The Government is legally obliged to abide by its policy promises and cannot quietly drop them without public announcement. The Court of Appeal resoundingly made that point in ruling that a minister was required to give reasons for a controversial planning decision.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government had refused to exercise his power under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to call in a planning application in respect of a large city centre regeneration project for central, as opposed to local, government determination. A pressure group which opposed the scheme sought judicial review of the decision on the basis that that the Secretary of State had failed in his duty to give reasons, but had its case dismissed by the High Court.
In ruling on the group’s challenge to that decision, the Court of Appeal found that, since 2001, it had been established government policy to give reasons for refusing to call in planning applications. The policy – which was said to be in the interests of greater transparency – was announced in a green paper laid before Parliament and was publicly announced in four written Parliamentary answers. However, the practice of the Department of Communities and Local Government changed in 2014 and, since then, such decisions had routinely been taken without reasons being provided.
In upholding the group’s appeal, the Court was in no doubt that the Government had made an express promise that reasons would be given for such decisions. That promise had never been withdrawn and the group therefore had a legitimate expectation that it would be honoured. The Court noted that it was a recipe for administrative chaos if a legitimate expectation could be generated by an unequivocal ministerial promise, only for it then to be lost as a result of an unadvertised change of practice.
Nobody in the Department had recalled or had in mind the 2001 policy promise when the practice was changed in 2014, and the Court noted that that change had thus been brought about by ignorance. The group’s legitimate expectation was not brought to an end by confusion and muddle within the Department. The group was granted a declaration that the Secretary of State should have given reasons for the relevant decision.