Friends of the Earth seeks disclosure of recommendation by government officials about controversial coal mine
- Govt has a duty to disclose ministerial submission, say campaigners
Friends of the Earth is going to the High Court on Tuesday (17 October)  to try to obtain the advice and recommendation departmental officials gave to Michael Gove before he granted planning permission to a controversial new coal mine in Cumbria, in December last year.
The advice from officials, known as a ministerial submission, is an important document that could play a key part in Friends of the Earth’s legal challenge  against Mr Gove’s decision to approve the mine. The legal challenge is expected to be heard next year.
Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove based his decision partly on the report of the planning inspector, which has been published, which recommended planning permission be granted. However, he will also have considered a separate briefing from his own officials in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), who are also planning experts, which would have included their own recommendation on whether to grant permission. This briefing has not been published.
The ministerial submission is likely to have touched on a number of matters that are relevant to Friends of the Earth’s claim, including the developer’s claim that the mine would be net zero and the credibility of the carbon offsetting proposal, whether or not the scheme is consistent with legally binding UK climate targets and the Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy. It’s also likely to have considered the international impacts of granting permission for the mine.
At Tuesday’s interim hearing, Friends of the Earth will say the government is under a duty to share the ministerial submission – a duty of candour – with the court and the parties. This requires parties to assist the court by ensuring that information relevant to the issues in the claim is drawn to the court’s attention, whether it supports or undermines their case.
The duty arises because public authorities, including government ministers, are engaged in a common enterprise with the court to fulfil the public interest in upholding the rule of law. As such they are required to assist the court with full and accurate explanations of all the facts relevant to the issues which the court must decide and has been likened to a requirement on public authorities to defend litigation “with all the cards face upwards on the table” .
Ministerial submissions are regularly disclosed as part of the duty of candour and regularly help determine the outcome of a judicial review. That is because they reveal what was in the Secretary of State’s mind when taking the decision under challenge.
Friends of the Earth’s senior lawyer, Niall Toru, said:
“The government has disclosed the advice it was given by the planning inspector before Michael Gove gave the go-ahead for a new coal mine in Cumbria – but key advice from his officials has not been disclosed.
“It would be very surprising if the ministerial submission failed to address key issues that are pertinent to our challenge, such as the developer’s claim that the mine would be ‘net zero’, the impact on UK carbon budgets and the adverse international impacts of granting permission.
“The government has a duty to supply relevant information to both the court and the parties challenging its decisions – regardless of whether it supports or undermines its case.
“The ministerial submission must be disclosed.”
Leigh Day solicitor, Rowan Smith, said:
“As the Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove knows, for the past 20 years the international treaty, the Aarhus Convention has given people the right to access information about the environment. The Aarhus Convention says the public should be provided with the reasons and considerations for decisions made about the environment. Friends of the Earth say this means Mr Gove should disclose the ministerial submissions about the Cumbrian coal mine that were given to him before he made his decision to grant permission for it to go ahead.”
For more information and interview requests contact the Friends of the Earth press office on 020 7566 1649 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notes to editors:
- Tuesday’s hearing will be a remote hearing, rather than in court. The judge could make a decision on the day, or could choose to reserve judgment, and issue the decision at a later date.
- Friends of the Earth has brought a High Court challenge seeking to strike down the planning permission for the Whitehaven coalmine, granted by communities secretary Michael Gove MP in December 2022. South Lakes Action on Climate Change (SLACC) has also brought a challenge.
The two challenges will be heard together at a 3-day hearing. A date hasn’t been set for the hearing, as the High Court wants to wait for the Supreme Court’s judgment in the appeal by Sarah Finch challenging new oil wells in Horse Hill Surrey, as that judgment could have implications for the Whitehaven claim: https://friendsoftheearth.uk/climate/whitehaven-coal-mine-challenge-hearing-postponed
- The quote is originally from a judgment in a previous case. It can be found in the court guide: https://www.judiciary.uk/courts-and-tribunals/high-court/administrative-court/administrative-court-judicial-review-guide-2022/. To get the guide itself you need to click ‘download file’. The quote is at para 15.3.5.
- Friends of the Earth is represented by Rowan Smith at Leigh Day solicitors, and by Paul Brown KC, Alex Shattock (both Landmark Chambers) and Toby Fisher (Matrix Chambers). Friends of the Earth’s lead in-house lawyer on the case is Niall Toru. At the hearing Toby Fisher will lead on presenting Friends of the Earth’s case.
- Friends of the Earth briefing on our legal challenge: https://friendsoftheearth.uk/climate/whitehaven-coalmine-legal-challenge-briefing-1
- About Friends of the Earth: Friends of the Earth is an international community dedicated to the protection of the natural world and the wellbeing of everyone in it. We bring together more than two million people in 75 countries, combining people power all over the world to transform local actions into global impact. For more information visit: https://friendsoftheearth.uk/ follow us at @friends_earth, or like our Facebook page. Save paper and send an e-card today, available at http://foe.uk/ecogifting