The Government’s chief planner Steve Quartermain has confirmed this week that the revised NPPF will be published before the end of the year. To what extent will it reflect the proposed changes set out in the previous Government’s ‘response to consultation’ document that was published alongside the February 2017 housing white paper and to what extent will it take on board any changed political priorities since the June 2017 election or indeed various inherent uncertainties and ambiguities which have continued to occupy the courts?
I have previously blogged as to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Suffolk Coastal, which resolved (by way of a judgment of Solomon in which all parties, by operation of unexpected judicial reasoning, both won and lost) the question as to how the paragraph 14 presumption applies where there is no five year supply of housing land.
The Court of Appeal in Barwood Strategic Land II LLP v East Staffordshire Borough Council (30 June 2017) has now resolved the question as to the presumption in favour of sustainable development applies in the mirror image position, where there is a five year supply and where the plan is not in other respects out of date.
As in other matters, the NPPF is unclear on the meaning and application of the presumption in favour of sustainable development. Perhaps the presumption is oversold in the ministerial foreword: “Development that is sustainable should go ahead, without delay – a presumption in favour of sustainable development that is the basis for every plan, and every decision.”
Paragraph 14 expresses the presumption as a “golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking“, before going on to set out what this means for plan making and decision making. For decision making it means:
” ◦ approving development proposals that accord with the development plan without delay; and
* where the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out-of-date, granting permission unless: – any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole; or – specific policies in this Framework indicate development should be restricted.”
The question that has exercised the courts in a series of cases is whether the presumption applies outside these specific instances, for example even where a scheme is contrary to an up to date plan.
Lindblom LJ first sets out how judges should approach questions of policy interpretation, referring back to his first instance judgment in Bloor Homes East Midlands Ltd. v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (19 March 2014):
“Planning policies are not statutory or contractual provisions and should not be construed as if they were. The proper interpretation of planning policy is ultimately a matter of law for the court. The application of relevant policy is for the decision-maker. But statements of policy are to be interpreted objectively by the court in accordance with the language used and in its proper context.”
He refers to his statement having been “underscored” by the Supreme Court in Suffolk Coastal where they set out that “the interpretation of policy will be suitable, in principle, for legal analysis – though only to a degree that depends on the context and content of the policy in question.”
Lindblom LJ followed the approach taken by Holgate J in Trustees of the Barker Mill Estates v Test Valley Borough Council (25 November 2016) in finding that is no freestanding presumption in favour of sustainable development outside para 14.
Of course that is not to say that, as long as paragraph 14 is correctly interpreted, applicants cannot pray in aid other matters (factors where the development would accord with other policies in the NPPF) as material considerations, to overcome the presumption. It was a shame that (because in this case the judge was found to have misinterpreted paragraph 14) Lindblom LJ did not find it necessary expressly to put right some curious reasoning of the first instance judge, Green J, as to the operation of the statutory presumption in favour of the development plan set out in section 38(6) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. In his judgment Green J tries to box in the exercise of a decision maker’s discretion with odd passages such as this:
“Insofar therefore as paragraph  permits of a residual discretion it must be recognised that the outcome arrived at by the operation of paragraph  should carry considerable gravitational pull. It should yield only as an exception to the norm where there exists objective and substantial reasons which can be readily demonstrated to a high degree of probative value and which takes into account the particular reasons why a development has been found to collide with the Local Plan. I should add however (see paragraph  below) that I express no concluded view on exactly how exceptional “exceptional” actually is; this being an issue better explored in a case where that issue truly arises.”
Whilst not specifically tackling this approach, Lindblom LJ pointedly follows the Supreme Court in Suffolk Coastal and Holgate J in Barker Mill with a warning against excessive legalism in matters of policy interpretation:
“I would, however, stress the need for the court to adopt, if it can, a simple approach in cases such as this. Excessive legalism has no place in the planning system, or in proceedings before the Planning Court, or in subsequent appeals to this court. The court should always resist over-complication of concepts that are basically simple. Planning decision-making is far from being a mechanical, or quasi-mathematical activity. It is essentially a flexible process, not rigid or formulaic. It involves, largely, an exercise of planning judgment, in which the decision-maker must understand relevant national and local policy correctly and apply it lawfully to the particular facts and circumstances of the case in hand, in accordance with the requirements of the statutory scheme. The duties imposed by section 70(2) of the 1990 Act and section 38(6) of the 2004 Act leave with the decision-maker a wide discretion. The making of a planning decision is, therefore, quite different from the adjudication by a court on an issue of law (see paragraphs 8 to 14, 22 and 35 above). I would endorse, and emphasize, the observations to the same effect made by Holgate J. in paragraphs 140 to 143 of his judgment in Trustees of the Barker Mill Estates.”
