Safety & Planning

To what extent is human safety, and the safe construction of buildings, a matter for the planning system? It can be difficult to determine and this blog post just scratches the surface – there’s a book to be written by someone (not me!) on the subject.

Last week the High Court handed down judgment in Valero Logistics UK Limited v Plymouth City Council (Thornton J, 30 June 2021). Valero and another company operate distilled fuel storage depots, the closest of which is approximately 125m away from a helipad within the grounds of Victoria House, Plymouth. “The depots are “establishments” regulated under the Control of Major Accident Hazards Regulations (SI2015/483) (‘the COMAH sites’) because of the intrinsic dangers to human health and the environment which the products handled and stored there present. Highly flammable fuel is regularly unloaded at a dock approximately 400 metres south east of the site and conveyed by over-ground pipes to the Claimants’ depots, where it is stored in above-ground tanks.”

They were challenging the council’s grant of planning permission for commercial use of the helipad which is currently only used for purposes ancillary to use of the residential use of the house. They had the following five, inter-related, grounds of challenge:

“Ground 1 – the Defendant failed to consider a material consideration by not considering the risks posed by the development to the COMAH sites.

Ground 2 – the Defendant misunderstood the “fallback” position and, by relying on that misunderstanding, it skewed the process by which it made the decision.

Ground 3 – the Defendant acted irrationally by relying on the existence of other regulatory regimes in deciding to grant permission.

Ground 4 – the Defendant erred in law by granting permission to an application that conflicted with the development plan when no other material considerations justified such a decision.

Ground 5 – the decision was irrational.

The Claimants point to the potentially catastrophic consequences of a helicopter crashing onto highly flammable fuel and say that what unites the grounds is a decision-making process and decision that abdicates responsibility for the dangers created by the proposed development. In particular, the Defendant conspicuously failed to engage with the scale of the risk posed to the COMAH sites by commercially operated helicopters flying at low heights over large quantities of highly flammable fuel. To the extent the Defendant recognised any risk, it sought to off-load it onto the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) even though the CAA did/does not have the mandate or the expertise to evaluate the consequences on the ground of crashing aircraft or to take land-based decisions accordingly. These remain the safety responsibilities of others including the Defendant who is said to have been, and remains, in denial about this.”

The claim failed on all grounds. I want just to point to the summary by Thornton J as to the approach to be taken to safety and other matters covered by other regulatory regimes:

“Where a regulatory regime exists to deal with an issue raised by a planning application, it is open to a Local Planning Authority to place reliance upon the effective operation of that regime in determining an application for planning permission. However, the Local Planning Authority cannot simply ignore the issues in question. It must satisfy itself that the other regulatory regime is capable of regulating the relevant issues..”

The safety concerns were indeed considered by the council’s planning committee. As summarised by the judge:

“It is clear from the [discussion at the planning committee] that the Planning Officer and Members recognised that the risks to the COMAH sites from a helicopter crash were a principal issue in their consideration of the planning application. Extensive consideration was given to the risks and their mitigation including: how the helicopter is operated (under regulatory controls imposed by the CAA); who operates it (professional pilots); type and class of helicopter (Performance Class 1); and where the helicopter is flown (precise flight paths to and from the Site, mainly over water and strictly enforced). In addition, the Members ensured direct communications between the Site Operator and COMAH sites (as well as the Harbour Commissioners) prior to flights. The Committee understood correctly that it must exercise its judgment to assess the risks of the proposal having taken account of the views of the HSE and Civil Aviation Authority. The planning judgment reached was that the current ancillary ad hoc private helicopter use from the Site was less safe than the increased regulation over and greater professionalism of, commercial flying operations from the Site.

The Claimants criticise the Committee’s understanding of risk analysis but they construe risk assessment and minimisation too narrowly to assert that the risks to the COMAH sites cannot be accounted for unless specifically addressed. This is to ignore the broader set of technical and organisational mitigation to reduce the risk of a helicopter crash. The Claimants submit that the Defendant should itself have gone to the helicopter accident statistics and done its own risk assessment to test the 1 in a billion chance of catastrophic helicopter failure set out in the Interested Party’s risk assessment but, as the Planning Officer said during the debate, the Planning Committee are not specialist risk assessors. The Committee heard representations from Valero on the safety risks at the Committee meeting. The Claimants’ submissions seek to hypercritically retest the merits of the decision. It is correct to say that the officer erred in reporting the risk of failure to the Committee as 1 in 9 billion not 1 in 1 billion. The risk was however correctly reported in the Officer’s written report. It is well established that the reports of Planning Officers must not be subject to hypercritical analysis. The same must apply with even greater force to the oral discussion at a Committee meeting where an officer is responding on his feet to questions from members without the luxury of contemplation allowed for in the production of a written document. It is apparent from a review of the transcript of the whole meeting that the Officer and Committee members understood (and were concerned) about the nature of the risks posed by the proposed development to the COMAH sites and further understood that it was ultimately a matter of planning judgment as to whether the risks and mitigation measures (general helicopter technical and organisational requirements, as well as specific COMAH site requirements and regulation by the CAA) were acceptable. They formed the view that they were acceptable, which was a view they were, in my judgment, entitled to come to on the evidence before them.”

