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Development without planning permission

Constituents often express concern about development taking place without the appropriate planning permission.

Carrying out development without planning permission is generally not a criminal offence (unless in relation to making changes to listed buildings and advertisements, which operate under separate regimes). Failure to comply with an enforcement notice, however, is a criminal offence. An enforcement notice is a notice requiring compliance with planning consent. If the notice is upheld, the penalty for failure to comply is a fine of up to £20,000 on summary conviction or an unlimited fine on indictment.

Enforcement action

Enforcement action is discretionary and local planning authorities are told to act in a proportionate way in responding to suspected breaches of planning control. The National Planning Policy Framework states that enforcement can be important for maintaining public confidence in the planning system, but enforcement action is discretionary and must be proportionate.  Detailed information about planning enforcement powers is given in the online Planning Practice Guidance on ensuring effective enforcement. For example, a local planning authority may decide not to take enforcement action if it believes that a development would have been granted planning permission.

There are often complaints about lack of enforcement action. Such complaints may be taken to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO), although this step can only be taken once the local planning authority’s own complaints procedures have been completed. More information about this process is available from the LGSCO website.

Trends in enforcement action

MHCLG publishes statistics on enforcement action carried out by district planning authorities and ‘county matters’ planning authorities.   The (provisional) figures recently published for 2018/19 show (MHCLG says) that “in recent years, [the] level of activity has remained broadly proportionate to the number of planning decisions made”.

The number of some types of planning enforcement action has declined in recent years. For example, the 3,867 enforcement notices issued in 2018/19 were 30% lower than the number issued in 2008/09 (5,532).  Likewise, over the same period there were drops in the number of planning contravention notices and breach of condition notices.

Changes since 2012

Some changes to the enforcement regime were made by the Localism Act 2011, coming into force in April 2012. The right to use two separate defences in a single case – to both appeal to the Secretary of State against an enforcement notice and to apply for retrospective planning consent – is now more limited. The Act also increased enforcement provision in respect of concealed breaches of planning control.

More recently, in a written ministerial statement in December 2015, the then Housing Minister, Brandon Lewis, outlined the Government’s concerns about the harm caused by unauthorised development and announced a change to planning policy to make intentional unauthorised development a material consideration that would be weighed in the determination of planning applications (including retrospective applications) and appeals.  The policy was put in place following concern about unauthorised development in the Green Belt, but applies equally to all unauthorised development.

Funding to support planning enforcement

In April 2018, the Government launched a consultation on powers to deal with unauthorised encampments.  The consultation observed that there was considerable variation in how enforcement powers were used and invited views on what additional powers might be needed. The Government response to the consultation (published in February 2019) identified a number of actions, including practical and financial support for local authorities, including new good practice guidance and funding for planning enforcement to support them in dealing with unauthorised encampments more effectively. In answer to a PQ in June 2019, the housing minister, Kit Malthouse, said that further details of the £1.5 million fund for planning enforcement would be announced “over the summer”.

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