What is the extent of the setting of a listed building for the purposes of assessment of harm?
In Steer v Secretary of State (Lang J, 22 June 2017) the main issue was treatment by an appeal inspector of the impact that proposals in Allestree, Derbyshire, for residential development and associated development would have on the landscape character of the area and heritage assets, namely Kedleston Hall (a grade 1 listed building), Kedleston Park (a grade 1 listed park), Kedleston Conservation Area, Kedleston Hotel and Quarndon Conservation Area. The Council, Historic England, the National Trust and others had opposed the appeals on the basis that whilst the proposed development was at some distance from, and would not be visible from the assets, there were historic and social/economic connections between the areas which meant that the appeal site was properly to be regarded as within the setting of the listed hall and park.
The definition of ‘setting’ in the glossary to the NPPF is unspecific: “The surroundings in which a heritage asset is experienced. Its extent is not fixed and may change as the asset and its surroundings evolve.”
Lang J concluded that the inspector adopted an unlawfully narrow approach when determining whether the appeal site was part of the setting of Kedleston Hall and misdirected himself that a visual connection was necessary or determinative, in addition to the evidence of a historical connection.
The judge found that the inspector’s “focus was upon identifying a visual connection, and assessing the proposal’s impact upon it. The historic social and economic connections were set to one side in this exercise.”
“The evidence was that the appeal site was part of the setting of the Hall because it had formed part of the estate, managed historically as an economic and social entity, and it remained in its historic agricultural use, with hedges and mature trees characterising the field boundaries. From the Hall and the Park, the surrounding rural context was important in preserving a sense of a parkland landscape at the centre of a managed rural estate, rather than in a suburban context. The site was on the primary visitor route to the Hall and Park and so visitors would experience the historical narrative, and the concentric influence of the Hall on its landscape, as they traversed the agricultural estate, then entered the enclosed, designed park and gardens, enjoying the drama of anticipation as a great English country house was revealed to them.”
In reaching her conclusion it is interesting to see the reliance that Lang J places on Historic England’s good practice guide on the setting of heritage assets.
Hayes v City of York Council (Kerr J, 9 June 2017) concerned a planning permission granted by York Council for the construction of a visitor centre at the base of the motte at Clifford’s Tower in York and the installation of a new staircase and tower floor, with walkways, balustrading, a roof deck with a café and other restoration works. A car park next to the site is to be removed. The project includes archaeological works and disturbance to buried artefacts.
The case concerned the meaning of paragraph 141 of the NPPF, which states that where heritage assets are lost or partly lost, local planning authorities and developers should make archaeological records publicly available, but “the ability to record evidence of our past should not be a factor in deciding whether such loss should be permitted”.
The challenge was brought by a member of the council. One of his complaints was that the council had taken account of a legally irrelevant factor, namely the ability to record evidence of the past.
Kerr J reviewed the more detailed national heritage policies that preceded the NPPF and the way in which the precise wording changed and finally was summarised in, and replaced by, the NPPF:
“The codification exercise which created the NPPF delivered commendable brevity, at the price (well worth paying) of replacing detailed exposition with general policy statements that can be Delphic, as in this instance.”
He turned to paragraph 141:
“The difficulty arises from the wording in the last sentence: “the ability to record evidence shall not be a factor in deciding …”. Those words do express, as a matter of language, what appears in conventional public law parlance to be the exclusion of a material consideration. Read literally, those words say not only that the ability to record evidence cannot be the sole justification for the harm; it cannot even contribute to the justification for the harm.”
Kerr J had real difficulty with this literal reading:
“Why should the preservation of information about an asset not be weighed in the balance along with other factors in favour of a development that harms a heritage asset? The harm is attenuated by the preservation of information and making it publicly available, which enhances and better reveals the significance of the harmed asset and hence its positive contribution to the locality and to our heritage.”
