Double Exposure – Holborn Studios Win Again: Viability, Transparency

The next time you hear someone reprise Dominic Cummings’ February 2020 riff on the need for “urgent action on the farce that judicial review has become”, it’s worth thinking back to cases like R (Holborn Studios) v London Borough of Hackney (No 2) (Dove J, 11 June 2020). Sometimes it’s only the pesky lawyers (here Richard Harwood QC and solicitor Susan Ring, as well of course as a switched on judge) who, via judicial review, are finally able to cut through the sheer fudge and obfuscation of the planning application process.

This was the second time around for Holborn Studios, described in the judgment as “the leaseholder of 49-50 Eagle Wharf Road where they run one of the largest photographic studio complexes in Europe”. The studios have long campaigned against the proposed redevelopment of their building (for instance see What will become of Holborn Studios? (Londonist, 25 August 2017)).

The first planning permission which the London Borough of Hackney had purported to grant, in November 2016, was quashed by the High Court in R (Holborn Studios) v London Borough of Hackney (No 1) (Deputy Judge John Howell QC, 10 November 2017). The judge found that there had been an unlawful failure to consult the claimants and others on amendments made to the planning application and that the council had unfairly failed to disclose unredacted two letters on which officers had relied to support their view that proposed studio spaces in the basement were workable and that their layout was acceptable.

By the time of that first judgment a second application for planning permission had already been made. It was granted on 9 August 2019. Richard Harwood QC had indeed spoken at the planning committee meeting on behalf of Holborn Studios, seemingly to no avail. Again judicial review. The campaign against redevelopment continued (for instance see Battle to save Holborn Studios continues as celebrities and photographers line up in support (Hackney Citizen, 18 November 2019)).

When the case was heard in front of Dove J on 17 March 2020 there were three grounds of challenge but it is worth focusing on the first two, namely:

Ground one is a sequence of legal contentions related to the information provided in respect of the viability assessment for the proposed development which informed the contributions which were sought from the interested party, in particular in relation to affordable housing. It is said by the claimant that the defendant’s approach to this issue failed to comply with national planning policy in relation to the provision of information in respect of viability assessments; that the defendant’s approach was in breach of a legitimate expectation in respect of the disclosure of viability information and, finally, that as a matter of law the viability information provided was in breach of the defendant’s duties in relation to the publication of background papers to the committee report. Ground two is the allegation that the defendant’s guidance for the members of its planning committee were unlawful in so far as they precluded members from reading lobbying material submitted to them by consultees and required that instead this material was passed to officers unread.”

For a very good summary of the relevant facts, and the conclusions reached by the judge, I will now pause for two minutes whilst you read this: Access to viability assessments: Holborn Studios 2 (Richard Harwood QC, 11 June 2020).

Or even better if you have ten minutes, read the judgment itself. Summaries sometimes do not bring across the starkness of the judge’s description of events and analysis.

Some choice passages from the judgment:

On viability

A concern was raised by Mr Harwood at the planning committee meeting that “that the material on viability in the public domain appeared to demonstrate that the interested party’s consultants had undertaken the exercise on the basis of a residualised value, rather than taking an existing use value plus approach which was what was required by policy” and the point was also taken up by a councillor. Dove J chooses to relate the following, including a verbatim quotation of the meaningless response that councillors received:

Mr Robert Carney, who had been one of the defendant’s officers and who had been involved with the consideration and negotiation of the viability of the development (albeit that by the time he attended the committee meeting he was working for a consultancy) was called upon to address these concerns, and in particular whether or not a residualised value approach had been taken to the viability exercise. His observations in respect of this issue, as recorded on the transcript contained within the court’s papers, were as follows:

“Perhaps I’ll deal with the specifics of the, the values of where- of where they have been reported and Stuart will want to talk about, uh, the transparency of the information in the public domain. So I just want to clarify, we’ve used an existing use value plus approach in accordance with all guidance and the- what that approach- that approach forms was known as benchmark land value, that’s referred to in the table at 5.3.62. Uh, you have the applicant’s proposed benchmark land value and then the independent assessor’s benchmark land value. And what you do is you, uh, look at the residual land value and the appraisal, basically, given them the residual land value, show them the appraisal equals or is more than the benchmark- benchmark land value, the scheme is viable. Because what that means is that a hypothetical, uh, developer can purchase the site at a figure above the benchmark land value. And we see in appraisal it’s just shy of that benchmark land value. But basically, um, through our negotiations we accepted that the scheme had maximised, uh, it’s viability with the, um, agreed contributions.”

