High Court Upholds Use of Class Q Rights and EIA Screening Decisions in Housing Asylum Seekers Case

Citation: [2023] EWHC 3140 (Admin)
Judgment on

Introduction

The High Court of Justice Queen’s Bench Division Administrative Court handed down a decision in the case of Gabriel Clarke-Holland R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for the Home Department & Anor [2023] EWHC 3140 (Admin). This case involves a judicial review of decisions concerning the use of decommissioned Ministry of Defence sites to accommodate asylum seekers. The claimants challenged the Secretary of State for the Home Department’s reliance on Class Q permitted development rights, screening directions under the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations, and the adequacy of public sector equality duty considerations. This article analyses the legal principles applied within the context of this case.

Key Facts

The case revolves around the urgent need to find accommodation for an unprecedented number of asylum seekers in the UK. The decision was made to utilize RAF Wethersfield and RAF Scampton, previously owned by the Ministry of Defence, for this purpose. The claimants questioned the legality of this decision across various facets of planning and environmental law, as well as public sector equality requirements.

Several legal principles played crucial roles in the court’s decision, including the correct interpretation of ‘emergency’ under Class Q permitted development rights, the scope and application of an EIA screening decision, the definition of the “project” to be assessed for environmental impact, the review of the public sector equality duty, and considerations related to value for money in government decision-making.

The court started by identifying the legally correct construction of an ‘emergency’ as defined in Class Q. It was determined that an ‘emergency’ could constitute a ‘situation’ that threatens serious damage to human welfare, including homelessness, as applied to the case of housing the asylum seekers. This interpretation was crucial in confirming the Secretary of State’s lawful use of Class Q rights.

In terms of EIA screening, the court highlighted that the determination of what constitutes a “project” and the expected significant environmental effects were matters of judgment for the decision maker, subject to review on Wednesbury rationality grounds. It was found that the decision to view the housing of asylum seekers as a 12-month project was neither irrational nor illegal, despite considerations for potential future extensions.

Furthermore, in addressing the public sector equality duty, the court maintained a process-oriented perspective, prioritizing reasonable judgment over outcomes and emphasizing prior experience in similar situations as a valid basis for assessing community impacts.

Lastly, with regard to value for money, the court asserted that there was no failure in duty on the Secretary of State’s part, given the complex decision-making context and the inherent uncertainties involved in housing asylum seekers.

Outcomes

The court dismissed the challenge to the reliance on Class Q permitted development rights, finding the Secretary of State’s interpretation and usage lawful within the statutory definition of ‘emergency’.

The challenge to the EIA screening decisions was also dismissed, as the court found the 12-month duration for using the sites was not irrationally determined and did not necessitate assessment of cumulative effects with future projects, which were too speculative at the time of the screening decision.

The claims regarding breach of the public sector equality duty were rejected given the Secretary of State was actively aware of the potential for community tensions and had laid plans for detailed considerations, partnership working and further assessments once the sites were operational.

The value for money consideration was found to be an internal matter within the Home Department’s discretion and not crucially tied to the lawful basis for the Secretary of State’s decisions.

Conclusion

The court’s analysis in Gabriel Clarke-Holland R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for the Home Department & Anor [2023] EWHC 3140 (Admin) consolidates several key legal principles relevant to administrative and environmental law. The court favored a broad interpretative approach to ‘emergency’ under Class Q rights, a reasonable and fact-specific focus on EIA screening decisions, recognition of a process approach to the public sector equality duty, and deference to internal departmental appraisals of value for money. The dismissal of claims across all challenged fronts underscores the court’s preference for procedural lawfulness and reasonableness in complex government decision-making contexts.

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