Planning complaints put pressure on council

Joseph Bulmer

But council says it’s got a grip on enforcement

NORTH Devon Council insists it is able to cope in its role as planning enforcer despite figures that place the authority at the top of Devon’s development breach league table.

During the last five years, the council has dealt with a spiralling and “consistently high” level of planning enforcement cases against people suspected of carrying out unauthorised development or changes in the use of land and buildings.

From September 2009 to September 2010, the council served 23 enforcement notices and 84 planning contravention notices – the highest number in Devon.

The council’s team of three planning enforcement officers receives around 450 cases a year, compared to a national average of around 350. It currently has 585 open cases, some of which date back to 2003, prompting criticism that the department is under-resourced.

Independent district councillor Rodney Cann said he was “staggered” to learn how many cases officers were currently investigating.

“I knew the figure would be high but I had no idea it would be as high as it is,” he said.

“There are real underlying concerns about delays in the enforcement process takes; time after time I go to parish council meetings and hear complaints about the length of time it takes to enforce these cases, some of which seem to drag on and on.

“It is unacceptable and we cannot have one set of rules for people who follow planning rules and another for those who don’t.

“I am not critical of the planning enforcement officers and are up their neck with this work and do a difficult job to do – diligently in my view – in difficult circumstances. I am questioning the resources they have at their disposal given the scale of the task they have.

“It’s a matter of resources and I am calling for an open, transparent discussion about the issue to look at the problems and come up with some solutions.”

Cases range from the erection of a garden shed to the conversion of buildings to dwellings and unauthorised works to important listed buildings.

The council said that while there was no typical timescale, simple cases could be resolved within six weeks, while more complicated cases could take many years to go through the process of enforcement action, appeal and prosecution.

It said the cases dating back to 2003 were either resolved cases that were being monitored each year, or where offenders had re-offended.

Malcolm Easton, the council’s head of planning and development services, said his team’s level of performance was in the top quartile nationally, and at the very top locally, according to Government figures.

He said: “I welcome Cllr Cann’s comment that the planning enforcement team is doing a good job in difficult circumstances; however it is unrealistic of him to suggest that additional staff should be recruited to deal with enforcement, in the light of the national economic picture and the financial squeeze on local authorities.

“It is my view that a satisfactory job can be maintained with the current establishment. What other council expenditure does Cllr Cann propose reducing to enable additional enforcement staff to be recruited?”

Between April 1 2009 and March 31 2010, the council received 475 enforcement complaints and dealt with and closed a total of 505 cases. Between April 1 last year and January 24 this year, it has received 357 complaints and resolved 362 cases.

The council said while the use of enforcement action was a “last resort”, some cases are prosecuted through the courts.

Successful planning prosecutions this year include a case for unauthorised works to a listed building, where the defendant was fined �2,515.00 and ordered to pay �500 costs.

Other legal action has resulted in a �1,515 fine for the non-return of three planning contravention notices, while another defendant was fined �415 for the non-return of one planning contravention notice.

The council said it took its responsibility as planning authority very seriously and that a full review of the service had taken place during the last two years and that the enforcement process had been redesigned to ensure cases were dealt with more efficiently.

It also pointed out that complainants can contact the Local Government Ombudsman if feel that local planning authorities have failed in their duty to enforce. It said the Ombudsman has never ruled that North Devon Council had not taken appropriate enforcement action.

Lead Member for Planning and Development, Cllr Colin Wright said: “North Devon is a wonderful place to live and work. To help keep it this way and avoid any potential problems I encourage residents to discuss any development ideas with the council before they start work.

“Planning and enforcement isn’t just about stopping unwanted development – it can also be used to get stalled projects moving again. It can help encourage growth and regeneration in areas where it is needed the most.

“Council officers don’t go out looking for breaches of planning permission, they respond to the concerns of members of the public about what they see happening around them. We rely on the help of the public and our parish councils to keep us informed so that we can protect the area we live in and preserve it for future generations.”