Real Estate & Projects

In the name of using the law to better the environment for people and wildlife, Cambridge firm Richard Buxton threw another spanner in the workings of the UK's planning process last week.
The niche claimant firm has recently sent a letter, on behalf of local residents, to Tower Hamlets Council claiming that the 1997 planning applications for London's Spitalfields redevelopment did not include a proper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) under 1988 regulations and the Environmental Assessment Directive, and are therefore unlawful. The letter asks Tower Hamlets to nullify the consequences of this breach of European Union Law.
Spitalfields Development Group (SDG) must be overjoyed by this latest effort, among a string of irritations, to blight the scheme. Its prospective tenant Allen & Overy was also sent a copy of the letter.
Richard Buxton partner Susan Ring is running the case and has instructed planning barrister Richard Harwood of Eldon Chambers, who was also involved in last year's judicial review of the scheme with Patrick Clarkson QC.
No doubt a lengthy correspondence will now follow. The matter may also be discussed at a Tower Hamlets planning committee meeting later this month, which SDG had intended to use to talk about a few minor points concerning building materials… if only.
But in-house advisers at Tower Hamlets Council, who have instructed Charles George QC of 2 Harcourt Buildings, and SDG adviser Brian Greenwood at Norton Rose will not have been greatly surprised that Richard Buxton has played this card. Environmental assessment has become the firm's party piece. It has not only moved the law in a very significant way on EIA, but has also driven home to local authorities and developers that they actually have to take EIA seriously, ending the assumption that it applies only to very big projects.
Most famously, it was used by name partner Richard Buxton's client Dido Berkeley to quash planning permission for Fulham Football Club to build a 15,000-seat stadium. The case was first rejected by the High Court. The Court of Appeal then found that the Secretary of State had acted unlawfully in not considering the requirement for EIA, but refused to quash the planning permission. The dogged persistence that took the case on to the House of Lords is a defining characteristic of the firm's approach.
An essential element of the EIA procedure is that the environmental statement should be available to the public and that the public should be able to express an opinion – a good fit with the firm's agenda it would seem. But Richard Buxton is really after something more. The EIA procedure does not provide for an open, public discussion as such. The omission of an EIA is simply a very common mistake which the firm has used repeatedly to get development proposals into the context of a court. The deeper problem, he feels, lies in the nature of decision making.
At times it may seem that all the firm can achieve is a series of delays and irritations. Indeed, a new scheme has been put forward for Fulham FC, this time for a 30,000-seat stadium. But Buxton et al will not give up so easily.
They are taking issue with the fact that the Secretary of State has not called for a public inquiry into this much bigger scheme. This “fishy business”, as Buxton puts it, has prompted him and his client to start another round in the legal battle. The case will begin in the High Court tomorrow.
Detractors will continue to call Richard Buxton an ambulance chaser. But the truth is that any planning lawyer pitted against the firm can expect to be in for a long and bumpy ride. What's more, Buxton and Ring are not having to do too much chasing. They are receiving more calls than ever before – so much so that they are seriously contemplating expanding to take on an experienced assistant to help with the workload. City lawyers who fancy sitting on the other side of the fence for a change should apply.