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Leeds Council cleared in 'humungous mess' planning decision case

Leeds City Council will not have to re-examine thousands of planning applications after it was vindicated by a High Court judge over the way it delegated its planning decisions

The potential crisis emerged when the council admitted it had not followed normal procedures in delegating decision-making powers to its officers over a three-year period, following a challenge by a local businessman to plans for the demolition of a car-repair shop and the construction of 12 new flats.

Had the council lost the case, administrative chaos would have resulted with decisions taken between 2004 and early 2008 effectively declared void – a situation that the authority’s own barrister had branded a ‘humungous mess’.

But Justice Wyn Williams said that to dismiss decisions taken by officers between 2004 and early 2008 would be ‘unthinkable’.

He said: ‘I can think of no proper basis upon which it would be appropriate for this court to grant any kind of relief, which had the effect of causing decisions made in accordance with the scheme of delegation as it evolved between 2001 and 2008, to be declared unlawful’.

He noted that no questions had been raised until a planning dispute arose over plans for 12 new flats in Morley.

Phil Crabtree, the council’s chief planning officer, said: ‘The delegation scheme has been found to be sound [though] we still have the outstanding issue of the original planning application with is to be heard in the early in the New Year.’

Previous story 04.09.09

‘Humungous mess’ in Leeds could invalidate planning decisions

Leeds City Council could be told by a High Court judge that thousands of decisions by officers are not legally valid

The crisis began when Mark Snee, a local businessman, opposed plans for the demolition of a next door car-repair shop and the construction of 12 new flats.
 
Planning Daily
reports that after the council’s chief planning officer granted planning permission to the neighbouring shop in February last year, Snee launched a court challenge to the decision.
 
He asked for details of the delegated powers under which the planning officer made his decision, but the council could find no supporting documentation. Council staff have since been engaged in a search for evidence to underpin the officers’ authority between 2004 and 2008 – the council has presented 600 pages of evidence to the High Court and its legal fees are estimated to be in six figures.

Planning Daily reports that at a preliminary hearing in June, the council’s barrister, Andrew Arden QC, said the council was ‘deeply embarrassed’ by the ‘humungous mess’.
 
He said ‘literally thousands, and probably tens of thousands’ of decisions were in danger, ranging ‘from taxi cabs, to markets, to planning, literally everything in the second largest city outside London.’
 
‘We are confronting a huge problem in all the prosecutions and also civil actions that relate to these issues… It is in the interests of Leeds to put this issue to bed as fast as possible before it takes over the courts in the locality’.
 
Arden said the situation was caused by ‘a cock-up, not a conspiracy’. He added ‘This incident has thrown up something which is becoming a focal point within the council for internal criticism. This is not likely to be the last error in local government that we encounter. It does not excuse it, but it does explain it. Sometimes things go badly wrong.’
 
Yesterday, during a preliminary hearing at the High Court the presiding judge, Mr Justice Wyn Williams, said: ‘All the citizens of Leeds have a very public interest in having this issue determined. This matter is of general public importance and it is in the public interest that it should be resolved.’

The full High Court hearing is now expected to take place on October 28.

Responding to the news, one local architect said: ‘I’m surprised [the council is] apparently not playing to the rules. Although planning applications can be really painful, because of the regular change of personnel, slow response times and conflicting advice, from experience the one thing they are hot on is adhering strictly to the rules, crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s.’

Postscript

Geoff Wilkinson, the AJ’s new columnist, described the situation as a potentially ‘massive problem’. ‘The implications of this failure are staggering and could extend to buildings being demolished because of a technicality. I would advise any architect who has submitted an application in the period to get in touch with their PI insurer.

‘They could be subject to a claim by their clients that they failed to secure the necessary consent.’

Readers' comments (2)

  • I think Manchester & Glasgow should have something to say about Leeds' continual superiority complex & claim to be behind London & Birmingham - of that I'm not surprised. But I am surprised, given the almost anal amount of red tape that's required these days, that everything isn't in order

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  • I have just read the judgement. The judge did not say Leeds Council's scheme of delegation was 'sound' he said in several places that he may be wrong in his reasoning, but even if he was wrong he was not prepared to 'grant relief' because of the time that had passed since 2003 when the problems began.

    The judge also criticised the Council (again) for the 'unacceptable' length of time it had taken to 'particularise' its defence.

    Reading the report in the Yorkshire Post, it sounds as though Mr Snee may well appeal the decision.

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