So, a decision maker can rely on the effective operation of another regulatory regime, as long as it satisfies itself that the other regulatory regime is capable of regulating the relevant issues.

(Aside from issues of safety and major accidents, the “overlap with other regulatory regimes” question arose in R (Squire) v Shropshire Council (Court of Appeal, 24 May 2019) which I covered in my 1 June 2019 blog post Chickens**t EIA, where a planning permission was quashed on the basis that the decision maker had wrongly concluded that odour and dust issues arising from the proposed spreading of manure would be adequately policed by the Environment Agency via its IPPC permitting regime).

The following complications arise:

First of all, quite an onus is placed on the decision maker, given how complex it is to ascertain the nature of risks arising and how the regulatory regime operates, in the context of the possibly tragic consequences of making the wrong decision – and often in the face of vociferous detailed objections.

Secondly, the question of what is a material planning consideration is famously amorphous and over time issues as to building safety have been drawn into the planning system, which could be dealt with by way of other regulatory systems (or which are dealt with, but at a much later stage).

At a local level, think for example of some central London authorities’ detailed controls over subterranean development (see my 5 December 2016 blog post First World Problems: Basements).

At a national level, in response to the Grenfell tragedy and following commitments made in Building a Safer Future: Proposals for Reform of the Building Safety Regulatory System in the light of Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety the Government has made the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure and Section 62A Applications) (England) (Amendment) Order 2021, which introduces a requirement for a fire statement to be submitted with applications for planning permission for development involving a building (1) contains two or more dwellings or educational accommodation and (2) contains 7 or more storeys or is 18 metres or more in height. The fire statement is published on the planning register and the Health and Safety Executive must consulted before the grant of planning permission involving a high-rise residential building in certain circumstances. The new regime, known as “Planning Gateway One”, applies to planning applications made from 1 August 2021 onwards and the Government’s Planning Practice Guidance has been updated. “The changes are intended to help ensure that applicants and decision-makers consider planning issues relevant to fire safety, bringing forward thinking on fire safety matters as they relate to land use planning to the earliest possible stage in the development process and result in better schemes which fully integrate thinking on fire safety.”

This is obviously prudent, rather than for vital safety issues to be left for consideration through the Building Regulations and other requirements at a later stage in the process. But, again local planning authorities are increasingly being drawn into matters outside their traditional remit. What level of scrutiny will they need to give to the statements and on what basis are they justified in requiring further information, even if the HSE is satisfied?

The judge in Valero previously presided over another high profile case as to the extent of a local planning authority’s duties in relation to public safety. In Crest Nicholson Operations Limited v West Berkshire Council (Thornton J, 12 February 2021) Crest and others challenged West Berkshire Council’s designation of a Detailed Emergency Planning Zone (“DEPZ”) under the Radiation (Emergency Preparedness and Public Information) Regulations 2019, which were “part of an international, EU and national response to the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan in March 2011 following an undersea earthquake.”

“One of the key changes to emergency planning, reflected in the Regulations, is to require risk assessment and planning for events which have a low likelihood of occurrence but high impact in the event they do occur; as with the Fukushima disaster. Another change, specific to the Regulations, concerns a shift in responsibility for deciding on the extent of a geographical zone in which it is proportionate to plan for protective action in the event of a radiation emergency. The zone is referred to in the Regulations as a ‘Detailed Emergency Planning Zone’ (DEPZ). Responsibility used to lie with either the Office for Nuclear Regulation or the Health and Safety Executive but now rests with the relevant local authority, who must designate the zone on the basis of a recommendation from the site operator.

