Christopher Knight analyses an important ruling on a council's functions and the discharge of the public sector equality duty and other procedural obligations.
Langstaff J has recently handed down an interesting judgment in R (A, B & C) v Oxfordshire County Council  EWHC 2419 (Admin). This was a failed judicial review challenge to decisions taken by Oxfordshire CC leading to the closure of a number of children’s centres. It is a case of some significance, because it is the first time a Court has explained how the split between a LA’s executive functions and full council functions affects the discharge of the public sector equality duty and other procedural obligations.
The facts were as follows. After a lengthy preliminary decision making process, which had involved executive consideration of a very detailed needs assessment for children’s centres, full Council decided to cut the budget line for the provision of children’s centres at its budget setting meeting for 2016/17 in January 2016, and also set in place a medium term financial plan (“MTFP”) for further cuts in the future. In February 2016, Cabinet had to decide how children’s centre provision was to be reshaped. They considered the budget line and MTFP set by full Council, consultation responses and an equality impact assessment for PSED purposes. They decided to cut the number of centres from 44 to 8.
The claimants were users of the children’s centres. They brought judicial review proceedings, challenging full Council’s decision to cut the budget line. They said that the decision making process did not properly take into account the needs assessment, consultation responses and EIA. They challenged both the budget setting decision and Cabinet’s decision. As regards Cabinet’s decision, they said that it had taken its decision within the MTFP set by full Council, so that its decision making was fettered with the result that it could not be said to have taken the assessment, consultation and PSED into account properly.
The judge rejected these arguments.
He agreed with the Council that there were two decision making strands here: first, the setting of the budget, which was reserved for full Council by the Local Government Finance Act 1992, and second, a service delivery decision, which was an executive function under the Local Authorities (Functions and Responsibilities) (England) Regulations 2000. Against that background, the judge held that, on the evidence about the meeting in February, Cabinet had not in fact regarded the MTFP as fixed in stone, so that it could not be said that its decision making discretion was fettered as alleged. Second, he agreed that it would not have mattered if Cabinet had regarded the MTFP as set in stone. It was for Cabinet to decide upon how services were to be delivered within that budget, and it had the flexibility to decide how to spend the money available.
The judge also decided is that even if he had been minded to grant relief, he would not have done so since it was highly likely that the outcome would have been the same: section 31(3C) of the Senior Courts Act 1981. In reaching that decision, he took account of the fact that such an outcome should “normally be based on material in existence at the time of the decision and not simply post-decision speculation by an individual decision maker”: see R (Enfield London Borough) v Secretary of State for Transport  EWHC 3758 (Admin).
11KBW’s Peter Oldham QC acted for Oxfordshire.