Planning law: area of practice (barristers)

Planning barristers work as a team to decide the future of tangible changes to the national landscape, explains Andrew Parkinson from Landmark Chambers.

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A planning practice offers a mix of law and policy and is constantly changing as the government announces new rules on almost a monthly basis.

A planning barrister generally has three types of work: advisory work with local authorities on planning applications; inquiries where you’re instructed by a local authority or developer that has been refused planning permission; and challenges to planning decisions at the High Court via judicial review.

Disputes typically occur where housing developments are planned for green field land and a decision needs to be reached over what is more important, environmental protection or the need for housing.

Junior barristers typically work for local authorities, while the senior end of the Bar tends to work for developers. A barrister is instructed to provide proofs of evidence from expert witnesses, undertake a site visit and to hold conferences with the client and witnesses to identify potential weaknesses in each side’s arguments. Generally cases last around three or four months. Then there is the inquiry itself, which could last one day on a simple application, to three or four weeks on larger projects.

Cases may be heard in the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, but may also end up in the criminal courts. Generally around 40 per cent of your time is spent performing advocacy with the remainder in chambers.

Why teamwork is important in planning and environmental law

Clients for planning cases include parish councils; third parties or local residents; local authorities; developers; the government and non-governmental organisations such as Historic England or Natural England (if heritage or ecological matters are involved respectively); as well as the police and fire service if local infrastructure is likely to affect their work. At any one time a barrister in this area could expect to have 10–15 cases on the go and the job will vary from case to case as each client will have different requirements.

Teamwork is a huge factor as you’re working with a number of expert witnesses and a planning consultant on each inquiry. It is the barrister’s job to make sure that the facts are presented clearly for the argument, to provide expertise on points of law and to cross-examine expert witnesses. An ability to learn a subject quickly, in order to cross-examine, is essential, and expert witnesses could be providing information on anything from horse psychology to field drainage, depending on the situation.

What is life like as a planning and environmental barrister?

A planning practice offers a mix of law and policy and is constantly changing as the government announces new rules on almost a monthly basis. It is satisfying to see the consequences of your work, particularly if a project is built, but also if you’re opposing – you can still see the effect of small changes that you had made to the design, or the way in which traffic goes to a site, that have a day-to-day benefit for the people you’re representing.

The possible negative specific to planning and environmental law is that you can find yourself spending a week away from home around the country.

Recent infrastructure projects that affect the UK are useful to learn. Projects such as HS2, the Shard and expansions to Heathrow and Gatwick airports have all raised planning cases and all attract media attention. More and more hearings take place rather than inquiries and these are like a round table discussion without formal witnesses and require a different skills set. You could be the person at the table with the least to give in terms of your evidence and the skill is in helping your team present their argument in a logical way, knowing when to help the inspector or when sit back and let others take over.

Is planning and environmental law recession-proof?

During the boom years, developers enter into land agreements and when recession strikes you quite often get parties wanting to break that contract. You’ll also have property and contractual disputes about how an agreement should be interpreted and whether either side has honoured provisions in the contract. During a recession developers may say that it’s no longer viable to meet social housing or infrastructure requirements and disputes arise about whether that’s justified or not.

What can you expect as a planning and environmental law pupil?

Pupils don’t do evenings or weekends and are encouraged to go home at the end of the working day. They will take on the first draft of whatever their supervisor is doing, often planning cases or inquiries at the Court of Appeal. Pupils write the first drafts of skeleton arguments, examine evidence, talk to solicitors and witnesses, and go over the documents for the case. It’s unlikely that you’ll undertake planning cases during pupillage, but property cases are normally undertaken on your own during second six.

Types of law practised by planning and environmental barristers

  • Planning
  • European law
  • Statutory interpretation

Useful traits for planning barristers

  • Excellent teamwork skills
  • The ability to think on your feet and adapt to what a witness or expert says
  • Good advocacy skills
  • A cool head under pressure

ANDREW PARKINSON is a barrister at LANDMARK CHAMBERS. He read history at the University of Oxford in 2007 and was called to the Bar in 2010.

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