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Controversy sometimes arises when planning committees, composed of elected local authority members, take decisions on planning applications that go against the advice of planning officers.

Who takes planning decisions?

Applications for planning permission are submitted to and considered by the local planning authority (LPA). Applications are managed by planning officers, to whom councillors delegate most decisions. The largest and most contentious applications, though, will be considered by the planning committee.

Do officers have to make a recommendation?

Local authorities will have rules on the roles of councillors and officers, which should conform to the good practice on planning decision-making laid down in the guide to probity in planning for councillors and officers, published by the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Planning Advisory Service (PAS). That guide says (amongst other things) that officer reports to committee should recommend the decision to be made.

Overturning the advice of officers

In cases where councillors overturn the advice of officers, reasons have to be given. The LGA/PAS guide to probity in planning for councillors and officers suggests that councillors should be ready to explain why they have not accepted the officer’s recommendation and that officers should be given an opportunity to explain such a decision’s implications, including those for any appeal and award of costs.

Rejection of applications by councillors

In this scenario, the disappointed applicant has the right of administrative appeal to a planning inspector. The appeal will be heard on the basis of the national and local planning policy guidance. If the officers made a recommendation based on the planning policy guidance, then a rejection by councillors is more likely to lead to the council losing the appeal. In some circumstances, costs can be awarded against the council, particularly if there has been “unreasonable behaviour”. The Planning Practice Guidance on appeals offers a definition of unreasonable behaviour in the context of award of costs.

Research by the property consultants Lichfields found that, for large housing applications in England, Wales and Scotland, refusals against officers’ recommendations were more likely than refusals in line with officers’ recommendations to be overturned at appeal.

Approval of applications by councillors

There is no analogous right of appeal for third parties when planning applications are approved in circumstances contrary to national policy and guidelines. The Secretary of State does have certain powers to revoke or modify planning permission, but these powers are used sparingly and only in the most exceptional cases.

How has the position of councillors changed?

Over time, the role councillors can play in determining planning applications has changed.

There has been an increase in the use of delegation; the most recent figures from MHCLG show that, for the year ending March 2019, 94% of planning applications in England were delegated to officers. Changes to the rules on pre-determination introduced by the Localism Act 2011 enabled councillors to speak or vote on a planning application on which they had previously campaigned or expressed a view.

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