New Cases, Old Law: Verdin, Cumberlege

There have been two interesting judgments already this August, both by well-respected members of the planning bar sitting as deputies. Not everyone is away. Both cases illustrate the political and unpredictable nature of decision-making where neighbourhood plan issues arise. Between them they include a range of traditional, but still interesting and difficult, planning principles:
– When is the decision maker taken to have a closed mind or for his or her decision to be improperly infected by lobbying?
– How should the decision maker determine whether proposed planning conditions may or may not be relevant to the decision?
– The test to be applied when determining when a decision may be invalid when a consideration, that is capable of being material, is not taken into account.
– the extent of the requirement for consistency in decision making. 
– the effect on a decision of a material error of fact in its reasoning
The first two issues are addressed (as well as others) in Verdin and the last three issues are addressed in Cumberlege.
Verdin (t/a the Darnhall Estate) v Secretary of State & Cheshire West and Chester Borough Council  (Robin Purchas QC sitting as a deputy High Court judge, 10 August 2017). 
This proposal for 184 dwellings on the edge of Winsford, Cheshire, had been recovered on appeal for the Secretary of State’s own decision, rather than being left for an inspector to determine, due to the then emerging Winsford neighbourhood plan. (It will be remembered that the Secretary of State’s policy, most recently stated on 12 December 2016, for a further period of six months which ended on 12 June 2017, has been to recover for his own decision making all appeals in relation to “proposals for residential development over 25 dwellings in areas where a qualifying body has submitted a neighbourhood plan proposal to the local planning authority but the relevant plan has not been made“. This has slowed down and added uncertainty in relation to many appeals that frankly should have been left for capable inspectors to determine.)

After a very slow application and appeal process (application July 2013, refusal November 2013, inquiry June 2014, reopened inquiry following representations that material considerations had changed September 2015, decision letter July 2016), the Secretary of State had dismissed the appeal, against his inspector’s recommendations. In so doing he partly relied on a finding that the scheme was in conflict with the Winsford neighbourhood plan. Unlike his inspector, who found that there were “very substantial social benefits from the proposal“, the Secretary of State found that any benefits of the proposal not outweighing a combination of that conflict and “moderate harm to the environmental dimension of sustainable development from the adverse impact of the loss of open fields”. As part of his downgrading of the benefits that the inspector saw as arising from the scheme, the Secretary of State took the view that four proposed conditions put forward by the appellant (requiring self-build housing as part of the development; requiring training and employment measures; requiring local building firms to be used, and requiring local procurement) did not meet the six tests in the NPPF (necessary; relevant to planning and to the development to be permitted; enforceable; precise; reasonable in all other respects) and therefore he did not take them into account.

The deputy judge’s judgment is interesting for the factual references in passing to the lobbying and internal deliberation that is going on behind the scenes. See for instance paragraph 129, referring to lobbying from the local MP seeking to delay the decision until after an inspector had reported on the local plan (presumably with the hope that the report would assist objectors’ case on the five year housing land position) and referring to civil servants’ internal email correspondence which was said by the appellant to demonstrate that the decision was being delayed to give time for the neighbourhood plan to be made. Paragraph 144 also refers to “the existence of a draft submission from one officer in the planning casework division which proposed a recommendation that the appeal be allowed but which was subsequently changed in the submission that was made to ministers”. 

