Statistics from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), published earlier this month revealed that just 3,867 enforcement notices were issued by English councils in the 2018/19 financial year – the lowest level since records began in 1996. The figure represents a 10 per cent year-on-year drop from 4,273 in 2017/18, and a continued decline from 5,024 in 2015/16 (see line chart, below).
In addition, the number of planning contravention notices, which allow local authorities to seek information to establish if suspected breaches have occurred and are usually served as the first stage of enforcement action, also slipped to reach 3,896 in 2018/19. This was the lowest figure since 2001/2 and the second lowest in 22 years.
"The figures reflect a drop-off in planning enforcement activity, there is no question about that," said Nigel Wicks, director at consultancy Enforcement Services. "It is due to a combination of factors, but mainly shrinking council resources leading to a focus on measuring departmental performance through planning decisions, rather than enforcement action."
Unlike development management, which is a statutory council duty, enforcement is a discretionary power and, commentators said, often one of the first services to be cut when resources are tight. "Looking at the latest figures, you could presume that local authorities are less inclined to do anything if people ignore the rules, which would have massive implications for the quality of planning overall," Wicks said.
Some fear the impact of the drop on those who are likely to break planning rules. "Landowners could feel emboldened to try and get away with potential breaches, thinking councils are less likely to take enforcement action," said the London Borough of Brent’s planning enforcement manager, Tim Rolt
However, the decline in notices issued may not tell the whole story – nor may it paint a wholly negative picture, said Neill Whittaker, chair of the Royal Town Planning Institute’s National Association of Planning Enforcement (NAPE), and a planning associate at law firm Ivy Legal. "There has been a progressive downward trend and that goes hand in hand with dramatic cuts to local authority budgets," he said. "However, the number of notices issued by councils is not the sole indicator of how much councils are doing to ensure planning control."
For example, a growing number of local authorities are using the Proceeds of Crime Act to confiscate any financial benefit reaped by developers that failed to comply with the terms of an enforcement notice, and this is acting as a deterrent, Whittaker said. Some authorities, including Brent, are even re-investing proceeds into planning services.
"The council has managed to operate more efficiently to mitigate the effect of reduced resources – for example, using the Proceeds of Crime Act to improve the planning enforcement service," said Rolt. "It means we have a pretty efficient system and have seen the number of enforcement notices hold more or less steady in the past few years."
Councils are also becoming better at negotiating compliance with planning rules, say observers, and preventing breaches from occurring, which could explain why fewer notices are being issued. "Enforcement is a discretionary tool and not always the smartest response to an issue," said Haroon Khan, senior associate at law firm Gateley plc and former planning solicitor at Wokingham Borough Council. "It is cheaper, and more favourable, if the council resolves a breach through discussion, rather than bowling in with a ‘stop’ notice."
Another reason cited for the decline is the expansion of permitted development (PD) rights. In 2013, the government introduced new rules - made permanent earlier this year - allowing homeowners to double the size of single-storey extensions from four to eight metres without the need for planning permission. "When I first started at the council, we saw a lot of enforcement on things like residential extensions. Now the rules have been relaxed, there is less action against that type of development," said Rolt.