Planning-related challenges on rise, say figures

The number of applications for judicial review of planning decisions has risen by more than a third in the past five years, new government figures show.

According to the figures, contained in a Parliamentary written answer, there were 191 planning-related judicial review applications in 2011, up 34.5 per cent compared to 2006.

But overall, attempts to use judicial review to challenge planning decisions formed just under two per cent of all judicial review applications in 2011, according to figures issued in response to a question from shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn.

Prime Minister David Cameron last week announced plans to restrict objectors' rights to mount legal challenges to projects they oppose in an effort to speed up development.

Speaking at the annual conference of industry group the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Cameron said he wanted to cut the number of judicial reviews, claiming they were hampering economic growth.

He said: "This is a massive growth industry in Britain today. Back in 1998, there were 4,500 applications for review and that number almost tripled in a decade."

The Prime Minister said many applications were "completely pointless", adding: "We are determined to dismantle some of the procedures that have been slowing us down and slowing you down."

A Downing Street statement to accompany the speech said "the risk of a judicial review can hold up major infrastructure projects".

Cameron said the government wanted to reduce the current three-month time limit in which people can apply to challenge a decision; increase fees for making judicial review applications; and halve the number of opportunities to challenge a refusal of permission for a judicial review from four to two.

In a statement issued on the same day, justice secretary Chris Grayling added that last year there were 11,200 applications for judicial review.

However, Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures show that just over three-quarters of applications in 2011 were for asylum and immigration cases. In the House of Commons last Thursday, justice minister Jeremy Wright disclosed previously-unpublished statistics on the number of specifically planning-related applications.

He said that there were 191 cases in 2011 - 1.7 per cent of the 11,200 total - compared with 148 in 2010, 142 in 2006 and 112 in 1998. Last year's figures marked a rise of 70.5 per cent from 1998 and 34.5 per cent from 2006.

Environmental solicitor Richard Buxton, whose Cambridge-based practice has successfully used judicial review to overturn the approval of a number of major developments, said planning-related judicial reviews "have undoubtedly increased", but the figure was still "negligible".

Ian Ginbey, head of planning at law firm Clyde & Co, also said that judicial reviews "remain relatively infrequent".

But Stuart Andrews, partner at law firm Eversheds, said there had been "a marked increase" in the number of planning-related judicial review challenges in the last few years.

He said many of the cases were motivated by an "objection to the scheme itself and using arguments as a means of delay or opportunistic review" and welcomed the move to restrict such actions.

Some environmental lawyers also believe the move may contravene European laws under the Aarhus Convention, which obliges the UK government to ensure that access to justice in environmental cases, which include major planning applications, is not "prohibitively expensive".

To comply with the agreement, the MoJ in August set out plans to limit liability for costs in environmentally-related judicial review cases.

Buxton said that, under the convention, it "would be unlawful" for the UK government to restrict access to legal challenges of its decisions. He said: "Judicial review is an essential safeguard of the rights of citizens concerned for the environment and good planning of it."

Carol Day, a solicitor at WWF-UK, agreed, said: "The problem is the government doesn't always get it right. Every now and again you need to go to court to challenge decisions."

An MoJ spokesman said: "We plan to renew the system so that reviews will continue their important role, but the courts and economy will no longer be hampered by having to deal with applications brought forward even though the applicant knows they have no chance of success."

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