Landowners intent on developing their properties can find it intensely annoying when neighbours resist their plans. However, as a High Court ruling made plain, the right to object to planning applications is one of the benefits of living in a democratic country where freedom of expression is taken seriously.
The case concerned a property set in an area of outstanding natural beauty, which had become the focus of acrimonious and intractable dispute. Over the years, its owner had made over 50 separate planning applications, many of which drew objections from other property owners in the area.
The owner, together with her husband, launched proceedings against four members of the local residents' association, accusing them of harassment and claiming more than £1.3 million in damages. She contended, amongst other things, that their conduct was oppressive and unreasonable and that they were using the planning system as a device to upset her. Many of their planning objections were, she asserted, spurious, unmeritorious and improperly motivated.
For their part, the members vehemently denied those allegations and argued that the owner's case represented an unwarranted intrusion into their human right to express themselves freely and an attempt to impede their entitlement lawfully to object to planning applications through the proper legal channels.
In refusing the owner's application for a pre-trial injunction, the Court observed that, where spurious planning objections are spitefully and maliciously made with intent to cause distress, there may be a potential basis for judicial intervention. It emphasised, however, that the law should be slow indeed to impinge on precious freedom of expression rights and the entitlement to make genuine and meritorious objections to planning applications.
The owner was perfectly entitled to seek to develop her property and might be upset, frustrated or even angry at the opposition she had encountered. However, the Court could see no sensible or credible basis on which it could be maintained that the members' objections were vindictive or devised to cause distress or otherwise inflict harm on the owner and her husband. There was no realistic prospect of establishing at trial that the members' actions, whether individually or cumulatively, represented a course of conduct amounting to harassment.
The Court noted that, in a democratic society, the members were entitled to differ from the owner on the merits of her planning applications. If anything, the evidence clearly pointed to them having deeply held, sincere and genuine reservations about the nature and extent of her development proposals. It was the very purpose of the planning system to adjudicate such disputes in a regulated manner.