to any operational business with a bricks and mortar presence, for instance in connection with its financing or acquisition, and certainly in relation to any property or development financing or acquisition, will be the need to report on the operative planning permissions and whether they are now beyond risk of being quashed by the courts. Once the judicial review period has passed, it is assumed that a permission can safely be relied upon, money can be lent or invested, properties or companies can be acquired. If the judicial review period has not yet expired, transactions will often be made conditional on its expiry without proceedings having been commenced. 

Judicial review periods are deliberately short so that we can all safely rely on public bodies’ decisions after a relatively short period. Compared with the six or twelve years’ limitation periods that are common in private law, the traditional principle in relation to judicial review is that proceedings must be brought promptly and in any event not later than three months after the grounds upon which the claim is based first arose (Civil Procedure Rules Part 54.4). 

In our planning world, time limits are usually even tighter:
– In relation to statutory challenges, for instance under section 288 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 for challenges of decisions of the Secretary of State and his inspectors on planning appeals and called-in planning applications, or under section 113 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 for challenges of adopted development plans, the relevant time limit is six weeks. 
– Since 2013, the deadline for bringing judicial review proceedings in relation to other matters arising under the Planning Acts (care needed over that definition) is six weeks. 

But it isn’t quite as easy as assuming that, if these deadlines have passed, the relevant decision is free from any risk of judicial review. CPR rule 3.1 (2) (a) gives judges some discretion. Except where the rules provide otherwise, the court may “extend or shorten the time for compliance with any rule, practice direction or court order (even if an application for extension is made after the time for compliance has expired)“. 
A separate form needs to be submitted with the claim, asking for a time extension and explaining why it is justified. The Administrative Court Judicial Review Guide states:
The Court will require evidence explaining the delay. The Court will only extend time if an adequate explanation is given for the delay, and if the Court is satisfied that an extension of time will not cause substantial hardship or prejudice to the defendant or any other party, and that an extension of time will not be detrimental to good administration.
The Court of Appeal last year in Connors and others v Secretary of State (17 November 2017) stressed the extent to which the onus is on the claimant to justify being allowed to bring a claim out of time and waiting to learn the outcome of another case was not a sufficient ground:
“In the context of planning decision-making, this court has made it very clear that the exercise of judicial discretion to permit very late challenges to proceed by way of claims for judicial review will rarely be appropriate – regardless of whether the claimant has had available to him and acted upon legal advice (see the judgment of Sales L.J., with whom Lord Dyson M.R. and Tomlinson L.J. agreed, in R. (on the application of Gerber) v Wiltshire Council [2016] 1 W.L.R. 2593, at paragraphs 45 to 58).”
R (Gerber) v (1) Wiltshire Council (Court of Appeal, 23 February 2016) was a case I mentioned in my 24 March 2018 blog post Once More Unto The Breach Of Legitimate Expectation, Dear Friends. The claimant sought to challenge a planning permission for a solar farm project over a year after the permission had been issued. At first instance, Dove J had been persuaded to allow the claim, accepting that the delay was justified first because there had been a breach of legitimate expectation, established by the council’s statement of community involvement, that he would be consulted at application stage about the proposal and so had an excuse for not knowing about the permission being granted and secondly that part of the delay had been caused by a first firm of solicitors having given ‘incomplete’ advice as to his potential remedies. The parties all accepted that there were in fact errors with the permission which made it unlawful. 

The Court of Appeal rejected on the facts the SCI breach of legitimate expectation argument and thought that the abortive approach to the first firm of solicitors was not a sufficient excuse for the delay. Refusing to allow the claim to be brought out of time it took on board took into account that “substantial hardship or prejudice” would be caused to the solar farm operator, which in the meantime had built its facility:
“On 23 July 2014 Terraform completed an Initial Public Offering on the NASDAQ Global Select Market based on a prospectus listing Norrington as a project generating cash flow in the United Kingdom. Terraform and Norrington make the point in these proceedings that if the planning permission is quashed, that will harm the ability of companies seeking to invest in green energy generation in the United Kingdom to attract investors to fund such projects, because of the uncertainty whether they will be able to rely on planning permissions granted by planning authorities to carry out such developments even though they have gone without challenge within the time provided for in CPR Part 54.5 and indeed, as in this case, for a considerably longer period.”

