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Blowing the whistle on report writing for Planning Committees

The case of R (Hill) v Cornwall Council and another [2016] EWHC 1264 (Admin) serves as a useful reminder of the relevant principles that those preparing a report for a public body should have in mind when taking a decision that they are required to take. It is also a good guide to those contemplating a legal challenge.

The case was a judicial review challenge in which the claimant sought to quash the grant of planning permission for a synthetic pitch on land within sports fields belonging to a community college. The court referred to the approach that should be adopted towards the reports of planning officers.

The approach that should be adopted in relation to the officer’s report to members of the planning committee were summarised in R (Trashorfield Ltd) v Bristol City Council and others [2014] EWHC 757 (Admin):

  • Regard to all material considerations (section 70, TCPA 1990).
  • The weight to be given to such considerations.
  • To be sufficiently clear and full to enable the decision-making councilors to understand the important issues and the material considerations.
  • How much and what information should go into a report is a matter for the individual preparing the report, exercising their own expert judgment.
  • An application for judicial review based on criticisms of a report will not usually begin to merit consideration unless the overall effect of the report significantly misleads the decision-maker about material matters which are then uncorrected at any meeting where the decision is taken.
  • If challenged, a report that has been prepared by an officer is not to be subjected to the same critical explanation or examination that might be appropriate for the interpretation of a statute. What is required is a fair reading of the report as a whole.
  • Councillors on a planning committee are likely to have a substantial local and background knowledge, which will include a working knowledge of the statutory test for determining a planning application.
  • Deciding whether such individuals have sufficient information to make a properly informed decision involves the exercise of judgment on their part - case law demonstrates that the courts are cautious about interfering when considering a challenge to such a decision.

The court was satisfied that the committee decision-makers had all the relevant material they needed to address the noise impact of the proposal. Further, the committee was not as alleged, misled about the concerns the environmental health officer had in relation to the use of whistles on the site.  The committee knew that the planning proposal would extend the hours of use at the site and that whistles would be used. Therefore, the court rejected the claimant’s judicial review challenge.

When drafting a report for decision-makers or scrutinizing the report with a view to a legal challenge, the following points should be taken into consideration:

  • Have all relevant factors or considerations been taken into account to enable a rational and evidence-based decision?
  • Does the decision maker have as much information as possible that is relevant to the decision to be taken - the decision-maker does not necessarily have to consider all the material.