Court Challenges Undo Previous Blog Posts: Westferry, Dill

No-one embarks lightly on litigation but there have been two striking examples this week of what it can achieve. Sometimes it doesn’t even need a hearing (first example) and sometimes it’s on the final roll of the dice (second example).

Westferry Printworks

The Secretary of State’s decision to grant planning permission, against his inspector’s recommendations, for a large development on Docklands – with the decision issued a day before the developer’s CIL liability would have increased by up to £50m – was an eye opener. I covered it, and Tower Hamlets’ reaction, in my 18 January 2020 blog post Westferry Printworks Decision: LPA Reaction Unprintable.

The Council followed through with its threat of a legal challenge to the decision, as did the Mayor of London.

It was frankly surprising to hear this week that the Secretary of State has consented to judgment. I do not think that the consent order itself, which would set out the reasoning agreed by the parties and sealed by the court, is yet in the public domain but there are these two press statements from those involved:

Westferry Printworks: Secretary of State Accepts “Apparent Bias” in His Decision and Consents to Judgment (Francis Taylor Building press statement, 21 May 2020) (FTB’s Melissa Murphy acted for the Mayor).

Council forces government to concede illegality in making decision on controversial Westferry Printworks scheme (London Borough of Tower Hamlets press statement, 22 May 2020) (Sasha White QC and Gwion Lewis have been acting for Tower Hamlets).

To quote from the FTB statement:

“The consent order reflects the fact that in pre-action correspondence, the Secretary of State explained that the decision letter was issued on 14 January 2020, rather than the following day, so that it would be issued before Tower Hamlets adopted its new local plan and CIL charging schedule. He accepted that the timing of the decision letter, thereby avoiding a substantial financial liability which would otherwise fall on the developer, would lead the fair minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility that he was biased in favour of the developer. He accepted that the decision letter was unlawful by reason of apparent bias and should be quashed. The Mayor/GLA’s challenge was therefore academic, but he agreed to pay their costs. “

Those of us not close to what happened can only speculate but why would the Secretary of State cave in rather than face a hearing? Was he worried as to what might be made public in a trawling over of internal correspondence and notes? Echoes of the Mayor’s recent consenting to judgment in the Kensington Forum case (see my 14 March 2020 blog post, London, Friday the 13th).

The appeal will now need to be redetermined and, which is an expensive consequence for the developer of these events, even if the appeal is allowed second time around, the higher CIL figure will be payable.

Dill

I recounted this saga, about a lost pair of urns which were the subject of a listed building enforcement notice, at the time of the Court of Appeal ruling (see my 1 December 2018 blog post Is It A Listed Building? No Statuary Right Of Appeal). I still like the title to the post but the rest of it is now out of date – the effect of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dill v Secretary of State (Supreme Court, 20 May 2020) was basically to remove the word “no” from my blog post: in defending a listed building enforcement appeal it is now possible to raise the argument that the listed building is not in fact a building (and the court gives some guidance as to what constitutes a “building” for these purposes). See also this excellent summary: Supreme Court rules on the meaning of listed building (39 Essex Chambers, 20 May 2020 – Richard Harwood QC appeared for Mr Dill, instructed by Simon Stanion at Shakespeare Martineau).

Aside from the substantive legal points, which are important, the interesting thing about the case for me is that persistence paid off. The inspector found against him, Singh J at first instance found against him, the Court of Appeal found against him but Mr Dill and his legal team did not give up. The costs of losing would no doubt have been as significant for Mr Dill as the CIL consequences for Tower Hamlets in Westferry.

And whilst the outcome of the case did not remove the spectre for Mr Dill of continued battles – the listed building enforcement notice appeal would now need to redetermined – Lord Carnwath concluded his final judgment before retiring from the Supreme Court with these words:

I understand that this will be deeply frustrating for Mr Dill. There is as I understand it no suggestion that he acted other than in good faith in disposing of items which he believed to be his own disposable property, and had been so treated by his family for several decades. Since this problem was first drawn to his attention by the local authority in April 2015 he has been attempting to obtain a clear ruling on that issue. On the view I have taken, that opportunity has been wrongly denied to him for five years. Even if his appeal were ultimately to fail, the practicability of restoring the vases to their previous location in the grounds of Idlicote House is uncertain. Accordingly, this court’s formal order for remittal should not prevent the respondents from giving serious consideration to whether in all the circumstances it is fair to Mr Dill or expedient in the public interest to pursue this particular enforcement process any further.”

Concluding thoughts

Well done to the successful claimants and legal teams in both cases. But “snakes and ladders” and “final roll of the dice” analogies are not far off the mark, are they? How to arrive at a system that is more simple and not dependent on expensive, uncertain litigation? Perhaps by reducing the politics (removing the ability for the Secretary of State to recover appeals?), certainly by trying to make sure that legal principles are simpler (if you do the maths, in Dill one inspector and four judges were overruled by five judges, over those narrow “legal exam” questions, following submissions prepared by five barristers and their associated legal teams – the whole process ultimately to be paid for by us, the tax payer, save for those costs which Mr Dill cannot recover).

Simon Ricketts, 23 May 2020

Personal views, et cetera