High Court to rule on residents’ claim that DETR inquiry breaches the right to fair trial.
The planning system in England and Wales may be thrown into chaos if a landmark court case finds that the secretary of state cannot always rule on planning decisions.

Article 6 of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees the right to a fair trial, has been invoked by a residents group opposed to developer Alconbury’s plan to build on Ministry of Defence land in Hampshire.

The scheme, 650 315 m2 of warehouses with rail freight links, is currently the subject of a public planning inquiry but residents say the legislation means that the DETR is unfit to make a decision on the scheme. They argue that one government department cannot make a ruling that would financially benefit another government department.

Alconbury has now taken the matter to the High Court to get a decision on whether the Human Rights Act, which came into force on 2 October, is contravened by the inquiry.

Ian Trehearne, a partner in law firm Berwin Leighton, said if the court were to rule the process unfair, the secretary of state would have to hand over final planning decisions to an independent adjudicator.

It may be that the secretary of state can’t give fair trial to his own policy

Ian Trehearne, Berwin Leighton

Trehearne added that he would not rule out the possibility of the Human Rights Act being used to scupper construction contracts under prime contracting or private finance initiative deals.

“This is going to be a case that decides planning in the future,” he said. “If the court finds against Alconbury, the logic is that the secretary of state can no longer be the planner of last resort. It will make the planning system a much more complicated and unpredictable business.

“It may be seen that the secretary of state can’t give fair trial to his own policy,” Trehearne added.