POCA Face

If you are in a position where you may be criminally liable for breach of planning control (whether justified or not – I’ve heard all the stories), you really need to be aware of the implications of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and its potential influence on the approach taken by local planning authority enforcement teams. This post only gives a general overview as in my day job I do not generally act on criminal planning law matters so please take appropriate advice. The focus of this post is more on that “potential influence” issue: the raised stakes now in seeking to negotiate a practical solution to avoid enforcement and/or prosecution.

The Act provides that if the Crown Court convicts a defendant, the Crown Court (if requested by the prosecutor or if it considers it appropriate):

1. must decide whether the defendant has a criminal lifestyle;

2. if it decides that he has a criminal lifestyle, must decide whether he has benefited from his general criminal conduct;

3. if it decides that he does not have a criminal lifestyle, must decide whether he has benefited from his particular criminal conduct.

If the defendant has benefited from his general or particular criminal conduct, the court arrives at a figure as to the extent of that benefit and how much of that is “available” – determined by considering “all the free property” held by the defendant deducted only by any fines due and any preferential debts within the meaning of the Insolvency Act 1986. That amount is then payable, with the time for payment only generally being capable of extension to six months. Failure to pay is likely to result in imprisonment.

Enforcement teams within local planning authorities are well aware of the potential for POCA confiscation orders and indeed authorities are incentivised to seek them. This is not just because of their deterrent effect as regards other potential miscreants but more directly because the authority is likely to receive 37.5% of the receipts (which can then be used by the authority on a non-hypothecated basis). This is because the Home Office’s Asset Recovery Incentivisation Scheme splits the proceeds from confiscation orders as follows:

– Home Office 50%

– Prosecuting authority 18.75%

– Investigating authority 18.75%

– HM Court Service 12.5%

The local planning authority will generally be both prosecuting and investigating authority.

The case that really opened people’s eyes to the potential financial scale of confiscation orders arising from breaches of planning control was R v Del Basso (Court of Appeal, 19 May 2010). Failures to comply with a enforcement notice relating to an unauthorised parking business led to a confiscation order of £760,000.

There have been various orders made for higher amounts – big money whether you are the defendant or the cash-strapped local planning authority.

Of course, the potential for a POCA confiscation order should not taken into account by an authority in deciding whether to enforce against a potential breach of planning control, whether to prosecute and/or in determining its approach to negotiations which might potentially resolve the underlying concerns. However, in the recent cases the Court of Appeal has expressed concern at particular authorities’ behaviour.

R v The Knightland Foundation (Court of Appeal, 26 July 2018) concerned the failure to comply with an enforcement notice served by the London Borough of Islington, relating to the unauthorised use as 18 self-contained dwellings of a development which had planning permission for HMO use. An appeal against the enforcement notice had been dismissed but the owners submitted a fresh application for planning permission for change of use of the building to a hotel.

“In September 2017, a planning officer, Mr Shaxted, indicated to the respondents that the principle of an 18 room hotel seemed acceptable to him. Email traffic between the enforcement officers and members of the Planning Team that month revealed that the Enforcement Team were determined to press ahead with the prosecution and to apply for a confiscation order under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (“POCA”), whatever the result of the 2016 planning application.”

“We do not have any material from the legal department or from the person who took the decision to prosecute but we do know that their decision was based on a report from Mr Kettani and Mr Jarrett. The judge found that report to be flawed and that the decision to prosecute and to continue the prosecution based on it had an improper motive namely the financial advantage to the applicant of a POCA order. Those who advised the person who took the decision to prosecute failed to take into account a relevant factor, namely, the possibility that the respondents’ position could be regularised and allowed an irrelevant factor, namely, the possibility of their obtaining a POCA order to the authority’s financial advantage, to carry significant weight. On the judge’s findings, having taken the decision to prosecute, officers of the same authority then attempted, improperly, to influence the determination of the planning application so that it would not impact adversely upon the prosecution and/or the prospects of their obtaining a POCA order. In their eyes the grant of planning permission was intrinsically linked to the prosecution and possible penalty. The judge agreed and so do we. Had planning permission been granted and the respondents’ position regularised, this could have been a significant factor in mitigation and any attempt by the respondents to persuade the court that it would not be proportionate to make a sizeable POCA order.

Specialist planning enforcement lawyers Ivy Legal have written an interesting commentary on the judgment, querying the basis for the court’s conclusions and seeking to limit its implications for other cases.

However, by coincidence the judgment was in fact handed down at precisely the wrong moment for another local planning authority, Wokingham Borough Council, between the Crown Court hearing and handing down of judgment following an application to stay a set of criminal proceedings (within which a POCA confiscation order was contemplated) for abuse of process. These proceedings concerned non-compliance with an enforcement notice relating to unauthorised uses at the Hare Hatch Sheeplands garden centre in Berkshire.

