‘Forget the homeless, what about the coffee drinkers?’ LBWF v. The Christian Kitchen (Part 2): the council gets a walloping in court

We published Part 1 of this story some months ago (see the link below in Related Posts).

Our correspondent now provides the sequel.

‘The Christian Kitchen has been feeding the homeless in Walthamstow for over 20 years. On the 17 April 2013, LBWF revoked its longstanding licence to operate from the Mission Grove car park (located just behind the High Street), citing the apparent incidence of associated anti-social behaviour, and a desire to regenerate the immediate area.

In Part 1 of this investigation we documented how veteran councillor Terry Wheeler made known his opposition to the licence decision in a letter to Labour Group colleagues.

 Here, we turn to what happened subsequently, looking first at the role of Cllr. Clyde Loakes, senior Cabinet member and ex-Leader; and then at the Council’s disastrous approach to meeting its legal obligations over this issue, and the inevitable denouement at the High Court.

 On 2 March 2014, as news of LBWF’s likely licence revocation gradually percolated out, BBC Radio London invited Cllr. Loakes and the Christian Kitchen to meet at Mission Grove for an on-air debate. But at the appointed hour, Cllr Loakes was missing. Where had he got to?

In a telling mistake, it turned out that Cllr. Loakes had gone to the wrong Walthamstow car park. For all his insistence that the use of Mission Grove was untenable, he apparently did not even know where it was.

This was indicative of LBWF’s approach throughout. If challenged, Cllr. Loakes would become visibly agitated, but his apparent passion did not seem to be matched by attention to detail. Indeed, as will become clear, the unhealthy combination of vehemence and ineptitude was to cost LBWF dear.

The origins of the Christian Kitchen saga are hard to fathom. It is rumored that a few years previously Cllr. Loakes had differences of opinion with the some of the Christian Kitchen personnel when they operated in his Leytonstone patch, though how far this impacted on later events is hard to gauge. What we do know, though, is that the decision to revoke the Christian Kitchen’s license in 2013 was made by Keith Hanshaw, the Divisional Director Public Realm in LBWF’s Environment and Regeneration Directorate.

However, it is unlikely that Mr. Hanshaw acted in isolation. Cllr. Loakes held Cabinet portfolio responsibility for Environment and Regeneration, kept a close eye on developments at all levels, and had a forceful personality. This might be an ‘officer decision’, in the jargon, but since the fate of a high profile local charity was involved, it also had political and public relations ramifications, something that any councillor would have been acutely aware of from the first. Indeed, it is quite possible that Cllr. Loakes saw this as very much his own baby. If you are going to pick a fight with a group of churchgoers who spend their spare time feeding the destitute, it makes sense to gain as much political cover as possible. Yet indicatively the issue did not reach the Labour Group until much later, and was never discussed at either the Cabinet or the Full Council.

After the decision to revoke the Mission Grove license was announced, the two parties discussed how to find a mutually agreeable way forward. For its part, LBWF suggested that the Christian Kitchen should transfer to what is essentially a lay-by on a slip road, immediately adjacent to the North Circular, and close to the very busy Crooked Billet roundabout.

This was hardly either generous or practical. The constant flow of heavy traffic made the environs noisy and uncongenial. Moreover, how were the homeless supposed to get there? And anyway would this obviously vulnerable group be safe in such an isolated location?

Prompted by these concerns, the Christian Kitchen decided to seek a judicial review, and the case was heard at the Royal Courts of Justice before Mrs. Justice Simler in April 2014. The outcome turned on several key arguments, and these can be summarised as follows. (1)

In reaching its decision on the Christian Kitchen’s licence, LBWF had to respect the Equality Act of 2010, and particularly the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) which required it to have due regard to the impact of its actions on those with protected characteristics such as age, disability and race.

In detail, this meant preparing an evidence-based assessment. Addressing the court, Mr. Hanshaw confirmed that he had taken all the relevant factors into consideration, stating: “in relation to any site considered, I had in mind factors such as who would be going there, how would they get there, is it by car, or by bus, walking and, if walking, is it accessible and safe for users, and how close to public transport links etc. In assessing accessibility I had in mind the elderly, disabled, and women. This is a fundamental aspect of my area of expertise and work”.

However, Mr. Hanshaw’s authority was to some extent undermined when it emerged that his understanding of who exactly used the Christian Kitchen stemmed not from a comprehensive appraisal of the evidence but rather from what he had seen during a single drive by. At any rate, after considering this and related evidence, Mrs. Justice Simler was scathing:

“What the Council failed to do…having recognised and identified a potentially affected vulnerable group, is follow its own guidance requiring that ‘negative impacts must be fully and frankly identified so the decision-maker can fully consider their impact’ so that the impact assessment is ‘evidence based and accurate’. It failed to identify in clear and unambiguous terms, the most likely adverse impact this vulnerable group might face as a consequence of the decision proposed; and failed to engage with mitigating measures to address that impact, by failing to engage with the very real prospect that the soup kitchen would close altogether because Christian Kitchen would not move to the alternative site offered if forced to leave Mission Grove. Rather than examining and assessing this impact, the Council instead, examined and assessed a hoped for and much less serious impact” [emphasis added].

