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Masthead Housing - Planning

V for victory?

Sadiq Khan website tile sk mol 1309 final 146x219So who did win the judicial review over the Mayor of London’s supplementary planning guidance? Simon Ricketts weighs the ruling up.

Isn’t it heartwarming when the opposing parties in litigation all claim to have won? He said wryly.

Ouseley J’s judgment in McCarthy & Stone Retirement Lifestyles Limited, Churchill Retirement Living Limited, Pegasus Life Limited and Renaissance Retirement Limited v Mayor of London [2018] EWHC 1202 (Admin) was handed down at 10.30 am on 23 May.

The Mayor rapidly issued a press release that morning, Judge rules in favour of Mayor’s threshold approach to housing.

However, the subsequent press releases by McCarthy & Stone Judge rules in favour of retirement consortium’s judicial review of the Mayor of London’s SPG and by Renaissance Retirement later that day seemed to tell a different story.

So that they can be checked for factual, typographical or grammatical errors or ambiguities, Planning Court judgments are usually issued in draft to the parties at least 24 hours ahead of being handed down, under conditions of strict confidentiality. Disclosure beyond the lawyers and parties themselves is a contempt of court and can bring criminal sanctions. However, what that advance sight does mean is that, by the time that the judgment is formally handed down (often with the parties not needing to be present and with submissions about remedies, costs orders and so on dealt with separately by email), the parties have got to grips with the often complex analysis within it and are ready to influence the way in which the narrative appears in traditional and social media, particularly the breaking online news items in the specialist press.

Planning law can be difficult in its abstractions and it can take time and strong coffee to arrive at a full understanding of the implications of a judgment (particularly without a familiarity with the evidence presented and submissions made to the court). On my blog I always include links to the judgment transcripts because, however detailed the summary, there is no substitute for reading the document itself, but even then it can be hard. All credit to Holgate J in Parkhurst for appending parts of the inspector’s report to provide readers with the necessary context, but that was still a complex judgment (there have been some glib summaries!) and always of course watch for the political spin (Cheshire East Council’s Cheshire East wins landmark legal judgement for residents in fear of housing sprawl press release, following its loss in the Supreme Court in Suffolk Coastal, with ultimately an award of costs against it, being a classic of the genre!).

Back to the case in hand. So who really did win?

The claimants are all developers of specialist housing for the elderly. Their main concern with the Mayor’s 2017 affordable housing and viability SPG was that their schemes, usually on small sites, are caught by its requirement for a late stage viability review but were not caught under the adopted London Plan, which refers to the mechanism in the context of schemes which “in whole or in part…are likely to take many years to implement“.

[I summarised the SPG in my 20 August 2017 blog post 20 Changes In The Final Version Of The London Mayor’s Affordable Housing & Viability SPG. (Warning: the Mayor of London’s SPGs are not subject to the same legal regime that applies to local planning authorities in preparing SPDs, summarised in the first part of my 1 December 2017 blog post What’s For The Plan, What’s Supplementary?)]

The claimants’ evidence was that they developed smaller sites – “usually brownfield, higher build costs, significant communal facilities and spaces which were not for sale – making them more costly per square metre than most market housing, and particularly so in London. These schemes were constructed in a single phase, and could not meet affordable specialist housing accommodation requirements on-site, as had been accepted for years; they always provided viability appraisals to justify off-site contributions to affordable housing, and always had to be completed as a whole before any elderly occupiers moved in; they had a markedly slower selling rate. This made the Claimants less able to compete with general house builders in site acquisition.”

Their evidence was that “the acute pressures, on the viability of specialist housing schemes, made it essential that the risk of the development’s returns falling significantly below expectations was reduced to a minimum. They relied on various forms of borrowing to fund site purchases. The standard but notional 20 percent development return used in such appraisals was the bare minimum “on the basis that the risk associated with the affordable housing cost is known…If there is a risk that [that] cost might rise significantly, the risk profile becomes unacceptable….” Mr Warren emphasised that it is the risk which matters when deciding on what price to pay for a site. And it is that extra risk which Mr Burgess said affected them more than those in the general market. The effect of the late stage review was felt by the Claimants at the stage of bidding for the sites in the first place; the uncertainty about the amount of money which might have to be paid over at the late stage review affected the calculation of risk for borrowing, in such a way as to make the funding impossible.”

The judge made no ruling as to whether these concerns were justified and they were not accepted by the Mayor but this was the claimants’ explanation as to why the issues mattered to them.

[I note at this point that the proceedings were brought in the knowledge that the emerging new London Plan would in any event be proposing an equivalent late stage review mechanism. The parameters of that mechanism will no doubt be considered as part of the examination into the draft Plan (rumoured as likely to take place from November 2018 to February 2019)].

So the claimants’ objective plainly was to challenge that requirement for a late stage review of viability in relation to schemes like theirs which could not be said to be “likely to take many years to implement” (although the claimants sought to argue that it was single phase schemes that should not be caught).

In order to demolish that requirement, they contended that the SPG was unlawful and in so doing relied on three grounds:

“(1) it constitutes policy which should only be in the London Plan, which is currently being revised; the SPG was also inconsistent with that Plan;

(2) the SPG is a “plan or programme” which required a Strategic Environmental Assessment, SEA, under the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations, SI 2004 No.1633 but which had not been undertaken; and

(3) it was produced without due regard being had to the constituent parts of the public sector equality duty, PSED, in s149 Equality Act 2010.”

Ouseley J rejected grounds 2 and 3 as unarguable and I’ll say no more about them.

