A strict test for compliance with access to information laws

The High Court has quashed planning permission for a wind turbine because the Council involved failed to make information available beforehand, in breach of its legal obligations

The statutory rights to information held by public authorities which commenced in January 2005 – when the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 came into effect – are not the only legal mechanism whereby people can or must have public information imparted to them. For instance, sections 100A-E of the Local Government Act 1972 (as inserted by the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985) deal with access to meetings of and information relating to meetings of specified local authorities (broadly, County, Borough, District, City or Unitary Councils). Section 100B deals with access to agendas and reports and section 100D with access to background papers. In both cases these must be “open to inspection by members of the public at the offices of the council” at least five clear days before the meeting (“clear days” refers to weekday working days and does not include the day of publication or the day of the meeting (R v Swansea City Council, ex p Elitestone Ltd (1993) 66 P. & C.R. 422)).

But what happens if these obligations are not complied with? what, for example, happens if background papers are not available for inspection for five clear days before a meeting? Often, nothing happens at all, but sometimes such a failure can be significant and costly. In a recent case (Joicey, R (on the Application of) v Northumberland County Council [2014] EWHC 3657) this is exactly what transpired. A planning application for a wind turbine was at issue,1 with a meeting scheduled for 5 November 2013 to consider it. The judgment informs us that “the officer’s report recommending approval…subject to conditions, was made available on 23 October” (it is not clear whether this means made available only for inspection, or whether it was also available on the Council’s website, although nothing turns on this). A Dr Ferguson, opposing the application (and a friend of the applicant Mr Joicey) noticed from the officer report that an external noise assessment report had been commissioned and produced. He emailed the Council on 30 October asking about the noise assessment report, getting no immediate reply, and attended the Council offices on 1 November to inspect the files, but no noise assessment report was included. On 4 November, the day before the committee meeting, he received a reply to his 30 October email, with a copy of the noise assessment report attached. The same day a copy of the report was uploaded to the Council website.

The committee approved the application, despite Mr Joicey addressing the meeting in the following terms

Noise impact assessment has been carried out again, in full, for this application, but I don’t suppose any of you have seen it, because this highly relevant document (74 pages of it) appeared only yesterday, and that was after requests to see it. If you study it, and you are properly armed with the knowledge of previous planning history connected with this site, you will find that it is actually fundamentally flawed, again, and that it shows that this application must actually be refused on noise grounds.

Mr Joicey brought judicial review proceedings on six grounds, but the one which concerns us here is the first: the non-availability of the noise assessment. As the noise assessment report was not included in a list of the background papers for the report to the committee, and was not available for inspection five clear days before the meeting there was, said Mr Justice Cranston

no doubt that there were a number of breaches of the public’s right to know under the Local Government Act 1972

Furthermore, the fact that the report was not available on the Council’s website was a breach of its undertakings in its Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) prepared pursuant to its obligations under section 18(1) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. The Council’s SCI stated that “Once a valid planning application has been received we will…Publish details of the application with supporting documentation on the council website.” The Council even conceded that, although the report had been uploaded on 4 November, it had been described as published on 9 September, and the judge took a “dim view of any public authority backdating a document in a manner which could give a false impression to the public”. The undertaking in the SCI went further, said the judge, than the statutory obligations in the 1972 Act, and constituted a continuing promise giving rise to a legitimate expectation on the part of the public, and “otherwise the public’s right to know what is being proposed regarding a planning application would be frustrated”.

But what was the effect of these failings? The Council submitted that no prejudice had been caused to the claimant, because the planning committee’s decision had been inevitable and, adopting the test in Bolton MBC v Secretary of State for the Environment (1990) 61 P. & C.R. 343, if the court was uncertain whether, absent the failings, there would be a real possibility of a different decision being there was no basis for concluding that it was invalid. However, Mr Justice Cranston held that the correct test was different: drawing on the authorities of Simplex GE Holdings Ltd v Secretary of State for Environment (1988) 3 PLR 25 and R (on the application of Holder) v Gedding District Council [2014] EWCA Civ 599 he said that

the claimant will be entitled to relief unless the decision-maker can demonstrate that the decision it took would inevitably have been the same had it complied with its statutory obligation to disclose information in a timely fashion [emphasis not in original]

And in this case the Council failed to persuade him that the decision would inevitably have been the same if the noise assessment report had been made available earlier: the issue of noise had been a key one in earlier challenges to the developments and remained so now, and Mr Joicey could have made further representations and sought further expert opinion which might have persuaded the planning committee.

Some of Mr Joicey’s other grounds of challenge succeeded, and some failed, but the merits of the successful challenges led to the planning permission being quashed.

Local authorities would do well to note the strictness of the test here: breaches of the access to information provisions of the 1972 Local Government Act, and of the undertakings in a Statement of Community Involvement, will mean decisions taken are liable to be quashed upon challenge, unless the decision would inevitably have been the same without the breaches. Inevitability is a hard thing to prove.

1Northumberland County Council, despite its name, is a unitary authority, and, therefore, a local planning authority

The views in this post (and indeed all posts on this blog) are my personal ones, and do not represent the views of any organisation I am involved with.

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Filed under local government, transparency

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