High Court rules in favour of controversial scheme despite concerns over planning inquiry

Shell Centre London south bank

The High Court has dismissed a legal challenge to secretary of state Eric Pickles’ decision to approve the controversial £1.3bn Shell Centre scheme on the South Bank, despite concerns over the way the inquiry was handled.

Justice Collins did not accept that there was a strong enough case to reject the decision by the communities secretary, even though he found serious errors in the conduct of the planning inspector.

The £1.3bn proposal feature eight buildings ranging from five to 37 storeys with the scheme comprising offices, retail, leisure and close to 900 homes.

Local resident and writer George Turner won the right to challenge communities secretary Eric Pickles’ decision to approve the scheme by Qatari Diar and Canary Wharf Group at the High Court after claiming that Pickles’ decision was flawed and would unleash a planning free-for-all on the South Bank.

In handing down his judgement Collins said: “I have no doubt that the inspector’s conduct was such as to give rise to a real concern that he was unfair to the objectors. He seriously mismanaged his conduct of the inquiry. It may be well that the individual decisions he made were justifiable, but the way in which he made them was unacceptable.

“The Inspector’s attitude is said to have given rise to an appearance of bias. It is not now suggested nor could it be that he was in fact biased. No doubt, he had formed prelimiary views on some matters which were in issue in the inquiry, but of course he should not have said anything which suggested a closed mind or prejudgement.

“I take the view that the prejudice which he [Turner] suffered was not sufficient to meet the test set out in s.288 of the 1990 Act. Accordingly, I must dismiss the claim. It must, however, be obvious that I have been seriously concerned at the inspector’s conduct at the inquiry and I hope that steps are taken to ensure that lessons are learnt.”

Speaking to Building at the High Court, Turner said he is considering his options on whether to appeal the decision: “I think there are strong grounds to appeal and will be meeting with lawyers to discuss this and [we] will definitely be considering our position.

“The judge has endorsed that the procedure did not measure up, but has accepted that as a justifiable decision. It’s not a ringing endorsement of the planning process.

“We need a planning system that at the end of the day comes out with good outcomes, and the only way achieve that is to have a robust process. Unfortunately I don’t think this judgement enforces this. We need to come to a definitive decision about the right and wrong way to conduct a planning inquiry.”

The action was bought against the secretary of state as well as the mayor of London, Lambeth council, Shell and developer Braeburn Estates, a joint venture between Qatari Diar and Canary Wharf Group.

The scheme was initially due to start in 2013, however legal challenges and objections from a number of parties have led to significant delays.

The plans were vociferously opposed by English Heritage, Westmister Council and were criticised by UNESCO as a threat to the World Heritage Site of the Palace of Westminster.

Turner’s High Court challenge related to affordable housing, the setting of heritage assets and open space.

In his particulars of claim, Turner said that “the nub of the issue is that by concluding that there was no harm caused to any heritage assets by this development [Pickles] was unable to perform his duties under the Planning Listed Building and Conservation Area Act which requires him to give ‘special regard to the desirability of preserving’ listed buildings and conservation areas”.

Developer's CGI of the Shell Centre development as it would look from Waterloo Bridge

Developer’s CGI of the Shell Centre development as it would look from Waterloo Bridge. George Turner argues this is evidence that Eric Pickles’ conclusion that ‘no harm’ would be done to the setting of heritage assets is ‘unreasonable’

Turner, who was given protection against costs, said that heritage assets affected include the Westminster World Heritage Site, the grade I listed Royal Festival Hall and the existing Shell Centre, calling Pickles’ decision that “no harm” would be done to views and settings “perverse”.

The scheme has been masterplanned by Squire & Partners and included designs by KPF, Grid, Patel Taylor and Stanton Williams.