Planning enforcement services are under more pressure than ever. Local residents are more demanding, with the recent lockdowns amplifying strength of feeling between neighbours. More construction, encouraged by central government, results in more unauthorised development.
The ongoing housing crisis adds a further layer to the issue and incentivises rogue landlords to convert properties into substandard flats, very often provided to people on housing benefit who feel they have no alternative but to accept substandard accommodation.
Furthermore, the frequently changing rules over Permitted Development Rights and changes to the Use Classes Order mean that there is an increase in enforcement complaints from local residents who want officers to check development complies with numerous limitations and conditions.
But, worryingly the National Association of Planning Enforcement (NAPE) has recently received feedback from its members that pressures on local government budgets could be having a severe impact on planning enforcement teams.
It appears that some local authorities might be considering removing their planning enforcement services budgets altogether or reducing the service to ‘essential service only’. It is not clear what ‘essential service only’ means, but the suggestion is that this will encompass either electing to only enforce certain breach types or only take enforcement action on a select number of cases.
This problem seems to be particularly acute where planning enforcement teams are separate from planning services teams and planning services budgets are therefore not supplementing planning enforcement services. Even where planning enforcement teams are within the same team as development management, the financial pressures on enforcement teams are serious.
At the heart of it is the fact that local authorities can no longer carry out discretionary services due to pressures on budgets. Planning enforcement has long been classified as a ‘discretionary service’ and not a statutory duty and so will be one of the first services to be culled. However, it is of course the case that councils have a duty to investigate planning breaches and it is only the taking of further action that is discretionary. Labelling it a ‘discretionary service’ is therefore a misnomer. In my view legislators never saw the need to expressly list planning enforcement as a statutory function because it was so obvious that planning services (a statutory function) cannot function without planning enforcement.
Most importantly, the purpose of planning enforcement is to uphold the integrity of the planning system. With no or ineffective planning enforcement, there would be no reason to secure planning permission from the council’s planning services team thereby removing the need for the planning system as a whole.
Planning enforcement is increasing in complexity and enforcement officers need to have their wits about them more than ever before with appeals being made on at least half of all notices issued. Properly trained enforcement officers are increasingly in short supply. For all these reasons and more, it is essential to ensure that planning enforcement budgets can support the provision of the service.
In response to the budgetary pressures it appears that some local authorities are prepared to risk the challenge of potential judicial reviews and ombudsman complaints for failure to take enforcement action rather than spend precious resource on staffing planning enforcement teams. This is a dire situation.
Reducing or removing planning enforcement budgets altogether may seem like a short term win in these difficult times but we cannot believe that any such reduction or removal will be acceptable to anybody in the longer term. However, by that time the damage will have been done and unauthorised development might have become immune, changing the built and natural environment irreparably.
The planning white paper seems to support the strengthening of planning enforcement services and perhaps even elevating planning enforcement to a statutory duty. Reducing or removing budgets at this stage seem to be setting Councils up for failure as those Councils will be unable to provide the service apparently envisaged in the White Paper.
NAPE will be requesting the RTPI to write to the Local Government Association, MHCLG and Chief Planners to stress the importance of the planning enforcement service in the context of a robust planning system and to strongly dissuade LPAs from reducing or removing planning enforcement budgets.
Neill Whittaker joined Ivy Legal in June 2014 as a planning associate and is the chairman of the National Association of Planning Enforcement (NAPE). Neill is a full member of the Royal Town Planning Institute (MRTPI) and holds a master’s degree in Planning Policy and Practice.