“This difficulty can only be overcome, in my judgment, once it is recognised that a non sequitur crept in when PPS 5 replaced PPS 16, and then found its way into the language of NPPF paragraph 141. In my judgment, the last sentence of that paragraph only makes good sense if interpreted so that the words “should not be a factor” are taken to bear the meaning “should not be a decisive factor”, in deciding whether the harm to the asset should be permitted.
I appreciate that, even allowing for the fact that the NPPF is a policy document and not a statutory provision, this interpretation stands uneasily with the actual words of the last sentence of the paragraph. But unless the paragraph is interpreted in that way, it would be very difficult to apply in a coherent manner.”
Kerr J rejected paragraph 141’s “literal interpretation in favour of a sensible and liberal construction of the paragraph in its proper historical context“.
So, three recent examples of the way in which the courts embark upon interpreting policy (whether national or local) and its application, consistent of course with the Supreme Court’s approach in Tesco Stores Limited v Dundee City Council (21 March 2012) that “policy statements should be interpreted objectively in accordance with the language used, read as always in its proper context.
That is not to say that such statements should be construed as if they were statutory or contractual provisions. Although a development plan has a legal status and legal effects, it is not analogous in its nature or purpose to a statute or a contract. As has often been observed, development plans are full of broad statements of policy, many of which may be mutually irreconcilable, so that in a particular case one must give way to another. In addition, many of the provisions of development plans are framed in language whose application to a given set of facts requires the exercise of judgment. Such matters fall within the jurisdiction of planning authorities, and their exercise of their judgment can only be challenged on the ground that it is irrational or perverse (Tesco Stores Ltd v Secretary of State for the Environment  1 WLR 759, 780 per Lord Hoffmann). Nevertheless, planning authorities do not live in the world of Humpty Dumpty: they cannot make the development plan mean whatever they would like it to mean.”
Despite the reference to interpreting policies “objectively”, it will be seen that the courts will draw upon context, previous gestations of guidance and extraneous guidance documents to assist them. Sometimes, as in Hayes, the strict meaning of words will be stretched in a way that potentially leads to uncertainty.
A broader approach to the interpretation of development consents by reference to extraneous documents than has traditionally been the case was signalled by the Supreme Court in Trump International Golf Club Scotland Limited v the Scottish Ministers (16 December 2015):
“When the court is concerned with the interpretation of words in a condition in a public document such as a section 36 consent, it asks itself what a reasonable reader would understand the words to mean when reading the condition in the context of the other conditions and of the consent as a whole. This is an objective exercise in which the court will have regard to the natural and ordinary meaning of the relevant words, the overall purpose of the consent, any other conditions which cast light on the purpose of the relevant words, and common sense. Whether the court may also look at other documents that are connected with the application for the consent or are referred to in the consent will depend on the circumstances of the case, in particular the wording of the document that it is interpreting. Other documents may be relevant if they are incorporated into the consent by reference (as in condition 7 set out in para 38 below) or there is an ambiguity in the consent, which can be resolved, for example, by considering the application for consent.”
To my mind, this all takes us into dangerous territory. Isn’t the public, or a purchaser of a development site, entitled to take words as meaning what they say. The courts are having to step in and complete the gaps left by inadequate drafting. Whilst its focus is a long way away from planning law, Lord Sumption’s speech The Supreme Court and the Interpretation of Contracts given at Keble College Oxford on 8 May 2017 is a thought-provoking read. One of the concluding passages:
“It is I think time to reassert the primacy of language in the interpretation of contracts. It is true that language is a flexible instrument. But let us not overstate its flexibility. Language, properly used, should speak for itself and it usually does. The more precise the words used and the more elaborate the drafting, the less likely it is that the surrounding circumstances will add anything useful. I do not therefore accept that the flexibility of language is a proper basis for treating the surrounding circumstances as an independent source from which to discover the parties’ objective intentions.”
I agree! Let’s aspire to use words precisely, whether in the drafting of policies, permissions or indeed agreements, rather than relying on the courts as a slow, expensive and unpredictable backstop. And given their broad effect, surely policies ought to be written even more carefully than contracts?
Simon Ricketts, 8 July 2017
Personal views, et cetera
Image by Rob Cowan.