What percentage of planning decisions would you say were made by officers, acting under delegated powers, rather than by members?
Back in 2002 the then Labour Government introduced a target that 90% of planning decisions should be delegated to officers but in recent times ministers appear to have gone quiet on the issue, despite greater use of delegated powers plainly leading to faster determination of applications. And if (big if) an LPA has an up to date local plan and/or neighbourhood plan, one of the benefits should be that decision-making on planning applications should be more straight-forward.
The Planning Practice Guidance simply says: “The exercise of the power to delegate planning functions is generally a matter for individual local planning authorities, having regard to practical considerations including the need for efficient decision-taking and local transparency. It is in the public interest for the local planning authority to have effective delegation arrangements in place to ensure that decisions on planning applications that raise no significant planning issues are made quickly and that resources are appropriately concentrated on the applications of greatest significance to the local area.”
So I was ready to write a blog post suggesting that perhaps there should be greater encouragement for delegation arrangements, whereby applications only need to go to committee unless there is genuine uncertainty as to the application of policy. After all there is a certain logic to a model where politicians arrive at the detailed plan for their area and then officers make depoliticised decisions in accordance with that plan.
However, the statistics are interesting. When one looks at the latest DCLG figures for England, for July to September 2016 published on 15 December 2016, 94% of decisions were taken by officers over the quarter. (There were 115,800 decisions in the quarter of which 108,500 were delegated). This is the same percentage as for the same quarter in 2015 and 2014, prior to which the proportion was significantly lower.
94%! So the more major applications that many of us focus on are the tip of a very large iceberg. Do people think that there is scope for this proportion to go even higher?
The criteria for selection of applications that are to be determined by officers are of course set out in the LPA’s scheme of delegation, within its constitution. There can be significant differences as between the approaches of authorities. So long as the decision as whether an application is to go to committee or is to be determined by an officer is made within a valid scheme of delegation there is little scope for legal challenge – see for example R (Technoprint) v Leeds City Council (Wyn Williams J, 24 March 2010).
However, nowadays the delegated decision-making process itself is more transparent. Regulation 7 of the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 (made under section 40(3) of the equally catchily titled Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014) provides as follows:
“(1) The decision-making officer must produce a written record of any decision which falls within paragraph (2).
(2) A decision falls within this paragraph if it would otherwise have been taken by the relevant local government body, or a committee, sub-committee of that body or a joint committee in which that body participates, but it has been delegated to an officer of that body either—
(a) under a specific express authorisation; or
(b) under a general authorisation to officers to take such decisions and, the effect of the decision is to— (i) grant a permission or licence; (ii) affect the rights of an individual; or (iii) award a contract or incur expenditure which, in either case, materially affects that relevant local government body’s financial position.
(3) The written record must be produced as soon as reasonably practicable after the decision-making officer has made the decision and must contain the following information—
(a) the date the decision was taken;
(b) a record of the decision taken along with reasons for the decision;
(c) details of alternative options, if any, considered and rejected; and
(d) where the decision falls under paragraph (2)(a), the names of any member of the relevant local government body who has declared a conflict of interest in relation to the decision.”
The High Court in R (Shasha) v Westminster City Council (Deputy High Court Judge John Howell QC, 19 December 2016) recently held that this means that there is a duty to provide reasons where a decision is taken under delegated powers. He quashed a planning permission granted by Westminster City Council for development of a site at Portman Mansions, Chiltern Street on the basis that the officer’s report did not adequately deal with a number of material considerations.
Of course this may be seen as strange given that, since 25 June 2013, LPAs are generally no longer required to give reasons for granting planning permission. The deputy judge dealt with that argument as follows:
“The suggestion that imposing a requirement to give reasons for the decision to grant planning permission under delegated powers with effect from August 6th 2014 under the 2014 Regulations sits ill with the earlier removal of the requirement in all cases to give summary reasons for the grant of planning permission on June 25th 2013 provides no reason to construe regulation 7 of the 2014 Regulations other than in accordance with its terms. The Explanatory Memorandum to Order which removed the requirement, the Town and Country Planning (Development Management Procedure) (England) (Amendment) Order 2013, explained the change on the basis that officer reports typically provided more detail on the logic and reasoning behind a particular decision to grant planning permission than the decision notice and that the requirement to provide summary reasons for that decision added little to the transparency and quality of the decision making process but that it did add to the burdens on local planning authorities. It is at least consistent with such reasons for that change that reasons should nonetheless be required to be provided for delegated decisions. Whereas officer reports are almost invariably produced when decisions are taken by members of planning authorities, an equivalent document or one with the content that regulation 7(3) requires need not be produced when an officer takes a decision to grant planning permission. But, whether or not that provides an explanation for regulation 7 of the 2014 Regulations and whether or not the requirement it imposes may be thought anomolous given the removal of the requirement to give summary reasons in all cases, in my judgment there is no basis for reading the words “other than a planning permission” into regulation 7(2)(b)(i), where they do not appear, or to exclude decisions to grant planning permission from those falling within section 7(2)(a) or 7(2)(b)(ii) if they would also otherwise fall within those provisions.”
Is it just me or is there an element of “I know it’s crazy, but…” about that explanation?
Whilst it must be right that we should know the reasoning for a decision to grant planning permission, is Shasha going to lead to a more cautious approach on the part of LPAs, with the length of officers’ delegated powers reports extending to the length of reports to committee, so as to guard against similar challenges, in turn leading to longer lead-in periods and greater calls on officer time (like the rest of the iceberg, surely they are going to be underwater)? And what about that reference in regulation 7(3)(c) to “details of alternative options, if any, considered and rejected“? Now that would be an interesting case….