On the failure to make all of the viability appraisal information as background papers to the committee report;

“The first point raised is whether or not the defendant complied with its obligations under the 1972 Act in relation to the provision and listing of background papers. In short, I have no doubt that the defendant failed to comply with its obligations under section 100 D of the 1972 Act, not simply in relation to listing background papers but also in failing to provide them for inspection. It is clear from the evidence which has been set out above, including in particular the evidence of Mr Carney, that there was a significant quantity of documentation bearing upon the viability issues generated both before and especially after those documents that were published in relation to viability on the defendant’s website. It appears clear from Mr Carney’s evidence that, after the material from September 2018 which the defendant published, there was a significant volume of further technical work addressing ground rents and their impact on existing use value, the derivation of figures for the planning obligations and CIL and also the identification of a benchmark land value. Whilst not all of this material needed to be produced and listed it is simply inconceivable that none of this material would have qualified under section 100 D (5) of the 1972 Act. Clearly the contents of the committee report dealing with the viability exercise and its ultimate conclusions as to the affordable housing contribution which could legitimately be required, depended upon the contents of this material. There was, therefore, information which should have been listed and of which copies should have been provided for inspection.”

On the approach that should be taken to viability appraisal:

“In my view there are some clear principles set out in the Framework and the PPG to which it refers. Firstly, in accordance with the Framework viability assessments (where they are justified) should reflect the approach set out in PPG, and be made publicly available. Secondly, and in following the approach recommended in the Framework and the PPG, standardised inputs should be used including, for the purpose of land value, a benchmark land value based upon existing use value plus as described in the PPG. Thirdly, as set out in the PPG, the inputs and findings of a viability assessment should be set out “in a way that aids clear interpretation and interrogation by decision-makers” and be made publicly available save in exceptional circumstances. As the PPG makes clear, the preparation of a viability assessment “is not usually specific to that developer and thereby need not contain commercially sensitive data”. Even if some elements of the assessment are commercially sensitive, as the PPG points out, they can be aggregated in a published viability assessment so as to avoid disclosure of sensitive material.”

On whether elements of viability information should be treated as exempt from disclosure:

“As Mr Harwood pointed out in his submissions, there is an exception to the definition of exempt information contained in paragraph 10 of Schedule 12 to the 1972 Act where “the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information.” In my judgment the existence of the policy contained in the Framework and the guidance contained in the PPG have an important bearing on the consideration of whether or not there is a public interest in disclosing the information contained in a viability assessment (even if it is properly to be characterised as commercially sensitive, bearing in mind the observations in the PPG about the extent to which information in such an assessment would be specific to a particular developer). It is clear from the material in the Framework and the PPG that save in exceptional circumstances the anticipation is that viability assessments, including their standardised inputs, will be placed in the public domain in order to ensure transparency, accountability and access to decision-taking for communities affected by development. The interests which placing viability assessments into the public domain serve are clearly public interests, which in my view support the contention that such assessments are not exempt information unless the exceptional circumstances spoken to by the PPG arise and solely an executive summary should be put in the public domain. It is unclear to me based on the material before the court how, if ever, the defendant ever considered the question of the public interest in relation to this exemption in the context of the relevant national planning policy. I am, therefore, unable to accept the submission advanced on behalf of the defendant that their failure to comply with section 100 D of the 1972 Act was a matter justified by the contention that the material withheld was exempt information. “

As to whether the viability information publicly available was comprehensive and coherent:

“In my view there are critical elements of the material in the public domain in relation to viability, set out in the documentation published on the defendant’s website and in the committee report, which are opaque and unexplained.”

If you deal regularly with viability appraisal you then need to read in full paragraphs 67 to 70 for an account by the judge of some of the deficiencies.

Drawing the threads together:

““Drawing the threads together, the material contained in the public domain at the time when the decision was taken by the planning committee to resolve to grant planning permission was inconsistent and opaque. It contained figures which differed in relation to, for instance, benchmark land value and the differences between the figures were not explained. No explanation was provided as to how the benchmark land value had been arrived at in terms of establishing an existing use value and identify a landowner’s premium as was asserted to have been case. Read against the background of the policy and guidance contained in the Framework and the PPG it was not possible to identify from the material in the public domain standardised inputs of the existing use value and landowner’s premium, and the purpose of the policy to secure transparency and accountability in the production of viability assessment was not served. In particular, it was plain from the material available at the time of the decision (in particular in terms of the material inconsistencies in the material produced in September 2018 and the differences from the material in the committee report) that there was substantial additional background material on which the committee report was based which was neither listed nor available for inspection in accordance with the requirements of the 1972 Act. In my view the principles identified in the case of Joicey by Cranston J at paragraph 47 are clearly on point, since the purpose of having a legal obligation to confer a right to know in relation to material underpinning a democratic decision-taking process is to enable members of the public to make well-informed observations on the substance of the decision. The failure to provide the background material underpinning the viability assessment in the present case, in circumstances where such material as was in the public domain was opaque and incoherent, was a clear and material legal error in the decision-taking process. In reality, in my judgment, the material with which the public was provided failed Mr Fraser-Urquhart’s own test of being adequate to enable the member of the public to make a sensible response to the consultation on the application.”