On 12 March 2020, West Berkshire District Council designated the DEPZ around the Burghfield Atomic Weapons Establishment with a minimum radius of 3160 m from the centre of the site. The site is of national strategic importance. Nuclear weapons are assembled, maintained and decommissioned there. Under the previous regime, the DEPZ was based on a minimum radius of 1600 metres. The extension covers much of the 700 hectares of land belonging to the Claimants and previously earmarked for the development of 15000 homes.

The Claimants contend that the rationale for the new and radically extended DEPZ on a recommendation by the privately run operator, AWE, is simply not known. The only publicly facing document contains, at best, a partial rationale for the designation, which is insufficient, as a matter of law, to meet the requirements of the Regulations. The document was not made available to the public until after the DEPZ was designated which was procedurally improper and in breach of statutory requirements. Regulatory oversight of the designation process has been deficient.”

The challenge failed. Those seeking to second-guess decisions that a public authority has reached on matters that fall within the authority’s technical expertise definitely face an uphill struggle:

The Courts have recognised the need for judicial restraint where the issue under scrutiny falls within the particular specialism or expertise of the defendant public authority. In R(Mott) v Environment Agency Beatson LJ observed that “a regulatory body such as the [Environment] Agency is clearly entitled to deploy its experience, technical expertise and statutory mandate in support of its decisions, and to expect a court considering a challenge by judicial review to have regard to that expertise” (§63). In this case the defendant public authority is the local authority which does not itself hold the technical expertise itself to assess AWE’s work. Nonetheless it drew on assistance and advice from the ONR and PHE. I consider this to be akin to the position where the defendant public authority relies on experts, which the Courts have acknowledged entitles the public authority to a margin of appreciation (relevant that the defendant “had access to internal expert advice and the views of external bodies” in deciding whether there was material before the defendant on which it could rationally be decided that the approval should be made: R(Christian Concern) v Secretary of State for Health and Social Care [2020] EWHC 1546 (Admin)(Divisional Court) at §30 (Singh LJ)) (see also “Where a screening decision is based on the opinion of experts, which is relevant and informed, the decision maker is entitled to rely upon their advice”; Lang J in R (Swire) v Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government [2020] EWHC 1298 (Admin) at §61).

This all of course places much power in the hands of public bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive, Environment Agency, Public Health England and Office for Nuclear Regulation.

In practice not only does it become difficult for local planning authorities to do anything other than rubber-stamp the advice that they receive given that to do so without sufficient reasoning might not just render their decision liable to challenge but they also need to be aware of the potential for liability in common law negligence to arise. After all, in Kane v New Forest District Council (Court of Appeal, 13 June 2001) it was held that a pedestrian injured by a car when he had left a footpath to cross a road had a real prospect of success in a negligence claim against a local planning authority, given that the authority had required the path to be provided in relation to a development but had not done anything to make sure that the crossing point would be visible to drivers.

The court said this: “it was [the local planning authority] who required this footpath to be constructed. I cannot accept that in these circumstances they were entitled to wash their hands of that danger and simply leave it to others to cure it by improving the sightlines. It is one thing to say that at the time when the respondents required the construction of this footpath they had every reason to suppose that the improvements along The White Cottage frontage would ultimately allow it to be safely opened and used: quite another to say that they were later entitled to stand idly by whilst, as they must have known, the footpath lay open to the public in a recognisably dangerous state.”

The NPPF simply has references to the desirability of “safe communities” and “safe places” and these specific passages:

Local planning authorities should consult the appropriate bodies when considering applications for the siting of, or changes to, major hazard sites, installations or pipelines, or for development around them.” (paragraph 45).

Planning policies and decisions should promote public safety and take into account wider security and defence requirements by:

a) anticipating and addressing possible malicious threats and natural hazards, especially in locations where large numbers of people are expected to congregate. Policies for relevant areas (such as town centre and regeneration frameworks), and the layout and design of developments, should be informed by the most up-to-date information available from the police and other agencies about the nature of potential threats and their implications. This includes appropriate and proportionate steps that can be taken to reduce vulnerability, increase resilience and ensure public safety and security; and

b) recognising and supporting development required for operational defence and security purposes, and ensuring that operational sites are not affected adversely by the impact of other development proposed in the area.” (paragraph 95).”

As I say, I’ve only scratched the surface of an important subject.

Simon Ricketts, 3 July 2021

Personal views, et cetera

This week, from 6 to 7.15 pm on Tuesday 6 July we have another big clubhouse Planning Law Unplanned event, We Need To Talk About Green Belt, leading off with contributions from barristers Jonathan Easton and Zack Simons, who will give a first-hand insight into their recent Bolton and Colney Heath inquiry decisions. Free invite to the app and event here.