There was an interesting piece this week by Sarah Townsend on the Planning Resource website: Why planning enforcement notices have dropped to their lowest-ever level (subscription only, 29 August 2019).
There was also an interesting ruling from the High Court, London Borough of Tower Hamlets v Secretary of State and Angelic Interiors Limited (in administration) (Kerr J, 27 August 2019), which will have made every enforcement officer, and indeed conservation officer, blink. Although perhaps the facts are unusual.
In June 2016, enforcement officers at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets were tipped off that the buildings comprising 2, 4 and 6 East Ferry Road London E14, within the Coldharbour conservation area, had been demolished without planning permission. It is of course a crime, as well as a breach of planning control, to cause or permit demolition of a building in a conservation area without planning permission.
The council wasn’t certain who had done it, although an individual has since admitted responsibility, and it did not prosecute.
As was reported at the time (BBC website, 27 September 2017), the council served various enforcement notices, requiring that within 18 months the owner was to “rebuild the building so as to recreate in facsimile the building as it stood immediately prior to its demolition on 26 June 2016 with reference to the photographs and plans (LBTH file reference PA/84/00512 & PA/81/00497 originals of which are available at the Tower Hamlets Council’s Town Hall)”
In fact there had been a long-running dispute as to who owned the property, which was only resolved in October 2018, in favour of a company called, ironically, Angelic Interiors Limited, which had been in administration since July 2016. Angelic’s administrators appealed against the enforcement notices.
Enforcement appeal decision letter
The inspector, Simon Hand, allowed the appeals in a decision letter dated 17 December 2018.
In order to place Kerr J’s judgment this month into context, it is illuminating to read the decision letter.
Here are some key passages:
“Nos 2-6 were the last surviving remnant of the once large area of Victorian workers housing in Cubitt Town which occupied the whole of the south-eastern side of the Isle of Dogs.”
“There is […] no dispute the removal of the buildings causes less than substantial harm to the Coldharbour conservation area. The conservation area is a designated heritage asset and paragraph 193 of the NPPF makes it clear that great weight should be given to any less than substantial harm to the significance of a heritage asset. Paragraph 194 goes on to say that any loss of significance to a heritage asset should require clear and convincing justification (my emphases). Paragraph 196 explains that where there is less than substantial harm to a heritage asset is should be weighed against the likely public benefits arising from that harm.”
“If they were to be rebuilt then they would undoubtedly be very nice, but the issue is what role do they play in the significance of the conservation area and the answer would seem to me to be very little.”
“Had the demolished buildings been of historic interest in their own right they would have been worth preserving simply for that reason, but they would still have told us little or nothing about Cubitt Town, its development, or its morphology. The development of Cubitt Town does not seem to have been unusual in any way, nor any of its buildings particularly special, it is not until this Inquiry that anyone at the Council has made any mention of it at all. To my mind the dwellings were not the last fragment of a historically significant but now lost development. They were simply three remnant buildings in a sea of modern development. To suggest that this makes it all the more important to preserve them is to adopt a collector’s mentality, particularly as they seemed to have no great historic significance themselves due to the substantial modern changes they had undergone.”
“Both parties accepted the loss of the buildings had caused less than substantial harm to the significance of the conservation area, and I would not like to suggest their loss causes no harm at all, but I consider that the harm is very much at the lowest end of that scale. It was argued that if the site is left vacant or redeveloped there would be no reason to retain it in the conservation area and this would seem to be true, but it does call into question the motivation for extending the conservation area in the first place. Had it been deliberately to protect this remnant of Cubitt Town, then I would have expected somewhere for this to have been explained. I accept the conservation area appraisal is lacking in detail, but if Cubitt Town was of such importance as Mr Froneman argued, then I find it hard to believe the reason for the extension to this allegedly key part of the Isle of Dogs is deliberately not mentioned as the appraisal explains only that the extension was in order to protect Glen Terrace. It seems to me more likely the Council just saw these Victorian looking buildings and took the opportunity to include them, as there was nothing else of any historic interest in the area. Whatever the truth of the matter whether or not the vacant site remains worthy of conservation area status is of little importance in this case.”
The inspector found this to be an area of high housing need and “there would appear to be no constraints that would prevent a housing scheme of significantly greater density than 3 units from being successful on the site.”
“it would seem highly likely that a suitable development proposal could be found and there are no obvious reasons why the landowner would not want to realise the development potential of the site.”
“Paragraph 196 of the NPPF requires that the harm should be weighed against any public benefits. In this case those benefits are the redevelopment of the site with a much larger number of dwellings than would be the case if the demolished houses were rebuilt, including much needed affordable housing, all of which would be in accord with the prevailing policy ethos for the area. I accept these benefits are speculative, but in my view there is a good chance they would be realised. It seems likely to me that even had the buildings still been in place, given their poor condition and lack of any historic significance, they would have been demolished to make way for a comprehensive redevelopment scheme. Consequently, I consider these benefits outweigh the harm identified. The demolition of the three dwellings is thus in accord with the NPPF and the development plan for the area and so I shall grant planning permission accordingly.”
