R (Baker) v. Environment Agency

Transcript date:

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Matter:

Court:

High Court

Judgement type:

Permission

Judge(s):

Burnett J

Transcript file:

CO/6317/2008

Neutral Citation Number: [2008] EWHC 2404 (Admin)

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE
QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION 
THE ADMINISTRATIVE COURT

Royal Courts of Justice 
Strand
London WC2A 2LL

Thursday, 18th September 2008

B e f o r e:

MR JUSTICE BURNETT

Between:

THE QUEEN ON THE APPLICATION OF BAKER

Claimant

v

THE ENVIRONMENT AGENCY

Defendant

Computer Aided Transcript of the Stenograph Notes of

WordWave International Limited

A Merrill Communications Company

190 Fleet Street London EC4A 2AG

Tel No: 020 7404 1400 Fax No: 020 7831 8838

(Official Shorthand Writers to the Court)

Mr J Hyam (instructed by Richard Buxton Solicitors) appeared on behalf of the Claimant

Mr A McCullough (instructed by the Environment Agency) appeared on behalf of the Defendant

J U D G M E N T

(As Approved by the Court)

Crown copyright©

1. MR JUSTICE BURNETT: This matter comes before me as an application for permission to apply for judicial review of, on the one hand, what amounts to inactivity on the part of the Environment Agency and, on the other, a decision to renew a waste permit in connection with a site, which I shall describe in a moment, belonging to the interested party, Hinton Organics Wessex Limited. The papers came before His Honour Judge Birtles, sitting as a High Court Judge, on 5th September 2008. He gave some directions but indicated that the application for permission should be adjourned to open court to be dealt with orally.

2. The claimant is a 17 year old girl who lives in Charlton Field Lane near Bristol, relatively close to a waste disposal site operated by Hinton Organics Wessex Limited. The precise distance of her home from the site, which itself occupies a considerable area, is a matter of some dispute, but it appears to be more than 250 metres and less than 500 metres.

3. This application for permission is concerned with something called bioaerosol emissions. Hinton Organics, amongst other things, dispose of or compost organic waste. Bioaerosols are produced in the process that they operate. They are invisible microscopic particles of various substances, including fungal spores for example. The minute microscopic particles are often contained within the mass of organic material, but to some extent they find their way into the atmosphere. There is evidence to suggest that once the levels of bioaerosol material reach a particular density in the air that they can be harmful to health. For that reason, the production is the subject of controls which are enforced by way of the licence issued by the Environment Agency to companies such as Hinton Organics. The production of bioaerosols is a matter of concern to the claimant, to her family, and also to others who live close to the site.

4. In 2006 the National Pollen and Air Biological Research Unit conducted an examination of the production of bioaerosols near to this site which raised concerns amongst the residents of the area. In due course, and as a result of those concerns, the Environment Agency was invited to investigate the levels of bioaerosols in the atmosphere at and near the site. The Environment Agency has not done so, in the sense of having itself performed tests on the atmosphere or caused others to do so.

5. The first challenge mounted in these proceedings is to the rationality of that decision. There is nothing in the papers which directly suggests that those in the position of Miss Baker are being subjected to levels of bioaerosols which give rise to a risk to health. What there is within the evidence before me is an indication that there are odour problems stemming from the site. Mr Hyam, who appeared today for Miss Baker, put it this way: there are odour problems which have been validated by Environmental Health Officers and if it is possible to smell airborne particles emanating from the site then there may well also be bioaerosols in the air.

6. There is before me no evidence to suggest the direct equivalence between odours generally and bioaerosols, although as a matter of common sense one would expect that once either was in the atmosphere their movement away from the site would be dictated by prevailing wind conditions. But that, with respect, is not necessarily the point. There is an ancillary question of whether bioaerosols are getting into the atmosphere at a level which generates risk.

7. The Environment Agency has chosen not to investigate this, as it says, entirely hypothetical problem for essentially two reasons. The first is that a risk assessment was carried out by an organisation called SLR in 2006 in accordance with practices adopted generally by the Agency which gave rise to no real concern. A second risk assessment was carried out by the same organisation in 2007 to the same effect. I should note that both of those were conducted on behalf of Hinton Organics, and at least the second, and maybe the first, was in response to litigation issued in the County Court by this claimant's mother which is founded in alleged nuisance claims. Amongst the claims originally advanced, but no longer advanced, was one that bioaerosol particles were themselves causing a nuisance. So, says the Agency, the weight of science which it accepts suggests that there is no problem. That is so, however genuine and well intended are the concerns of Miss Baker and anyone else living in the locality who takes the same view.

