Let’s please constrain the circumstances in which the Secretary of State can intervene in planning decision-making. Who is going to carry on investing in housing land promotion when, frankly, the outcome of betting on the horses can be more predictable?
The day before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Suffolk Coastal (where the Supreme Court justices examined the semantic intricacies of paragraphs 49 and 14 of the NPPF, extolled the virtues of expert inspectors and recognised the need to boost the supply of housing), judgment was handed down in Moulton Parish Council and the Earl of Derby v Secretary of State (Gilbart J, 9 May 2017).
The case concerned the controversial proposals by the Earl of Derby for residential development in Newmarket, in the heartland of the British horseracing industry.
The Secretary of State had in 2012 dismissed an appeal against refusal by Forest Heath District Council of planning permission for mixed-use development including up to 1,200 dwellings, 36,000 sq m of B1 employment floorspace. Whilst various representatives of the horse-racing industry had argued the scheme would harm their interests, through the traffic and other effects arising, the appeal was only dismissed on the ground that the scheme was premature, in that due to its strategic implications, it should be considered through the development plan process.
There had been a policy in the local plan that included an urban extension for 1,200 dwellings north east of Newmarket that included the appeal site. However, the grouping of horseracing interests had succeeded in quashing that policy and related housing provision policies in Save Historic Newmarket Limited v Forest Heath District Council (Collins J, 25 March 2011).
The Council carried out a “single issue review” of its housing policies, dealing with overall housing provision and distribution, and with site allocations and published a preferred options document for consultation. The review proposed a mixed use development, including 400 dwellings, on part of the previous site, and the Earl of Derby brought forward a planning application for that level of development. The application was resolved to be approved by the district council (after overcoming an attempted judicial review by objectors who sought unsuccessfully to overturn a negative EIA screening opinion) but it was called in by the Secretary of State on 11 July 2014. The inquiry took place in April and May 2015, the inspector’s report was dated 9 July 2015 and yet the Secretary of State didn’t issue his decision until 31 August 2016. The Secretary of State rejected the application for a number of reasons, including concerns as to highway safety, raised again in no uncertain terms by those representing the horseracing industry.
So, a year for the Secretary of State to consider the inspector’s report and over two years since his intervention in the local decision-making process! One might think that the decision, which rejected the inspector’s recommendation that planning permission be granted, would be bullet-proof in its reasoning after such a delay. Hmm. The decision has been quashed by Gilbart J following a challenge brought by two parties, one unsurprisingly being the appellant, the Earl of Derby, but the other unusually being a parish council, Moulton, concerned at the additional pressure for development that would arise in its parish if the proposals do not proceed at the application site – after all, housing has to go in someone’s back yard, somewhere, sometime, doesn’t it?
The application will now have to be redetermined.
I want to consider the following questions which arise out of this sorry but not unusual tale:
– what went wrong in the Secretary of State’s reasoning?
– why did his decision take so long?
– what is the role in practice of lobbying and political pressure in ministerial decision-making?
What went wrong in the Secretary of State’s reasoning?
The claimants’ successful grounds of challenge were that the Secretary of State:
– failed to apply his own policies set out in the NPPF; and
– failed to have regard to his own previous decision “where he had reached conflicting conclusions to those he now holds on matters relating to highway safety, or has reached a conclusion on safety without evidence, or which is irrational“.
A world away from the complexities facing the Supreme Court in Suffolk Coastal, the Secretary of State’s mistake on the first ground was an obvious one. The inspector reported that there were no up to date development policies in relation to housing provision and that therefore paragraph 14’s “tilted balance” in favour of sustainable development applied. However, the Secretary of State fails to address this material consideration at all in his decision letter.
Gilbart J: “In this particular decision, it is plain that the effect of the tilted balance in NPPF  was of considerable importance. It was one of the eight main issues identified by the Inspector, and much debate between the parties. While the effect of the change in the housing supply position after the Inspector’s report had been received could have affected the weight to be given to the arguments about the 5 year supply, the issue relating to the important absence of housing policies remained. One of its particular contexts was that this site would meet important objectives of policy in terms of sustainability, as well as the fact that it was best and most versatile agricultural land. This is a local authority area where more land has to be found for housing, as suggested by the emerging local plan allocations.”
In relation to the second ground, the inspector and Secretary of State had found in the case of the larger scheme that highway safety problems were not likely to arise. There was no explanation as to his volte face.
Gilbart J: “There is not a single reference by the SSCLG to the previous decision, let alone to the previous Inspector’s Report. In my judgement, the very least that was required of the SSCLG was to acknowledge the fact of the previous conclusions, and face up to the fact that he was being asked to reach conclusions which on any view were entirely at odds with the those he had reached in 2012. NHG had not held back in its case at inquiry that the first decision was wrong on this issue, with which contention the Claimants (and FHDC) disagreed, as did the Second Inspector. But despite that, it received no mention or consideration at all in the Decision Letter.”
How wasteful for such an important decision to fall at two basic hurdles – hardly Brecher’s Brook, were they? A single careful sentence in each case would in my view have saved the decision letter.
Why did the Secretary of State’s decision take so long?
