Decision Quashed – Decision to Expand Staines Conservation Area Overturned
It is completely irrelevant to the purpose of this article, but I cannot talk about Staines-upon-Thames without referring to it’s rebrand. You might remember it was plain old Staines and home of Ali G until it “poshed-up” in 2011 and sought to shake off it’s less than glamorous links by highlighting the riverside location. Pretension or not, it is now Staines-upon-Thames, even if it remains Staines in common parlance. On with the point:
Like town centres up and down the country, Staines-Upon-Thames is home to an empty former Debenhams building, the Building. Here the owners, Future High Street Living (Staines) Ltd, sought planning permission to demolish the Building and replace it with 226 flats in November 2021. The proposals were controversial and attracted 268 letters of objection.
In March 2022, following the submission of the planning application and prior to determination, the Spelthorne Borough Council Local Planning Authority (LPA) locally listed the Building with immediate effect.
The planning application was then refused by the LPA on 6 June 2022 due to alleged: harm to the significance of designated and non-designated heritage assets (including the conservation area); overdevelopment; and insufficient affordable housing. At the time of the decision the Debenhams building was not included in the Staines Conservation Area, SCA, however later the same month the SCA was extended to include the property.
Comprehensive objections to the proposed extension to the SCA were submitted on behalf of the applicant within the consultation period. They highlighted Historic England's views on the Building's lack of special architectural merit (previous applications to list the building had been refused). However, accidentally, the applicant’s objections were not considered by the LPA and the SCA was extended to include the Building on 29 June 2022.
The applicant then issued the LPA with a Pre-Action Protocol letter setting out their intention to judicially review the decision to extend the SCA.
The LPA sought to regularise their omission by preparing a supplementary report to deal with the objections raised on behalf of the applicant. This document considered the points raised and found that they did not affect rationale for the extension to the SCA.
The High Court considered the applicants, now claimants, four grounds of claim against the LPA in Future High Street Living (Staines) Ltd v Spelthorne Borough Council  EWHC 688 (Admin), in summary:
1) that the LPA, now defendant, illegally decided to extend the SCA as the purpose of the extension was to prevent demolition and redevelopment, an improper purpose;
2) that the defendant failed to take into account the claimant’s representations;
3) that the defendant’s officers' reports on extending the SCA misled by omitting (a) the fact that Historic England had rejected an application to list the Building because it did not possess the quality of design, decoration and craftsmanship to merit being of special architectural interest and (b) that the Building had not even been included in the local list of non-designated heritage assets, created by the defendant in 2004 and reviewed in 2006;
4) that the purported reconsideration of the decision through the supplementary report was unlawful.
The Court found that the ground 1 failed but that claimant succeeded on grounds 2, 3 and 4. The defendant failed to consider the claimants representations, the supplementary report was not written so as to consider the extension of the SCA afresh and it was highly relevant that Historic England had declined to list the Building (the inclusion of other areas within the SCA were justified by their location in the setting of the Building). It is not clear that the same decision to extend the SCA would be made if the decision had been properly taken.
Whilst there is wide discretion for planning authorities in relation to designating and amending conservation areas this decision highlights the need to take care with internal processes to ensure a robust decision. Other authorities will be wise to ensure impeccable decision making, particularly where affected parties are sitting on potential development sites. In this case the decision the LPA made to extend the SCA was quashed and the Debenhams building is no longer within the SCA.
Posted on 05/03/2023 by Ortolan