Yes, in your backyard – can the government now ride roughshod over its own planning inspectors

Posted on the 1st August 2004

This article by Norna Hughes appeared in The Times, August 18, 2004. Norna Hughes, Solicitor, acted on behalf of Animal Aid and the National Anti-Vivisection Society in our High Court challenge.

Would you like a new runway near your backyard, or perhaps a nuclear power plant or maybe even a waste-recycling centre? Probably not. However, even if your backyard is in the allegedly protected green belt, with all the planning restrictions that usually apply, if the Government deems those plans amount to “very special circumstances” and are thus in the “national interest” then the protection of such planning law is useless.

This is the outcome from the recent case by animal protection groups against the granting of permission to Cambridge University to site a new primate testing facility on green belt land. Planning permission had been refused by South Cambridgeshire District Council and, after a public inquiry, a planning inspector recommended that the university’s appeal be dismissed. So where did it all go wrong?

Quite simply, the Government disagreed with its own inspector because this scheme was in the “national interest”. During the inquiry, the university refused to produce a witness to give evidence specifically on this issue and relied instead on two letters written by Lord Sainsbury of Turville, Parliamentary UnderSecretary of State for Science, to demonstrate that there was a “need” for the centre. In the letters, Lord Sainsbury said that the Department of Trade and Industry regarded the proposal as “nationally important”, though he recognised that the Government “cannot comment at this stage on the specific site”.

The existence of the letters had not been made available to the local council when it considered the application, or to members of the public affected. Objectors presented detailed evidence on the lack of need for a non-human primate testing facility on the site, arguing that the university had failed to explore the availability of non-animal research.

The inspector concluded that the letters did not represent government policy and that he had not found objective evidence to the effect that this proposal was in the national interest. Unfortunately, on appeal, Mr Justice Collins decided in the High Court that the inspector was wrong not to have read the Sainsbury letters as government policy in support of this facility and the First Secretary of State (John Prescott) was right to rely on them as establishing “need”. The university can, therefore, build a non-human primate testing facility on a green-belt site in Cambridge at any time over the next five years.

Caged monkeys

This means that in future, if there is a development that the Government wants to see developed – where it would not normally receive planning permission, as in this case because it was in the green belt – then a letter from a Government minister stating it to be government policy has the effect of neutering conventional consideration of a planning application. The relevant considerations in determining the application in such cases would only be whether there is a better alternative site/route in the vicinity and what the site can physically accommodate the development. So that runway could be near you.

This dramatically affects the ability of people to influence controversial planning applications. There is a presumption against granting planning permission for development in the green belt in the UK and this can only be outweighed by “very special circumstances”. But if the Government decides that a proposal is in the national interest, then any conflicting evidence on this issue from specialists and members of the public can be disregarded.

So in fairness to everyone, if that is to be the way forward on controversial developments then a clear statement of government policy should accompany the planning application and the Government should indicate in clear terms what evidence is to be excluded – and why.

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