Every so often, there is a local media story about a planning issue. Typically, it is about someone – an individual or a company – having submitted an application for planning permission and other local residents or businesses objecting to the proposal.
When the matter is particularly controversial, all sorts of comments are made and reported which reveal a failure to understand how the planning system works in England. This is not surprising for a number of reasons, including
- planning and planning law don’t feature on the national curriculum
- planning law and the roles of councils, councillors and planning inspectors have changed in recent years
- most households never have to resort to understanding planning law
- people make all incorrect assumptions about the roles of their local council in planning and of councillors on planning committees, and
- too often, emotions trump facts when people feel strongly about something.
At its simplest, councils are required to produce local plans in the context of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which is determined by the government. It is often aspects of the government requirements – for example, the number of new homes to be built in the planning period – which are the context for contentious decisions.
Applications for planning permission are made to and considered by the councils – your local planning authority (LPA). In practice, LPAs delegate the decision-making on the majority of applications to planning officers. Last year, 94% of planning applications in England were delegated to officers, the highest ever proportion. However, the biggest and the most contentious applications will be considered by the local planning committee.
These applications will almost certainly be considered by the planning committee after the production of a report by a planning officer, which will detail the key issues by reference to the NPPF, the local plan, and any submissions by the applicant and objectors.
Councillors on the planning committee don’t have a free rein in deciding what should or shouldn’t happen. They are there to represent the interests of the whole community. Often, they have to balance conflicting aspirations and problems – one person’s right to light has to be balanced against their neighbour’s desire to build an extension.
- councillors mustn’t pre-judge applications and must maintain an open mind
- they must do so in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise
- they must only take into account material planning considerations and must dis-regard legally irrelevant considerations, and
- however vocal, local opposition or support for a proposal is not in itself a ground for refusing or granting planning permission, unless it is founded upon valid material planning reasons.
The latest national guidance doesn’t stop a councillor who has previously expressed a view or even campaigned on an application from taking part in the planning committee’s consideration, but they mustn’t have a closed mind on the issue. I’m not convinced that this, in practice, is helpful guidance, as it provides a temptation to some councillors – especially those in a minority who can rely on other committee members to get them out of trouble – “to play politics in the hope of personal or political benefit”.
Every council is required to have a code of conduct which governs ethical standards of councillors, including about planning. They are required to declare any private interests and act in a way that protects the public interest. Contravention of the requirement to register or declare financial interests is a criminal offence. Allegations of corruption in the English planning system are extremely rare; take no notice of the anonymous trolls who suggest otherwise. I’m very clear that anyone who acts unethically should expect the toughest sanctions.
If an application is clearly contrary to the agreed development plan – for example, building houses or a business park on agricultural land – it has to be advertised as such and there are particular procedures to be followed.
Where councillors overturn the advice of planning officers, the planning committee has to give detailed reasons.
If applicants feel that any proposal has been judged unfairly or unreasonably, they can appeal to a planning inspector. If the planning officers have made a positive recommendation based on the planning policy guidance, any rejection by councillors is likely to lead to the council losing the appeal. In some circumstances, costs can be awarded against the council, particularly if there has been “unreasonable behaviour”. These can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The excellent House of Commons Library has just published a new briefing paper1 on these issues. It’s well worth a read and also gives links to other relevant briefings about planning.
1 Must planning committees follow officers’ advice in reaching decisions?