Sad When Our Planning System Is Media Laughing Stock

It was hard not to laugh – and back in February 2021 laughs were in short supply. But that Handforth Parish Council viral video was also deeply depressing as a vignette of the planning system in action and hardly a recruitment drive for parish councils.

This has been another bad week for the planning system in the media.

“Your proposal is whack”

Your proposal is whack’: Chaos as ‘junior worker’ who thought he was testing dummy council website rejects and approves REAL planning applications – including allowing two pubs to be demolished – but they’re all legally BINDING (Daily Mail, 9 September 2021):

• “Staff at Swale Council, Kent accidentally rejected or approved five applications

Blunder was made by a ‘junior’ staff member at Mid Kent Planning Support team

The person was trying to resolve software issues, but in doing so, five ‘dummy’ decisions, used to test the website was working, were accidentally published

Among them included the rejection of an animal sanctuary to stay on its site

• Two Kent pubs were also given permission to be demolished or part-demolished

• A butcher’s change-of-use application in Sittingbourne was turned down

A farm was granted planning permission with 20 conditions, listed just as 1 – 20”

It’s certainly not very clever that anyone untrained was left unsupervised with access to the business end of the local planning authority’s IT system. This has obviously caused a big legal mess. Nicola Gooch sets out the law in her 10 September 2021 LinkedIn blog post.

Older lawyers can’t help thinking in Latin, unwelcome in the courts these days but handily concise:

Functus officio – the LPA has made its final decision (to issue the planning permission or refusal notice) and can’t re-open it.

• Administrative decisions are very rarely treated by the court as void ab initio (of no legal effect from the date they were purported to be made, even without a quashing order from the court), no matter how absurd – it takes a formal application to the court for judicial review to undo the mistake by quashing the decision, enabling it to be re-taken.

Accordingly, even with no arguments being made to the contrary by any interested parties, proceedings will need to be issued in the High Court on behalf of the council, a consent order agreed by the parties and then (usually after a wait of several weeks) rubber-stamped by the court – much money and much time wasted.

As Nicola identifies, this is by no means the first example of this sort of thing, although I do find it bewildering – was each decision not only generated by the system but then actually transmitted, without approval of a senior officer with the necessary delegated authority?There is surely a failing in the council’s internal system.

Local Government Lawyer reported in November 2020 as follows on the South Cambridgeshire examples she mentions:

“South Cambridgeshire District Council is to commence proceedings in the High Court after discovering two planning permission errors.

The local authority said one mistake had led to planning permission for an extension and annexe in Steeple Morden being issued in error. The permission was granted despite the application still being open for people to comment on.

“This planning decision, issued without the relevant authorisation, was caused by human error when the wrong box was ticked on the planning computer system,” it explained.

The second case saw a planning permission being issued without the accompanying conditions. It related to the landscaping, layout and other details around eight new homes in Great Abington.

Another mistake was the subject of a ruling by the Scottish Court of Session (Outer House) in Archid Architecture and Interior Design v Dundee City Council (20 August 2013). The Council had intended to refuse an application but instead granted planning permission but with reasons for refusal. It tried to get away with simply issuing a second notice, refusing permission. However, the applicant succeeded in obtaining a declaration from the court upholding the validity of the first notice. The court decided that a decision issued by a planning authority, however legally flawed, is to be treated as valid unless and until it is overturned in court proceedings.

When taken to extremes, this does start to look absurd. Whilst of course people should be able to rely on a planning permission or refusal notice that on the face of the document looks legitimate, the concept is strained when you have a refusal notice with the reason for refusal being “No mate, proper Whack” or, in another Swale example, a planning permission issued with the conditions: “(2) Incy (2) Wincy (3) Spider”. What if he or she had issued a planning permission for development in another district – in South Cambridgeshire, say – would that also be valid until quashed?

Any argument for the “voidable not void” approach on the basis that there needs to be certainty in the system (that a permission is valid until quashed, and that there is a short deadline for legal challenge after which the permission can be relied upon as valid) begins surely to lose some legitimacy when planning permissions are quashed after many years as happened in the Thornton Hotel case I mentioned in my 7 April 2018 blog post Fawlty Powers: When Is A Permission Safe From Judicial Review or this year’s Croyde Area Residents Association, R (On the Application Of) v North Devon District Council (Lieven J, 19 March 2021) where a 2014 planning permission was quashed that had mistakenly authorised development in relation to a wider area than had been intended.

“I hope Al Qaeda bombs the f…… ugly thing”

Chaotic scenes at planning meeting as anger erupts over new West Hampstead development (Camden New Journal, 9 September 2021). The video of two local objectors screaming vitriol at Camden’s Planning Committee last night makes uncomfortable viewing. If you want to understand what the scheme actually was, perhaps read the officer’s report (from page 191) in relation to the application and in particular the plans and images from page 235 to page 257. In my view it is an excellent scheme but that’s nothing really to do with it – there was no excuse for that reaction. We are all entitled to our own views but it is depressing that individuals feel driven to scream at their locally elected representatives like this. I do not use the often unfairly insulting and counter-productive “NIMBY” insult, but you can see why people do.

By this afternoon, the Secretary of State himself was tweeting about it:

And the planning system’s journal of record was of course also soon on the band wagon, ‘I hope Al-Qaeda bombs the f***** ugly thing!’: Moment two women yell abuse at Camden Council bosses for approving four new homes and turning area into a ‘s**t-hole’ before one hurls CHAIR during live-stream meeting (Daily Mail, 10 September 2021).

None of this is healthy.

Simon Ricketts, 10 September 2021

Personal views, et cetera

Thank you to everyone who attended our fantastic Clubhouse event last week with Graham Stallwood, Bridget Rosewell, Alice Lester and James Cross. It was a hard one to beat. This week’s will be a more informal session – do turn up if you would like to say hello – and maybe join some chat about what’s happening in the literally whacky world of planning. Link here.

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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