On Street Names: Basildon Borough Council v James

This must be one of Garnham J’s first judgments as he was only elevated at the end of October. Quondam Neil Garnham QC of 1COR  (1 Crown Office Row, home of the Human Rights Blog) , his old chambers page has an impressive list of  his heavyweight briefs:  for the troops in the Baha Mousa and Al-Sweady inquiries;  the Security Service in the 7/7 inquest; the Met at the Leveson inquiry; HMG in the Litvinenko inquest.   

With form like that, you don’t need designers to puff you.    His photo is smiley, small and of poor quality.  It immediately invites reassurance. The page is refreshingly clear of vulgar brag tags from legal directories.  I’m guessing he’s good, even if he went to a private school and Oxbridge.  

So rather a come down to be assigned to this little case on street names on an estate in Basildon.  Real name:  Five Links; non-affectionate local moniker: Alcatraz.  Alcatraz was built in the 1960s, when architects and planners were having a notoriously bad hair decade.  The makeover of the estate has been chugging on since the late nineties.  Some of the estate has been demolished, more housing stock has been added.  

I’m guessing the new reconfiguration is why this squall-ette blew up.  The old street names got a bit unwieldy, and the Council decided to mark the beautification process with a twenty first century baptism.  Not that the old ones are bad:  Brendon, Handley Green, Laindon Link, Mellow Purgess, Newberry Side and Somercotes.  A little flares and Angel Delight perhaps, but perfectly commodious.

Street names are fascinating.  Some are descriptive:  Church Lane;  The Shambles;  Buckingham Palace Road.  Planned streets lack this raison d’etre.  Theyare lumbered with weird titles.   “Molly Huggins Close” is a personal favourite.  Victorian developers were no better.  Take Ulundi Road in Blackheath.  Why would you name a street after a colonial massacre?

Mr Gasztowic QC appeared for the Council.  His chambers page has a high def. picture of himself looking enigmatic.  The CV does not condescend to particulars, but is meant to sound grand.    Still it’s a better picture than the Residents’ brief, Ms Moonan.  She has a dark and rather sinister avatar outline.  Perhaps as a criminal defence barrister she is wary of being briefed for Carter-Silk purposes.   There’s not much about her street signage practice either, but good for a girl to have a hobby.

The case came to Garnham J by way of case stated from DJ Branston.  He wrote a stonking 112 paragraph judgment about why the Council was wrong.  

Just in case you don’t know  the provision for naming streets is set out in the section 18 of the Public Health Act 1925.  This harks back to an age when housebuilding was seen as a preserve of public health rather than as a branch of wealth acquisition.

Under section 18, the Council can call a street what it likes.  This is less of a problem when the streets are brand new.  However, here in the Five Links estate, people had been living in these streets all their lives, and didn’t want to wake up in the morning with a whole new address to spell out to call centres.

Any person aggrieved by the proposed nomenclature may appeal to “the petty sessions” under section 8. Appeal from there is to a DJ, and thence to the QBD.

The thing that makes this case interesting is that there’s no case law on the statute even though it’s nearly a hundred years old.  So a blank sheet of paper, and who writes the rules? The answer to that of course is the most senior person in whose lap the question falls.

I liked DJ Branston’s approach, although whether he came up with it himself or adopted it from the nameless advocates below, I know not.  Wednesbury unreasonableness was not deemed suitable, so the judge adopted the analogy of the appeal from a licensing application.  Which was creative.  Based on this foundation, the learned DJ set out seven criteria to which the Council should have had regard:  logic; clarity; utility; attractiveness; public safety, history and the wishes and feelings of the residents.  Pace Oliver Wendell Holmes, a very fine list it is too.  It points to the learned DJ being a practical and tidy-minded DJ.  Aesthetics is well down the list, as is what the natives think.  

The new street names were found wanting, and the losing Council appealed by way of case stated to the Big Court.  Query:  why didn’t they act all consensus and cuddly and  get the residents to vote?  Slightly stalinist to rename stuff in line with the new regime?  

One of the things that makes administrative law frustrating is that big picture questions and creative solutions do not often win out. And so it was here.  Garnham J expressed his disagreement with both sides’ submissions and said the question had been framed wrongly.  The statute and the appeal by aggrieved persons did not allow the adjudicator to set their own parameters.  Instead, the judicial exercise was restricted to saying whether the council had exercised the power wrongly or not.  It was on the aggrieved persons to prove this, rather than, as Branston DJ had done to put the burden on the Council to justify its rebranding decision.  

But the battle isn’t over yet.  The question has been remitted back down to the DJ now that he’s been told what to do.  So the lesson is that even if there’s no precedent for something, don’t think you can mark out your own boundaries.  Not unless you’re top dog that is, and then you can practice street furniture marking as you please, provided it sounds convincing.  Will the residents be able to afford to appeal the judgment, and also as this is virgin territory, perhaps the JSCs might fancy a go?

The war of Alcatraz is not yet over.    

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