Official decision-makers are often accused of acting with closed minds. However, as a Court of Appeal ruling in a planning case made plain, there is a great difference between unlawful predetermination and a legitimate pause for thought.
The case concerned an application for planning permission to build 55 new homes. A local authority planning officer's report recommended refusal of the application on grounds that it would involve the loss of an allocated rural employment site, contrary to local planning policy. The report also highlighted the impact the development would have on the countryside and its unsustainable location.
Despite that advice, the council's planning committee stated following a meeting that it was 'minded' to approve the development. A final decision was deferred, however, and a second meeting took place about two months later at which the committee decided to refuse the application.
A local resident who had spoken in support of the proposal mounted a judicial review challenge to the allegedly inconsistent decision, asserting that committee members had acted with closed minds. His complaints were, however, rejected by a judge.
Dismissing his appeal against that outcome, the Court observed that the fact that several members of the committee had second thoughts between the two meetings might be viewed as evidence of open, rather than closed, minds. The procedure followed was in accordance with the council's constitution, which ordinarily required committee members to defer decisions that would be contrary to officers' recommendations to a second meeting.
The purpose of such deferrals was plainly to give decision-makers an opportunity to stand back and think again about the implications of going behind a planning officer's advice. Given that no final decision was reached at the first meeting, the principle of consistency was not engaged. All options remained open at the second meeting and councillors were, on further reflection, entitled to change their positions, giving cogent reasons for doing so.