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Mar 2018

Environmentally sensitive planning decisions – The need for transparency

Transparency is a hallmark of the planning system, particularly where developments might cause environmental harm. The Supreme Court made that point in striking down plans for hundreds of new homes in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

The would-be developer’s proposals for 521 new homes and a 90-bed retirement village had faced stiff opposition from an environmental pressure group. Planning consent for the development was granted by the local authority but subsequently quashed by the Court of Appeal. That was on the basis that the council had failed to give adequate reasons for its decision, as required by the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011.

In ruling on the council’s challenge to that decision, the Supreme Court noted that its planning officers had recommended that consent be granted for the project. Although the harm caused to the area of outstanding natural beauty would be significant, the officers reported that the public interest was finely balanced in favour of the development.

In granting the permission, however, the council did not follow the officers’ advice that the number of new homes should be reduced to 365. It also failed to enter into a binding agreement that would require the developer to build a hotel and conference centre in order to ensure that economic benefits accrued to the area. Three councillors had also expressed the view that screening measures would minimise the harm to the area of outstanding natural beauty, although that was directly contradicted by the officers’ advice that such measures would be largely ineffective.

In unanimously dismissing the appeal, the Court found that the council had failed in its duty to provide a statement of the main reasons and considerations on which its decision was based. The paucity of reasons meant that there was room for genuine doubt as to why the permission had been granted and the officers’ advice departed from. A mere declaration that the council had breached its duty was neither appropriate nor sufficient and the planning permission was quashed.

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