“The evidence for Norrington and Terraform, the substance of which was accepted by the judge, is that if the planning permission is quashed and they are required to dismantle the solar farm, the cost of dismantling it and restoring the Site to agricultural use would be around £1.5 million. In addition, the cost of installing the solar farm of about £10.5 million would have been wasted and lost. In addition, a premium of £2000 paid for an option to take the lease and locked-in rental payments of approximately £36,300 under the lease would also be wasted.
Sales LJ  concluded: 

“In my judgment, where proper notice of an application for planning permission has been given pursuant to the 2010 Order it is not appropriate to extend time for bringing a legal challenge to the grant of such permission simply because an objector did not notice what was happening. Extending time in such a case so that a legal objection could be mounted by someone who happened to remain unaware of what was going on until many months later would unfairly prejudice the interests of a developer who wishes to rely upon a planning permission which appears to have been lawfully granted for the development of his land and who has prudently waited for a period before commencing work to implement the permission to ensure that no legal challenge is likely to be forthcoming, as happened here. Prompt legal action after grant of a planning permission to challenge its lawfulness will be required in all cases, unless very special reasons can be shown of a kind which are wholly absent in this case. Especial speed will be expected in the case of objectors who have been involved in the planning process throughout, as emphasised by Keene LJ in Finn-Kelcey at [24], but it does not follow that the strong requirement of prompt action will be substantially relaxed in the case of someone who, despite a planning authority’s compliance with the notification rules laid down in law, remained in ignorance.
The Court of Appeal did extend the time for bringing a claim in Croke v Secretary of State (Court of Appeal, 6 June 2017) which was, as so often, somewhat of a comedy of errors. Given that the deadline for lodging the claim was 23 March 2016, this is what happened:
“The Applicant, who is acting in person, wished to challenge the Inspector’s decision. He proposed to do so by issuing a section 288 claim in the Administrative Court Office at the Royal Courts of Justice, in person, on 23 March 2016. However, that day, he missed his train. Therefore, he emailed the relevant documents to a friend, Mr Miller, who was apparently located only a few minutes from the court; and he asked him to file the claim. It is the Applicant’s case, accepted by the judge below for the purposes of the application before her and by Mr Mills for the Secretary of State today, that Mr Miller arrived at the Royal Courts of Justice at 4.25pm; but, although the advertised closing time for the court was 4.30pm, he was refused entry at the main front entrance of the building, the security guard there informing Mr Miller that the counters were closed.

The following day, Thursday 24 March, the Applicant personally attended the Administrative Court Office, where he arrived at 3.30pm. It was Maundy Thursday and, for the court office, the last working day before the Easter break. Due to the volume of people in the queue, he was not seen until about 5pm, when he was informed by a member of staff that he had used an out-of-date claim form, and he would need to complete a different form. He was given a copy of the new form, and he asked if he could complete it there and then. He was told that he would have to return the next working day. The following day was Good Friday, and the next day upon which the court office was open was Tuesday 29 March. The Applicant attended the Administrative Court Office that day, and filed the claim.”



The court at first instance struck out the claim as out of time. The Court of Appeal however granted permission to Mr Croke to appeal, taking into account that there did not appear to be any legal authority applying to these precise facts:
“Having considered the ground of appeal with particular care – and not without some hesitation – I am persuaded that this appeal is arguable, particularly given the absence of authority on this point. It is also noteworthy that this issue affects not just section 288 claims, but a variety of proceedings where there are strict time limits. Therefore, although the Applicant himself accepts that the merits of his particular case may not be the strongest or attract great sympathy, the issue of principle involved does or may have some broader importance.”
(I don’t know what then happened with Poor Mr Croke’s claim. Deadlines, the risk of missing or incorrect paperwork (or an incorrectly drawn cheque), reduced court hours for filing out of court terms and the current long queues at the Royal Courts of Justice to file claims all combine to give solicitors nightmares – clients, please don’t leave it to the last moment!). 
All this brings us to last month’s case, R (Thornton Hall Hotel Limited) v Wigan Metropolitan Council (Kerr J, 23 March 2018).
The claimant operates Thornton Hall Hotel and the interested party, Thornton Holdings Limited, operates Thornton Manor. The hotels are competitors for wedding bookings and other functions. 

