Community Benefits

The road to the High Court is paved with good intentions. Who doesn’t want development to deliver all manner of gains to a community? But at the planning application or appeal stage, the developer and decision maker need to be clear in their thinking as to whether each commitment made is material to the decision-making process and, if documented by way of section 106 agreement, meets the statutory tests.

This piece was initially prompted by the High Court’s ruling in Good Energy Generation Limited v Secretary of State (Lang J, 25 May 2018) and the earlier ruling of the Court of Appeal in R (Wright) v Forest of Dean District Council (Court of Appeal, 14 December 2017), which is now heading to the Supreme Court.

I then saw this piece in the Standard on the way home last night which got me thinking as to how blurred the lines are in all of this.

As you might expect, the position is dealt with in a more upfront way in the United States, where the practice has grown up of developers negotiating “community benefits agreements” with local communities to build support for, or at least reduce opposition to, major development projects. There is a good paper published by the New York City Bar, The Role of community benefit agreements in New York City’s land use process (8 March 2010). The scope of the agreements referred to, in relation to projects such as Hudson Yards and the relocation of the Mets and Yankees stadia, sounds remarkably similar to many English section 106 agreements but the agreements are negotiated direct with the communities affected. An additional complication does of course arise as to determining which groups should be included in the negotiation, as well as to how the agreement is to be enforced, but for good or bad the process does not appear to lead to the intellectual agonising engaged in by our courts as to whether particular commitments are or are not to be taken into account in the decision making process.

The traditional position in England, Scotland and Wales is represented by the Supreme Court’s judgment last year in Aberdeen City and Shire Strategic Development Planning Authority v Elsick Development Company Limited (25 October 2017):

“A planning obligation, which required as a pre-condition for commencing development that a developer pay a financial contribution for a purpose which did not relate to the burdened land, could be said to restrict the development of the site, but it would also be unlawful. Were such a restriction lawful, a planning authority could use a planning obligation in the context of an application for planning permission to extract from a developer benefits for the community which were wholly unconnected with the proposed development, thereby undermining the obligation on the planning authority to determine the application on its merits. Similarly, a developer could seek to obtain a planning permission by unilaterally undertaking a planning obligation not to develop its site until it had funded extraneous infrastructure or other community facilities unconnected with its development. This could amount to the buying and selling of a planning permission.”

Furthermore:

The inclusion of a policy in the development plan, that the planning authority will seek such a planning obligation from developers, would not make relevant what otherwise would be irrelevant.”

(For further detail see my 28 October 2017 blog post Aberdeen: Supreme Court, Planning Obligations).

However, that traditional position is now overlaid, in England and Wales, with the additional restriction contained in regulation 122 of the Community Infrastructure Levy Regulations 2010, which provides that a “planning obligation may only constitute a reason for granting planning permission for the development if the obligation is—
(a) necessary to make the development acceptable in planning terms;
(b) directly related to the development; and
(c) fairly and reasonably related in scale and kind to the development.

The two most recent cases that examine the appropriateness of developers’ commitments as to benefits for the local community both involve wind farm projects. That’s probably no surprise because, against the background of frequent local hostility, the Government has encouraged promoters to bring forward community benefits packages (see for example the 2014 DECC guidance, Community Benefits from Onshore Wind Developments: Best Practice for England). The PPG also encourages “community led renewable energy developments” and “community based initiatives“. However the principles from the case law of course apply equally to all types of development.

R (Wright) v Forest of Dean District Council (Court of Appeal, 14 December 2017) considered the “issue of whether, on an application for development proposed to be undertaken by a community benefit society, a proposed donation to the community of a proportion of the turnover derived from the development is a material consideration.” In that case, which concerned a scheme for a single community-scale 500kW wind turbine, it was “proposed that the turbine would be erected and run by a community benefit society, and the application included a promise that an annual donation would be made to a local community fund based on 4% of turnover from the operation of the turbine over its projected life of 25 years, to be achieved by way of a condition that the development be undertaken by such a society with the donation as part of the scheme.” The commitment was not to be delivered by way of section 106 agreement (and so regulation 122 was not relevant) but by way of a condition requiring that the development be undertaken by a community benefit society, details of which were to be provided to the authority prior to commencement.

