The High Court, sitting in Cardiff, has handed down judgment in R (Stride) v Wiltshire Council  EWHC 1476 (Admin), a case concerning the circumstances in which the public may be excluded from a meeting of a local authority’s cabinet.
This was a judicial review challenge to Wiltshire Council’s Future Chippenham scheme and, in particular, to a decision made by the Council’s Executive, in its capacity as landowner, at a meeting on 21 July 2021 to select a route for a new distributor road that would support housing development.
The Claimant advanced three grounds of challenge: firstly, that the Council had unlawfully excluded the public from part of the meeting contrary to the Local Government Act 1972; secondly, the Council had not consulted the public on proposed development on public land; and thirdly that the Council had not consulted on the particular route that was adopted at the meeting.
The Court was required to consider, for the first time, the meaning of paragraph 9 of Schedule 12A of the 1972 Act, which prevents a local authority from excluding the public from a meeting that will consider sensitive financial information, where that information “relates to proposed development for which the local planning authority may grant itself planning permission”. The Claimant argued that the information discussed at the meeting fell within this description. The Defendant argued that it did not.
HHJ Jarman KC, sitting as a High Court Judge, held that the wording of the provision suggested, “some temporal connection between information relating to a proposed development and the grant of permission for that development” and that its purpose was “to promote public access on the one hand, but to safeguard the financial and business interests of anyone, including the authority, on the other”. It was necessary to balance “public access and private interest”. Given there had to be public scrutiny of the information later, before any planning permission could be granted, the correct balance did not require the information to be disclosed at the early stage when the meeting was held. Ground 1 accordingly failed.
The Judge also held: that any assurance given by the Council as to consultation had been qualified, in terms of flexibility and being subject to change; and that the route selected did not amount to a fundamental change, giving rise to a duty to reconsult. Grounds 2 and 3 therefore also failed.
James Goudie KC and John Bethell acted for Wiltshire Council, instructed by Wiltshire Council Legal Services.
A copy of the judgment is available here.