On the council’s attempt to prevent the direct lobbying of councillors

“… bearing in mind the importance of the decisions which the members of the planning committee are making, and the fact that they are acting in the context of a democratically representative role, the need for the communication of views and opinions between councillors and the public whom they represent must be afforded significant weight. In my view, it would be extremely difficult to justify as proportionate the discouragement, prohibition or prevention of communication between public and the councillors representing them which was otherwise in accordance with the law.”

“Receiving communications from objectors to an application for planning permission is an important feature of freedom of expression in connection with democratic decision-taking and in undertaking this aspect of local authority business. Whilst it may make perfect sense after the communication has been read for the member to pass it on to officers (so that for instance its existence can be logged in the file relating to the application, and any issues which need to be addressed in advice to members can be taken up in a committee report), the preclusion or prevention of members reading such material could not be justified as proportionate since it would serve no proper purpose in the decision-taking process. Any concern that members might receive misleading or illegitimate material will be resolved by the passing of that correspondence to officers, so that any such problem of that kind would be rectified. In my view there is an additional issue of fairness which arises if members of the planning committee are prevented from reading lobbying material from objectors and required to pass that information unread to their officers. The position that would leave members in would be that they would be reliant only on material from the applicant placed on the public record as part of the application or the information and opinions summarised and edited in the committee report. It is an important feature of the opportunity of an objector to a planning application to be able to present that objection and the points which they wish to make in the manner which they believe will make them most cogent and persuasive. Of course, it is a matter for the individual councillor in the discharge of his responsibilities to choose what evidence and opinion it is that he or she wishes to study in discharging the responsibility of determining a planning application, but the issue in the present case is having the access to all the material bearing upon the application in order to make that choice. If the choice is curtailed by an instruction not to read any lobbying material from members of the public that has a significant impact on the ability of a member of the public to make a case in relation to a proposed development making the points that they wish to make in the way in which they would wish to make them.”

“The standard correspondence clearly advised against members of the public writing directly to members of the committee; there was no warrant for that advice or discouragement and it impeded the freedom of expression of a member of the public who was entitled to write to a member of the planning committee setting out in his or her own terms the points they wish to be considered in respect of an application and expect that the member would have the opportunity to read it. It appears that Councillor Stops was under the impression that he was to resist being lobbied by either an applicant or member of the public, and Councillor Snell had apparently taken legal advice to the effect that he should refrain from reading any lobbying letter and forward it on to officers. Neither of these approaches reflects the defendant’s Code, nor does it reflect the entitlement to freedom of expression in accordance with the legal principles set out above.”

Concluding remarks

The case is a really helpful reminder to all of us of a few lessons:

Don’t get blinded by bad science. Good science is clear. Yes, viability appraisal includes some maths and you need to make sure that you understand the structure of the policy as to how viability appraisals should be conducted for the purposes in relation to the determination of planning applications. Subject to those points, if you don’t understand what is being said, you need to probe. A good viability appraisal does make sense and does tie in with policy and indeed common sense. And the process of arriving at an agreed viability appraisal should not be a behind the scenes negotiation. Memories of the R (Rainbird) v London Borough of Tower Hamlets (Deputy Judge John Howell QC, 28 March 2018) line of cases on daylight and sunlight – if the specialist input is not clear, and carried out in accordance with the relevant technical guidance such that the decision maker is not significantly misled, or if the detail that is needed for anyone to make sense of the position is held back, there is a plain risk of the resultant planning permission being struck down.

The approach to be taken to viability, both in terms of methodology and openness, has changed as a result of Government policy, and that is recognised by the courts.

Recognise that the value of having decisions taken at planning committee by elected councillors rests both in their being properly briefed by officers and also in their role as democratic representatives, not shielded from appropriate lobbying as if they were some jury.

However upsetting it may be for those whose decisions are overturned (and I recognise that there can be unwelcome consequences), without judicial review decision makers would pretty much be free to operate with impunity, to hell with the evidence (see also Westferry Printworks). That would be a farce.

Simon Ricketts, 13 June 2020

Personal views, et cetera