Officer Reports

October 13th, 2015 by James Goudie KC

In R (Nicholson) v Allerdale BC [2015] EWHC 2510 (Admin) Holgate J emphasized relevant principles upon which the High Court will approach a challenge to a decision taken by a local planning authority involving criticism of the officer’s report:-

(i) In the absence of contrary evidence, it is a reasonable inference that members of the planning committee follow the reasoning of the officer’s report, particularly where a recommendation is accepted;

(ii) The officer’s report must be read as a whole and fairly, without being subjected to the kind of examination which may be applied to the interpretation of a statute or a contract;

(iii) Whereas the issue of whether a consideration is relevant is a matter of law, the weight to be given to a material consideration is a matter of planning judgment, which is a matter for the planning committee, not the court;

(iv) An application for judicial review based on criticisms of the planning officer’s report will not normally begin to merit consideration unless the overall effect of the report significantly misleads the committee about material matters which thereafter are left uncorrected at the meeting of the planning committee before the relevant decision is taken;

(v) In construing reports, it has to be borne in mind that they are addressed to a knowledgeable readership, including council members who, by virtue of that membership, may be expected to have a substantial local and background knowledge;

(vi) The purpose of an officer’s report is not to decide the issue, but to inform the members of the relevant considerations relating to the application. It is not addressed to the world at large, but to council members who, by virtue of that membership, may be expected to have substantial local and background knowledge. There would be no point in a planning officer’s report setting out in great detail background material, for example, in respect of local topography development plan policies or matters of planning history if the members were only too familiar with that material. Part of a planning officer’s expert function in reporting to the committee must be to make an assessment of how much information needs to be included in his or her report in order to avoid burdening a busy committee with excessive and unnecessary detail;

(vii) Democratically elected bodies go about their decision-making in a different way from courts. They have professional advisers who investigate and report to them. Those reports obviously have to be clear and full enough to enable them to understand the issues and make up their minds within the limits that the law allows them. But the courts should not impose too demanding a standard upon such reports, for otherwise their whole purpose would be defeated.

There was also an irrationality challenge.  Holgate J reiterated that an application for judicial review is not an opportunity for a review of the planning merits of the Council’s decision. Although an allegation that such a decision was perverse, or irrational, lies within the scope of proceedings under CPR Part 54, the Court must be astute to ensure that such challenges are not used as a cloak for a rerun of the arguments on the planning merits.  In any case where an expert tribunal is the fact finding body, as in the case of a planning committee, the threshold for Wednesbury unreasonableness is a difficult obstacle for a Claimant to surmount, which is greatly increased in most planning cases by the need for the decision-maker to determine not simply questions of fact, but a series of planning judgments. Since a significant element of judgment is involved, there will usually be scope for a fairly broad range of possible views, none of which could be categorised as unreasonable. Moreover, the decision may also be based upon a site inspection, which may be of critical importance. Against this background, a Claimant alleging that a decision-maker has reached a Wednesbury unreasonable conclusion on matters of planning judgment faces a particularly daunting task.  On the other hand, irrationality challenges are not confined to the relatively rare example of a “decision which simply defies comprehension”, but also include a decision which proceeds from flawed logic.

On policies, Holgate J reiterated that the correct interpretation of planning policy is a question of law to be determined by the Courts.  But, notwithstanding its legal status and effects, a development plan is not analogous to a statute or a contract and therefore its policies must not be construed as if they were statutory or contractual provisions. That is because development plans often contain broad statements of policy, and policies of that nature may be difficult to reconcile if construed strictly. In addition, the language used to express planning policy may depend upon the exercise of judgment by the decision-maker when applied to a given set of facts. The exercise of judgment by a planning authority when applying a policy is legally distinct from the construction of that policy. Such matters of judgment fall within the jurisdiction of the planning authority and may only be challenged in the courts if irrational or perverse.   When determining the extent to which a proposal conforms with a local plan, the correct focus is on the plan’s detailed policies. The supporting text consists of descriptive and explanatory material and/or reasoned justification in respect of the policies. That text is relevant to the interpretation of the policy with which it is concerned, but it does not itself constitute policy or form part of policy. Because the supporting text does not have the force of policy it cannot trump or override the policy to which it relates. So, for example, a criterion which is to be found in supporting text but not in a policy of the plan, could not affect the decision as to whether a proposal accords with the development plan.

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