In that case the defendants had been persuaded to withdraw an appeal against the enforcement order in order to submit an application for a certificate of lawfulness to seek to resolve the issues but then the authority determined that it could not lawfully issue the certificate and continued with its enforcement steps. The Crown Court judge set aside the proceedings for a number of reasons.

[One] “very significant area of her concern was fact that the possibility of an order being made under POCA was one of the principal factors in the decision to prosecute. She accepted that by the conclusion of the High Court proceedings a considerable amount of public money had been expended on the case and expressed sympathy for hard-pressed local authorities facing competing claims on ever-decreasing resources. WBC had the duty to police planning controls and do so in the public interest.

If the prosecution resulted in a conviction and a POCA order made, WBC would have received 37½% of the fruits of the order. In the judge’s view, this lent support to the defence submission that WBC was seeking to prosecute the Respondents to claw back public money already expended on the case. She observed that the POCA provisions apply only after conviction, and she stated that the possibility of an order should never form any part of the prosecutorial decision-making process, particularly where the prosecutor and the beneficiary are one and the same. To take into account the possibility of a financial benefit, in her view, ran contrary to an objective analysis of the merits of the case as required under the Code for Crown Prosecutors.”

The authority appealed but the Court of Appeal, in Wokingham Borough Council v Scott (Court of Appeal, 17 January 2019), upheld the judge’s ruling:

We shall begin with what we consider to be one of the most important issues raised again in this application and addressed in Knightland, namely the role played by a POCA order in the decision to prosecute in the criminal courts.

It may come as a surprise to some that there are prosecuting authorities who may benefit financially from their decision to prosecute. It certainly came as a surprise to the members of the court in Knightland that a body given the power to prosecute should consider the possible financial advantage to itself as a relevant factor in the decision to prosecute. As the court held in Knightland, this flies in the face of the clear provisions of the Code for Crown Prosecutors, accepted by all prosecuting authorities as the applicable Code, that a prosecutor must be independent, fair and objective.

We endorse and repeat the observations of the court in Knightland. The decision to prosecute is a serious step and one that must be taken with the utmost care. We understand the argument that the making of a POCA order on conviction may act as a deterrent to offending and has the effect of extracting ill-gotten gains from offenders. This was no doubt Parliament’s intent in enacting the POCA. But where there is a potential conflict of interest, namely a financial interest in the outcome of the prosecution set against the objectivity required of a prosecutor, the prosecutor must be scrupulous in avoiding any perception of bias. The possibility of a POCA order being made in the prosecutor’s favour should play no part in the determination of the evidential and public interest test within the Code for Crown Prosecutors. We hope that this message will be relayed to all those making charging recommendations and decisions as soon as possible.

On the facts of this case, given we have heard nothing to justify the decision to prosecute at least ten of the Respondents after the injunctive relief was granted and Mr Scott was made subject to a suspended sentence of imprisonment, it raises the distinct possibility that making of a POCA order in WBC’s favour was one of the grounds for the decision to prosecute them. If it was, it should not have been.”

“We also have concerns about the approach taken by WBC to selecting those to be prosecuted. The Code for Crown Prosecutors also provides that prosecutors must be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction of each suspect on each charge and that in every case there is a public interest in prosecuting.”

“Finally, we add two things. First, the self-contained code in Part VII of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 confers on local planning authorities a wide range of powers for the enforcement of planning control. It is left to their judgment which power or powers it is appropriate to use in the particular circumstances of the case in hand. It should go without saying that in deciding which power or powers will best deal with a particular breach of planning control, having regard to the public interest, an authority should always act with fairness and realism.

Secondly, nothing we have said in this judgment should be seen as casting doubt on the value of informal discussions between officers of a local planning authority and an applicant for planning permission or a landowner who appears to be responsible for a breach of planning control. This judgment and Her Honour Judge Morris’s ruling were based entirely on the particular facts of this case. It is trite that discussions between planning officers and an applicant or landowner do not ultimately bind a local planning authority to a particular position or a particular course of action, in breach of the principles set out in Reprotech (see the speech of Lord Hoffmann, at paragraphs 27 to 38). But such discussions have, and will always have, an important role to play in the planning system – so long as they are conducted in good faith and with good sense on either side.”

For an authoritative account of the case, do read the article by Scott Stemp (the barrister who acted for the successful respondents) POCA and improper planning prosecutions (9 March 2019).

No doubt POCA will continue to be highly relevant to authorities seeking to make ends meet. In researching this post I came across a flyer for a local authority training course asserting that receipts from confiscation orders can go a long way to funding the planning enforcement team within an authority. But these cases do sound a note of caution. Notwithstanding the Home Office’s “incentivisation“, the point of these orders should surely be to influence the behaviour of offenders and potential offenders, not the behaviour of local planning authorities!

Simon Ricketts, 27 April 2019

Personal views, et cetera