Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Financial incentives to be offered for injunctions

Enforcement action against breaches of planning control has always been the Cinderella of the planning service in most planning authorities, and the squeeze on council budgets has only served to further weaken local councils’ exercise of their enforcement powers. It can be a very expensive exercise, especially if the enforcement action is simply ignored by a recalcitrant developer, so that the council has to resort to applying for an injunction.

Now, however, albeit rather late in the day, De-CloG has announced a new fund to give LPAs some financial help in dealing with proceedings for injunctions in planning cases. Of course, if local authority funding had not been cut in the first place, this extra financial support might not have become necessary, but no doubt it will be welcomed by any hard-pressed authority having to go for an injunction against a persistent breach of planning control, or at least it may be until they read the small print.

The fund provided by De-CloG is £1 million, of which £200K will be available between now and 31 March this year, and the remaining £800K will be available until 31 March 2016. However, this funding is not as generous as it sounds. The maximum grant for any one case is limited to not more than half the council’s estimated costs, but is limited to a maximum payment of £10K.

So the maximum amount of grant that an LPA can apply for is £10,000 (or 50% of their estimated legal costs, whichever is the lesser) towards the cost of securing a Court Injunction in the High Court or County Court. The authority is required to provide a costs estimate setting out details of anticipated legal costs likely to be incurred in preparing and issuing legal proceedings and attending court, but this estimate is not to include non-legal specialist officer time. The LPA must take responsibility for any legal costs incurred in excess of £10K or in excess of any lesser sum that may be granted.

The fund is solely for use by LPAs in England, towards the cost of securing a Court injunction (High or County Court), under Section 187B of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, against actual or apprehended breaches of planning control to be restrained. Funding is only available where other enforcement options have been, or would be, ineffective, or where there have been persistent breaches of planning control over a long period.

Funding will not be available for court proceedings which have already been started, or where an appellant lodges an appeal under section 174 against an enforcement notice that the LPA has issued. The criteria refer to an appeal made “within 28 days of receiving the notice”, but as the notice will usually come into effect within a fairly short time after the minimum 28-day period, it seems a little odd that an LPA could be deprived of funding for injunction proceedings where an enforcement notice is timed to come into effect (say) 35 days after service, and the developer appeals after 28 days but within the 35-day period.

LPAs will have to jump through hoops to get the funding they are seeking. Before a grant is made, they will have to demonstrate why the action is in the general interest, explain the degree and flagrancy of the breach of planning control, set out the enforcement history for the site (e.g. what other measures have failed over a long period of time), explain any urgency needed to remedy the breach, set out the planning history of the site, provide details of previous planning decisions in relation to the site, set out consideration of the Public Sector Equality Duty (section 149 of the Equality Act 2010) and Human Rights Act 1998, and demonstrate that an injunction is a proportionate remedy in the circumstances of the individual case, in addition to stating the amount of funding requested, including a breakdown of estimated legal spend on legal costs in 2014-15 and 2015-16. And all of this must be written in no more than 1,000 words, writing on one side of the paper only in the Head of Planning’s best joined-up handwriting. Deductions from funding will be made for untidy handwriting, poor grammar and spelling errors. (OK – I made the last bit up, apart from the thousand-word limit, but you get the general drift.)

And that’s not all. To qualify for consideration, the authority is required to confirm that it has adopted the enforcement best practice recommended in paragraph 207 of the National Planning Policy Framework and published its plan to manage enforcement of breaches proactively. The authority’s enforcement plan must have been published at least three months prior to applying for grant and the authority is required to confirm adherence to the recommendations of the National Planning Policy Framework with regard to the way in which the authority monitors the implementation of planning permissions, investigates alleged breaches of planning control; and takes enforcement action whenever it is expedient to do so.

Finally, to support the application for funding, the authority will be required to provide an active web link for their published local enforcement plan together with written confirmation that they are adhering to the objectives of the plan in a positive, pro-active and proportionate way and have been doing so for at least the previous three months.

Contractors engaged by De-CLoG (Ivy Legal) will assess applications for funding against the eligibility criteria in January, April, July and October, and applications for grant must be received no later than the last working day of the relevant application month.

You might think that someone in De-CLoG is trying to make it difficult, if not practically impossible, for local authorities actually to get their hands on this money! I wonder what level of take-up there is going to be when the amount of work involved in applying for funding, and the sum that is likely to be doled out, are taken into account. Getting funding might prove to be more difficult than getting the injunction itself, and many LPAs may conclude that it’s not worth the hassle.


