Hanging over me all week was a deadline for preparing a legal update about the NPPF. Then, thank you judges, just like London buses but with more barristers on board, along came three interesting cases.
Is the NPPF subject to the requirements of SEA?
The question as to whether the latest version of the NPPF required strategic environmental assessment was the question before Dove J in Friends of the Earth v Secretary of State (Dove J, 6 March 2019).
You will recall that requirements of the SEA Directive apply to plans and programmes which are “required by legislative, regulatory or administrative provisions” and which “set the framework for future development consent of projects”.
The Government argued that neither applied in the case of the NPPF. It was always going to be a stretch to argue that the, er, Framework does not set the framework for the future development consent of projects and the judge wasn’t going to accept that. But he did conclude that due to the Framework’s curious, non-statutory, legal basis it could not be said to be required by legislative, regulatory or administrative provisions and therefore SEA was not required: “there is in reality nothing by way of any formal provisions which might be said to govern or regulate the production of the Framework“.
Incidentally, I had always assumed that fear of being caught by SEA requirements was one reason why the NPPF has remained so determinedly non-spatial but, on Dove J’s reasoning, even an NPPF with spatial policies would not require SEA.
Was consultation on the draft NPPF legally inadequate in relation to fracking?
The hearing in relation to Stephenson v Secretary of State (Dove J, 6 March 2019), a claim brought on behalf the Talk Fracking campaign group, immediately followed the Friends of the Earth hearing and one of its grounds (ground 3) was covered by the previous case. The other grounds focused on the new NPPF’s pro-fracking paragraph 209(a):
“Minerals planning authorities should:
a) recognise the benefits of on-shore oil and gas development, including unconventional hydrocarbons, for the security of energy supplies and supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy; and put in place policies to facilitate their exploration and extraction.”
Ground 1 contended that “the Defendant unlawfully failed to take into account material considerations, namely scientific and technical evidence, which had been produced following the adoption of a Written Ministerial Statement by the Secretary of State for Business and Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Defendant on 16th September 2015 (“the 2015 WMS”)”
Ground 2 contended that “the Defendant failed, in publishing the policy in paragraph 209(a) of the Framework, to give effect to the Government’s long-established policy in relation to the obligation to reduce green-house gas emissions under the Climate Change Act 2008“.
Ground 4 contended that “the Defendant failed to carry out a lawful consultation exercise in relation to the revisions to the Framework which were published on 24th July 2018.”
Dove J started with ground 4, because “at the heart of the dispute” was the questions as to “what the Defendant was doing when incorporating paragraph 209(a) into the Framework or, more particularly in relation to Ground 4, what a member of the public engaging in the consultation process and reading the publicly available material as a reasonable reader, would have concluded the Defendant was doing“. The issues “cannot be disposed of by simply considering the Defendant’s private intentions“. In the documentation there was no suggestion that the merits or substance of the policy represented by the 2015 WMS were outside the scope of the consultation.
“By contrast with what the reasonable reader would have discerned from the publicly available material, the Defendant had a closed mind as to the content of the policy and was not undertaking the consultation at a formative stage. The Defendant had no intention of changing his mind about the substance of the revised policy. Further, the Defendant did not conscientiously consider the fruits of the consultation exercise in circumstances where he had no interest in examining observations or evidence pertaining to the merits of the policy. This had the effect of excluding from the material presented to the Minister any detail of the observations or evidence which bore upon the merits of the policy. Given my conclusion as to what the reasonable reader would have concluded from the publicly available documentation the consultation exercise which was undertaken was one which involved breaches of common law requirements in respect of consultation and which was therefore unfair and unlawful.”
Ground 1 accordingly also succeeded: it was unlawful to fail to take the Talk Fracking material into account in decision making as to the final form of the NPPF, given that it was clearly relevant to the questions posed. “The fact that the Defendant believed that he was taking a far more narrow and restricted decision from that which he had advertised to the public does not provide a basis for avoiding that conclusion.”
Ground 2 failed, but on the basis of reasoning which may be helpful to the anti-fracking community, in that the judge accepted the Secretary of State’s submission that “in individual decisions on plans or applications the in principle support for unconventional hydrocarbon extraction, provided by paragraph 209(a) of the Framework, will have to be considered alongside any objections and evidence produced relating to the impact of shale gas extraction on climate change. These are conflicting issues which the decision-maker will have to resolve.”
The judge has not yet determined the appropriate relief (ie what should be done) to give effect to his judgment. But surely we are now likely to see further consultation as to paragraph 209(a) and potentially another tweaked NPPF in due course. NPPFs are also now coming along like buses.
What is the legal status of Planning Practice Guidance?
This question was relevant in Solo Retail Limited v Torridge District Council (Lieven J, 4 March 2019) as it went to complaints about the approach taken by a local planning authority to retail impact assessment, in a challenge by one value retailer to a planning permission granted to a competitor. The complaint was that the guidance in the PPG has not properly been followed.
Of course if there is doubt as to the legislative, regulatory or administrative basis for the National Planning Policy Framework, that doubt is accentuated in the case of the Government’s subsidiary Planning Practice Guidance.
The judge found that the NPPF and the local development plan were not prescriptive as to the form of retail impact assessment required to be carried out. The claimant therefore had to fall back on the detailed steps for assessment set out in the PPG.
“In my view the NPPG has to be treated with considerable caution when the Court is asked to find that there has been a misinterpretation of planning policy set out therein, under para 18 of Tesco v Dundee. As is well known the NPPG is not consulted upon, unlike the NPPF and Development Plan policies. It is subject to no external scrutiny, again unlike the NPPF, let alone a Development Plan. It can, and sometimes does, change without any forewarning. The NPPG is not drafted for or by lawyers, and there is no public system for checking for inconsistencies or tensions between paragraphs. It is intended, as its name suggests, to be guidance not policy and it must therefore be considered by the Courts in that light. It will thus, in my view, rarely be amenable to the type of legal analysis by the Courts which the Supreme Court in Tesco v Dundee applied to the Development Policy there in issue.
These points are illustrated the paragraphs of the NPPG that are most relevant in this case. Paragraph 015 says that “the impact test should be undertaken in a proportionate and locally appropriate way…” However, paragraph 017 says “The following steps should be taken in applying the impact test…”. Taken at face value these words would seem to suggest that the following elements are mandatory where there is a policy requirement for any form of impact test. However, in my view that cannot be the case. There is a judgement for the LPA as to what level of scrutiny of possible impact is appropriate in the particular circumstances of the proposal, taking into account the need to be proportionate. Paragraph 017 therefore cannot and should not be interpreted and applied in an overly legalistic way as if it was setting out mandatory requirements.”
A reminder not to interpret the PPG legalistically. There may be internal inconsistencies within it. Guidance means guidance.
Simon Ricketts, 9 March 2019
Personal views, et cetera