With their local authorities facing an estimated bill of millions of pounds for litigation and for planning enquiries, residents in the Manchester area have good cause to breathe a sigh of relief over the tactics adopted by their civic leaders in a recent planning battle.
The case, the subject of a recent ruling by the Law Lords, was over proposals for a £200 million shopping city by the Manchester Ship Canal and has dragged on for nearly a decade.
The Lords have in fact further reserved their decision on the form of the final costs order in the action. It is hoped that this ruling will provide guidelines for the profession on costs apportionment in such cases.
Whatever the decision, the local councils are going to have to foot a hefty bill. But it will be spread among eight of them which formed a consortium to challenge the plans nine years ago when the dispute began.
The councils have lost their fight and their challenge to the scheme, which they still say will create traffic chaos in the region, has been overruled.
But Keith Davy a solicitor with Tameside Metropolitan District Council, which was the leading local authority co-ordinating the actions of the consortium, believes that by combining their resources the authorities will have spread the financial burden and eased the final impact of any order imposed by the Law Lords.
The case has convinced him that when major local issues are involved the consortium approach is the best solution if a number of authorities have the same legal axe to grind.
The consortium, made up of Tameside, Bolton, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale, Stockport and Wigan Metropolitan District Councils and Manchester City Council, was set up from the outset of the action.
"Obviously with any arrangement of this nature it is important to ensure there are no conflicts of interest, but provided there are not then our experience has shown that they can work well," says Davy.
"I think it is a particularly relevant way of handling cases such as this one where there are a number of local authorities with the same approach towards a regional or sub-regional issue. Apart from the financial benefits you get a far wider pool of expertise on which to draw."
He also believes a case of this nature speaks volumes for the value of London agents,
in this case Sharpe Pritchard.
"We are talking about a case which by any standards was massive – the trial bundle alone ran to 1,600 pages – and which had numerous interlocutory proceedings.
"But by using London agents you greatly ease the burden of things such as interlocutories and by doing that reduce the level of disruption such an action has on day-to-day work," he says.
"Particularly at local authority level the legal department is busy on a wide variety of matters, but a case of this nature could take over and dominate at the cost of other matters. Obviously the workload still remains high, but by making full use of London agents in the way we did you minimise the disruption."
As far as costs are concerned Trevor Griffiths of Sharpe Pritchard says the issue at stake is whether local authorities will have to foot the bills of all the respondents or just those of the Secretary of State. At the moment, in addition to the Secretary of State's costs, they are being asked to pay the costs of the scheme's developers. It is hoped that the Lords will give a definitive ruling on this point.