Call-in in this case led to a delay of over two years before his decision was received and the re-determination process will now add significantly to that delay, at no-one’s cost save for the Earl of Derby and indeed those in housing need.
Gilbart J gives this explanation for the delays that occurred after the inspector’s report was received by the Secretary of State on 9 July 2015:
“About four months after the inquiry had finished the [Newmarket Horsemen’s Group] elected to make further representations in September 2015, as did the local member of Parliament the Rt Hon Matthew Hancock MP. The SSCLG circulated them for comment at the end of October 2015. He then circulated the comments he had received.
In February 2016, the Planning Consultants for the Claimant Lord Derby made representations, which were also circulated for comment. The responses received were also circulated. In April 2016, the SSCLG circulated the representations he had received, and also invited comment on the then recent Court of Appeal decision in Suffolk Coastal District Council v Hopkins Homes Ltd & Anor  EWCA Civ 168, circulating the further responses on 5th May 2016.”
So we can see that the problem comes down to a combination of a slow decision-making process and the opportunities that gives third parties to seek to bolster their case with post-inquiry representations, relying on the inevitability of changing circumstances over time; indeed, the longer the decision-making takes, clearly the more vulnerable it is to such interventions. No doubt, the ministerial changes that followed the June 2016 referendum were another factor but my basic principle still holds, in my view.
It may be said that the Secretary of State needs to be allowed sufficient time to make a considered decision. But the outcome of the challenge demonstrates that time does not ensure quality of outcome. A study as to what was happening week by week in relation to the decision, from July 2015 to August 2016 would surely be instructive.
What is the role in practice of lobbying and political pressure in ministerial decision-making?
The principles to be applied by the Secretary of State in deciding to call in an application for his own determination have always been left extremely flexible. As summarised in a helpful July 2016 House of Commons library briefing paper on calling in planning applications , the 1999 ‘Caborn principles’ still apply:
“Such cases may include, for example, those which in his opinion:
* may conflict with national policies on important matters;
* [may have significant long-term impact on economic growth and meeting housing needs across a wider area than a single local authority];
* could have significant effects beyond their immediate locality;
* give rise to substantial cross-boundary or national controversy;
* raise significant architectural and urban design issues; or
• may involve the interests of national security or of foreign Governments.
However each case will continue to be considered on its individual merits “.
The list of recent call-in decisions is a pretty long one.
A decision to call in or not to call in an application is barely justiciable in practice (as long as properly reasoned to a basic extent) given the breadth of the criteria.
In this case the reasons stated in the inspector’s report as to why the Secretary of State had called in the application (for a relatively limited amount of development, against the background of an emerging supportive local development plan policy) were apparently:
“3.1 The proposal may have significant long-term impact on economic growth and meeting housing needs.
3.2 The proposal could have significant effects beyond its immediate locality.”
…which tell us nothing.
This obviously leads to speculation, however ill-founded. The Independent for instance inevitably ran a story, “Tory minister lines up with racing royalty against new homes” on 16 August 2014.
The political pressure being applied can surely not be doubted however. Recall as well that post-inquiry representations were being made against the scheme by the local MP, Matthew Hancock.
Even when these representations are made openly, one worries as to the further politicisation of this quasi-judicial process. But often there is suspicion that there are informal as well as formal attempts to influence ministerial decisions. The judiciary has recently of course in Broadview Energy Developments Limited v Secretary of State (Court of Appeal, 22 June 2016) deprecated informal lobbying attempts by MPs, in that case Andrea Leadsom MP’s attempts to stop a wind farm scheme, with a conversation in the Commons tea-room and numerous emails from her to the minister, including one referring to her “badgering [him] in the lobby”. Longmore LJ in that case indicated that he “would not endorse that part of the judge’s judgment [at first instance] in which he said that lobbying of Ministers by MPs was part and parcel of the representative role of a constituency MP with its implication that such lobbying was permissible even when the Minister is making a quasi-judicial decision in relation to a controversial planning application. MPs should not, with respect, be in any different position from other interested parties.”
We have seen the influence that individual MPs can bring to bear on ministers, with MP for Sutton Coldfield, Andrew Mitchell MP, having brought about the Secretary of State’s holding direction (now lifted) in relation to the Birmingham development plan, as a result of his concerns as to proposed green belt housing allocations in his consistency.
It may be said that planning cannot be separated from politics but it is depressing to see. It was also eyeopening to see that of the seven decisions issued by the Secretary of State in his last day before purdah, with the parties suddenly in pre-election mode, six were to refuse planning permission. When the decision as to whether a major scheme goes ahead is not to be taken at local level, with the promise of a quasi-judicial assessment, how do we ensure that the role of the inspector is respected: the careful evidence taking and testing at inquiry and neutral evaluation of that evidence as against the statutory criteria? Our role becomes that of guessers as to how the politics, against the deployed legal tactics on all sides, will play out.
This is how the next Secretary of State could make a difference: fewer call ins and fewer recovered decisions, but clearer guidance as well as renewed attempts to ensure that up to date local plans are in place. But what are the odds?
Simon Ricketts 13.5.17
Personal views, et cetera