Yes, Cost can be taken into Account

July 18th, 2012 by James Goudie KC

In Health and Safety Executive v Wolverhampton City Council [2012] UKSC 34 the Council, in its capacity as Local Planning Authority, granted planning permission for four blocks of student accommodation in proximity to a site used for storage of liquefied petroleum gas. Three of the blocks had been completed.  Work on the fourth had not commenced. Concerned that the storage facility constituted a danger to human life, the HSE applied for an order to revoke or modify the planning permission under s97 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.  In refusing the application, the Council took into account its liability to pay compensation under s107 of the Act were it to revoke planning permission in respect of all four blocks, but it did not consider whether the application should be granted only in respect of the fourth block.  The HSE brought judicial review proceedings challenging, among other things, the Council’s decision not to revoke or modify the planning permission.  The Court of Appeal held by a majority that a decision under s97 of the Act was to be taken not in isolation but within the statutory framework of the Act which imposed a liability to pay compensation if an order was made under the section. Accordingly, the Council, when reconsidering the matter, would be entitled to take into account its liability to pay compensation under s107 of the Act.

The HSE appealed to the Supreme Court against this part of the decision of the Court of Appeal: the issue being whether it is always open to a LPA, in considering under s97 of the Act whether it appears to be expedient to revoke or modify a permission to develop land, to have regard to the compensation that it would or might have to pay under s107.

The SC unanimously dismissed the HSE’s appeal. Lord Carnwath said that, in simple terms, the question is whether a public authority, when deciding whether to exercise a discretionary power to achieve a public objective, is entitled to take into account the cost to the public of so doing. As custodian of public funds, the authority not only may, but generally must, have regard to the cost to the public of its actions, at least to the extent of considering in any case whether the cost is proportionate to the aim to be achieved, and taking account of any more economic ways of achieving the same objective.

The SC held that s97 of the Act requires no different approach. The section requires the authority to satisfy itself that revocation is “expedient”, and in so doing to have regard to the development plan and other “material considerations”.  The word “expedient” implies no more than that the action should be appropriate in all the circumstances. Where one of those circumstances is a potential liability for compensation, it is hard to see why it should be excluded. “Material” in ordinary language is the same as “relevant”. Where the exercise of the power, in the manner envisaged by the statute, will have both planning and financial consequences, there is no obvious reason to treat either as irrelevant.

Under s97, a planning authority has a discretion whether to act, and, if so, how. If it does decide to act, it must bear the financial consequences. S97 creates a specific statutory power to buy back a permission previously granted. Cost, or value for money, is naturally relevant to the purchaser’s consideration.

Sufficient consistency is given to the expression “material considerations” if it is treated as it is elsewhere in administrative law: that is, as meaning considerations material (or relevant) to the exercise of the particular power, in its statutory context and for the purposes for which it was granted. Furthermore, in exercising its choice not to act under s97, or in choosing between that and other means of achieving its planning objective, the authority is to be guided by what is “expedient”. No principle of consistency requires that process to be confined to planning considerations, or to exclude cost.  Possible difficulty in assessing precisely the likely level of compensation is no reason for not conducting the exercise, still less for leaving cost considerations out of account altogether.

However, the weight attributable to cost considerations will vary with the context.  There may be situations where cost could rarely be a valid reason for doing nothing, but could well be relevant to the choice between effective alternatives.


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