Thornton Holdings Ltd, owner of the 120-acre estate 19th century listed Thornton Manor, near the pretty village of Thornton Hough on the Wirral, was granted planning permission in December 2011 for the erection of three marquees on the estate to be used as wedding venues.
The planning officer advised that permission be granted with various conditions, including the recommendation of a time limit of five years. The recommendation was recorded in the minutes of the planning committee meeting, showing that the committee had intended the condition to be applied. However, when it was issued by Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council, the permission was granted without any conditions applied, including the stipulation of a time limit.
Pleased to receive indefinite planning consent, the manor’s owners, Thornton Holdings Ltd, attracted over 180 bookings, with weddings in the marquees confirmed up to 2020.
However, as a business competitor for weddings and functions located just one mile away from the manor, Thornton Hall Hotel wasn’t as happy as its neighbour. When the council discovered its mistake six years later, and confessed its error, the hotel’s owners mounted a legal challenge.
The High Court case of Thornton Hall Hotel Ltd, R (On the Application Of) v Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council  EWHC 560 (Admin) (23 March 2018) was brought by the Thornton Hall Hotel against the council, citing its rival Thornton Holdings as an interested party.
The judicial review found that the owner of the manor would have known about the error, but had chosen to stay silent about it and did not bring the matter to the attention of the council. The decision to continue taking bookings beyond the five years was therefore taken at the company’s own risk.
Despite the owner’s defence that over 50,000 people would be adversely affected by the removal of the marquees, the judge ruled that, in continuing to run the venues beyond the December 2016 time limit, the venue had breached planning laws. Mr Justice Kerr said that a clear error had occurred and that the integrity of the planning process demanded it be corrected.
The judge said the marquees were in Green Belt land and permission was intended to be permitted only because the hire fees would pay for restoration of the adjacent gardens.
Mr Justice Kerr said exceptional circumstances meant a challenge could be brought long after the normal time limit for judicial review. He said: “I am satisfied that the decision notice did not faithfully reproduce the decision made by the planning committee and that the cause of the error is likely to have been, at least, human failing.”
“I do not think that the existence of these bookings should override the public interest in the integrity of the planning process,” he continued. “It was not, in my judgment, realistic to rely on expiry of the three month limitation period without also bringing the issue into the open, which the interested party decided not to do. Given the failure of the interested party to draw the LPA’s attention to the apparent error, it is unattractive then to assert that the claimant and the LPA bear responsibility for the delay in the matter coming to light.”
He rejected the argument that Thornton Manor had marquee bookings to honour until 2020 since the owners had taken the bookings in the knowledge that they had kept “silent about the obvious error that had been made”.
The judge’s decision is quite clear that if an error is made between a Planning Committee decision and a Planning Permission Notice, then the traditional appeal period can be ignored by the court in exceptional circumstances. This sets a potential precedent with wider implications than the wedding venue market on the Wirral.
Your local Property Surveying independent Chartered Surveyor in Merseyside and the Wirral is Richard Preece MRICS.