Saturday, 14 July 2012

Contacting local authorities (2)

An anonymous contributor has been prompted by my original piece to comment on this topic. Their comment was too long for the software to cope with, but it is well worth printing, so I have posted it here:-

“My goodness---where to start! I agree with you Martin, but I think it’s even worse than you suggest. There's a general flavour of treating the public/applicants as a bit of a nuisance (but not their money of course.)

Councils ad Whitehall need to realise that development and growth does not COST them, it PAYS them. Anything and everything they do---process, policy whatever---that inhibits, delays or impedes development comes at a COST to their local economies and harms prosperity, growth, employment etc.

The solution, I believe, is to abolish application fees entirely. [I entirely agree – MG.] Fee income--and more recently HPDG (PDG)---have become ends in themselves, which distort and even pervert the regular operation of the law.

The latter has been particularly damaging: LPA's now manipulate applications (in a variety of ways) to prioritise qualifying for grant over the rather boring business of actually lawfully processing an application. This has just happened to me - four weeks to even get the application registered (hidden delay) followed by an attempt to summarily and unlawfully refuse the application under delegated powers with the result that a committee meeting deadline was missed and the application ran out of time. What they tried to get me to do was withdraw the application, amend plans for pre-app advice (given by post---no direct contact with the officer), probably re-amend again and finally re-submit: a process which could take three months.

And the reason for all this? To disguise the delay and quality for grant; delay which has been CAUSED by the LPA in the first place and exacerbated by pursuit of grant. Great. So the LPAs get to keep their inbuilt delays AND the extra money from grant! Trebles all round then! But seriously, is this not wholesale fraud on the general taxpayer who's stumping up the grant?

Hand in hand with this there's far too much pernickety attention to minor details, often petulantly applied - along the lines of "Well, you didn't obtain pre-app advice, so even if the proposal is actually OK, I'm going to refuse it 'cos you didn't ask me first. So there." That type of thing.

Back in the '80's the government wrote a policy document which, amongst other things, observed that LPA's/officers exercise a degree of discretionary power "that would not be tolerated in general legislation". How true. Far too much discretionary power is exercised by officers simply imposing their own tastes on an applicant; often it is just the flavour of the month. The identification of "demonstrable harm to interests of acknowledged importance" takes second place, if it’s given any weight at all.

My own view is that these problems will not---cannot---be solved by top down diktat from Westminster and Whitehall. What's needed is abolition of application fees and full and robust re-instatement of Ministerial Circulars to their proper importance and status in the system. No lesser person than Sir Desmond Heap himself, the doyen of planning lawyers, observed that the single most important documents in the system are Circulars.

Without fee income, LPAs will have no choice but to stop gold plating their processes and attitudes and learn to prioritise. At present, large numbers of applications are pushed into insignificant and minor amendments that have no importance whatsoever. An officer may be right that a little tweak of detail here and there would be an improvement, but does it matter in the public interest context? Would the man in the street or neighbour even see the difference?

Back in 1949, when introducing the first GDO, the then Minister for Housing stated that the purpose of the regulations was to "...remove from control developments which have hitherto occupied an amount of time out of all proportion to any importance to planning.". And that's about the nub of it. LPA's have simply lost sight of what's important and more significantly what's not.

Lastly, I don't know about the experience of others, but I've formed the impression over the last few years than PINS has gone to pot. This is not unconnected to departure from a robust set of Circulars. [I don’t agree with this point. I think the Inspectorate still does an excellent job. They remain our only defence against unreasonable and sometimes downright stupid LPAs - MG]

PS. You've only got to contrast planning with building control to see how bad the former has become. Not only will you be able to contact your BCO, but if there's a job going on you'll probably have his/her mobile number too. So a quick call to a mobile saying 'I've got a bit of a technical here, could you come and have a look' will elicit a response like 'Sure. As it happens, I'm just round the corner at the moment, I'll be with you in, say, 20 mins. Is that OK?'

And let’s remember, too, that planners are now trying to muscle in on Building Control's territory. God help us.

Oh, and finally---really---re your point about info buried in a website, what about this: Once I had unearthed a deeply buried original Scheme of Delegation, from which I discovered that summary refusal under DG, as they were attempting, was unlawful and I made the LPA aware of this last Friday. By Monday the file had mysteriously disappeared from the website! The same url---I'd bookmarked it---came up with our old friend "Page Not Found". Just fancy that.”

Clearly this is a heart-felt cri de coeur, and one which many would no doubt echo, so I thought it was worth an airing. I observed some months ago that, by their behaviour in handling planning applications, planning officers are giving ministers and their political supporters far too much ammunition with which to attack the planning system. It is clear that the ministerial appetite for radical change to the planning system is not yet sated. The possible results may be to no-one’s advantage. It is in the interests of everyone involved in the planning process to make the existing system work, for fear of having something far worse foisted on us.



  1. It's probably bad form to comment on posts as old as this - but I enjoy tracking back through this blog, and there's an aspect of this thread that I've been thinking about recently.

    In my limited experience, Councils are very fond of asking applicants to withdraw applications, but other than saving the Council some paperwork, I'm not convinced of the merits of this (from the applicant's point of view).
    Councils record both refusals AND withdrawals, so the discussions leading up to those decisions are also recorded, and remembered. Neither a refusal nor a withdrawal (nor indeed a consent) prevents the applicant's right to 'one-free-go', so the only difference is that in the event of a withdrawal, the applicant forfeits their right to appeal. Is that helpful? Or is there a further gambit in planning chess that I'm yet to learn?

  2. There may be sound tactical reasons for withdrawing an application in some cases, but an applicant should never allow themselves to be bullied or browbeaten into withdrawal.