In relation to ground 1, Rupert Warren QC for the claimants first argued that the SPG contained policies which could only be within the London Plan itself, namely the 35 percent threshold, the fast-track, and the viability tested route, with three viability appraisals, (initial, early stage and late stage), the deliberately slow-track.”, all of which are indeed now proposed as policy in the draft London Plan.

The judge largely sidestepped this issue: “I do not want this judgment to be misread as holding that the SPG, and at this level of detail, must as a matter of law be in the London Plan or alternatively that the SPG cannot lawfully be included in the Plan as policy“. He did not interfere with the Mayor’s decision to treat the matters as appropriate for an SPG.

He commented that whether the emerging policies that reflect those SPG requirements are appropriately strategic for the Plan will be a matter for the inspector to determine following his or her examination of it: “They may contain a level of detail for the control of negotiations in quite small forms of development, and larger non-PSI developments, which excludes them from s334, though I do not doubt that the levels of affordable housing developed on new housing sites, can be seen as a strategic matter. In particular, when the draft London Plan goes for public examination, the question of whether draft policy H6, which takes the SPG into the draft Plan, is “strategic” and “general” may be one on which the inspector after the examination in public expresses a view. I would not want what I say to resolve the content of the draft London Plan, in advance of any inspector’s consideration and report.”

Rupert Warren QC’s second argument under ground 1 was that the SPG was inconsistent with the adopted London Plan. The judge stated:

“I am not prepared to hold that conflict with development plan policy of itself makes a non-statutory document unlawful. If it states that it is in conflict with the development plan because that plan is now out of date, for example because of changes in Government policy as might be found in the NPPF, or because the review of the Plan was delayed for proper reasons, I see no basis for it to be unlawful. The weight to be given to it is quite another in the light of s38(6), but the NPPF contains advice which conflicts with development plans up and down the country, and is not on that account unlawful. If an authority seeks to put forward some policy to cover the period when it is out of date, which could happen very quickly with new government policy, I see no reason to hold its actions unlawful. The plan-led system is supported by the proper application of s38(6), which can readily accommodate expressions of policy in conflict with the development plan. It does so often when a new draft plan is issued.”

So, inconsistency of itself does not lead to an SPG being unlawful. However, as identified by the judge:

“Here the Mayor clearly did not intend to produce SPG in conflict with the London Plan, let alone to avoid the development plan process. The Executive Summary of the SPG at [4] states that it is “guidance to ensure that existing policy is as effective as possible…it does not and cannot introduce new policy.” Indeed, the consistency of the SPG with the London Plan was a theme of the Defendant’s response to Grounds 2 and 3, SEA and PSED. It is inherent in the concept of SPG that it purports to supplement and not to contradict development plan policy. In so far as he did produce SPG in conflict with the London Plan, he would have misdirected himself as to the meaning and effect of either the Plan or the SPG and so failed, in promulgating it, to have regard to a material consideration.”

So, inconsistency may well lead to an SPG being unlawful, if the policy-maker did not intend there to be any inconsistency, as was the case with this SPG.

Mr Warren is reported as pointing to two inconsistencies: “(1) the most important, is the introduction by the SPG of a late stage review to single phase sites where the London Plan only envisaged those for phased developments; (2) the adoption of a 35 per cent affordable housing on-site threshold at which no viability information was required, whereas the London Plan required each site to provide the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing, which could be greater than 35 percent.”

The judge did not find that the 35% threshold was inconsistent with the adopted Plan (hence the focus of the Mayor’s press release!) but he did find there was inconsistency in relation to the requirement for a late stage review:

“By contrast, the language of the London Plan does not permit the imposition of a requirement for all sites over 10 homes, of a specific requirement to produce at least three viability appraisals, and more if the phases so turn out. Nor does it permit it exceptionally. It permits it only where, in general, the timescale or scale of development means that it is likely to take many years to complete a phase or the whole.”

So, he found for the claimants on the issue which had led them to bring the claim in the first place.

The judgment indicates that he will now “hear submissions on the appropriate remedy, if any, for the inconsistency I have found to exist“. But it seems to me that whether the relevant parts of the SPG are formally quashed or not is neither here nor there – the effect of the ruling is that the Mayor cannot lawfully rely on the SPG in requiring a late stage viability review in relation to the sorts of schemes that they promote.

Of course, that may be a Pyrrhic victory. As the judge goes on to comment:

“The status of SPG matters little now that the draft London Plan has been published and consulted upon, containing H6. Draft plans often are inconsistent with their predecessors and are given increasing weight as they progress, as outlined in the NPPF. Once the Mayor has considered the consultation responses to the draft Plan, the period for delivering which has expired, and has amended the Plan as he sees fit, it will have no lesser weight than the SPG. Giving some weight to draft policy which is inconsistent with the development plan is not uncommon. The NPPF contains material which is not consistent with developmental plans. The issue about the status and consistency of the SPG is not one of continuing importance.”

That may be so, but presumably the claimants went into the litigation with their eyes open, given the emerging draft London Plan. This will indeed be a temporary win if they do not persuade the inspector that late stage reviews are not appropriate in relation to smaller, usually single phased, schemes. But that will be an issue to be debated without pre-existing support in the form of the SPG.

Who won? The claimants on the point that I suspect they cared most about. The Mayor on the point that I suspect he cared most about: avoiding collateral damage from the proceedings, in the form of any wider adverse ruling on other matters such as the 35% threshold or the validity of the document as a whole.

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