The case for consistency in planning decisions, by Bryan Johnston

While the mice are away, the cats will play. The start of the summer holidays, when normal folk should be heading for the beaches, is becoming the favoured time for central government to issue often controversial decisions on major projects.

Over the past month, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government website, communities secretary Sajid Javid has issued decisions on three called-in applications and ten recovered appeals. This rate of productivity trumps Javid’s haul of two call-ins and eight recovered decisions over the equivalent 31-day period in 2016 – and he’d only just taken the post at that time.

Not to be outdone, his predecessor and now business and energy secretary Greg Clark has approved plans for major energy projects in Wrexham, Kent and the North Sea under the nationally significant infrastructure project regime in the past three weeks, albeit that he appears to have missed his decision-making deadline in two of those instances.

Maybe Javid is making a genuine effort to live up to his own target of issuing decisions within three months of receipt of inspectors’ recommendations. Perhaps more likely, he is bowing to the temptation to bury bad news, because any major construction project is going to upset someone somewhere. But, to mangle another cliché, more speed may mean less haste for major building projects if decisions are not legally watertight.

Last Friday, Tory peer Baroness Cumberlege of Newick won a High Court order quashing Javid’s decision last November to approve 50 homes in her East Sussex home village. A couple of months earlier he had reached the opposite conclusion in rejecting a similar-sized development in a similar neighbouring village, against the same policy background.

Deputy judge John Howell QC was stinging about the discrepancy in the minister’s interpretation. "It can only undermine public confidence in the operation of the development control system for there to be two decisions of the secretary of state himself, issued from the same unit of his department on the same floor of the same building within ten weeks of each other, reaching a different conclusion on whether or not a development plan policy is up to date without any reference to or sufficient explanation in the later one for the difference," he declared.

The verdict highlights the importance of consistency in the application of planning policy - a principle that ought to run like, to coin a phrase, a golden thread through all stages of the planning process. That applies, of course, to local planning authorities as much as to ministers of the crown, as Javid’s decision earlier this week to approve plans for four wind turbines on Kent’s Isle of Sheppey reminds us.

An "energy opportunities" map produced by council planners indicated the area as having high potential for wind power. Like his inspector and the appellants, the secretary of state found it "difficult to understand" why the council had refused permission for the scheme "when its own emerging local plan endorses the area within which the appeal site lies as one suitable for large-scale wind energy development". Quite so. Consistency must be the byword. It can’t be one law for the cats and another for the mice.

Bryan Johnston, consultant editor, Planning//

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