Planning officers have reasonable scope to determine the extent of their own enquiries

Some cases turn on criticism of a planning officer’s report to a Planning Committee. The relevant legal principles may be extrapolated from them as follows:

1. A report is addressed only to council members, who may be expected to have substantial local and background knowledge including local development plan polices.

2. The report need not set out development plan policies as it is reasonable to anticipate that the members will be familiar with them.

3. The report should not contain too much or unnecessary detail.

4. Reports do not (and should not) seek to be exhaustive.

5. The report by a planning officer is not intended to provide a learned disquisition of relevant legal principles or to repeat each and every detail of the relevant facts to members of the committee. The committee members are responsible for the decision and are entitled to use their local knowledge in reaching it.

6. The report should not be subjected to textual analysis analogous to the interpretation of a statute or a judge’s summing up directions to a jury.

7. The courts should not impose too demanding a standard upon planning officers’ reports, for otherwise their whole purpose will be defeated.

8. An application for judicial review based on criticisms of a planning officer’s report will not normally gain any traction unless the overall effect of the report significantly misled the committee about material matters which were then left uncorrected at the meeting of the Planning Committee in advance of the relevant decision being taken.

9. It is the task of the Council, and not the court’s, to weigh the competing public and private interests involved in arriving at a planning decision.

In Hayes, R (on the application of) v Wychavon District Council & Anor [2014] the Claimant applied to the High Court for judicial review of the Defendant’s to grant planning permission for “the erection of an agricultural building for goats, chickens and tractor/equipment storage”.

The Claimant lived near the site and believed that he and his neighbours would be adversely affected by it.

One of the challenge grounds was that the Defendant’s planning officer failed to make sufficient inquiries, meaning the officer’s report was deficient and so the Defendant’s later decision was unsupported by evidence, unlawful and irrational.

The application of the above principles to this case had to be modified to some extent because the decision was made by a senior planning officer exercising delegated authority, not by the Planning Committee.

Here the planning officer submitted her report recommending approval to the senior planning officer, who made the decision. The High Court said he had been entrusted by the Council, to weigh the competing public and private interests and make the required planning judgments. He had knowledge of the relevant planning law and policy and so it was not necessary to set these out in the report. He also had the benefit of local knowledge, and some previous knowledge in relation to this particular application. So it was not necessary for the planning officer’s report to set out every detail relating to the application and the site. However, the planning officer who prepared the report was still responsible for ensuring that the report did not overall significantly mislead him on material issues.

A planning authority (via its planning officer) must take all reasonable steps to acquaint itself with the information relevant to making a correct decision. Plainly the scope and content of the duty would vary according to the context.

A public body is entitled to decide upon the extent of the inquiry, the court has only a supervisory jurisdiction. It is for the decision-maker and not the court, to decide upon the manner and intensity of inquiry to be undertaken into any relevant factor.

Where it is alleged that the planning authority failed in its duty to make sufficient inquiry, the question to be asked is whether the inquiry made by the planning authority was so inadequate that no reasonable planning authority could suppose that it had sufficient material available upon which to make its decision to grant planning permission and impose conditions. That is a clear application of the governing public law principles in the Wednesbury case.

On the facts sufficient enquiry had been made.

This blog has been posted as a matter of general interest. It does not remove the need to get bespoke legal advice in individual cases.