University: University of Manchester
Planning law regulates the way in which property owners use and develop their property in the interests of the wider community. Local planning authorities are required to follow a legal and policy framework in their decision making. Planning law is often interwoven with other branches of the law, such as environmental, local government and judicial review. Clients might include landowners, developers, local authorities, public and private utilities, government departments, amenity groups and individuals.
In 2012, the year Alexander Greaves was called to the Bar, Rolling Stone magazine updated its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Nestled at number 258 was the 1968 offering The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society – the London band’s sixth studio album and one of their most acclaimed works. The album not only cemented a place in music history that year, but also inadvertently held a clue to Alexander’s path towards the Planning Bar.
“It was not entirely accidental that I ended up in planning law or that I did my pupillage at Francis Taylor Building (FTB),” recalls Alexander. “During my law conversion course, I decided I wanted to go into public law and looked at various different areas. It was then I developed an interest in village green law – a slightly esoteric discipline related to planning law. It was while researching it further that I came across FTB, as they’ve done quite a lot of work in the area.”
He obtained pupillage at FTB and, due to the fact that few planning law modules are taught, found that the work he was doing was unlike anything he had experienced during his postgraduate legal education. While he points out that no prior knowledge of the subject is expected of young barristers, the learning curve during his first few months of pupillage was pretty steep, as he had to get to grips with much of the law from scratch.
Pupillage at FTB is split between three supervisors, with pupils spending four months with each and the level of responsibility increasing as experience is gained. “Certainly for the first four months I was pretty much just following my supervisor,” recalls Alexander, “accompanying them to inquiries, court, conferences or on site visits. I would also do written work for them in chambers, whether researching points of law or doing first drafts of opinions and skeleton arguments. After the first four months, you are encouraged to start doing more of that sort of work for other members of chambers, which helps to broaden your experience. Moving into the second six, halfway through your second supervisor, you are then encouraged take on some work of your own while continuing to do work for other members of chambers.”
While much of the work Alexander found himself doing in his own right during this time bore little resemblance to his planning caseload today, it gave him the chance to build confidence dealing with matters on his own and to familiarise himself with the workings of the court. He was also fortunate enough to have the opportunity to act as a junior for another member of chambers on a week-long village green inquiry.
“I’m not sure how many cases I did, but it gives you experience; and although you have the assistance of your supervisors, who are there for guidance if you need it, at the end of the day you are the one on your feet, arguing in court. The nature of the job is such that there isn’t a lot of pure planning work at pupil level, although I did do some, so a lot of what I was doing was small county court work, which dropped off once I got tenancy.”
Variety is the spice of life
One of the things that Alexander likes most about the planning Bar is that his workload is quite varied and he finds his time split between advisory work, inquiry work and court work. The advisory work consists of looking at papers and advising local planning authorities on decisions they may be taking, advising prospective developers on projects they may be undertaking or advising people either who want to object to planning permission or have other queries about land use.
A planning inquiry is an appeal against a decision of a local planning authority and is presided over by planning inspectors, who make decisions on behalf of the secretary of state. They can vary in length, although Alexander suggests that a rise in the number of informal hearings (which often don’t involve barristers) to clear up minor disputes means there are currently fewer one- or two-day inquiries and most last between one and two weeks. These take place up and down the country, depending on where the land to which they relate happens to be. As such, Alexander often finds himself travelling long distances and staying for the duration of the inquiry, and while he very much enjoys the change of scene, he also warns that “they can quite often be in the middle of nowhere”. During the pandemic, the Planning Inspectorate (like other courts) has shifted to virtual hearings. It remains to be seen what format will be the preferred option in the future, but it seems likely that there will continue to be a much greater number of virtual hearings and inquiries.
He also highlights the differences between inquiries and court proceedings: “It is quite different from court advocacy, in that it is common practice to sit down in these inquiries. It is procedurally more informal than a lot of courts and there is not quite such strict adherence to the rules of evidence as in other areas. The only caveat to that would perhaps be for enforcement inquiries where, because evidence generally relates to evidence of fact, it is given under oath.”
Adapt to survive
The difference between court-based planning work and the more informal environment of planning inquiries means that lawyers specialising in the area need to be able to adjust to different tribunals and working conditions. “Being able to adapt to different environments is key,” explains Alexander. “From appearing at a planning inquiry to appearing at the High Court, or even in criminal court dealing with prosecutions following enforcement action – flexibility is the key thing.”
In addition, Alexander suggests that a general understanding of politics and government policy in the area is very useful and may well be worth cultivating for those attending a pupillage interview at a planning set. “It plays such an important role in the development and application of planning law,” he claims. “Policy is so fundamental that having an understanding of current government thinking is vital. National policy and planning practice guidance is available online; you don’t need to read through it all, but it’s good to have a general understanding of the overriding themes. Quite a lot can be gleaned from the newspapers; affordable housing, air quality and concerns over greenhouse gas emissions are topical issues that have been in the news quite a lot recently.”
“You can also sit in on planning inquiries,” he offers. “They happen in council offices up and down the country and are advertised on council websites. Documents are made available to the public either online or at the inquiry venue. It would definitely help you show an interest in planning at interview, where they are interested in why you want to go to a particular chambers, rather than why you just want to be a barrister. It helps to demonstrate that you’ve researched what that chambers does and show some understanding of the key issues around their areas of specialty.”