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Call-In: Article 31 Directions

Article 31 Directions are likely to be more common, writes Simon Ricketts.

The Secretary of State has the power, pursuant to section 77 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, to call in any application for planning permission for his own determination.

This joker card can be applied at any time before the local planning authority issues the planning permission. There are no statutory constraints on use of the power.

The Government’s policy as to when the power will generally be used is as follows:

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“The Secretary of State will, in general, only consider the use of his call-in powers if planning issues of more than local importance are involved. Such cases may include, for example, those which in his opinion:

– may conflict with national policies on important matters;

– may have significant long-term impact on economic growth and meeting housing needs across a wider area than a single local authority;

– could have significant effects beyond their immediate locality;

– give rise to substantial cross-boundary or national controversy;

– raise significant architectural and urban design issues; or

– may involve the interests of national security or of foreign Governments.

However, each case will continue to be considered on its individual merits.”

(Written ministerial statement, 26 October 2012).

By virtue of a written ministerial statement from the former Secretary of State the late James Brokenshire (26 March 2019), the Government’s policy has now reverted (after the Paddington Cube case I referred to in my 5 October 2018 blog post A Promise Is A Promise) to a policy that it will not give any reasoning for its decision to call in or not to call in any application:

“I am concerned that to give reasons in either eventuality risks blurring this distinction and, as there is no duty in this respect, I will call in those applications where I conclude that such a decision needs to be taken by me and I will not call in applications where I conclude that the decision is best left with the local planning authority.

Therefore, so that my position is clear, I am announcing today that the policy set out in the statement of 12 December 2001 is hereby withdrawn and that, from today, I will not give reasons for calling in or declining to call in planning applications. The call-in policy set out in the statement of 26 October 2012 remains in place.”

Whilst it precedes that statement, useful background information on the process more generally is set out in the House of Commons briefing paper, Calling-in planning applications (England) (31 January 2019).

Objectors to an application for planning permission will often seek to urge the Secretary of State to play the call-in joker card. It is a low-cost, potentially high-impact, step – to use another gaming analogy it’s a last roll of the dice. But if the process is not both closely circumscribed and as transparent as possible, it introduces yet further uncertainty (real political uncertainty – what are the factors about the application which in the current national short-term political climate may lead the Secretary of State to consider intervening? – and administrative uncertainty – how much longer is this going to take and who is talking behind closed doors to whom?).

Call-in requests are dealt with by DLUHC’s planning casework unit in Birmingham. Its work and the decisions of ministers pursuant to its recommendations are informed by guidance on planning propriety: planning casework decisions (last updated 16 December 2021).

When a request for call-in is received by the planning casework unit, it needs to decide whether to recommend to the Secretary of State that an application should be called in. In order to ensure that planning permission is not issued before a decision as to call-in has been made, a direction can be made under Article 31 of the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2015. There is no limit as to the duration of an Article 31 Direction. In the case of the now abandoned proposal by Leeds Bradford Airport for a new terminal, the Direction was in place for nine months until the Secretary of State eventually took the decision to call in the application. Nine months!

Many of us have had anecdotal experience over recent years of differing approaches being taken by the Planning Casework Unit in different situations – sometimes to issue an Article 31 Direction, sometimes to rely on informal assurances from the relevant local planning authority that it will not issue the planning permission until the Planning Casework Unit has had time to do its work and allow time for the Secretary of State to reach a decision. However, until the recent case of R (GOESA Limited) v Eastleigh Borough Council and Southampton International Airport Limited (Holgate J, 23 May 2022), there has been nothing in the public domain to explain what precisely has been going on.

GOESA is a campaign group formed of residents opposing the proposed expansion of Southampton Airport. Objectors had been seeking the call-in of the planning application. The Planning Casework Unit and Eastleigh Borough Council officers had exchanged emails whereby the Casework Unit sought assurances from the Council on an informal basis that permission would be delayed. When planning permission was then issued ahead of any final decision as to whether the application was to be called-in, GOESA challenged the grant of planning permission on various grounds, the first of which was that this was in breach of a legitimate expectation that no permission would be issued until the Casework Unit’s work has been concluded. In the course of rejecting the claim on all grounds, Holgate J examined the correspondence and found on the facts that there had been no clear and unequivocal promise on the part of the local planning authority that could give rise to a legitimate expectation. However, this summary in the judgment of the Casework Unit’s internal processes is illuminating:

26. A third party may also ask the Secretary of State to consider exercising his power to call in an application. However, an informal request of that nature is not to be treated as a formal application which has to be determined by the Secretary of State. In Save Britain’s Heritage the Court of Appeal stated that a decision on whether or not to exercise the power under s.77 is not a substantive decision. It does not go to, or determine, the merits or demerits of a planning application. It does not affect the substantive rights of anybody. Instead, it is a procedural decision as to who should deal with the planning application, the LPA or the Secretary of State ([19]). The Secretary of State is under no general common law duty to give reasons for a decision on whether or not to call in an application ([19] and [22] – [30]).

