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Judge quashes decision by council to grant planning permission for conversion of pub to residential dwelling over public sector equality duty failings

Sedgemoor District Council was wrong to agree to the conversion of a former pub to a residential dwelling without considering s149 of the Equality Act 2010, and also failed to apply part of its local plan, the High Court has found.

In Danning, R (On the Application Of) v Sedgemoor District Council [2021] EWHC 1649 (Admin) Stuart Danning, a resident of Panborough, objected to Sedgemoor’s decision to allow the former Panborough Inn to be converted to a private home by interested party David Folland.

Mr Danning argued that Sedgemoor failed to consider the public sector equality duty, and failed to apply parts of its local plan and of the Wedmore neighbourhood plan.

The Panborough Inn closed as a pub in 2014 and efforts a few years later to reopen it proved unsuccessful. Nor could it be sold for use as a pub.

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Steyn J said the planning committee failed to apply part of the local plan, which states that there must be “evidence of community consultation and consideration of alternative ways of delivering the service”.

The judge said in her ruling that the community facility of a pub had already been lost because it was closed, not viable and so was unlikely to reopen.

“However, it is clear…that policy [on consultation] applies to the Panborough Inn, even though it had been closed since June 2019,” she said.

"Indeed, the protection against loss of community facilities would be seriously eroded if a facility such as a public house were to be treated as no longer being a community facility because it has closed its doors.”

Steyn J said the planning committee had been entitled to find the public house is not commercially viable, "but that does not detract from the importance of requiring evidence of community consultation (which could conceivably give rise to innovative solutions)”.

Mr Danning argued that the loss of a pub might breach equalities legislation by differential impact on those with protected characteristics, and the judge said she could find “no reference to the public sector equality duty in any of the materials put to the planning committee, or in any note of the discussion or their reasoning”.

Sedgemoor argued that the Panborough Inn was already closed and since the public could not enter the building its change of use was incapable of having any impact on those with a relevant protected characteristic.

Steyn J said evidence from the council that planners had regard to the public sector equality duty was “clearly, in my judgment, an attempt to fill the gap in the documents which were before the planning committee.

“First, this is ex post facto evidence that an officer had regard to a consideration which nowhere appears in the contemporaneous documents to have been considered. I am not prepared to give any weight to that evidence. Secondly, in any event, ex post facto evidence regarding what an officer had in mind (but never expressed) tells the court nothing about whether the planning committee had regard to the relevant matters in accordance with the public sector equality duty.”

She found the committee had not asked itself whether its decision had any implications for equalities.

Sedgemoor argued that s31(2A) of the Senior Courts Act 1981 applied and the decision was highly likely to have been the same even had these lapses not occurred.

Steyn J said that would have been true if the only flaw was that related to the Equality Act 2010, since no objector suggested closure would have an adverse impact on any protected characteristics.

But she said the failure to ensure there was evidence of community consultation meant “it cannot be said to be highly likely that the decision would not have been substantially different if the planning committee had considered whether that criterion was met.

“Given the paucity of evidence of community consultation…the planning committee might well have taken the view that evidence of such community consultation had not been demonstrated and, on that basis, refused planning permission.”

Mark Smulian

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