Environmental group’s judicial review challenge over new school plans refused

An environmental group which challenged a Scottish local authority’s decision to grant planning permission for a new secondary school to be built in the Fife countryside has had a petition for judicial review dismissed.

A judge in the Court of Session ruled that the council’s decision was “lawful” – despite the fact the development was “contrary” to the development plan.

The petitioners St Andrews Environmental Protection Association Limited sought reduction of a decision in May 2014 of the respondent Fife Council granting planning permission in principle for the erection of a new Madras College on land owned by the interested partyHermiston Securities Limited at land to the north of Pipeland Farm in St Andrews.

Lord Doherty (pictured) heard that there had been “a great deal of local debate and controversy” over the proposed development.

Madras College, the local authority secondary school in St Andrews is currently located on two sites, with the playing fields elsewhere. The senior school is in South Street and the junior school is at Kilrymont, but buildings are “unsuitable for current and future educational needs”, the court heard.

Lord Doherty explained: “It is not hard to appreciate why the proposed development has given rise to so much controversy. It is significantly contrary to the development plan. Pipeland is in the countryside. It is in the green belt. It is prime agricultural land.

“A development of the type and scale proposed at this location would have significant adverse landscape and visual impacts. Serious harm in planning terms is anticipated. On the other hand, there is a pressing need for a new secondary school.”

In about 2006 the council, acting as education authority, began investigating and considering options for a replacement school.

Initially the construction of a new building at Kilrymont had been a serious contender, but latterly that proposal was seen to be problematical and the site possibilities were re-assessed.

The potential options considered included North Haugh, which was ultimately removed from the list of “suitable alternatives” because it was not large enough to have the school and playing pitches on a single site.

A report concluded that the sites worthy of further consideration were Pipeland and Kilrymont, and on 16 May 2014 the council issued the planning permission for the new school at Pipeland after concluding it was the only the site that was “both suitable and available within a reasonable timescale”.

Despite stating in its reasons that the development was “significantly contrary” to the development plan, the council said it placed “significant weight” on the need for the school and the lack of a suitable, available, alternative site within the environs of St Andrews.

On behalf of the petitioners it was submitted that in ruling out the North Haugh site the respondent had erred in two respects.

Firstly, it was argued that the council failed to take into account the ability to combine North Haugh with an adjacent site at Station Road.

The council said that option would not constitute a single site, but it was submitted that the option of using North Haugh as the school site with Station Park providing the sports pitches was not a split site option.

Secondly, it was argued that if the council had been entitled to treat North Haugh/Station Park as a split site, it had erred in ruling it out from further consideration on that ground. It had misconstrued the education authority’s preference for a single site as being an “absolute requirement”.

However, the judge did not accept the contention that the respondent overlooked the possibility of North Haugh being used in conjunction with the playing fields at Station Park.

He added that the council was “fully entitled” to regard North Haugh/Station Park as a split site as the sites were separated by the A91, and in any event the planning officer’s report did not rule out the option on that basis only.

In a written opinion, Lord Doherty said: “The planning merits of the application are not a matter for this court. This court’s role, in the exercise of the supervisory jurisdiction, is to examine the lawfulness of the respondent’s decision in light of the challenges to it which have been advanced. In my opinion the grant of planning permission was lawful. The planning authority was entitled to approach matters in the way that it did.

“If the North Haugh/Station Park site was unsuitable then it mattered not a jot that development on it would be more consonant with the development plan than development at Pipeland. The weight which the planning authority attached to the disadvantage of the site being split, and of the site being a small one without scope for future development, were matters of judgement for it.

“Its decision that the option was unsuitable was not irrational. Nor am I persuaded that the planning authority left out of account any relevant considerations or had regard to any irrelevant considerations.”

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