The local planning authority took that commitment (which looks a pretty loose one to me!) into account as a material consideration in granting planning permission. A local resident challenged the decision on the basis that it was not a material planning consideration. Dove J upheld the challenge and the local planning authority and promoter appealed to the Court of Appeal.

In front of the Court of Appeal, counsel for the local planning authority and the promoter both “accepted that, on a planning application, it would be unlawful for a planning authority to take into consideration a donation to a community benefit fund by a commercial wind farm developer, because such a donation would not be a material consideration. For similar reasons, they accepted that an authority could not require such a donation as a planning obligation, whoever the developer might be. However, they each submitted that the circumstances of this case, notably the voluntary donation derived from a community-led project and made to benefit the community, were materially different“.

Hickinbottom J disagreed, commenting as follows:

where a financial contribution that is not a material consideration is put forward as part of an application for proposed development, it is sometimes said that that is an attempt to “buy” planning permission. In my view, that terminology (or even more pejorative terms such as “bribe”) is generally unhelpful. In respect of materiality, the proper focus is upon the Newbury criteria. No matter how well-intentioned the proposed donor might be (and I accept that, here, Resilient Severndale is well-intentioned), and no matter how publicly desirable such a donation might be (and I accept that, here, the proposed community benefit fund would benefit the community), such a donation will not be material for planning purposes unless it satisfies those criteria.

As I have indicated (paragraph 28(ii) above), a planning purpose is one which relates to the character or use of the land. It is proposed that the donation by the developer here will be put into a community benefit fund, administered by local people for the benefit of the community, but without any other restriction, e.g. a restriction to use it for a planning purpose. I have set out some of the beneficiaries of the similar fund set up in respect of the St Briavels Wind Farm (see paragraph 22 above). I accept that all these are worthy community causes, but the provision of waterproofs for young people, and lunch for older people, do not seem to address any obvious planning purpose. As Dove J found (at [48] of his judgment), “beyond being of some benefit to the local community, as recognised or defined by the local people administering the fund, there is no limitation on how the money might be used”.

He concluded:

In my view, for the reasons I have given, Dove J, who referred to and applied the relevant authorities, was right to proceed on the basis that the nature of the community benefit fund donation, and the vehicle it was proposed would provide it, were not such as to preclude examination of the contributions associated with it to see whether they satisfied the legal requirements of being a material consideration in the planning decision. He was entitled to conclude that “the community donation is an untargeted contribution of off-site community benefits which is not designed to address a planning purpose” (see [55] of his judgment). He was also entitled to conclude that there is “no real connection between the development of a wind turbine and the gift of monies to be used for any purpose which appointed members of the community consider their community would derive benefit” (see [56]). Indeed, he was in my view, undoubtedly right to draw such conclusions: and to conclude that, consequently, the Council was not entitled to take into account as a material consideration the offer of the community benefit fund donation made as part of Resilient Severndale’s proposal, as it did.”

That case will ultimately be considered by the Supreme Court, so watch this space. In the meantime, the High Court last month handed down its judgment in Good Energy Generation Limited v Secretary of State (Lang J, 25 May 2018). Here, an appeal had been dismissed by the Secretary of State (following the recommendations of an inspector) in relation to the proposed development of a wind farm in Cornwall. The promoter challenged the decision on two grounds but for present purposes I am only focusing on the first ground, namely:

The Claimant submitted that, in assessing the planning balance, the Secretary of State and the Inspector erred in law in disregarding the benefits offered by the Claimant in a unilateral undertaking made under section 106 TCPA 1990, as these were material considerations, which were not excluded by regulation 122 of the CIL Regulations 2010.

In summary, the main benefits offered by the Claimant were:


i) financial contributions to a community benefit fund;
ii) a community investment scheme open to local residents; and
iii) a reduced electricity tariff, open to local residents.

The Claimant’s pleaded case was that all three of these community benefits were material planning considerations. They were for a planning purpose since they furthered the Government’s legitimate planning policy objectives of encouraging local community involvement in renewable energy schemes and providing positive local benefit from renewable energy development. They also complied with specific aspects of local development plan policy. Furthermore, the benefits were directly related to, and derived from, the use of the land for the operation of the development.

