Planning decisions can radically affect people's lives and livelihoods and that is why they have to be taken openly and transparently. The High Court made that point in overturning planning permission granted for a major redevelopment in a creative district which was likely to lead to the closure of one of the largest photographic studio complexes in Europe.
A developer wished to partially demolish buildings on an urban site which were said to be mostly unattractive and incapable of economic refurbishment. It proposed the construction of 50 new homes, about a quarter of which would be affordable, together with 5,644 square metres of commercial floorspace.
Provision of affordable homes was said to be unviable, but the developer had agreed to contribute £757,076 towards meeting affordable housing needs on other sites. Taken together with its liability to pay £814,774 in Community Infrastructure Levy, the developer's overall financial contributions arising from the development would reach £2 million.
The local authority granted permission after its officers advised that the provision of high-quality residential units would make a valuable contribution to meeting local housing targets. The likely loss of the photographic studio and other media businesses that occupied the site was considered acceptable.
Challenging the permission, the studio pointed out that a large number of background documents concerning the scheme's viability and the level of affordable housing contribution had not been placed in the public domain before the council reached its decision. Information that had been made available to objectors was said to be incomplete, inconsistent and incomprehensible.
Upholding the complaint, the Court ruled that the council had failed in its obligation to provide relevant documents for public inspection. Even if they contained information that was commercially sensitive, there was a clear public interest in their disclosure in order to ensure transparency, accountability and access to the decision-making process for communities affected by development.
Objectors had a legitimate expectation that they would be granted access to relevant documentation and much of the information that had been placed in the public domain was inconsistent and opaque. Some of the figures provided were conflicting and incapable of being reconciled. The planning permission was quashed.