1 October 2019 | Comment | Article by Kathryn Cooling
There is no general duty on planning authorities to provide reasons for planning decisions. However, the Courts recognise many circumstances where procedural fairness requires that reasons should be provided. This approach has been demonstrated by the High Court in a recent decision to quash a local authority’s grant of planning permission due to a lack of understandable reason following judicial review.
The recent case of R. (on the application of Gare) v Babergh DC  related to a decision by Babergh District Council to permit planning permission for 6 dwelling houses in the countryside around Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.
The local authority had refused a previous application for planning permission in April 2016, on the basis that the proposal was contrary to the local development plan's policies on appropriate development in the countryside. When the application was brought again in August 2017, the planning officer once more recommended refusing consent on the same grounds. Despite the recommendations from the planning officer, in February 2018, the local authority's planning committee resolved to grant planning permission. The only reasons given for that decision were contained in the minutes of that meeting and were on the basis that the proposal represented sustainable development which would support existing services; and that there would be benefits to the village because of the type and scale of housing proposed, particularly for those wishing to downsize.
The Claimant challenged the decision and the local authority agreed to quash the decision by consent. The planning application was brought before the planning committee for re-determination in December 2018. Even with a further recommendation from the planning officer refusing consent, the planning committee again resolved to approve the proposal. A decision notice granting permission was sent out, but with no reasons provided.
On 21 March 2019, the Claimant was granted permission to seek judicial review on a number of grounds including; failure by the Local Authority to give reasons for the decision to grant planning permission; and failure to determine whether or not, and the extent to which, the proposal complied with the development plan.
The High Court considered that the combination of circumstances in this case clearly required that the local authority provide reasons for its decision. This was the third occasion in two and a half years on which a decision had been taken in relation to the application, and the local authority was again taking a different view from that which it had originally formed in April 2016.
In considering the committee meeting minutes, the Court found them less coherent than the local authority had submitted. The document did not clearly identify the Committee's approach and was insufficient to discharge the common law duty to provide reasons. For the above reasons, the order of the Court was to quash the decision in December 2018 to grant planning permission.
The Local Authority in this case may well have had reasons which were discussed and considered but were not coherently addressed in their decision notice. Public bodies' reasons for a decision must allow a reader to understand why a decision was ultimately reached and in particular set out conclusions on the important issues which have affected that decision.
Practically speaking, it will be difficult for public bodies to meet the required standard where their reasons are contained in separate documents and which arrive at different conclusions.
The Court in this case was influenced by the history of the planning application, the previous failure by the Committee to give reasons and the fact that the Committee's decision was contrary to the planning officer's recommendation.
The general suggestions described by the Court are of wider application to the recording of reasons for public body decisions.
For more information or advice on this topic, please speak to our Property Dispute Resolution team.