Interpretation of Planning Conditions

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The Court of Appeal has provided a helpful summary of principles applicable to the interpretation of planning permissions and has held that the ejusdem generis rule of interpretation does not apply to planning conditions.

We reported on this High Court case in January last year. Now, In the case of R (XPL Ltd) v Harlow Council (2016), the Court of Appeal has been asked to determine whether the starting and running of coach engines (to warm them up prior to departure) would fall within the following description of activities:

“repairs or maintenance of vehicles or other industrial or commercial activities (other than the parking of coaches and other vehicles associated with the Coach Park/Depot hereby permitted)”

Any activities falling within that description were prevented by the condition from taking place outside of specified hours in order to protect the amenity of neighbouring residents.

The Court considered “the natural and ordinary meaning of the language in the condition” and decided that the starting and running of engines would constitute “other industrial or commercial activities” and would thereby be caught by the condition. In reaching its decision, and agreeing with the High Court, the Court of Appeal held that the “ejusdem generis” rule has no place in the interpretation of planning conditions. Under the ejusdem generis rule, words with wide meanings associated in text with more limited words are restricted in their meaning to the relevant limited range of matters. If the rule had applied in this case, the words “industrial and commercial activities” would have been restricted to meaning only those activities related to the repair or maintenance of vehicles. Instead, the Court held that those words had their usual, broad meaning.

The Court also referred to the following principles relating to the interpretation of planning conditions derived from case law:

  1. Where a planning permission is clear, unambiguous and valid on its face, regard may only be had to the planning permission itself, including its conditions and the reasons given for those conditions in the decision notice itself.
  2. The planning permission and its conditions must be construed as a whole, as a “reasonable reader” would.
  3. If there is ambiguity, one can look at extrinsic material, including the application, to resolve it. There is however limited scope for the use of extrinsic material in the interpretation of a public document, such as a planning permission.
  4. The process of interpreting a planning permission does not differ materially from that appropriate to other legal documents. Any such document must be interpreted in its particular legal and factual context, one aspect of which is that a planning permission is a public document which may be relied on by parties unrelated to those originally involved.
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