Planning applications often engage many competing interests and maintaining public confidence in the process can be a minefield for decision-makers. In one case, a housing development was blocked by the High Court on grounds that a councillor whose vote proved decisive gave the appearance of bias.
The councillor was paid £3,000 a year as a director of a social housing provider which had an interest in the outcome of the planning application. It had shown itself keen to work with the developers and was seriously interested in delivering the affordable housing aspect of the scheme. The councillor’s vote at a committee meeting had tipped the balance in favour of outline consent being granted.
In ruling on an objector’s judicial review challenge to that decision, the Court found that the councillor had obtained no personal benefit from his involvement in the decision-making process. He had no direct financial interest in the planning application and was thus not automatically disqualified from casting his vote.
However, the Court nevertheless ruled that the councillor’s involvement gave rise to an appearance of potential bias. Informed public observers might reasonably have thought that the developers and the social housing providers were working closely together and had the very same interests in the decision.
In those circumstances, the councillor’s private interest as a director of the social housing provider was engaged, not just his interest in the cause of affordable housing. The planning permission was quashed.