The cost of justice: certainty?

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Are the Courts starting to be more generous to Councils when they make mistakes when granting planning permission?

The Court of Appeal confirmed the judgment of a lower court centred around an error by Wirral Borough Council. Wirral Borough Council mistakenly granted planning permission to Thornton Hall for three marquees within the Thornton Manor estate without any planning conditions. This Council had intended to issue the permission temporarily for a period of 5 years. This was apparent in the committee report and the section 106 agreement, which included a draft decision notice. The appellant waited 5 years and informed the Council that the marquees still stood.   

Exceptionally, the initial judgment granted a 5 year extension of time for the judicial review. The permission was quashed, with Thornton Hall’s knowledge of the error being cited as important. While the facts are extremely specific, it does open up the scope for judicial review way past the usual 6 week period. The decision prioritises proper planning outcomes over the need for a clear and certain planning record.

The Supreme Court supported Lambeth Borough Council on a similar case earlier in the month. The site involved a Homebase store originally granted permission in 1975. A section 73 application to vary an extant permission to sell a wider range of goods was granted to the site in 2010. The new consent explicitly stated that this was limited to ‘non-food goods’.  A further section 73 permission was granted in 2014, and did not include the ‘non-food goods’ condition. The landlord applied for a certificate of lawful use and argued that there were no restrictions on what could be sold. On appeal the inspector agreed and a certificate of lawful use was issued.

The Secretary of State was ruled to have acted correctly by the High Court and Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court overruled this judgment. It found that the conditions of the 2010 section 73 permission continued to have effect, so far as they were consistent with the 2014 permission.

This adds an element of uncertainty into the interpretation of the planning history of a site. It means applicants will have to pay close attention to previous section 73 permission(s) and their conditions and work out whether earlier restrictive conditions should be considered to be “rolled forward”.  That is a rather subjective approach.

In both cases the outcome was understandable.  Why should the public at large suffer, and the owner gain, from Council mistakes? On the other hand the decisions make it more difficult to be clear about what uses are lawful.  Justice comes at the cost of certainty and simplicity.

With thanks to George Fennell who assisted in preparing this blog post.