R Hall v Leicestershire County Council

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtQueen's Bench Division (Administrative Court)
JudgeMr Justice Blake
Judgment Date23 July 2015
Neutral Citation[2015] EWHC 2985 (Admin)
Date23 July 2015
Docket NumberCO/1689/2015

[2015] EWHC 2985 (Admin)

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE

QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION

THE ADMINISTRATIVE COURT

Royal Courts of Justice

Strand

London WC2A 2LL

Before:

Mr Justice Blake

CO/1689/2015

Between:
The Queen on the Application of Hall
Claimant
and
Leicestershire County Council
Defendant

Ms Kerry Bretherton (instructed by Public Interest Lawyers) appeared on behalf of the Claimant

Mr Lee Parkhill (instructed by Leicestershire County Council) appeared on behalf of the Defendant

(As approved)

Mr Justice Blake

Introduction

1

Snibston Discovery Museum ("SDM") is a museum located in the Snibston Discovery Park in the Coalville area of north- east Leicestershire. The land of some hundred-odd acres that make up the park was the site of a former working colliery that closed in about 1983. The land was transferred for public recreational use to the defendant County Council by the National Coal Board, and the museum opened in about 1992.

2

The park contains within it a scheduled ancient monument ("SAM"). This is the historic colliery workings machinery and associated structures, including a railway line, dating from the early 19th Century. The colliery was developed by George Stephenson and his son, and it has been assessed as representing one of the pre-eminent examples of industrial archaeology relating to the coal industry that was the foundation of the industrial revolution and a core element in the nation's history.

3

The SDM is located in a building built in the 1990s in the park. It incorporates a mining experience tour utilising the SAM, but is broader in scope than the history of coal mining. Since 1992 it has extended its range of attractions and has collections of science, engineering, toys and fashion, and in part displays collections on loan from other owners. The fashion gallery and an interactive experience called "Extraordinary" date from 2005. The museum is run by Leicester County Council ("LCC") as part of its Adult and Community Resources Department. It does not have an arm's-length governance board, but it employs a number of members of staff and also relies on the services of volunteers. The museum is not the only attraction in the Discovery Park; there is also a pop-up theatre, a children's play area and the landscaped country park itself.

4

The future of the museum and its long-term financial viability has been under discussion from at least 2008. In March 2011, a firm of consultants called Black Radley prepared a detailed report discussing the finances, visitor numbers, governance structures and related issues in the context of a possible bid by LCC for Heritage Lottery Funding ("HLF") of some £4 million to develop a "Mining Lives" project. On 7 December 2011, the LCC wrote to the HLF regional head to explain that a second-round application would not be pursued given the "uncertain financial and service backdrop" and the fact that a successful bid would have left the LCC with contingent liabilities to repay around £4 million in certain circumstances.

5

The announcement that the HLF bid was not to be pursued was made public, and those who appreciated the museum realised that there was a serious question mark over its future. One of those in this position was Brian Vollar. He was a volunteer at the museum in 2011. In February 2012, following a public meeting, the Friends of Snibston was formed ("FOS"). Mr Vollar joined this group in March 2012 and became successively secretary and, in 2013, its chair.

6

This judicial review concerns a decision made on 14 January 2015 by the cabinet of LCC to significantly change the offer to the public with respect to the museum. It decided to close the existing museum and demolish the 1990s building in which it was housed. It proposed to replace it with a smaller museum and a new visitor centre, which would be based on the SAM and associated buildings, employing fewer members of staff at a reduced cost. Items presently on display at the SDM that were not related to the new offer would be removed from the site, and, if not displayed elsewhere, would be returned to storage or to the owners of the material concerned. Other features of the Discovery Park, including the theatre, would remain.

7

The claimant is a volunteer at the SDM. She has some learning difficulties that amount to a disability. Disability is a protected characteristic within the meaning of section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. She states that volunteering at the museum has been a benefit to her, in usefully deploying her time, developing her skills and confidence and assisting with a possible return to the labour market. The closure of the SDM will result in a reduction of volunteering opportunities that cannot be readily replicated elsewhere in the county.

