Council faces big legal bill after losing court case over housing plans

A council is facing a significant legal bill after losing a court case which could have implications for all local authorities in Northern Ireland.

judicial review has ruled that Derry City and Strabane District Council used an “unlawful” procedure last year, when it refused to grant planning permission for a large housing development in Derry.

As a result, the council’s decision has been quashed — and its legal costs from the judicial review could be as much as £70,000.

However, the court ruling is expected to have an impact much wider than just one council.

The Sunday Independent has learned that its findings are now being studied by two government departments at Stormont to establish if any planning or local government legislation has to be changed.

The case arose after a development company called Hartlands (NI) Ltd applied for planning permission to build 260 houses in the Springtown area of Derry.

At a meeting of the local council’s planning committee in July 2020, members of the committee voted to refuse the company’s application.

Four councillors voted to refuse planning permission for the development, while three councillors voted in support of allowing the houses to be built.

The application was refused because the proposed site was outside the current limit for housing developments, as outlined in the Derry Area Plan.

However, two other councillors on the committee were not allowed to take part in the vote because they had not attended a pre-determination hearing in relation to the application.

In their submission as part of the judicial review, legal representatives for Hartlands argued that the procedure which prevents councillors from voting in such circumstances was “unlawful”.

The judge in the case agreed, and ordered that the decision taken by the council’s planning committee in July 2020 be quashed. The judge also ordered that Derry and Strabane council pay 75pc of Hartlands’ costs, on top of their own legal bill.

The judicial review findings were due to be discussed in confidential business at the council’s monthly meeting last Thursday. However, following representations from a number of councillors, it was agreed that the issue should be discussed in open business.

Speaking at the meeting, Aontú councillor Emmet Doyle was critical of the council’s decision to contest the matter in court and described the situation as an “absolute scandal”. He claimed the cost to ratepayers could run into “hundreds of thousands of pounds”.

The council’s lead legal services officer, Philip Kingston, said the planning procedure ruled as “unlawful” by the judge in the judicial review had been adopted by all councils in Northern Ireland on the advice of the Department for Communities (DfC).

Mr Kingston said the court ruling had highlighted an “issue of concern” for all 11 councils in North.

He added that the ruling was now being studied by the Department of Infrastructure (DfI) and DfC to see if any “urgent change” to legislation was required.

Mr Kingston questioned the suggestion that the council’s legal costs could run into “hundreds of thousands of pounds”. He said that previous similar court cases had cost the council in the “region of £30,000 to £70,000”.

Daniel McAteer, a spokesman for Hartlands (NI) Ltd, welcomed the court ruling.

“Whilst we are very grateful to the court for its time and the prompt decision, we are obviously very disappointed that the project  which involves the provision of 260 much-needed social/affordable homes in Derry — has been seriously delayed and jeopardised as a result of the planning decision in July 2020.

“Given the passage of time, the promoters have now been left with a very difficult decision as to whether to attempt to rescue the project or take an alternative course of action.”

A spokesperson for DfI said they were aware of the court ruling and are considering “the implications for the planning system”. 

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