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Planning Officers Make Mistakes – But They Are Not Always Fatal

Official decision making is frequently imperfect, but judges will only intervene if errors made have a real impact on the final outcome. In a case exactly on point, the High Court upheld planning permission for a major regeneration project despite having identified a mistake in a council officer’s report.

Car SupermarketThe case concerned proposals for demolition of a supermarket and its replacement by a larger superstore, together with construction of more than 200 flats in two tower blocks. In granting planning consent, the council accepted the officer’s advice that the design quality of the proposals was high and that they would deliver much-needed housing, including affordable homes. In challenging the permission, the tenant of the supermarket argued, amongst other things, that the development contravened a local land allocation policy.

Ruling on the matter, the Court noted that the town centre site had been allocated for retail-led development. The stated purpose of that policy was to promote the vitality and viability of the area as a shopping centre and to discourage developments that were predominantly focused on housing.

The Court observed that, in terms of floor space, only 24 per cent of the proposed development would be used for retail purposes, and 76 per cent for residential. In those circumstances, the project could not be viewed as retail-led and the officer should have advised councillors that it conflicted with the allocation policy, but had failed to do so.

In dismissing the challenge, however, the Court found that, even had the officer not made that error, it was highly likely that planning consent would have been granted. The development would achieve the objectives of the allocation policy in terms of the size and nature of the proposed retail floor space.

The supermarket owner had not objected that the proposals made too much, or too little, provision for retail floor space, or that they should have been configured differently. In the absence of the mistake, councillors could therefore still have concluded lawfully that the proposals accorded with the local development plan as a whole. Other grounds of challenge were also dismissed.

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