Thursday, 8 January 2015

Further planning changes put off until after the General Election

In the interval between Christmas and the New Year, De-CLoG sneaked out its “Ninth Statement of New Regulation: January to June 2015”, which (if what it says on the tin is to be believed) lists all the subordinate legislation that De-CLoG ministers intend to bring into force between 1 January and 30 June 2015. The word “all” is not actually used in the document, but it is reasonable to assume that if the government had a firm intention to introduce any other measures before the General Election they would have been included in this document.

The statement is therefore unintentionally revealing in having omitted a number of significant planning changes which were loudly trumpeted by ministers last year, and which would certainly have been included in the list of forthcoming measures if the government still intended to bring them forward before the General Election.

Among the previously proposed changes about which the document is deafeningly silent are further amendments to the GPDO to enable more changes of use in addition to those previously introduced within the past two years. These were expected to include the change of use of light industrial units (B1(c)), warehouses and storage units (B8) and some sui generis uses (launderettes, amusement arcades/centres, casinos and nightclubs) to residential use (C3), and changes of some sui generis uses to restaurants (C3) and leisure uses (D2).

There is no mention, either, of the government’s intention to make permanent those permitted development rights which currently expire in May 2016. We had been promised that the existing time limit for completing office to residential conversions would be extended from 30 May 2016 to 30 May 2019. It doesn’t look as this is going to happen this side of the General Election. The same applies to the right to build larger domestic extensions (under Part 1), currently expiring in May 2016.

Another measure that it seems will not be coming forward is the right to make alterations to shops, so as to allow retailers to alter their premises, plus additional PD rights covering (among other things) further extensions to houses and business premises, over and above existing permitted extensions.

Turning to the Use Classes Order, there is no mention of the proposed merger of Use Classes A1 and A2 in a single new ‘town centre’ use class. This was expected to be accompanied by a further amendment of the GPDO to allow change of use to the widened retail (A1) class from betting shops and pay day loan shops (A2), restaurants and cafés (A3), drinking establishments (A4), and hot food takeaways (A5). Similarly there is no mention of the intended restriction of the scope of the current A2 use class, so that betting offices and pay-day loan shops (both currently falling within this Use Class) would become sui generis uses.

Another measure of which no mention is made is the suggested increase in floorspace in a building in retail use (including the introduction of mezzanine floors), currently limited to 200 sq m, that can be made without its coming within the definition of development under section 55 (and therefore requiring planning permission). [I thought the original provision in the 2004 Act had been brought into force with effect from 10 May 2006, but I haven’t been able to put my finger on the SI which confirmed this limit, and have begun to wonder whether this provision in the 2004 Act is actually in force. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.]

There is one measure (relating to a proposed reduction in qualifying time for the Right to Buy scheme) which has been pencilled in for April 2015, but is flagged up as being “dependent on the Deregulation Bill”. The same would apply to the previously announced intention to relax section 25(3) of the Greater London (General Powers) Act 1973, so as to allow some types of short-term lettings in Greater London that are currently prohibited by that sub-section of the 1973 Act. But in this case, there is no mention of the proposed measure in the De-CLoG statement. Is this another measure that has bitten the dust?

Perhaps it was the realisation that these various measures could not now be brought forward before the General Election that led to George Osborne refraining from re-announcing them yet again in his Autumn Statement.

In Cloud-cuckoo-land, where Tory members of our coalition government seem to live, it is confidently expected that the government will be able to introduce these various measures after the General Election, and in the meantime they will no doubt feature as commitments in the Tory Party election manifesto. In the real world, where the rest of us live, the survival of the present government after May seems a little less than probable. An incoming government of a different political composition may not wish to continue with these proposals, and so this may be the end of the road for the present government’s planning ‘reform’ agenda.

UPDATE: I am grateful to Sally Davis of G L Hearn and to Ray Tutty of Savills, both of whom kindly emailed me with a note of the provision that I had been unable to find, which specifies the limit for internal enlargements of retail floorspace. This was Article 4 of the Town and Country Planning (General Development Procedure) (Amendment) (England) Order 2006, which inserted Article 2A in the original DMPO stating that the amount specified under section 55(2A) of the Act is 200 square metres. Any change in this floorspace limit would therefore be by means of a further amendment of the DMPO. It would still be possible for this change to be made in the time available, but its omission from the statement of forthcoming subordinate legislation suggests that the government may not see it as a priority.

NOTE: As readers are no doubt well aware, the coalition government did manage at the last minute to make the promised changes to the GPDO. For completely up-to-date and fully comprehensive coverage of this subject, we would strongly recommend readers to obtain a copy of the author’s new book - “A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO PERMITTED CHANGES OF USE” published by Bath Publishing in October 2015. You can order your copy by clicking on the link on the left-hand sidebar of this page.