Local Planning Enforcement Plan

Introduction

Reading Borough is mainly urban in character but includes many listed Buildings and Conservation Areas along with attractive areas of waterways, woodlands and open spaces. There are many thriving businesses and the area is economically buoyant. Consequently there is pressure for development. The council, therefore, needs to exercise care in balancing the need to protect the environment from the harmful effects of unauthorised development and uses whilst promoting growth.

The Planning Acts give the council , as Local Planning Authority (LPA), powers in relation to planning enforcement. However, government policy and guidance (in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and National Planning Policy Guidance (NPPG)) makes it clear that those powers are discretionary and should only be exercised when it is expedient to do so. Any action taken should be commensurate with the seriousness of the breach of planning control and the harm caused or harm that may be caused. Government guidance is also clear that, where development is acceptable on it’s planning merits, enforcement action should not be taken simply to remedy the absence of planning permission. It advises that planning permission may be granted retrospectively to regularise development already carried out. It should be noted that carrying out development without planning permission is not normally a criminal offence but development undertaken without planning permission is at risk of enforcement action.

The NPPF indicates that:

Local planning authorities should consider publishing a local enforcement plan to manage enforcement proactively, in a way that is appropriate to their area. This should set out how they will monitor the implementation of planning permissions, investigate alleged cases of unauthorised development and take action where it is appropriate to do so.

The council has produced this Local Enforcement Plan to update and replace it’s previous Enforcement Policy (2007), to take account of current best practice and to consider service provision in the light of available resources. It has followed the guidance provided in the National Planning Policy Guidance which provides considerable detail under the title of “Ensuring Effective Enforcement.” and provides guidance on when enforcement action should be taken and outlines the various forms of action available.

The Reading Borough Enforcement Service

In Reading Borough, the Planning Enforcement Service comprises a small team of 3 officers that sits within the Planning Section. The team comprises a Principle Enforcement Officer, a Senior Enforcement Officer and an Enforcement Officer. Resourcing is a clearly identified issue in the operation of enforcement services. This is not only in terms of investigation resources but also in providing the planning and legal expertise needed to successfully pursue proactive and effective enforcement and to deal with appeals and prosecutions. In the absence of sufficient resources, priorities for the service need to be defined and accepted.

Aims of the Planning Enforcement Service

The council aims to provide an efficient, speedy and effective planning enforcement service within the resources available whilst treating all of our customers with courtesy, respect and fairness.

The council has adopted a Corporate Enforcement Policy, which follows the Central and Local Government Concordat on Good Enforcement. This requires us to implement appropriate policies for individual service areas, and to monitor and review those policies when necessary

  • We commit to setting clear standards for the level of service and performance the public can expect from us.
  • We will be open about how we carry out our work and provide a courteous and efficient service.
  • We will act fairly, in any action we take.
  • We will provide well publicised, effective and timely complaints procedures.

By publishing and implementing this Planning Enforcement Plan we aim to make our work more accessible to members of the public as it is very important for them to see how we operate and understand when we can or cannot take action.

Breaches of Planning Control

Breaches of planning control include the following:

  • Carrying out operational development without the required planning permission.
  • Carrying out material changes of use without planning permission.
  • Failing to comply with a condition or limitation subject to which planning permission was granted.
  • Carrying out certain works to a Listed Building or protected tree without the relevant permission(s).
  • Carrying out certain works in a Conservation Area without relevant permission(s).
  • The display of certain advertisements without consent.
  • The neglect of land or buildings to an extent which causes harm to amenity.

Most breaches of planning control are not, in themselves, criminal offences, and only become criminal offences once there has been a failure to comply with a statutory notice issued by the council. However, certain breaches of planning control do constitute criminal offences from the outset. Such breaches include:

  • Unauthorised works to a Listed Building.
  • Unauthorised works to a protected tree.
  • Certain unauthorised works in a Conservation Area.
  • The display of unauthorised advertisements.

The council receives, on average, five hundred complaints of breaches of planning control requiring reactive investigation and response each year. Once investigated, many of these complaints are fount not to be a breach of planning control at all (for example works undertaken under a home-owner’s permitted development rights) whilst others range from small scale breaches which are not seemed expedient to pursue to serious breaches of planning control which cause harm to amenity and require formal enforcement action to be taken.

