Local planning authorities will wish to take careful note of the recent Tribunal decision in Bristol City Council v ICO and Portland and Brunswick Squares Association (EA/2010/0012), which will please residents’ associations, conservation groups and others wishing to scrutinise planning decisions about historic buildings.
PPG 15 (a Planning Policy Guidance document) requires that, where a building is listed or makes a positive contribution to a conservation area, it should only be demolished if there is “clear and convincing evidence that all reasonable efforts have been made to sustain existing uses or find viable new uses and these efforts have failed”. Bristol CC granted permission to demolish a listed building in its ownership, relying for PPG 15 purposes on the developer’s viability reports which apparently showed alternative uses of the building to be commercially unviable. It subsequently refused to disclose those reports, relying on the exemption at regulation 12(5)(e) of the EIR 2004, which applies to the extent that disclosure “would adversely affect … the confidentiality of commercial or industrial information where such confidentiality is provided by law to protect a legitimate economic interest”.
The requesters argued that a reasonable person would not regard these reports as confidential because the planning process is one that assumes and requires public involvement. The Tribunal disagreed, and found that regulation 12(5)(e) was engaged.
It went on to find, however, that the public interest favoured disclosure, given the decisiveness of these reports in a matter which had aroused substantial local controversy. The Tribunal considered it proper to take into account the “general mismatch between the resources of developers and residents’ groups” and noted that “so far as PPG 15 viability reports are concerned, it seems to us that developers will not be able to refuse to supply them if they want to obtain the relevant consent but that, given their hypothetical nature, it may be possible for them to construct such reports in a way that does not reveal sensitive commercial information specific to themselves”.
The Tribunal stressed that it was not setting down a general precedent concerning planning decisions, and that absent PPG 15 (or, presumably, its successor guidance PPS 5) or council ownership of the building in question, its decision might have been different. Where those two factors are present however, public accountability trumps commercial confidentiality.