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Transient Transparency?

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In the recent Paddington Cube case, the Court of Appeal has confirmed that, at the moment, the Secretary of State (SoS) is required to give reasons when deciding whether or not to call in any planning permissions pursuant to Section 77 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.

SAVE’s appeal centred around the basis that the SoS should give reasons when deciding not to call in an application on two grounds, (i) there was a legitimate expectation to do so and (ii) there was a common law duty to give reasons. The Court allowed the appeal on the first grounds but dismissed it on the second.

On the basis that the SoS had previously given commitments publicly to give reasons when deciding not to call in applications, the Court found that this gave rise to a legitimate expectation that the “promised” approach would be followed and reasons therefore given.

In this case, the “legitimate expectation” arose from a series of promises made by the SoS, dating from 2001 (contained in the Planning Green Paper, an announcement by Lord Falconer in the House of Commons and other subsequent publications) that reasons would be given by the SoS when deciding not to call in planning applications.

The key points are:

  • “legitimate expectation” can arise either through an express promise or by a practice, and either can occur in the planning context;
  • if a public body sets out “a clear and unequivocal policy” an individual is entitled to expect that policy to be operated;
  • such an expectation continues to apply unless and until that policy is modified, withdrawn or otherwise would interfere with statutory duties;
  • the withdrawal or modification of a policy should be done so publicly;
  • no common law duty arises to give reasons for procedural decisions which are not directly determinative of a party’s rights and obligations;

It is notable that whilst LJ Singh accepted that no common law duty arose in the SAVE case, he did not dismiss altogether the possibility that such a duty could still arise in cases of a procedural discretion, stating this “was to be decided in each particular context where the issue may arise in the future“.  This leaves the door open for continued debate as to whether there should be a common law duty to give reasons in planning decisions.

SAVE have presented the case as a victory for transparency.  Their victory may be doubly pyrrhic.  First, the main judgement suggests that the level of reasoning required when declining to call in applications is not great, and that the promise to give reasons can easily be withdrawn.  Secondly, it is already bittersweet since SAVE were denied the right to challenge the underlying Paddington consent – with the Court saying that to do so would have been an “abuse of process”.