There are certain issues that the council cannot take into account when assessing the impact of an alleged breach of planning control as they are not covered by planning legislation. These issues include:

  • Loss of value to property.
  • Competition with other businesses.
  • Rights to view or light.
  • Ownership, trespass or boundary disputes.
  • Damage to adjoining property.
  • Breaches of restrictive covenants.

Matters relating to the above are private matters which the council has no powers or responsibility. In these cases independent legal advise should be sought.

The council also, separately, monitors and seeks compliance with Section 106 Agreements.

Building Control

The council’s Building Control section operates under it’s own policy and legislation to ensure that when buildings are constructed or altered the health, safety and welfare of people using them is ensured and that public safety is protected from unsafe structures etc. There is close liaison between the Planning and Building Control officers although their roles are entirely separate. However, failure to comply with Building Regulations is not a breach of planning legislation (and vice versa) and is not a factor that can be considered in determining whether planning enforcement action is required.

Requests for Service

Members of the public make the majority of planning enforcement enquiries. Other source of enquires are from Ward Councillors, MPs, Residents’ Groups and other council departments.

Enquiries or complaints should be made on line via the on-line form that is provided on the council’s website or via the council’s customer services in person or via the telephone.

A person who reports a breach in planning control will be asked to identify a number of key points before the enquiry can be registered and acted upon.

  • The name, address and other contact details of the complaint.
  • Location/address of the site to be investigated.
  • The alleged breach of planning control and, where possible, the length of time it has been happening.
  • An indication of the harm caused.

Information such as the identity of the person/organisation responsible for the alleged breach and the time and date the alleged breach took place is also helpful in assessing the priority to be awarded to the investigation (see below).

All planning enforcement enquiries are treated as confidential and, in line with the Data Protection Act 1998, it is the councils policy not to reveal any information that is likely to identify the complainant. In accordance with the Freedom of Information Act and/or the Environmental Information Regulations, members of the public, or organisations, may request to see information, including files, held by the council, and the council is obligated to comply with most such requests. However where personal information relating to third parties (e.g. details of a complainant’s name and address) might be made known, this will not be released without the individual’s consent unless it is clearly in the public interest to do so.

Complaints will be expected to substantiate how harm has been caused and, if necessary, may be asked to provide the council with evidence of the activity and harm caused and attend a Public Inquiry and/or Court at al later date. Although anonymous complaints will be recorded, complainants should be aware that they will be afforded a lower priority which, in times of high workload, may mean that they are not investigated at all.

Priority / Risk Assessment

The Central and Local Government Concordat requires local authorities to ensure that any enforcement action taken is proportionate to the risk/harm. Due to the serious nature of some of the complaints we receive, and the length of time that it takes to investigate and resolve some breaches of planning control with limited resources, it is essential that we priorities cases in accordance with the severity of their impact or harm on amenity.

In many cases it is not possible to assess the priority that should be afforded to a case without first conducting an initial investigation or site visit. However, once that initial assessments has been made, cases will be prioritised by enforcement officers in accordance with the following guidelines:-

Category A – High Priority

When irreversible and serious damage to the environment or public amenity would result. Examples includes:

  • Unauthorised development affecting a Listed Building or a tree protected by a Tree Preservation Order likely to lead to substantial and/or permanent damage (i.e. demolition of a listed building, or part or a listed building, felling of a protected tree).
  • Unauthorised demolition or development within a Conservation Area or other site of special control likely to lead to substantial and/or permanent damage to heritage assets.
  • Unauthorised development that may represent a physical danger to members of the public.
  • Unauthorised operational development and/or material changes of use likely to cause severe permanent damage to the environment/amenity.
  • Breaches of planning control which would otherwise be likely to acquire immunity from enforcement action due to the passage of time.
  • Any breaches of planning control which would lead to serious traffic hazards; contamination and/or pollution being created.

Category B – Medium Priority

Less immediate yet still serious and harmful breaches of planning control. This will include:

  • Any continuing/renewed breach of planning control where formal enforcement action has been authorised/taken;
  • Breaches of either action Listed Building or Conservation Area control not included in Category A.
  • Unauthorised operational development and/or material changes of use causing material harm to the environment/amenity;
  • Non-compliance with certain planning conditions (particularly pre-commencement conditions) resulting in significant harm to amenity;
  • Any other unauthorised development/change of use of land or buildings or breach of planning conditions resulting in significant harm to amenity.

