Monday, 9 February 2015
Prior approval applications – the 56-day rule
NOTE: 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.
I have been busy in the past few weeks working on my first book, of which more anon, but as a result there has been no time to write this blog. One of the topics which I have been considering is the widened scope for changes of use under Part 3 of the Second Schedule to the GPDO – especially the conversion of office buildings (under Class J) and of agricultural buildings (under Class MB). This has been the subject of several posts in this blog in the past couple of years, and so I won’t repeat that material here.
As readers will be aware, these changes of use cannot be made until an application has been made to the local planning authority for a determination as to whether the prior approval of the authority will be required in respect of certain aspects of the development (as specified in the relevant Class in Part 3). The LPA has 56 days in which to determine the application, and this has been the source of some difficulty, due to uncertainty as to precisely when the 56-day period begins and precisely what the LPA has to do (and when) in order to prevent the development going ahead without their prior approval after the end of the 56-day period.
So far as the start of the 56-day period is concerned, the wording of paragraph N(9) in Part 3 is perfectly clear. The development cannot be begun before “the expiry of 56 days following the date on which the application was received by the local planning authority”. Thus Day 1 of the 56-day period is the day immediately following the date on which the application is received by the LPA (no matter what day of the week that was). The incidence of weekends and public holidays has no effect on the 56-day period.
Some LPAs seem to be under the impression that time does not begin to run until they have ‘validated’ or registered the application, but this is not so. Provided the application complies with the requirements of paragraph N and is accompanied by the correct fee, the 56-day period will begin to run on the day after it is delivered to the LPA. If payment of the fee follows after the application itself, then the application may be considered to be complete upon subsequent receipt of the fee, and the 56-day period will then commence on the day after that date. (See Infocus Public Networks Ltd v. SSCLG  EWHC 3309 (Admin).)
Two points may arise with regard to the LPA’s compliance with the 56-day rule. One relates to the validity of their determination of the prior approval application (or whether it has in fact been determined); the other relates to the communication of that determination to the applicant.
The addition of paragraph N(2A) to Part 3 in 2014 has largely removed the ambiguity that was inherent in the original drafting of paragraph N where a prior approval application is rejected by an LPA because, in their opinion, the proposed development does not comply with one or more of the conditions, limitations or restrictions in the relevant class of Part 3, or the developer has provided insufficient information to enable the authority to establish whether the proposed development complies with them. It is reasonably clear from the wording of paragraph N(2A) that a rejection of a prior approval application in accordance with that paragraph does amount to a determination of the prior approval application, even if the LPA is objectively wrong as to the non-compliance of the development with the qualifying criteria under the relevant class of Part 3. The correctness or otherwise of the LPA’s opinion can only be tested by way of an appeal against this decision under section 78 of the 1990 Act.
However, the adequacy of the information provided relates only to the issue as to whether it is reasonably sufficient to enable the authority to establish that the proposed development complies with the relevant conditions, limitations or restrictions, so as to qualify as permitted development under the class in question. If the LPA purports to reject the application in relation to the adequacy of the information for other purposes, going outside the question of compliance with the qualifying criteria, this may perhaps call in question the validity of the decision. If the LPA’s opinion on this point strays outside these stated parameters, it might possibly be argued that the authority has not actually determined the application, which could raise the possibility that the 56-day period might continue running. In such cases, however, a notice or other written communication informing the applicant of the LPA’s rejection of the prior approval application, whatever the stated reasons, would probably be regarded as a valid determination of the application, leaving an appeal under section 78 as the only course that would then be open to the applicant (unless they then choose to make a planning application instead). Thus it is unlikely that a wrongful or mistaken rejection of a prior approval application would result in the 56-day period continuing to run in these circumstances.
The other point to be borne in mind is that the critical event for the purposes of the 56-day rule is the authority’s “notifying the applicant as to whether prior approval is given or refused”. This does not necessarily seem to require a formal decision notice; a bald statement either that prior approval is given or that it is refused might suffice to meet this requirement. Nor does there seem to be any statutory obligation on the LPA to state their reasons for refusing prior approval, although it would no doubt be good practice to do so, and this does indeed appear to be the standard practice of most authorities.
