Government support for an animal research centre amounted to "an abuse of the planning process", claimed the lawyer acting for animal welfare groups this week as a High Court challenge was launched.
Animal Aid and the National Anti-Vivisection Society have launched the legal action to challenge, what they reckon to be, the "perverse, unreasonable and unfair decision" made by the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to allow Cambridge University to build a £32m primate research laboratory. They argued that his ruling dismissed the clear advice of his own planning inspector, as well as evidence presented to a public inquiry held at the end of last year, to determine if the centre could be built on green belt countryside.
The proposals to build the centre near Huntingdon Life Sciences, the controversial company that tests drugs on live animals, were thrown out by South Cambridgeshire District Council, but the university appealed and a public inquiry was held.
In their appeal, the two groups drew attention to public statements made by the Prime Minister Tony Blair which backed the plans, as well as letters from the Department of Trade and Industry Minister Lord Sainsbury, which supported the application.
"We're saying in this appeal that the intervention in this case by the Prime Minister and the DTI Minister amounts to an abuse of the planning process," commented Norna Hughes, of City firm Nabarro Nathanson, who acted for the groups. "The only way for my clients to get a fair hearing is to go to court." She argued that ministers were eager to be seen not to be ceding ground to animal rights activists who use unlawful means, and although such an approach was "no part of the client's agenda", that might have "coloured" their view towards her clients. The consequence was that any form of planning inquiry was "only going through the motions".
According to Hughes, the only independent assessment of this planning application was by the local planning authority and the inspector, both of whom turned it down, but the Government still approved it. Commenting on the university's refusal to present evidence of need for the proposed development, and therefore the inability of the inquiry to test the evidence, the planning inspector had said: "Without this, the fears of some objectors that the outcome is a foregone conclusion is granted credibility."
"There's a point of principle for the public inquiry process here," said Hughes. "It's there for everyone be able to put forward their case and for that case to be determined objectively. It's important that people have confidence in the process and that it's an objective one."