Legal challenges to public consultations in the North of England
As the Institute prepares to hold its popular Law of Consultation training course in York in 27th March, it is a good moment to review some of the high-profile cases that have emerged from the North of England.
The latest is in many ways the most significant. Opponents of fracking in Lancashire and elsewhere in the north will rejoice at the legal setback suffered by the Government this week. In Stephenson v Dept of Housing, Communities & Local Government, the High Court ruled that the consultation leading to the incorporation of the pro-fracking policy in the national planning framework had been unlawful. It does not change anything immediately, but pressure will mount on Ministers to allow a more structured debate on the latest scientific evidence about fracking.
Liverpool residents will also have been watching proceedings in Court because the planned new road to the port involved a public consultation that was vigorously challenged. In Sefton Council v Highways England, local residents preferred a tunnel in order to reduce the impact on Rimrose Park, and tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Judge that it was wrong to exclude that option when it sought views from the public.
A few miles away, in the Halebank v Halton BC case, a massive warehouse project was given planning permission without local residents and the Parish Council being given enough time to respond to the proposals in a consultation. In Manchester, the reconfiguration of hospitals came under the microscope of a Judicial Review. In the Keep Wythenshaw Special case in 2016, there was an argument that the consultation that led to the selection of Stepping Hill hospital for centralised facilities had been unlawful. And a few miles away, campaigners who disagreed with changes to their transport to care services went to Court in the Robson & Barrett v Salford case. It was a mismanaged consultation, for sure but could they persuade the Judge?
In recent years, few cases rivalled Derbyshire CC v Sheffield Combined Authority for political intrigue. We call it the case of the Crooked Spire and the crooked question for it concerned the inclusion of Chesterfield in the proposed new super-Council and it turned on the wording of a question in the public consultation.
These and other cases will all feature in the Law of Consultation training course, which, when delivered in York enables us to focus on some issues of local interest. Others involve the NHS in Leeds, the Council in Trafford, Newcastle City Council, Sheffield (again!) and also Lancashire County Council.
The truth is that all public bodies – from police to probation and from fire and rescue to social care – ALL have to consult the public and are vulnerable to legal challenge if something goes wrong. The purpose of the course is to equip Managers, communications specialists and engagement teams to understand the key principles and be more assured when running public consultation to meet legal standards and best practice principles.