Bearing in mind that subparagraphs (a) and (b) in paragraph N refer to a written notice of the LPA’s determination that their prior approval is not required, or giving their prior approval, it is clear that the notification of their determination must be in that form (although this does not preclude its being sent in electronic form, such as an email). Furthermore, as subparagraphs (a) and (b) refer to the receipt by the applicant of the notice, it would appear that the notification as to whether prior approval is given or refused must be received by the applicant within the 56-day period. It is clear that merely to make a decision within the 56-day period will not suffice (in contrast to the differently worded provision in Part 6 of the Second Schedule to the GPDO, relating to various operational development on agricultural land), but it also seems, by analogy with subparagraphs (a) and (b), that it may not suffice to post a notice of that decision within that time if it does not actually reach the applicant before the expiry of the 56-day period. Failure on the part of the LPA to observe both of these requirements may result in the applicant automatically being entitled to proceed with the development in accordance with paragraph N(9)(c).
The applicant may be able to provide evidence of the actual date of receipt of the notification, but where this remains uncertain the usual presumption as to the service of documents would no doubt apply.
Despite diligent research, I have been unable to find any relevant appeal decision or judgment precisely dealing with the situation where notice of a determination is posted within the 56-day period (under either Part 3 or Part 24), but is not received by the applicant until after the expiry of this period. (There have, of course, been a number of decisions confirming that the authority is out of time if, having determined the application within the 56-day period, it fails to dispatch the notification of its decision within that period.) However, there was a case in North Somerset in 2009 (apparently not the subject of any appeal or other proceedings), where notification of the refusal of prior approval of a mobile phone mast was sent to the applicant by Second Class post on Day 52 or Day 53, but was not received by them until Day 57. The applicant relied on this as allowing them to proceed with the development. The resulting dispute appears to have been settled by negotiation, although the company continued to insist that they had been correct to treat the late receipt of the notification of the council’s decision as being out of time.
I would be interested to hear from any reader who is aware of any appeal decisions on this precise point (i.e. posting of notification of a determination, either under Part 3 or under Part 24, within the 56 days, but its receipt by the applicant after the expiry of the 56-day period). [But please note – instances where this has occurred but has not been the subject of an appeal decision (or judgment) really won’t be of any practical help.]
The general approach to the 56-day rule is illustrated by the decision of the Court of Appeal in Murrell v. SSCLG  EWCA Civ 1367, on which I commented in this blog at the time. (It was a case which actually involved the 28-day period for the determination of a prior notification of agricultural development under Part 6). This established that the GPDO does not make the running of time dependent on a decision by the local planning authority to accept an application as valid. Whether there was a valid application or not is an objective question of law. The application for determination as to whether prior approval is required does not need to be in any particular form and does not need to be accompanied by anything more than what is prescribed by the GPDO (in the case of a Part 6 application, a written description of the proposed development and of the materials to be used and a plan indicating the site, together with the required fee). It is not mandatory to use a standard form or to provide any information beyond that specified in the GPDO.
The appellant’s application in Murrell complied with the requirements of the GPDO and was a valid application, contrary to the LPA’s assertion. The GPDO does not require an application to be accompanied by proposed elevations or a block plan. It does not require a location plan, although in Murrell a location plan was in fact provided with the application. Nor does it require multiple copies of any documents. Since use of a standard application form is not mandatory, the council was mistaken in stating that these were the only forms they could accept and in requesting the appellants to complete and return, in quadruplicate, a new standard form. Accordingly, the council's assertion that the application was invalid was wrong in law.
The Court of Appeal agreed that the council was entitled to ask for further information. It was not, however, entitled to refuse to treat the application as a valid application until that further information was received. The clock carried on ticking from the date of receipt of the application until the expiry of (in that case) the 28-day period.
© MARTIN H GOODALL