Getting away with it – is planning enforcement waning?

You can take the saying “an Englishman’s home is his castle” just that bit too far.  In one (in)famous case,  a farmer successfully hid a £1m mock Tudor mansion behind hay bales for four years (a critical time period under the “operational development” rule which the owner used to claim immunity from enforcement action).  The resulting enforcement action is estimated to have cost the council well in excess of £50,000 over a series of protracted, but ultimately fruitless appeals against demolition by the owner. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/surrey/8495412.stm

Less spectacular planning breaches are common although the number of enforcement actions has declined in recent years.   Whilst this level of activity is broadly proportionate to the number of planning decisions made, perhaps the drop is due to other underlying issues.

A decade ago, Planning Enforcement officers were reportedly so overstretched that unapproved developments were becoming valid by default.   Since then there’s been a 14.6% fall in real-terms in expenditure on the planning function and a 15% overall fall in staff numbers between 2006 and 2016.  In 2018, Neill Whittaker, Chair of the National Association for Planning Enforcements, said: “Planning enforcement officers play a critical role in maintaining the integrity of the planning system by ensuring decisions made are upheld. Enforcement teams have been among the hardest hit by years of budget cuts, making it increasingly difficult to do this important work”.

Whatever the underlying reasons, neighbours and conservation groups are justifiably annoyed by apparent flagrant disregard for the law.  In fact, development without planning permission isn’t generally an offence, but it is an offence to ignore an enforcement.  In some situations, unlimited fines can be imposed – but that cuts both ways.

Pro-active enforcement

Councils walk a fine line between  “discretionary” and proportionate enforcement and the risk that  a disgruntled citizen could enlist the Local Ombudsman to bring a maladministration compensation claim if the authority fails to act.

The National Planning Policy Framework advises councils to  “manage enforcement proactively…set out how they will monitor the implementation of planning permissions, investigate alleged cases of unauthorised development and take action where appropriate”.

Keep everyone in the loop

Councils take great care to explain planning issues on their websites and the path to a complaints form is generally well signposted, but complaints forms are often generic and still have to be sifted by an officer. 

One alternative is to implement a Portal that guides citizens through the enforcements complaint process and provides secure, two way communications with the officer.  When the Portal is directly linked to automated workflow in the back office planning system (as in the Agile Citizen Portal and Agile SaaS: Planning),  the time between response and action can be reduced.   This type of solution has the added benefit of closing the communications loop by making it easier for councils to publish details of formal enforcements to the online register for transparency. 

Although council websites usually define what is/is not a breach,  the  “triage” process that councils apply to Enforcement complaints can seem confusing to the public, many of whom are likely to  complain by phone.   This can create additional pressure for an already overstretched Enforcements team. 

Chatbots are becoming mainstream in many other sectors, although given the nature of public sector services in general and planning in particular,  there’ll always be a need for a human to take over if an interaction fails.  As a first point of contact however, a chatbot could just take the load off by providing instant responses to less complex enforcement questions (“My neighbour wants to knock down a party wall, can you stop them?”,  “My neighbours have cut down a tree but I thought this was a protected trees area – can they do that?”).  

The “conversational AI” delivered by chat bots also provides an underlying source of insight into service users’ behaviour.  Combine that with the data visualisation features of modern business intelligence tools and you have a much clearer view of potential gaps in service delivery.

Make enforcement easier to manage

A potential enforcement action can be highly complex, even more so if the council plans to use POCA to pursue developers who persistently ignore enforcement notices. 

https://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1592674/highest-enforcement-penalties-january-june-2019

Feature-rich, fully digital planning software such as Agile Planning can ensure that comprehensive site history, alleged breaches (complaints), inspection records and other relevant site data (accessed via GIS), are easily accessible  to help build an enforcements case.   Combine this with Microsoft tools for collaborative working, machine learning for process automation and AI, and potentially helpful  investigatory data can come to light, saving on officer time and resources.

And easier still with Agile@WORK

As enforcements can be time-sensitive (and with possible costly court action as the end point),  field officers really benefit from mobile access to site information and record updates. 

A productivity app such as Agile@WORK can help to ensure that enforcement complaints received via the Agile Citizen Portal are quickly routed to officers for investigation and action.   Using Agile@WORK, officers can create/update tasks, use voice input for speed and add photos and images to visit reports.  When tasks are completed, updates synch automatically to the back office Agile system.  This means that  records are kept updated, whilst integration with Microsoft SharePoint for document storage provides easy access to past site history.  To ensure timely action, Agile@WORK sends notifications of new visits and inspections as they arrive and enables officers to assign/reassign work to a colleague.

What next?

To see Agile Planning or Agile@WORK, let us know via our contact form and join us on Microsoft Teams for a walk through. 

If you’d like to explore chatbots or data visualisation,  contact Agile’s Data Services via the same link or learn more about our AI
proof-of-concept service on the Government Digital Market Place at
https://www.digitalmarketplace.service.gov.uk/g-cloud/services/579813408150186

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