A decision by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to authorise the construction of a new rail freight interchange at Radlett near St Albans has survived a challenge by way of judicial review: St Albans City and District Council v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government  EWHC 655. In short, the case centred on whether the planning inspector and Secretary of State had fettered their discretion by treating criteria established by an earlier unsuccessful application in respect of the same development as a legal test. St. Albans City and District Council, which has resisted the development throughout, applied to have the decision quashed.
The saga of the St Albans freight interchange dates back to 2006 when the developer, Helioslough, submitted its first planning application. The development entailed building on green belt land and encountered much local opposition. Moreover, it engaged the National Planning Policy Framework, paragraph 89 of which provides that inappropriate development which could harm the green belt must be avoided unless there are very special circumstances. The planning authority rejected the application and the developer appealed triggering a planning inquiry by a planning inspector. In his report the inspector stated that the need for such strategic rail infrastructure could constitute a very special circumstance provided that there were no suitable alternative sites. However, in this case the inspector concluded that there had not been a sufficiently thorough inspect of over sites less harmful to the green belt and recommended that the application should be rejected. The Secretary of State accepted this recommendation.
The developer submitted a second application which was again rejected by the local authority. Once again the developer appealed against the decision.This time the Secretary of State accepted the inspector’s recommendation to the effect that planning permission should be granted because this time there had been a thorough investigation of other sites and that there were no suitable alternatives.
The local authority sought judicial review of this decision on the grounds that the criteria set out in the inspector’s report relating to the first application, to the effect that the strategic need for such infrastructure could justify green belt development if no suitable alternative sites could be found, was treated as a legal test in the second appeal. Thus, those determining the appeal had fettered their discretion in the sense that a finding that no suitable alternative sites existed would lead to the inevitable conclusion that the development should be allowed.
There was a second ground of review which focused on the fact that the Secretary of State had earlier refused to grant consent for the construction of a waste management facility on a greenfield site four miles away. It was argued that the decision to authorise the rail freight interchange was inconsistent with this earlier decision against allowing industrial development on a nearby greenfield site.
The High Court rejected the application to quash the decision in favour of authorising the development on the grounds that the planning inspector and Secretary of State had not regarded the criteria as a legal test. Where there has already been a thorough consideration of the issues the decision maker is entitled, as a matter of judgement, to regard the findings as persuasive. It does not follow that such findings are being applied as legal tests. The case of Kings Cross Railway Lands Group v Camden LBC  EWHC 1515 was applied in this respect.
The second argument, pertaining to the inconsistency with the earlier decision not to allow the building of a waste incinerator, was rejected on the grounds that they were very different projects which raised very different considerations.