University: University of Cambridge
Planning law regulates how 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. It’s a vital tool for regulating the use of land in the public (by which we normally mean, the community) interest.
As a child, Peter Wadsley would listen to his father, a solicitor in local government, “grumble about the planning work he had to do”. These evenings spent engaging in his father’s work inadvertently influenced Peter’s career trajectory. Having started in the legal profession as a solicitor like his father, Peter eventually made the decision to qualify as a barrister.
The transition to the Bar meant Peter had the chance to do “higher-level advocacy” while also having “more control” over his work. “I was generally always interested in planning,” Peter says. “However, when I started out at the Bar, I worked in criminal, family and general common law”, before following in his father’s footsteps to specialise in “planning, highways and local government”. Peter is now head of the public and administrative practice group at St John’s Chambers.
Advocacy and minor triumphs
The work in this area involves a “fair amount of high court advocacy”, which was one of the main draws for Peter. He adds: “There’s also quite a lot of public inquiries in front of inspectors and then, more generally, we also do the advisory work that comes with being any kind of lawyer, from writing opinions to drafting documents.”
In terms of particular cases that have stood out during his career, Peter highlights a Court of Appeal case: Trim v North Dorset District Council. “This case was about the breach of condition notices under a section of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990,” he explains.
“The problem with planning law is that it’s quite esoteric. With this case, there was no decided law on the particular point we were dealing with and since I won the case, I regard it as something of a minor triumph.”
Another standout case for Peter involves an eroded footpath by the River Severn. “The question in this case was what should happen to the people who use the footpath – for example, could the footpath be moved into the adjacent land or had it simply ceased to exist?”
“We spent about three days arguing about this in the High Court” before the judge ruled that this wouldn’t be feasible and the footpath was no more – “from a lawyer’s point of view it was great fun.” (R (Gloucester CC) v Secretary of State).
The nature of law, and in this case planning law, is that there are constant changes and developments. “The government spends a lot of its time making fundamental changes to the planning system,” Peter says. “There was a white paper published three or four years ago, which has just been substantially put on hold because it generated a huge amount of opposition.”
What other trends should aspiring barristers interested in this practice area watch out for? Ongoing delays in appeals as a result of covid-19, challenges coming to light over the increasing use of remote technology and the types of hearing that can be conducted over Zoom or Teams, the pressures for local authorities to digitalise their records and the fact that local planning authorities are under resourced, are just some examples.
While the increased use of technology poses a variety of challenges, Peter is also keen to emphasise the positives that can come from this: “It’s particularly helpful if you’ve got minor hearings that might last only an hour. It’s much better to do it virtually, rather than have everybody travel to some remote part of Devon to spend an hour discussing what we’re going to do at a public inquiry in six weeks’ time.”
"There’s just so much more public interest due to the important environmental impacts”
On top of this, Peter also outlines the trends to watch out for “on the environmental side of planning”, including climate change which “involves issues including flooding and what land you can build on”.
He adds: “People are much more interested in the planning process than they used to be – partly because there’s a fair amount of nimbyism because people don’t want houses in their backyard but also because, more positively, people are much more environmentally conscious – climate change and its problems are an obvious example.” Referring to a recent case, Peter says that “during a planning inquiry in Devon, the locals really turned out in force – there were a lot of people who were heavily opposed to this development. There’s just so much more public interest due to the important environmental impacts”.
Standing your ground
As well as staying up to date with these trends, it’s crucial that aspiring barristers “have a wider interest in society and the broader issues because you’re dealing with areas of huge public interest, including flooding, the addition of a new town on the edge of an existing town, and increases in population and what this means socially”.
Peter outlines other skills that are key to making it as a top barrister in this area of the law: “You need to have a grasp of the essentials in your particular cases and have the courage to stick with them when you come against the other side who might be saying that the essentials are something else entirely.”
Having an eye for detail and the ability to deal with experts are also on Peter’s list. Expanding on the ability to deal with experts, Peter puts his advice into context: “For example, if you’ve got a developer who wants to build houses on a particular plot of land, but the local authority and environment agency have said the developer can’t because there are flooding problems, it’s likely that both sides will appoint experts. These experts will then talk about the dangers of the river flooding or the sea encroaching, whatever it may be.
“They will be highly professional and technical people and you, the advocate, must be in a position to master what they’re talking about and to cross-examine them on it. There’s a whole range of expertise you’ll need to master because if you don’t understand what the expert is talking about, you won’t be able to cross-examine them effectively.”
Offering a nod to reality, Peter shares some closing insights. Having been drawn to the Bar for several reasons, including “more control” over his work, he explains that this isn’t the case in every sense. While you can control the work you take on and when you take time off, for example, “if a client wants you to do something for them, then you have to make yourself available and this may involve very long working days – and nights!” But it’s this unpredictable nature of the job that also makes for such an exciting and rewarding career at the planning Bar.