So he found that the potential for redevelopment for housing purposes of the unlawfully cleared site amounted to a sufficient public benefit to outweigh the “great weight” to be attached to the (very much) less than substantial harm that had been caused to the character or appearance of the conservation area.
The council challenged the decision letter.
Kerr J identified the main issue before him as “whether the “public benefits of the proposal” (in the words of NPPF paragraph 196) should extend to likely benefits of new development of a site, facilitated by demolition of buildings on the site, where there is no current application for planning permission to develop the site; or whether those words are restricted to the public benefits of demolishing the buildings, without considering any likely future development.”
The judge did not find this to be an easy case:
“It is counter-intuitive to propose that unlawful (and criminal) demolition of buildings forming part of a conservation area, harming the significance of that conservation area, can do more good than harm. No sensible planning application to demolish would be made on that basis and a planning consultant suggesting such an application would soon be short of clients.
Still, for the inspector’s decision to be lawful, and for the challenges to fail, it has to be a defensible conclusion that demolition without replacement, leaving the site razed to the ground and vacant, without any replacement development, and doing harm to the significance of the conservation area, is more good than bad. Baldly stated in that way, the proposition is remarkable.
My first thought on hearing argument was that the proposition cannot be correct. If only demolition is on the table, and demolition is harmful, how then can it do more good than harm? Can it be good and bad at the same time, and more good than bad?”
The judge concluded that it was simply a matter for factual evaluation for the inspector.
“I accept the respondents’ interpretation of the heritage provisions in the NPPF with a degree of hesitation. I am conscious that it is a liberal construction and not a strict pro-heritage construction such as the council is advocating. Nevertheless, on balance I think the respondents’ is the correct one, bearing in mind that the NPPF provisions are statements of policy not law and the language of the provisions is not restricted in the way the council contends.”
He considered whether the inspector’s decision could be said to have been irrational:
“I reject the council’s free standing contention that, quite apart from the interpretation of the NPPF provisions, it was irrational to decide that the market would produce suitable and beneficial housing development soon. It is true that the inspector could not say what type of development that would be, nor that it would certainly occur; but those were points he was entitled to weigh when considering the public benefit side of the balance.
I do not see any want of rationality in reasoning that the site would soon attract developers like flies to a honeypot and that this would probably have led to demolition of the three houses soon anyway. The circumstantial evidence supporting that finding was not lacking: the prime location, the pressing need to build housing in the borough, the appetite shown by other housing developments nearby, the indicative Turner scheme and the intention to sell and strong likelihood of sale of the site for development.”
Lastly, he considered whether the inspector’s decision was adequately reasoned:
“As for the reasons challenge, did the inspector properly set out his thinking? Manifestly, he did. The reasoning need not be discursive. It is commendably succinct but clear and full. He explained exactly why he was confident that delivery of the public benefit he anticipated could be left to the market. He made all the points I have just mentioned, in support of his conclusion. The council cannot complain that it does not know why it lost the appeals.
I did consider carefully whether the reasoning touches adequately on the possibility of a development scheme that would leave the three houses intact, whereby the developer would build round them and keep them in place. If the inspector had simply assumed, without considering the issue properly, that the public benefits derived from anticipated development would be lost unless the demolition were permitted, that could have been a flaw in the reasoning.
However, I have concluded that the inspector did adequately, though briefly, consider this point and that it was a matter for his planning judgment. His consideration of likely development proposals such as the one illustrated by the Turner scheme (involving 22 new dwellings) included the council’s 2005 discussions which would have involved demolition of the three houses.”
He dismissed the challenge, albeit with a final bit of judicial hand-wringing:
“I do so without much enthusiasm, reminding myself that the enforcement system is remedial not punitive. I must put aside the affront to the rule of law and criminal activity seen in this case, as well as the loss of the three houses and their contribution to our historic environment, however limited some may consider it. My discomfort does not make the inspector’s decision unlawful and I must and do uphold it.”
Plainly, unlawful actions should in principle not go unpunished and it is disappointing that there have been no prosecutions.
Plainly also, Angelic’s administrators now have an unearned windfall by virtue of a cleared site for development with no obligation to reconstruct the buildings that others had unlawfully demolished on the site.
That is not to say that the enforcement notices should have stood and that replicas of these apparently unexceptional buildings should have been required, simply to discourage others from similar conduct, but what is there in this unfortunate chain of events to encourage appropriate behaviour on the part of future Angelics?
Simon Ricketts, 31 August 2019
Personal views, et cetera