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Court of Appeal upholds length of sentences for planning breaches

Eight people who committed repeated breaches of planning permission and court orders while trying to establish a site in Basildon have had their sentences confirmed after failing to convince the Court of Appeal that their punishments were too severe.

Lord Justice Peter Jackson said the case of Anderson & Ors v Basildon District Council [2021] EWCA Civ 363 involved members of a Gypsy group who appealed committal orders made on 12 February 2021 by Anthony Metzer QC, sitting as a deputy High Court judge.

They were sentenced to imprisonment, suspended on certain conditions, and challenged both the length of sentences and the conditions.

The case was the latest in a series arising from Basildon District Council’s efforts to prevent caravans being installed on the site in Wickford.

Injunctions relating to it were granted by the High Court as long ago as 2004 but on 28 November 2020, “a planned invasion of the land took place, accompanied by an application for planning permission, filed after the close of business on the Friday evening”, Peter Jackson LJ said.

Orders were made to remove the caravans and structures but these were disobeyed and Basildon applied for committal, which came before the court on 10 February.

Peter Jackson LJ said: “Mr Metzer QC, accepted the council's submission that it was not easy to envisage a more flagrant and coordinated breach of planning control by a group of individuals acting in concert on previously undeveloped Green Belt land, that there had been a complete failure to comply with the orders, and that the circumstances in which further works had taken place aggravated the position.”

The eight argued that pandemic restrictions had prevented them from legally vacating the site and moving elsewhere.

Mr Metzer imposed sentences of between four and eight months, suspended for a year, and ordered the eight to pay Basildon’s £24,000 costs.

They appealed on the grounds that the judge erred in committing them for breaches when it would have been illegal to comply with the order because of Covid restrictions.

Other grounds were that Mr Metzer should not have sentenced with reference to breaches of the first order made as the time for compliance was extended from 2 December to 14 December, and that the time given by Mr Metzer for vacating the site was inadequate.

Peter Jackson LJ said: “These orders were an entirely proper response to the appellants' calculated disobedience of the court's orders against a background of serious, wholesale defiance of the planning laws.

“The breaches of the orders were not disputed and the sentences passed by judge were the least that he could reasonably have imposed in the circumstances.

“His decision to suspend the sentences was more than fair to the appellants. The timings he gave for compliance were similarly generous. There is nothing of any substance in the grounds of appeal.”

He said that having shown “little regard for the law” the eight had claimed to be troubled by their obligation to obey the Covid regulations, however, “they would plainly have a reasonable excuse for moving off the land in compliance with a court order”.

This had been “just another strategy for staying on the land for as long as possible”.

Mark Smulian

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