Court rules in favor of Rights Community Action Ltd in challenge against inspectors' interpretation of national policy in local development plans.

Citation: [2024] EWHC 359 (Admin)
Judgment on

Introduction

The High Court’s judgment in the case of Rights Community Action Ltd, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities presents significant legal principles surrounding the interpretation and application of national policy within local development plans, the justiciability of inspectors’ recommendations, and procedural fairness in planning law. The case is instructive for UK legal professionals practicing in the realm of administrative and planning law, especially in addressing climate change within local planning decisions.

Key Facts

Rights Community Action Ltd, an NGO focused on community planning and addressing climate change, challenged the decision of inspectors regarding the Salt Cross Garden Village Area Action Plan (AAP). The controversy centered on whether the inspectors erred in interpreting a Written Ministerial Statement (WMS) from 2015, which was deemed to constrain local planning authorities (LPAs) from setting energy performance standards exceeding Building Regulations. Key legal questions included the justiciability of inspectors’ recommendations, whether the claimant had standing to bring the case, and whether the proceedings followed proper procedural standards.

Justiciability of Inspectors’ Recommendations

The court held that the recommendations made by inspectors under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (PCPA) are justiciable decisions since they effectively bind the LPA. This finding contrasts with recommendations under s.77 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1989 (TCPA), where the Secretary of State retains discretion to reject inspectors’ advice.

Standing to Bring a Claim

Standing was determined based on s.31(3) of the Supreme Court Act 1981, assessing whether the claimant had a ‘sufficient interest’ in the matter. The court found that Rights Community Action Ltd had standing due to its active engagement in later stages of the AAP process, its aims aligning with the issues at hand, and not being merely a ‘busybody,’ referencing Lord Reed’s words in Walton v Scottish Ministers [2012] UKSC 44.

Interpretation of National Policy

The case emphasized that the interpretation and application of national policy directives are questions of law for the court, as stated in Tesco Stores Ltd v Dundee City Council [2012] P.T.S.R. 983. Inspectors must apply national policy objectively and accurately. Misinterpreting a policy constitutes a legal failure, which can lead to a decision being overturned.

Procedural Fairness

In the context of procedural fairness, the claimant must demonstrate prejudice resulting from procedural improprieties, as noted in R (Clientearth) v Secretary of State for BEIS and Drax Power [2020] EWHC 1303 (Admin). In this case, the lack of engagement by Rights Community Action Ltd in the early stages of the AAP’s examination process, and not any procedural unfairness, was found to underpin its understanding of the inspectors’ concerns.

Outcomes

The court concluded that the inspectors had erred in law by misinterpreting the WMS 2015 as prohibiting LPAs from setting energy standards above Building Regulations. The ruling noted the evolution of relevant contextual facts that made the initial WMS obsolete and inconsistent with subsequent government statements and changes in Building Regulations.

The inconsistency between the decision in dispute and other inspectors’ reports was recognized. Still, the court considered it only in conjunction with the failure in interpreting the WMS, and not as a standalone error.

The claim regarding procedural unfairness was dismissed as the claimant could not demonstrate prejudice from any alleged procedural missteps by the inspectors.

Conclusion

The Rights Community Action Ltd v Secretary of State judgment elucidates on the interpretative challenges faced within the dynamic field of planning law, particularly where national policy and statutory powers intersect. The decision affirms the court’s role in ensuring that planning inspectors correctly interpret and apply national policy as it stands in the contemporary legal and factual landscape, rather than following outdated statements. This judgment reinforces the necessity to adjudicate issues of planning law based on the most recent national standards, especially in the critical area of climate policy.

Related Summaries