The Unfortunate Case Of The Council’s Sports Hub

It’s easy for a planning lawyer to summarise R (Boot) v Elmbridge Borough Council  (Supperstone J, 16 January 2017). The High Court confirmed what we already know from paragraph 89 of the NPPF – that “the provision of appropriate facilities for outdoor sport, outdoor recreation and for cemeteries, as long as it preserves the openness of the Green Belt and does not conflict with the purposes of including land within it” is not inappropriate development, but that conversely, if harm is caused to the openness of the Green Belt, even limited harm, the development is inappropriate and permission should be refused save in very special circumstances.
The court duly quashed a planning permission granted on 26 January 2016 for the “Elmbridge Sports Hub” – a proposed athletics stadium, ‘league’ football pitch and training pitches (grass and artificial) for Walton Casuals FC, Walton and Hersham FC and Walton Athletics club to replace their current facilities, on a former landfill site in Waterside Drive, Walton-on-Thames.

However, scratch beneath the surface of any case and there are usually some interesting factors. 

This is not a developer-led proposal. It’s being promoted by Elmbridge Borough Council, on land that it owns. The development is proposed to be funded by the sale by the Council, for the development of 52 homes, of Walton and Hersham FC’s present ground at Stompond Lane. 
Most developers would not take the risk of starting construction work ahead of their permission being free from legal challenge. However, Elmbridge embarked on construction on 21 March 2016, despite the scheme already at that stage having become significantly controversial. Indeed the claimant’s solicitors, renowned claimant firm Richard Buxton & Co, were already on board for objectors and had previously scored an early blow by securing an EIA screening direction from the Secretary of State in July 2015, when the application had already initially gone to committee, requiring environmental impact assessment to be carried out. The Secretary of State ruled:
“Whilst this is a finely balanced case, the proposal does raise concerns to suggest the potential for significant environmental impacts through surface disturbance of the former landfill site, uncertainty about the extent of the contamination of the site and the potential for gas migration to both the River Thames and nearby residential properties.”
Why did development start when the permission was still at risk, presumably when proceedings had already been served, or at least a pre-action protocol letter? I don’t know any of the details but I do note that the local elections took place a little afterwards in May 2016. Was this at all relevant?
Rolling ahead to 2017, by the time that the permission was quashed, the construction project was significantly advanced. With the developer a local planning authority, responsible for planning enforcement, this is surely hardly a comfortable position.  

Image from Get Surrey website

Elmbridge had tried unsuccessfully to delay the court hearing, fixed for 6 December 2016, to allow a second planning application to be determined, for a revised version of the scheme, a request that was rejected by Ouseley J in November.  
The second application eventually went to committee on 17 January 2017, the day after the first permission was quashed and on the basis of a detailed officers’ report, resolved to approve it (perhaps no surprise there). Having delayed the scheme first on an EIA point and secondly on the council’s flawed approach to green belt policy, no doubt objectors will be looking for their next line of attack. 
So a straight-forward ruling by Supperstone J but the situation on the ground is plainly a mess. How does a local planning authority get itself into this sort of position? To what extent is this about financial or political imperatives and, against the backdrop of a construction project in mid flow (one dreads to think of the financial consequences under its construction contract if the authority now pauses or abandons the project), how easy was it for members to determine the second application with open minds but on the contrary how difficult it may be for objectors to prove to a court that minds were already made up?
Simon Ricketts 21 January 2017
Personal views, et cetera

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