High Court Upholds Decision on Stonehenge Road Project, Emphasizing Legal Principles of Fairness, Material Considerations, and Climate Change

Citation: [2024] EWHC 339 (Admin)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the recent High Court judgment of Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site Limited & Anor, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Transport [2024] EWHC 339 (Admin), several legal principles were examined pertaining to the planning and environmental impact of infrastructure projects. The case centered around the decision to grant a Development Consent Order (DCO) for a dual carriageway affecting the Stonehenge World Heritage Site (WHS). This article analyzes the legal principles applied in the case, linking them to the specific topics discussed within the judgment.

Key Facts

The case involved judicial review of the Secretary of State for Transport’s (SST) decision to grant a DCO for construction of a road section impacting the WHS at Stonehenge. The decision followed the High Court’s previous ruling ([2022] PTSR 74) that quashed an earlier grant of the DCO on the grounds of failing to assess alternative options’ impact on heritage assets and the WHS. The re-evaluation considered new material and updated policies, including carbon budgets and climate change considerations. The claimants challenged the new decision on multiple grounds, asserting procedural unfairness and failure to consider key environmental impacts, among others.

Fairness and Article 6 ECHR

The principle of procedural fairness dictated that the decision-making process by the SST should be just and equitable. It was argued whether the re-evaluation process (redetermination) should have included reopening the examination on the DCO application. The court reaffirmed that the statutory framework of the Planning Act 2008 aims for an efficient, fair examination process, and ultimately, a decision-maker’s judgment is paramount unless it is manifestly irrational (Friends of the Earth Limited v Secretary of State for Transport [2021] PTSR 190).

Material Considerations and Weight

The court reiterated the distinction between material considerations and the weight afforded to them, emphasizing that the determination of the latter is within the purview of the SST’s judgment, provided it is not irrational (Tesco Stores Limited v Secretary of State for the Environment [1995] 1 WLR 759). This principle was pivotal when considering the potential de-listing of Stonehenge as a WHS and assessing the alternatives to the proposed road scheme.

International Obligations

The SST was required to consider the UK’s international obligations under the World Heritage Convention. However, the judgment stated that satisfying domestic policy frameworks, such as National Policy Statements (NPS), ensures compliance with international obligations, as long as that policy is not challenged on its merits within the established legal framework (R (Friends of the Earth Limited) v Secretary of State for International Trade [2023] 1 WLR 2011).

Climate Change Considerations

The SST’s decision was examined in light of the Climate Change Act 2008 and recent policy documents such as the Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP) and the Net Zero Strategy (NZS). The SST’s handling of climate change impacts and carbon budgets was scrutinized to ensure alignment with statutory obligations and to ascertain whether the SST should deviate from policies given the potential revision of the NPSNN (Friends of the Earth v Welsh Ministers [2016] Env. L.R 1).

Outcomes

The claim for judicial review on grounds 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, as well as the application to amend the statement of facts and grounds to add a new ground 8, were all refused. The court found no material errors of law in the SST’s redetermination processing and noted that the SST acted within his discretion, aligning with relevant policies and legal frameworks. Ground 7 remains outstanding, subject to a further Court of Appeal ruling.

Conclusion

The judgment in Save Stonehenge World Heritage Site Limited & Anor v Secretary of State for Transport demonstrates the High Court’s application of established legal principles pertaining to procedural fairness, material considerations, international obligations, and climate change. The decision highlights the deference given to decision-makers’ judgments in complex planning matters, provided those judgments are made within the boundaries of rationality and statutory frameworks. The case underscores the necessity for decision-makers to balance varied and competing interests, including those of heritage preservation and infrastructure development, within the mandates of both domestic policy and international obligations.

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