27. In the present case, the Secretary of State did not exercise his power to issue an article 31 direction preventing the grant of planning permission by EBC while he decided whether to call the matter in. Instead, he sought to enter into an agreement with EBC delaying the issuing of the LPA’s decision. This reflected an internal practice within the PCU and the Ministry.

28. The court was told that this internal practice has not been published. However, it was described in a witness statement by Mr. Simon Carpenter, a Senior Planning Manager in the PCU dated 11 September 2019, which was filed in Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea v Mayor of London (CO/3044/2019). Once a request is received from a third party, the PCU contacts the LPA to ascertain when it is likely to be determined. The PCU’s practice is to allow the LPA to decide whether to grant planning permission before considering the request for a call-in. “In order to safeguard the Secretary of State’s position an undertaking is sought from the case officer that the local authority will not issue the decision notice until the Secretary of State has decided whether call-in is warranted. If the case officer is unwilling or unable to provide this assurance, an article 31 holding Direction is placed on the application”.

29. On 9 December 2021 Lang J ordered the Secretary of State to file a witness statement in the current proceedings stating whether, and to what extent, the standard procedures for handling requests to call in planning applications during the period April to June 2021 were as described by Mr. Carpenter.

30. As a result, a witness statement by Mr. Andrew Lynch, Head of Planning Casework in the PCU was filed. He noted that where a request for a call-in is made after a LPA has resolved to grant permission, an article 31 direction might need to be issued very quickly. He confirmed that the standard procedures remained the same, save in one respect. At the time of Mr. Carpenter’s statement, a case officer had to seek authorisation from the Head of Planning Casework before issuing an article 31 direction. By the time the PCU was dealing with the request to call in SIAL’s application the procedure had changed, in that all proposals to issue an article 31 direction were reviewed by the Secretary of State’s private office or other Ministers. Either the private office or a Minister would decide whether an article 31 direction should be issued. Where possible, the private office would be given 72 hours in which to respond. In some cases where a swifter response was necessary, for example where a request for a call in was made at a late stage or the LPA had not given an undertaking, PCU officials would liaise directly with the private office.

31. The fact that an article 31 direction needed to be authorised by the Head of the PCU, or subsequently by the Secretary of State’s private office or a Minister, reflects the rarity of the use of the call-in power, as was acknowledged in Save.

32. In my judgment it undoubtedly follows from this analysis that it would be ultra vires for a LPA to give an irrevocable undertaking or promise that it will not issue a decision notice granting permission until the Secretary of State decides whether to call in the application, without any limit as to time. A public authority cannot enter into any undertaking or agreement incompatible with the due exercise of its duties (Birkdale District Electric Supply Company v Southport Corporation [1926] AC 355, 364; De Smith’s Judicial Review (8th Ed), para. 9-022 et seq). An agreement by a LPA to defer issuing a decision for a short period which could be considered de minimis would be a different matter.

The judge went on to deprecate the Casework Unit’s practice of seeking informal assurances, in terms which I believe will inevitably lead to an immediate change to the Unit’s approach:

72. I would add for completeness that, although the claimant did not rely upon the general power of competence in s.1 of the Localism Act 2011, that provision could not overcome this incompatibility with the LPA’s duty to determine the application.

73. Planning legislation does provide a solution for a situation where the Secretary of State wishes to prevent a LPA from granting planning permission while he considers whether to call in the application. He has a broad power to issue an article 31 direction. It is a transparent and public procedure. The use of that simple procedure avoids the uncertainty which can arise, as in the present case, over the meaning and effect of exchanges of emails and letters, whether they give rise to any binding legitimate expectation and, if so, the nature of that expectation. It hardly seems desirable for the interests of an applicant, the LPA and potentially other public bodies and many members of the public, whether for or against the proposal, to be affected by such legal uncertainty. As the evidence from the Secretary of State shows, an article 31 direction can be issued rapidly where that is thought to be appropriate.

74. The claimant has not gone so far as to suggest that any undertaking or assurance given by EBC was irrevocable. It accepts that the authority could have terminated the undertaking by giving reasonable notice to the Secretary of State that it intended to issue a decision notice granting permission. But I very much doubt whether revocability would overcome the LPA’s lack of vires in the first place to enter into a promise to delay issuing the decision notice without any limit as to time. The legal position does not seem to me to be any different where a LPA gives an undertaking to the Secretary of State to delay issuing a decision notice which is simply silent on the issue of timescale.

75. In my judgment, it follows that the particular undertaking which the PCU asked EBC to give, and which the claimant says was given, was inconsistent with planning legislation, and in particular the LPA’s duty to determine the planning application before it, and so it would have been legally incapable of giving rise to a legitimate expectation. On this freestanding basis also, ground 1 must be rejected.

Surely we shall be seeing even more Article 31 Directions in future. But what is important is that this does not slow down our planning system even further or introduce even further political uncertainties or opportunities for legal challenge. I see no logical (as opposed to political) reason why the call-in power should not either be abolished in its entirety or clearly restricted by way of clearly defined criteria and thresholds. There, I’ve laid my cards on the table.

Simon Ricketts is a partner at Town Legal. This article first appeared on his Simonicity blog.

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