However, after the claim was issued, the Court of Appeal decided in R (on the application of Peter Wright) v Forest of Dean District Council & Resilient Energy Serverndale Limited [2017] EWCA Civ 2102 that the local planning authority had erred in taking into account a proposed donation to the community (4% of turnover) from the operators of a wind turbine development as a material consideration weighing in favour of the grant of planning permission. It did not serve a planning purpose, nor did it fairly and reasonably relate to the development proposed.

In the light of the decision in Wright, at the hearing before me, the Claimant abandoned its challenge in respect of the community benefit fund, but continued with the challenge in respect of the community investment scheme and the reduced electricity tariff scheme open to local residents.

The Claimant further submitted that, in applying regulation 122 of the CIL Regulations 2010, the Inspector and the Secretary of State failed to exercise their planning judgment in deciding whether or not the obligations were “necessary” on the facts of the case. If they did exercise their planning judgment, they failed to give adequate reasons for their conclusions.”

The community benefits set out in the section 106 agreement included:

“(a) a £5,000 per megawatt of installed capacity community benefit contribution to be paid into a community benefit fund;
(b) a community investment scheme open to local residents; and
(c) a reduced electricity tariff, also open to local residents
.”

Lang J set out the case law and stated that the tests in regulation 122 are “more stringent than the common law tests“. She found that “the inspector and the Secretary of State were entitled to conclude, in the exercise of their judgment, that no weight could be attached to the local tariff and the community investment scheme in determining the appeal as they were not material considerations which complied with regulation 122 of the CIL Regulations 2010.”

She rejected any suggestion that the local tariff (amounting to at least a 20% reduction in electricity bills, funded by the community benefit fund) could be said to be a community-led initiative within the meaning of the PPG: “the local tariff was essentially an inducement to make the proposal more attractive to local residents and to the local planning authority. The scheme was not necessary to make the development acceptable in planning terms under regulation 122 of the CIL Regulations 2010.

She found that the terms of the community investment scheme were uncertain. The section 106 unilateral undertaking simply committed the developer to its establishment within six months of first generation.

The lack of any specific details, combined with uncertainty about the scheme’s commencement and long-term future, meant that the connection between the benefit and the development was remote and uncertain, rather than real.

…It was merely a potential investment opportunity“.

What lessons do we draw?

There is nothing at all wrong with developers making commitments to deliver community benefits. However, be careful to ensure that these are only taken into account in decision making if they are material planning considerations and meet the strict requirements of regulation 122.

Can we do things differently? There is nothing to prevent developers negotiating community benefits agreements, perhaps labelled indeed as such, with communities as long as matters which are not material planning considerations are not taken into account in decision making (although I accept that the position can become pretty artificial, where committee members are asked for the sake of form in their decision making to close their eyes to what is plainly on offer).

At present section 106 agreement negotiations, particularly in relation to major projects, can become somewhat of a fudge, where it can be difficult to separate those commitments which are genuinely required to make the development acceptable from those which are required in practice to secure political and community acceptance. To the extent to which regulation 122 has either introduced an additional JR trip hazard (as it has) or, through leading to caution on the part of promoter and authority alike, discouraged commitments to what would have been worthwhile public benefits, better for all, is regulation 122 causing more harm than good?

Finally, the way in which all of this to be reported to committee will be tidied up as and when section 155 of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 is brought into force, in that “financial benefits information” will need to be included in officers’ reports, including “a list of any financial benefits (whether or not material to the application) which are local finance considerations or benefits of a prescribed description, and which appear to the person making the report to be likely to be obtained” by the authority or third parties within a description to be prescribed, as a result of the proposed development, together with “in relation to each listed financial benefit, a statement of the opinion of the person making the report as to whether the benefit is material to the application” as well as any other prescribed information about each listed financial benefit.

Whether or not section 155 is brought into force, this approach would be a useful discipline and may provide a safer basis for developers who do indeed for a range of reasons (reputation, securing quality outcomes in the longer term, building support and reducing suspicion with local communities and, in some cases such as renewable energy, shale and major transportation projects, seeking to address the perceived unfairness of expecting one community to take all of the adverse effects of development for the wider good) wish to deliver community benefits without unnecessarily adding to the risk of judicial review.

Simon Ricketts, 2 June 2018

Personal views, et cetera