On 7 September 2011 Wigan Council’s planning committee resolved to grant planning permission for three marquees to be erected in the grounds of Thornton Manor. The hotel is in the green belt (as well as being listed grade II* – any Fawlty Towers references in this blog post are by the way wholly inappropriate as will be seen from the above image, courtesy of hitched.co.uk). According to the judgment the committee resolved that very special circumstances existed to allow for the erection of the marquees for a limited period of five years so as to secure “the “generation of an income stream” to enable restoration of the gardens, which were in decline and at risk“. The proposed permission with appropriate conditions was drafted. Indeed, a draft in that form was annexed to a section 106 agreement that was entered into on 11 November 2011. However, the actual permission that was issued on 20 December 2011 and placed on the council’s website omitted any conditions whatsoever, no restriction to five years, no nothing. 
The agent for Thornton Holdings cottoned onto this immediately and said nothing. However the problem was it seems not apparent to the council until the five years period expired and the marquees were not dismantled. The council took a report to committee in July 2017 accepting that a mistake had occurred. A little over a month later (and almost six years after the decision complained of, ie the issue of the incomplete permission) Thornton Hall Hotel Limited brought its proceedings, which were not opposed by the council – so the hearing was purely hotel versus competitor hotel. 
Kerr J allowed the late challenge, and quashed the permission, for nine reasons:
1. The error had been made in issuing the flawed permission. 
2. Permanent permission would not granted and would not have been in the public interest. 
3. “If the marquees are now allowed to stay permanently, the proper operation of the planning process will have been subverted.”
4. That would be contrary to the public interest. 

5. The interested party was aware of the error. 

6. “it follows that the interested party ran its commercial operation at Thornton Manor from 22 December 2011 knowing that the presence of the marquees after 19 December 2016 would be, at the very least, a matter of possible controversy and possible legal challenge. It was not, in my judgment, realistic to rely on expiry of the three month limitation period without also bringing the issue into the open, which the interested party decided not to do.”

7. It follows that the interested party cannot say that it would be prejudiced by the quashing due to lost bookings. 

8. “it is said by the interested party that it would be detrimental to good administration if the marquees have to be removed. Normally, detriment to good administration in public law cases relates to the undesirability of interfering with the provision of public services rather than commercial interests. I see no detriment to good administration in rectifying the error. I think it is detrimental to good administration that the marquees are still there. Good administration includes correct implementation of planning decisions.”

9. “the interested party signed the section 106 agreement embodying the omitted conditions including the five year time limit. Yet, it proceeds in this litigation as if it were not bound by the terms of that agreement. That seems to me only to compound the unconscionability of its position. It undertook in private law the same obligations as it denies in public law.”

As they say, hard cases make bad law. Whilst clearly no-one should have any sympathy for the interested party, which saw that it had by luck gained something it never deserved, there are really serious repercussions and I can’t see that other factors were taken on board by the judge, for instance:
1. There is no discussion of the public interest in being able to rely on permissions once free from legal challenge. When acting on the acquisition of properties or businesses, what do we now need to do to ensure that our client isn’t going to find that its permission is similarly flawed? Sometimes it will not be at all obvious. Does the permission, even if many years old, need to be checked against the resolution to grant? What about other latent flaws in it?
2. Surely, the council should have sought a revocation or modification order. No doubt it would have had to pay substantial compensation to Thornton Holdings but is that relevant? The permission was on the website and could have been challenged within the deadline. No-one challenged it (and why indeed should it be down to a competitor to spend money at risk on a challenge? What if it hadn’t?). It used to be considered that authorities, in considering whether to make a revocation or modification order, couldn’t take their potential compensation liability into account. To my mind it was a sad day when that changed as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Health & Safety Executive v Wolverhampton City Council (Supreme Court, 18 July 2002). As a result, revocation and modification orders are almost unused. 

3. There are of course many examples of flawed permissions which authorities issued in error where hitherto the possibility of a late challenge does not appear to have been considered. (See some of them in my 14 October 2017 blog post Flawed Drafting: Interpreting Planning Permissions). Is this ruling, even if only slightly, going to open the floodgates, particularly in relation to the errors that most frequently occur on section 73 permissions where it turns out that previous restrictive conditions have been lost, for example as to the types of goods that may be sold from a retail park?

Does anyone knows whether an application for permission to appeal has been made? I would welcome views as to how we all take on board the practical implications of this case. Or do we simply regard it as turning on fairly extreme facts? I’m not so sure. 

Simon Ricketts, 7 April 2018

Personal views, et cetera


No conditions, you say?”