The old adage that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done is as true today as it has always been. The point was powerfully made by a High Court case in which planning permission for a storage facility on agricultural land was overturned on grounds of apparent bias.
The case focused on two councillors who served as chairman and vice-chairman of a local authority planning committee which approved the proposed development by a slim majority. In challenging the permission, a countryside protection charity argued that, by reason of their associations with third-party organisations, neither councillor should have participated in the committee meeting.
Quashing the permission, the Court emphasised that there was no allegation of actual bias against either councillor and that its decision did not reflect adversely on their integrity or professionalism. They had declared personal interests prior to the committee meeting and had been entirely open about their associations. They participated in the meeting having taken advice from a monitoring officer.
However, the Court found that, on a true interpretation of the council’s code of conduct, the committee’s vice-chairman automatically had a prejudicial interest in the planning application and should have been disqualified from voting. On the evidence, a fair-minded observer would have concluded that there was a real possibility that both councillors might be biased in favour of the application.