As to the other arguments presented by LBWF, they met largely the same fate, with Mrs. Justice Simler referring here to “a flawed process”, there to “failure…at a basic level”. Her assessment of LBWF’s contention that the alternative site was “within easy reach of several bus routes” so that “it is not expected that access will be adversely affected for those with physical disabilities and reduced mobility” appeared especially withering, and is worth quoting at length:

“There is no evidence basis for this assumption identified in the Equality Analysis; and no attempt to establish its accuracy was made by the Council. Given that users of the soup kitchen are the disenfranchised and street homeless without fixed abodes, it is significantly more likely that they will not be able to access public transport as asserted…In any event, the statement fails to accord with reality or common sense: a move from a central, busy location on the High Street to a lay-by adjacent to the North Circular close to the Crooked Billet roundabout in a non-residential area (not identified as close to any homeless hostels) is bound to create difficulties with access; not least because people are likely to start their journey to the soup kitchen from a more central area of town where other facilities are located, rather than from an area closer to a lay-by off the North Circular, where no facilities likely to be accessed by homeless people are located.”

Given this drubbing, Mrs. Justice Simler’s conclusion was predictable:

“In my judgment, for all the reasons given above, it is appropriate to grant both a declaration that the Council’s decision to revoke the licence at Mission Grove was unlawful because taken without due regard to the PSED and to quash that unlawful decision with a view to reconsideration. This application for judicial review therefore succeeds.”

With ‘substantial’ costs also awarded against it, (2) the rebuke to LBWF could not have been more pronounced.

What had gone wrong? In theory, LBWF could call on considerable capability in the equalities field. It had a large and well-paid legal department, covering all the different specialisms. Moreover, Cllr. Marie Pye, at the time a Cabinet member and close colleague of Cllr Loakes, believed herself to be “a recognised expert in relation to equality & the public sector”, and had hectored party members on access issues. Finally, the Leader, Cllr. Chris Robbins was said to be on friendly terms with Trevor Philips, no less than the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The mystery, then, is why LBWF apparently plunged on regardless.

Perhaps Cllr. Loakes’ career trajectory holds a clue. He had been appointed to lead LBWF at a young age, and at first seemed to be achieving some excellent results, particularly in terms of Audit Commission ratings. But then things started to go drastically wrong. In quick succession, he became enmeshed in the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund/Better Neighbourhoods Initiative fiasco; opted to resign as chair of the local strategic partnership “amid financial chaos” (the Waltham Forest Guardian’s phrase); was replaced as Leader by Cllr. Chris Robbins;  and saw LBWF’s recent performance damned for systematic failures by the Independent Panel. Always ambitious, his next move was to try for the Northampton South seat at the 2010 General Election, but this, too, ended badly. The Conservatives won, with Labour’s vote declining by a massive 16 per cent. By 2013, Cllr. Loakes was back virtually where he started – representing Leytonstone ward, with a rather unexciting portfolio in Cabinet. Might it be that what transpired with the Christian Kitchen stemmed ultimately from the one time tyro’s determination to rebuild his career by kick starting the regeneration of a prime site in the borough’s centre? Did his palpable penchant for action lead him to assume that, faced with bluster, all opposition would simply melt away? Was this whole episode, in other words, largely a product of hubris?’

Postscript

Keith Hanshaw left LBWF’s employment in December 2014, and joined NSL.

Happily, the Christian Kitchen has continued to thrive in Mission Grove, and in 2015 fed over 15,000 people.

And Cllr. Loakes? Well, he is still looking for his A to Z…

 

(1) The succeeding paragraphs are based upon High Court Of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division, Administrative Court, Case No: CO/6173/2013, 7 April 2014.

(2) ‘the court ordered, pursuant to Rule 46.7 of the Civil Procedure Rules, that the council should pay the proportion of the Claimants’ costs incurred representing the Christian Kitchen on a pro bono basis to the Access to Justice Foundation. The parties have subsequently reached a settlement of costs which resulted in a significant payment to the Foundation to help fund further free legal advice and representation’. See:

www.legalvoice.org.uk/2014/10/01/pro-bono-costs-orders-post-laspo/ 

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‘Forget the homeless, what about the coffee drinkers?’ LBWF v. The Christian Kitchen (Part 1): Councillor Terry Wheeler makes a stand

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