8

This challenge was first ventilated in a pre-action protocol letter written on 13 March 2015, to which there was a response on 27 March. The claim form was lodged on 10 April 2015, four days before the expiry of the three-month time limit set out in CPR 54(5)(i). The defendant submits that the application was not made promptly. Permission was granted by Parker J on 19 May 2015 with directions for expedition. The question of time limits was not reserved.

9

The claimant contends that the decision to close the SDM was unlawful. Although the skeleton argument following the claim form, refers to six heads of claim, I have distilled them into four issues. They are as follows:

(i) The consultation exercise engaged in by the LCC from April to September 2014 was not a fair one, as consultees were not informed of realistic alternatives to LCC's favoured course of action. Further, it was engaged in when the authority had already decided on the preferred option and was not at a formative stage.

(ii) The product of consultation was not fairly considered by the LCC before the decision of January 2015 was taken.

(iii) There had been no due regard to the impact of the closure decision on vulnerable people such as the claimant.

(iv) There has been no lawful consideration of an alternative bid made by FOS in July 2014 pursuant to the Localism Act 2011. This expression of interest was to take over the running of the museum with the reduced grant level envisaged by the LCC.

10

The defendant resists each of these grounds as ill-founded, and in any event contends that in the event the claimant succeeds on any of her grounds, no relief, or no relief other than a declaration, should be issued given that the application was not lodged promptly and there would be a substantial prejudice and detriment to good administration contrary to section 31(6) of the Senior Courts Act 1981. The LCC's budget and the future of the new offer would be in serious jeopardy if the decision of 15 January 2015 were to be quashed. The authority had at the same time, or shortly thereafter, decided to implement closure of the museum on 31 July 2015 and there would be considerable wasted costs if that decision were to be postponed.

The decision to close the SDM

11

The context of this decision is the reduced support grant made available to the defendant local authority by central government since 2010. The Black Radley report reveals that from the financial years 2006/7 through to 2010/11, the LCC was supporting the Discovery Park to the tune of £600,000 to £545,000 per annum, but the Communities and Wellbeing Service, which was part of the Adults and Communities Department, had to plan for reductions of between 25 to 40 per cent. That would reduce the contribution to between £327,000 and £408,000. In 2009/10, the whole complex had costs of £1.09 million, of which 42.2 per cent was payroll costs. Self-generated income from various sources varied between £535,989 and £542,840 in the financial years 2009/10 to 2010/11.

12

The LCC explained that in the financial period 2012/13 and 2013/14 the financial position deteriorated as central government continued to cut the revenue support grant. The revenue support grant was reduced by 15.4 per cent in 2014/15 and by 25 per cent in 2015/16. An estate review indicated that the main museum building in which most of the collections were displayed is in urgent need of repairs, costing somewhere between £1 million to £2 million, either immediately or in the short term. Meanwhile, the defendant's financial support for the museum had increased to some £784,794 in 2013/14 and was projected to reach £850,000 in 2014/15. This was due to declining visitor numbers and receipts.

13

Against this background, the defendant commissioned a feasibility study for a revised offer on the site. It was produced in November 2013. It was not published but became available to FOS in 2014 through a Freedom of Information request. This study focused on three options for maintaining public access to the SAM and related structures, and thereby avoiding the need to repay HLF grants which had been awarded previously. The options were:

(i) maintain the status quo with the risk of rising costs the over the longer-term future;

(ii) a revised attraction with a Visitor Centre leading guided tours of the SAM;

(iii) a self-guided mining museum that would require restricted access to the SAM and the incurring of additional expenses on safety fences and such like.

14

Around about the same time, in the autumn of 2013, the councillor for the Coalville area, Dr Terri Eynon, was asking for information from the Chief Executive about the options to address the problem of the future of Snibston. In preparation for such a meeting, she was informed of the Black Radley report and the fact that a trust option was one of the factors mentioned in that report. On...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT