Those who champion the cause of planning enforcement officers have long argued with good reason that the importance of the function and its profile in planning services should be recognised and improved.
I recently chaired a meeting on the government review of England's planning enforcement system and related recommendations published late last year. The meeting was attended by DCLG representatives who were involved in the review, as well as enforcement practitioners and members of the National Association for Planning Enforcement (NAPE) and the RTPI development management network.
Given the pace of change in planning in recent years, you may have forgotten that the original review consultation was in 2002. It sought views on what, if anything, is wrong with the system and what might be done to improve it. Some 500 responses were received. We were advised at the meeting that these largely confirmed the DCLG's belief that the enforcement system is sound but there is room for improvement.
Several published recommendations have already been progressed, such as the consultation on amendments to temporary stop notices and the associated draft circular that would accompany new regulations. Separate fees are also now being charged for monitoring and enforcement at mineral and landfill sites, while appeals against refusal of retrospective applications are being heard with any associated enforcement appeal whenever possible.
But in other areas, the review proposed no change. Most significantly, enforcement will remain discretionary and it will still not be an offence to carry out development without planning permission. The option of seeking retrospective permission will still be open, with no higher fees for such applications. Thankfully, all authorities will retain their enforcement powers and grounds of appeal will remain unchanged.
The meeting centred on a discussion of culture change, resources and performance. Everyone acknowledged that a culture change is desirable to raise enforcement's profile and relevant parties should work together for this. The need for better public relations was also debated. It was agreed that authorities should publicise successes to deter harmful development and build relationships with local media.
It was clear from the shared experiences of practitioners that equality of career structure and salaries are of concern to enforcement staff and practices vary greatly between authorities. Feedback also confirmed the importance of opportunities for training, recognised qualifications and staff rotation in departments to ensure that planning and enforcement officers are aware of different areas of activity.
Following the meeting, the DCLG is keen to continue dialogue with the development management network, NAPE and the Planning Advisory Service to discuss ways to raise enforcement's profile and progress other recommendations.
A new circular, a good practice guidance note and a possible statement replacing PPG18 are all likely to be taken forward and published for consultation. The DCLG also proposes offering magistrates good practice advice on enforcement.
Further consultations are likely to be issued on matters such as the practicalities of charging for enforcement, compliance and monitoring, the introduction of unlawful development notices and revised contravention notices and the possible abolition of ten-year immunity.
Throughout the meeting, the discussion highlighted a number of opportunities to collate best practice from authorities on various ways of working. It is hoped that this can be taken forward through the development management network and NAPE to inform any future good practice guidance.
At a time when unduly restrictive regulatory processes are beginning to give way to a culture change of spatial planning and development management, it is worth remembering that the public's first port of call on local development is often the enforcement service. It is the enforcement officer who will be charged with ensuring that the quality of development secured by a permission is implemented to the high standards for which we strive.
Kelvin Hinton is a member of the RTPI development management steering group and general assembly.