Gladman Developments have won an appeal against the refusal by Wokingham Borough Council to allow them to change the use of land at Finchampstead Road Wokingham into an area of Strategic Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG). This would include associated landscaping work and parking.
This application was associated with a parallel application for a residential development on adjacent land which is still to be determined. Although the planning officers had advised the planning committee that the SANG application was compatible with the local development plan, the planning committee had rejected the proposal.
The Inspector on appeal was clearly not impressed by the Council’s refusal of this application, rejecting their suggestion that the SANG land proposal was premature given the unresolved nature of the associated housing application. Having rejected that argument, the Inspector criticised the Council’s failure to put forward any credible grounds for refusing the SANG application. The Inspector therefore granted planning permission for the SANG land proposal and furthermore awarded costs against the Council for their unjustifiable conduct.
As well as having local significance within the Thames Valley and for Gladman’s housing proposals in Wokingham, this decision is an illustration of the criteria applied when deciding whether or not to award costs in a planning appeal.
Costs may only be awarded against a party which has behaved unreasonably and caused the other party unnecessary or wasted expense in the appeal process.
For a planning authority, it is at risk of an award of cost against it if it fails to produce evidence to substantiate each reason for refusal in the appeal and/or it makes vague and generalised or inaccurate assertions about the impact of a proposal without any supporting objectively based evidence.
A Council’s planning committee is not duty bound to follow the advice of its professional officers but, where this does happen, the Council has a responsibility to demonstrate, on planning grounds, why an individual proposal is unacceptable and to produce clear evidence to substantiate its reasoning.
Where an officer has recommended approval of an application for planning permission, they are therefore placed in the uncomfortable position of being required by their planning committee to construct credible reasons for refusal in circumstances where, clearly, they do not whole-heartedly believe in them. This makes it difficult to construct a convincing case to persuade an Inspector.