8. Mr McCullough, who appears on behalf of the Environment Agency, accepts that the Agency has a power, probably located in section 89 of the Environment Act, to undertake the type of investigation for which the claimant contends. He submits, however, that on the basis of the totality of the evidence (most of which he collects together in Annex 3 to the detailed grounds of resistance) it simply cannot be argued that the Agency has acted irrationally in failing to undertake the testing for which the claimant contends. Mr Hyam accepts that irrationality is the test, because we are here in the arena of an alleged failure to exercise a statutory power. In my judgment, there is no basis upon which it is properly arguable that the approach of the Agency in this regard is irrational. They were entitled to conclude that the risk assessments adequately addressed concerns.

9. The second basis upon which the challenge is advanced is a more technical or dense one. The time came in the early part of this year when the permit under which Hinton Organics operated from the Environment Agency needed to be renewed. There is an inter relationship between the renewal of a permit and planning control relating to the site in question. The inter relation ship, so far as it arises in statute, is found in regulation 9 of the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2007. To obtain a permit, an operation must fall within subparagraph (1) of that regulation, which itself refers to a detailed table contained in subparagraph (2). Subparagraph (3) reads:

"An operation does not fall within subparagraph 1 unless . . .

(b) the waste is spread in accordance with any requirement of or under the Town and Country Planning Act."

That is the statutory underpinning for the relationship between the activities of the Environment Agency in granting or refusing a licence and local planning control.

10. Mr Hyam on behalf of the claimant submits that it was irrational for the Environment Agency to renew the application for a permit which, subject to an important qualification, it did on 20th May 2008, because at that stage there was no confirmation that Hinton Organics was operating within the ambit of relevant planning permissions. Mr Hyam points to two contradictory letters from the Environment Agency dated 20th May 2008. In the first, which refers to earlier correspondence, all of which we do not have, the indication is that the application has not been renewed "as the planning status of the proposed operation has not been confirmed by the planning department at the local authority". That letter also indicated that there would be a review on the 6th June. However, on the same day a letter was written by the Environment Agency extending or reviewing the permit. The first letter to which I have referred and the second do not sit very comfortably together, and because they have only lately been produced it has not been possible for Mr McCullough to explore the reasons why there appears to have been an about face on the same day. However, the current position is that the licence has been renewed but the Environment Agency has indicated that if the Council consider that the operation is in breach of any planning requirement then the permit will effectively be cancelled. That one finds, for example, in a letter of 2nd June 2008 to the local planning services.

11. The most up to date evidence which came before the court today, and arises from a letter of 10th September 2008, is that the local planning authority have initiated the contravention procedures referred to in Circular 10/97. From the documents that have been produced, it is plain that the planning authority has not decided that there is a breach of planning control. What it has done is to initiate a discussion to enable it to determine whether that is the position. The question, therefore, is whether it is arguably irrational for the Environment Agency to await the outcome of the local authority's consideration before itself deciding whether to revoke the permit.

12. It seems to me that its approach is an entirely sensible, pragmatic and rational one. It is simply not arguable to suggest that the Environment Agency has been irrational in its approach to this question, any more than it was to the first with which I have dealt. For these reasons, this application for permission to apply for judicial review is refused.

13. MR MCCULLOUGH: My Lord, the claimant is publicly funded and I do not have any instructions to apply for such limited costs.

14. MR JUSTICE BURNETT: You would probably be beating the wind anyway.

15. MR MCCULLOUGH: I have no further applications.

16. MR HYAM: My Lord, I simply ask for detailed assessment of the claimant's costs.

17. MR JUSTICE BURNETT: Under the relevant regulations. Yes, of course.

18. MR HYAM: I am instructed to apply for permission. I am not sure I actually require permission. I think I have to go straight to the Court of Appeal.

19. MR JUSTICE BURNETT: I have refused permission for you to apply for judicial review. The form now is that if you wish to appeal to the Court of Appeal you go straight there.

20. MR HYAM: As I understand it there is a double permission application.

21. MR JUSTICE BURNETT: It can take a number of forms in practice, some more exhilarating than others.

22. MR HYAM: I am grateful, thank you.

23. MR MCCULLOUGH: My Lord, I am sorry you were kept late.

24. MR JUSTICE BURNETT: I am not worried for myself. I am sorry for those who are sitting in front of me. Today is one of those days where no time estimate has been remotely accurate.