Why planning departments so rarely issue completion notices

A London borough has deployed a rarely used planning power to encourage an unfinished building to be completed. But experts say completion notices are infrequently used because councils do not view them as an effective way to boost build-out rates.

Barnet: completion mechanism used on half-finished building but powers rarely deployed elsewhere (Image: Barnet Council)
Barnet: completion mechanism used on half-finished building but powers rarely deployed elsewhere (Image: Barnet Council)

Earlier this month, the London Borough of Barnet announced that it had issued a completion notice to the owners of an unfinished building. It was an unusual move – it was the first time the north London borough had issued a completion notice and it was one of the few examples of this incredibly rare planning tool being used.

Completion notices were introduced by section 95 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and give local authorities the option to withdrawplanning permissions for buildings if development is not completed within 12 months of a notice being issued. They must be signed off by the communities secretary before they are issued.

Barnet Council said it decided to issue the order after exhausting all other methods of enforcement, following a long-running planning saga. Permission for the building, a single-storey office with accommodation in the roof space, had been granted in 2007 and works began in 2013. According to the council, no work has been done on the structure since 2015 at the latest, leaving an unsightly concrete breeze block shell without a roof or windows.

The authority said officers had already issued two enforcement notices requiring the owners to tidy up the site’s appearance before building work began. In 2015, permission was granted on appeal for an amendment to the design, but no further work was carried out. Officers then issued a further enforcement notice in 2017 requiring the site to be cleaned up and secured. Frustrated with the lack of progress, enforcement officers then issued the completion notice, which demanded that the owners complete the works by June 2020 or face having planning permission revoked.

Shimon Ryde, chairman of the council’s planning committee, said its enforcement team had "been left with no other choice", adding: "I hope this serves as a warning to others." A council spokesman said the council decided to use an alternative approach in 2018 when problems with the site "re-emerged". As the building work was sanctioned by the 2015 appeal decision, a standard planning enforcement notice could not be served, while previously used "untidy land powers" in section 215 of the 1990 act had "proved too limited". He said the circumstances surrounding the case were "very specific" and "it is unlikely that notices of this type will be issued on a more general basis".

Planning could find no other examples of completion orders being used by English councils in recent years. The only incidence of their use that we could uncover, other than Barnet, was a notice issued by the London Borough of Brent in 2005 in relation to a house extension in The Rise. According to the notice, the development had been granted permission in 1992 but was still unfinished by 2005, prompting the order to be issued. The work was subsequently completed by 2008, the council said. 

"Completion notices are used very rarely by local authorities," said Stephen Gee, team leader for planning and performance at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). For this reason, he said, the MHCLG does not maintain a record of their deployment. 

So why don’t other authorities follow Barnet’s example? According to planning lawyers, they simply don’t get the outcome desired. "The local authority wants the developer to get on and complete the development, but all a completion notice does is remove the benefit of planning permission from the part of the development that hasn’t yet been completed," said Town Legal founder Simon Ricketts. "You can’t force somebody to complete something." Ricketts added that if developers "haven’t got the wherewithal to complete the development or they don’t want to, the completion notice can be pretty meaningless". 

Izindi Visagie, a partner at Ivy Legal, a law firm specialising in enforcement for local authorities, said: "For half-built developments, a completion notice may seem attractive at first blush, but the problem would be that what has been half-built would not be made unauthorised by the notice. Effectively, it means that where you need completion notices, for half-built developments, they are not appropriate." She added that where only minimal work has been done, councils are often unlikely to know about it because it is less likely to be noticed and therefore to prompt complaints. "With the economic downturn in recent memory, I also think there is more sensitivity around the economics of forcing developers to complete a development," she said.

However, the government still believes that completion notices have potential to boost buildout rates. The MHCLG’s 2017 Housing White Paper suggested that the need for notices to be signed off by the secretary of state should be removed, although it added that this would be contingent on the property owner not objecting. "That change isn’t terribly relevant because anyone would object if they were threatened with a completion notice," commented Ricketts.

The white paper also promised that the rules would be changed so that councils can issue a notice before the three-year deadline for commencing a development has passed and the developer has started work. The idea was that such notices could prevent developers from making a token start on site, then sitting on a development, potentially for years.

Despite other elements of the white paper having been implemented, so far no action has been taken when it comes to completion notices. At the time of publication, the MHCLG was not able to confirm whether it still intends to pursue the proposals. However, new planning guidance published last month on enforcement and post-permission matters advises councils to deploy completion notices to boost build-out rates.


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