Watchdog's reminder that people care about enforcement, by Richard Garlick

For an organisation that spends much of its time listening to complaints about planning, the Local Government Ombudsman has a reasonably positive outlook on the system.

In a report published this week, the ombudsman notes that planning has always been a subject on which it has received numerous complaints, and that this situation continues.

Last year it fielded 1,631 cases. However, it points out that, as councils in England deal with more than 400,000 planning applications a year, the number of complaints it receives accounts for less than one per cent of the total.

It also finds that, although allegations of bias are common in the complaints that it receives about how councils have dealt with planning applications, it is rare for the ombudsman to find that officers or councillors have used their position improperly to influence a planning decision.

So the document certainly does not suggest widespread malpractice amongst local authorities. But it does highlight some shocking individual cases, such as the planning committee that granted permission for a councillor to build a house that its officers considered could set a precedent for inappropriate development in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

It also helps to bring home the personal impact that unfair or poorly-managed planning decisions can have on individuals' lives.

One trend it notes is an 14 per cent increase in complaints about how councils have dealt with unauthorised developments. The ombudsman is cautious about how it reports this finding, noting that the numbers of cases are still fairly small. But it hints at rising resident dissatisfaction with councils’ enforcement efforts.

Whether this is because of increasing levels of unauthorised development, or a scaling back of enforcement by cash-strapped councils, is not clear. But it is yet another reminder of how important enforcement is to people’s perceptions of the fairness of the planning system.

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