Permission refused for challenge to destructive development

By William O’Brien

On 7th February, I had the opportunity to attend the oral renewal of permission to judicially review a decision of the London Borough of Camden by Slaney Devlin, supported by the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF). Ms Devlin is chairwoman of the Somers Town Neighbourhood Forum (STNF) and one of over a thousand local residents who petitioned against a grant of planning permission by Camden to itself for a major development of central Somers Town in October 2016.

As well as building a 25-storey tower, this development would involve a reconfiguration of the green open space in the area, including a significant reduction in the amount of private open space available to residents. Planning permission was granted despite the fact that Somers Town is designated as an ‘area of more limited change’ under Camden’s Core Strategy.

Ms Devlin put forward two grounds of appeal for judicial review, but they were considered not arguable on the papers by Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, and therefore Ms Devlin renewed the claim for permission and the oral renewal came to be heard by Mr Justice Jay.

Camden’s side of the courtroom was relatively full and was fronted by a leading silk, Mr Hereward Phillpot QC. Ms Devlin not only had the benefit of an impressive advocate in Daniel Stedman Jones before her, but also the support of a group of fellow residents and supporters behind her. Since permission to judicially review the decision had already been denied once on the papers, Ms Devlin appeared to begin the morning on the backfoot, but as oral argument gave weight to the written submissions, it became clear that at least parts of her case had, in the words of Mr Justice Jay himself, ‘a scintilla of weight’.

Ultimately, Daniel’s submissions were unsuccessful, and Mr Justice Jay refused to grant permission for a judicial review, agreeing with the borough and with Mr Justice Haddon-Cave that both grounds were unarguable. The judge further made a costs order of £5,000 against Ms Devlin, indicating that while he was aware of the crowdfunding of the case, he could not take into account the applicant’s means.

In the course of oral argument, the interaction between London-wide planning policy and local authority decision-making came into focus. The application of more abstract regional planning strategy has a very concrete meaning for the residents of Somers Town in this case.

What further struck the observer was the tension between the examination of planning policy in a legal forum and the legal and constitutional point that the Administrative Court must only concern itself with errors in law.

Though the result was disappointing, in light of the significance of the development to Somers Town, it is vital that the relevant decisions are arrived at in a lawful way. Some comfort can be derived from the fact that when this local community needed it, ELF lawyers were able to empower them with legal advice and representation normally beyond the means of ordinary people.