A number of the appellant’s grounds of challenge were rejected, including that the then planning minister Brandon Lewis had a closed mind in deciding not to permit residential schemes on sites not allocated in the neighbourhood plan by virtue of the letter that he had sent in 2016 to the Planning Inspectorate in relation to appeals involving neighbourhood plan issues (“wholly unarguable”); that the Secretary of State had unlawfully delayed his decision (which the deputy judge did not infer into the internal email correspondence) and that he acted unlawfully in allowing himself to be lobbied by local members of Parliament (no basis for that because the letters were made available allowing representations to be made).
However, the deputy judge went on to quash the decision on the basis that the Secretary of State had no basis for rejecting the proposed conditions requiring training and employment measures; requiring local building firms to be used, and requiring local procurement. Whilst the Secretary of State was justified in rejecting the self-build housing as going beyond the advice in the NPPF because it sought to control the values at the plots would be made available, there was no basis for his criticisms of the other conditions. The judgment includes a useful analysis of the legal tests and an examination of the conditions against those tests. 
Whilst no doubt the appellant will be pleased to have another shot at persuading the Secretary of State to arrive at a different conclusion this time round, it is disappointing to be left with the sense that timing is all and the Secretary of State and his civil servants, as well as of course objectors, know it. Who hasn’t sensed from time to time that decisions have been subject to delay whilst at the same time, conveniently for objectors, the housing land supply position has changed or an emerging neighbourhood or local plan has gained traction? And who doesn’t sense that appeals such as this are as much about the politics as the about the evidence?
Baroness Cumberlege of Newick v Secretary of State & DLA Delivery Limited (John Howell QC sitting as a deputy High Court judge, 4 August 2017). 
This related to an appeal against refusal of planning permission for an even smaller scheme, for up to 50 dwellings in Newick, Sussex. Here the appeal had been allowed by the Secretary of State who had recovered it due to the then emerging Newick neighbourhood plan. However the decision was challenged by Baroness Cumberlege and her husband, both local residents and members of the Newick Village Society. The baroness, aside from being a Conservative peer, has, according the judgment “been a parish, district and county councillor representing the village“. She argued that:
– the Secretary of State had wrongly determined that a key policy of the local plan was out of date, without explaining the inconsistency of that conclusion with the reverse conclusion reached by him in another recovered appeal decision. 

– the Secretary of State had made a material error of fact in treating the appeal site as falling outside an area of 7km designated for the purpose of protecting the Ashford Forest SPA and SAC (yes, this is a case to add to those covered in my 8.4.17 blog post, Heffalump Traps: The Ashdown Forest Cases).

Having allowed the appeal, when faced with the challenge the Secretary of State submitted to judgment on the first ground of challenge and did not participate in the hearing in front of John Howell QC – never a good moment for the developer to be left to justify as lawful that which the decision maker himself is now prepared to disown. 
For what would seem to be a limited series of issues, the judgment is a long one at over 50 pages. Helpfully, the deputy judge’s conclusions are summarised from paragraph 148 onwards. To summarise the summary (rarely a good idea):
– Where a matter is not required by legislation to be taken into account, “a decision may be invalid when no reasonable decision maker in the circumstances would have failed to take that matter into account”. 

– “There is a public interest in securing reasonable consistency in the exercise of administrative discretions, which may mean that it is unreasonable for a decision maker not to take into account other decisions that may bear in some respect on the decision to be made

– “Given that one reason why the Secretary of State may “recover” planning appeals in order to determine them himself is to introduce coherence and consistency in development control, however, avoiding apparent and unexplained inconsistencies in the Secretary of State’s own decisions on matters that may have ramifications for decision making in other cases is an important consideration in determining what may be required of him if he is not to act unreasonably”. 

– No reasonable decision maker would have failed to take reasonable steps to ensure that he had not issued any decisions relating to the question as to whether the relevant local plan policy was out of date. “It can only undermine public confidence in the operation of the development control system for there to be two decisions of the Secretary of State himself, issued from the same unit of his department on the same floor of the same building within 10 weeks of each other, reaching an apparently different conclusion on whether a development plan policy is up to date without any reference to, or sufficient explanation in the later one for, the difference”. 

– The Secretary of State made a material error of fact in relation to whether any part of the site was within the Ashdown Forest 7km radius, which led to no consideration as to whether a condition should be imposed to prevent any dwellings from being constructed in that part of the site in breach of the Habitats Regulations. 

The planning permission was quashed, although the deputy judge granted permission to appeal on both grounds.
It is indeed concerning that the DCLG would appear to have no adequate system to prevent the Secretary of State from issuing obviously inconsistent decisions – and indeed concerning that the conflicting conclusions could be reached in the first place, calling into question the extent to which objective determinations, shorn of context and politics, can be reached. Perhaps if the Secretary of State had not recovered so many appeals the problem wouldn’t have arisen. (It is even more difficult for the rest of us to keep track without a public-access searchable database). 
The political obsession with seeking to give neighbourhood plan making a strong role in decision making is coming at great cost: delay, expense, a reduction in the objectivity of decision making (in my personal view) and, most worryingly, is continuing to be a drag on the delivery of new homes. 
Simon Ricketts, 12 August 2017
Personal views, et cetera

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