Over-Analysing Planning Officers’ Reports is a Mistake, Says Court of Appeal

Local authority planning officers are highly qualified professionals – but they are not lawyers or judges and their reports must not be read with an over-critical legal eye. The Court of Appeal made that point in opening the way for construction of a new home in the countryside.

The case concerned plans to partially demolish a cluster of commercial and agricultural buildings and to extend and convert a remaining brick structure into a three-bedroom house. The local authority followed a planning officer’s advice and granted consent in 2018, despite a neighbouring landowner’s fierce objections. The landowner’s judicial review challenge to the permission was subsequently rejected by a judge.

Appealing against that outcome, the landowner argued that the officer gave too much weight to an unimplemented planning permission for an identical development which had been granted in 2015. Circumstances were said to have changed fundamentally in the intervening years, not least because the council had recently achieved a five-year supply of housing land, as required by the National Planning Policy Framework.

In dismissing the appeal, however, the Court found that the officer did not make the mistake of applying a tilted balance in favour of what would otherwise have been an inappropriate development in a rural area. She also took into account the fact that the 2015 permission was days away from expiry when the 2018 consent was granted and that there was no practical possibility of the former being implemented. The weight that she gave to the still extant 2015 permission was ultimately a matter for her independent planning judgment.

Giving guidance for the future, the Court noted that planning officers’ reports must not be read in an overly critical spirit or with an unrealistic view of what needs to be set out in assessing proposals on their merits. Judges will only intervene if there is some distinct and material defect in a report, such as a clear misunderstanding of relevant national or local policy. The officer in the present case made no such error and the 2018 permission was not open to criticism on any public law grounds.