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Is the amount of resources that a public authority has at its disposal a relevant factor that may be considered?

In some circumstances, public authorities will be under a statutory duty to provide particular services. Where that duty is specific and precise, it is unlikely that a public authority will be able to take the cost of the service and the resources available to it into account as a relevant consideration. In the R (on the application of G) v Barnet London Borough Council and Others case ( [2003] UKHL 57), the House of Lords found that where a public authority is under a specific and precise duty to provide a particular service, the duty is likely to be interpreted as an unconditional requirement, where the question of cost and resource is irrelevant.

In other circumstances, public authorities will choose to provide services in the exercise of a statutory discretion. These are commonly known, in non-legal contexts, as non-statutory services. In such cases, the limited or finite nature of a public authority’s resources is a relevant consideration; it is something that public authorities can, or must, consider when deciding whether to provide a particular service. For example, in the R (Health and Safety Executive) v Wolverhampton City Council case ( [2012] UKSC 34) , the Supreme Court found that the local authority had acted lawfully in considering the financial implications of a particular decision in a planning meeting. In his judgment, Lord Carnwarth said:

“As custodian of public funds, the authority not only may, but generally must, have regard to the cost to the public of its actions, at least to the extent of considering in any case whether the cost is proportionate to the aim to be achieved, and taking account of any more economic ways of achieving the same objective.”

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