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High Court Underlines Importance of Consistent Ministerial Decision-Making

Government ministers cannot be expected to know everything that civil servants are doing in their name. However, as one High Court ruling emphasised, it is vitally important that decisions that bear their signatures are reasonably consistent.

The case concerned a planning permission that had been granted for 50 new homes in a rural village. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government had based his decision on a planning inspector’s advice that a local policy – targeted at preserving the countryside and strategic gaps between existing settlements – was out of date. In accordance with principles contained within the National Planning Policy Framework, the Secretary of State had thus applied a tilted balance in favour of the housing development.

Local objectors to the proposals pointed to another decision that had been taken by the Secretary of State just a few weeks earlier. In that matter, he had refused consent for development of 70 new homes in another village just a short distance away. In that decision, he had followed another inspector’s advice that the same local policy was not out of date.

In upholding the objectors’ judicial review challenge, the Court noted that the two apparently conflicting decisions had on the face of it been made by the Secretary of State himself. They had been issued from the same unit of his department on the same floor of the same building within 10 weeks of each other. There had been no attempt to explain the apparent inconsistencies between the two decisions. The planning permission was quashed.