South Cambridgeshire council faces High Court challenges from community action group
PUBLISHED: 16:31 24 January 2020 | UPDATED: 16:31 24 January 2020
South Cambridgeshire District Council is set to face off against residents in two separate High Court challenges to the legality of the council's planning decisions.
The first judicial review claim, according to documents filed in the High Court in London, alleges that the council acted unlawfully by announcing a public consultation on a Longstanton planning application but then proceeding to issue a decision approving the application before the announced period of public consultation for the application had closed.
The second judicial review claim - also to be issued in the High Court and related to Steeple Morden - alleges that the council's ongoing practice of taking delegation decisions on planning applications at unannounced meetings, from which the public are excluded and for which no agendas or minutes are published, is a violation of the Local Government Act 1972. According to the act, local authorities are to take decisions at public meetings and produce written records of decisions that are open to inspection by the press and the public.
Both claims are brought by the Fews Lane Consortium, a South Cambridgeshire community action group that advocates sustainable development within the district's villages and promotes the principles of transparency and democratic accountability in local government.
Director Daniel Fulton said: "For the past two years, we have consistently tried to get SCDC to start taking planning decisions in a procedurally fair and lawful manner, but again and again, we have simply been ignored and dismissed by the council. We decided enough was enough, and we look forward to continuing to bring legal actions against the council until the council cleans up its act."
Garry Shooter, a supporter of the group, said: "The Greater Cambridge Shared Planning service is simply not fit for purpose. There is absolutely zero accountability across the entire planning service from top to bottom. It's unconscionable that SCDC has allowed things to deteriorate to the point where they knowingly allowed blatantly illegal planning decisions to be issued on an ongoing basis for more than two years."
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South Cambs resident Arzu Akalin added: "The council thought it could ignore local residents and ignore the law and get away with it. You're not above the rule of law because you're a local authority, and these judicial review claims put the council on notice that it will be held to account."
In response, an SCDC spokesman said: "We always try and be as open and transparent as possible but, as there are legal processes being carried out, we are not able to comment further on the details of these cases at this stage.
"We really care about making sure decisions are democratic and are listening to the concerns of Fews Lane Consortium. Due to the recent challenge we are reviewing our constitution to make it really clear who is responsible for where planning decisions are made."
The council's minutes from its cabinet meeting in September 2018 show that the consortium's director raised the alarm about the council's problems with its delegation arrangement for planning applications in a public question to the cabinet. The council's joint director for planning and economic development, Stephen Kelly, who was present at the meeting, was instructed by cabinet to undertake a review of the delegation arrangements - but Fews Lane Consortium director Daniel Fulton says there is no evidence the review ever took place.
Regarding the environmental impact of the two claims, Mr Fulton said: "In the case of the first claim, the council not only issued its decision in the middle of the public consultation period, but it also failed to take into consideration its own policies of flooding and sustainable drainage systems. As a result, the development proposed would directly increase the flooding risk to existing homes in Longstanton. Under the local development plan, this is not supposed to happen."
"In the case of the second claim, the land proposed for development in the village of Steeple Morden was the site of a major oil spill and remediation was never completed. The council knew about this and even circulated an internal memorandum acknowledging that the land is contaminated and is unsuitable for residential development, but officers simply ignored this in their decision report and allowed the development to go ahead anyway. Had the council taken the decision in a public meeting, we at least would have made the planning committee aware of this issue, but by doing it in private, we didn't even know the decision was being taken until after it was issued."
A final judgment from the High Court on both claims is not expected until late this year or early 2021.