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CHALLENGE TO COUNCIL'S PLANNING PERMISSION DECISION GETS NEW LIFE

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Residents opposed to the multi-million-pound redevelopment of York's Barbican Centre have had their hopes of scotch...
Residents opposed to the multi-million-pound redevelopment of York's Barbican Centre have had their hopes of scotching the decision boosted by a high court judge.

Members of the Save our Barbican (SOB) campaign group are adamant that the city council's grant of two planning permissions for the scheme was 'fundamentally flawed'.

And today Mr Justice Goldring breathed new life into their challenge when he ordered the Legal Services Commission (LSC) to reconsider its ruling that SOB members would have to contribute 50% of the legal costs of taking the case to the high court.

Campaigners' bid to overturn the planning permissions appeared to have hit the buffers in June last year when another high court judge, Mr Justice Elias, dismissed their judicial review challenge.

He did so after SOB's lawyers were forced to withdraw from the case due to the 'acrimonious' dispute with the LSC over how the case should be funded.

In the event, despite the tens of millions of pounds at stake and the crucial environmental issues raised, the voice of a lone student - 54-year-old Robert Urguhart Collins - was the only one to be raised at the June hearing.

Mr Justice Goldring's ruling today means that - if the LSC now reaches a positive decision to make a greater contribution towards the costs of the case - the way may be opened for SOB members to challenge the 9 June decision in the court of appeal.

Until the marathon litigation surrounding the development is finally resolved, the entire future of the scheme will remain in the balance.

Objectors say the council 'irrationally' decided it did not need to have detailed environmental impact studies before it when it granted the permissions for the redevelopment of the Barbican Centre and the nearby Kent Street car park.

Their barrister, Gordon Nardell, has argued the council's decision was 'riddled with errors of principle from beginning to end' and that the planning consents are 'nullities which aren't worth the paper they are written on and ought to be put out of their misery.'

Mr Justice Goldring said that, had the LSC properly applied its own guidelines, its decision may well have been different and there would have been none of the 'acrimony which soured' the funding assessment.

In taking the view that SOB members should pay half the legal costs of mounting a high court challenge to the planning permissions, the judge said the LSC had referred to the 'relative affluence' of York residents generally and the below average unemployment rate in the city.

The LSC then tried to embark on a 'micro' analysis of the financial resources of each SOB member, demanding that full details be given of each objectors' insurance arrangements and assets, something which some SOB members saw as a 'gross breach of their rights'.

The judge said 'tempers became a little frayed' as the campaign group's lawyers explained that the area around The Barbican Centre is relatively deprived with many residents on low incomes.

Examples were given of SOB's chairman, who is a part-time taxi driver, and another member who is a widow on invalidity benefit, but the LSC persisted in its stance that SOB members should have to pay half of legal costs bills which were likely to run into tens of thousands of pounds.

Through jumble sales and other fund raising efforts, SOB said it could just about manage a£3,000 contribution, but said that any more would be unreasonable and would ultimately lead to the collapse of the case and the denial of 'access to justice' for SOB members.

Mr Justice Goldring said he was 'conscious of the difficulty' the LSC faces in fairly disbursing scarce public funds for litigation and, in some circumstances, it was entitled to take a 'highly detailed and intrusive approach' when inquiring into applicants' means.

However, he said the LSC's initial concentration on the 'relative affluence' of York residents in general was 'erroneous' and to make such detailed inquiries about the financial position of SOB members was an 'exception to the general rule'.

Despite expressing 'some sympathy' for the LSC, the judge said that, by its approach, it appeared to 'question the honesty' of what it was being told by the campaign group and there was no justification for that.

The LSC's complaints that SOB had been 'obstructive' and 'stone-walled' when asked for details about its membership's finances were also unjustified, the judge added.

He concluded that SOB's members had 'modest' means and were fighting a case which raised important environmental issues for which public funding was justified.

The judge's ruling means the LSC must now reconsider the level of public funding that should be devoted to the campaigners' case. A positive decision from the LSC may open the way for SOB members to renew their judicial review challenge to the planning permissions in the court of appeal.

STRAND NEWS SERVICE

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