Prescott faces probe into housing ruling

Roger Pearson reports on an appeal which could find the Deputy Prime Minister guilty of not following his own guidelines.

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, recently cleared in the High Court of failing to comply with his own guidelines relating to levels of housing in the countryside, is now to face a Court of Appeal probe into the legality of his actions.

Although the July hearing centred on West Sussex, the case has broader implications for government plans to build some 4.4 million houses over the next 20 years – many of them in the countryside.

Mr Justice Scott Baker dismissed a challenge by West Sussex County Council against proposals by Prescott, who is also Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, that they must find room for an extra 12,800 homes.

During the High Court hearing leading planning silk Michael Moriarty, acting for West Sussex, said the case centred on national and regional guidance which Prescott had issued on housing levels.

He claimed that Prescott had failed to comply with the guidance, telling the judge: "If we are bound by the guidance, so is the Secretary of State as a matter of consistency."

It was argued that Prescott had, in making the order, failed to comply with his own guidelines.

Although the judge said he had "sympathy" for the council, which he said was rightly concerned about the threat to its environment of further development, he dismissed the challenge.

"The reasons why the Secretary of State decided to intervene in the West Sussex plan are, in my judgment, perfectly reasonable and comprehensible," said Judge Scott Baker.

He added that Prescott's reasons had been "adequately spelt out".

The judge continued: "In short there was no overriding evidence to justify the lower level of provision advocated by West Sussex."

A Court of Appeal challenge to the ruling, in the form of a renewed application for judicial review, is expected to be heard before Christmas.

The appeal will be presided over by three of the country's top judges.