Skip to main content
Close Menu Open Menu

Ruth Richards: Learning from complaints

Ruth Richards MRTPI is the RTPI’s Complaints Investigator. She leads on the Institute’s work concerning professional ethics and investigates complaints against members.


Dealing with the low number of complaints we receive against our members is not always a pleasant area of work but this activity is vital in maintaining confidence in the work of our members and the profession as a whole. And while the occasional complaint concerns complex or unusual circumstances, many of the issues raised are commonplace or recurring and warrant a greater airing than the concise reports of members being found to have breached the Code of Professional Conduct that appear in The Planner and, more recently, on our website.

The Conduct and Discipline Panel regularly identify “Learning Points” that have arisen as a result of specific complaints, but which also apply to all RTPI members. I’ve outlined a couple of recent learnings below to support members who want to benchmark their own working practice against these issues.

For example, the need to check information relied upon when submitting or considering a planning application is one area which arises regularly. Most complaints are submitted by those affected by a proposed development such as neighbours, and a member has a responsibility to the wider public to ensure that the information provided in reports and planning applications is factually correct. It may not be sufficient to totally rely on the information provided by a client and it should be checked with other sources that are readily available. Past planning applications may provide useful information on land ownership and any possible disputes on boundaries as an example. 

In a recent case a member was found to have breached the Code by stating that there were badgers on the site. This information had been provided by a client, but it conflicted both with a past ecology report and the one that had been recently commissioned and therefore was incorrect. Another case related to a new house that was stated to be connecting to the public drainage system but where this was not physically possible. Taking the time to check that all the information provided is correct, or engaging a subject specialist to provide those professional checks, is therefore vital to ensure that the case presented is true and an honest portrayal of the development proposed.

The need to maintain full and robust case files is another issue that regularly occurs. When a complaint is submitted the member will be given an opportunity to provide their comments, supported by evidence, on the issues raised. If case files do not document telephone conversations or other verbal advice it is often difficult to fully address the detail of the complaint. Confirmation in writing is therefore important. However where a client has a low level of literacy and emails and letters may not be useful to them an alternative means of recording both instructions and advice given needs to be ensured. Contemporaneous file notes may be an appropriate way to do this. 

These issues may seem to be common sense however they arise on a regular basis and we would wish for all our members to have practices in place that can fully justify and support the information relied upon and advice given. 

For further reflections and support on matters related to professional standards and practice, you can access:

Back to top