Category C – Low Priority

Breaches which do not fall within Category A or B that are likely to remain stable and are unlikely to give rise to any severe or lasting harm to amenity or will not increase/accumulate over time or may be easily remedied by taking relatively simple steps. Such breaches may include:

  • Development (e.g. the erection of fences/walls etc.) not deemed to be causing significant harm to amenity;
  • Non-compliance with other planning conditions;
  • The unauthorised display of advertisements unless they are causing significant harm to amenity;
  • Untidy sites;

Category D – No Priority

  • Any breach of planning control falling within Category C where little or no public interest has been generated and therefore does not warrant active investigation with the current level of resources.
  • Technical breaches of planning control which have not raised public concern;
  • Anonymous complaints where no significant harm to amenity has been established.

Finally, it is recognised that some breaches in planning control that are of a temporary or irregular nature may require immediate action. These may not necessarily be determined by the above categories of priorities.

Timescales for Dealing with Complaints

We will acknowledge all complaints of potential breaches of planning control in writing, preferably by email, within five working days. The acknowledgement will include the case reference number and the contact details of the appropriate enforcement officer. In all cases where an alleged breach of planning control is reported to the council an investigating officer will conduct an initial site visit/investigation and make an initial response to the complainant within twenty working days. This response will include the result of the initial investigation and the priority that will be afforded to any necessary further investigation.

It is recognised that some breaches of planning control may cause serious and immediate harm to amenity. In such cases an investigating officer will visit the site immediately to ascertain whether any immediate enforcement action (e.g. the issue of a Temporary Stop Notice or the issue of injunction proceedings) is required.

Once an initial assessment of a complaint has been made all further investigation will be conducted in accordance with the priority awarded to the case. Note that investigations can be quite involved and require the service of formal notices on owners/occupiers/users of premises to provide required information within a specified timescale. Though timescales will be determined by a number of factors outside of the control of the council, the Enforcement Team will aim to complete the investigation and determine whether or not a breach of planning control has occurred within the following timescales – starting on the date the complaint is registered:

Category A8 Weeks
Category B13 Weeks
Category C26 Weeks
Category DAs soon as practicable

Complaints will, as far as practicable, be kept informed as an investigation progresses and will be notified of the final result as soon as the matter is resolved. In those cases where a breach of planning control has occurred but the council does not deem formal enforcement action to be expedient or appropriate, a statement as to the reason for that decision will be provided.

Investigation of Complaints and Notification of Interested Parties

Some types of enquiry (e.g. where there is no breach of planning control) may be resolved without recourse to those with an interest in the land (i.e. owners, tenants, occupiers, licensees, mortgagees etc.). In these circumstances the council will not normally notify interested parties of the matters in hand unless a more detailed investigation is required.

Where access to land is required, Section 196 of The Town and Country Planning Act gives enforcement officers powers to enter land for the purposes of investigating whether or not a breach of planning control has occurred. The co-operation of the owner(s) of the land will normally be sought but where access to land is denied or where prior notification of a visit may result in evidence being removed or concealed; officers may need to exercise those powers by, for example, applying to the Magistrates Court for a warrant.

Further information is often required from interested parties assist in an investigation. To obtain this information the council may serve a Planning Contravention Notice (PCN). This is a formal notice which requires the recipient to provide requested information about a suspected breach of planning control. Alternatively a Requisition for Information under the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 may be served. These measures ensure that, if further enforcement action is necessary, such as service of an Enforcement Notice, the council is made aware of all persons who have an interest in the land.

Though the service of an PCN or Requisition for Information does not constitute formal enforcement action it is a criminal offence to fail to provide the information required by the notice or to knowingly provide false information.

At any stage of the investigation the investigating officer may pass the matter to another Council Service (e.g. Environmental Health, Highways etc.) if it is believed that action by that service may be required either in connection with the matter under investigation or any other matter which may come to light during the investigation. The council may also pass the matter on to, or liaise with, other bodies e.g. neighbouring local authorities, the police etc.

Monitoring of conditions

When planning permission is granted subject to conditions some of these conditions may require action by the developer either before development starts (pre-commencement conditions), at certain stages during the development ( e.g. conditions in connection with materials, landscaping plans etc.) or at the end of development (e.g. conditions in relation to the use etc.). It is important that these conditions are complied with and discharged at the appropriate time to ensure that potential harm caused by a proposed development/use is mitigated. It is particularly important that developers discharge any pre-commencement conditions as the failure to comply with these conditions may render the development/use unauthorised.

The council will pro-actively monitor pre-commencement conditions on major development sites. Complaints that conditions have been breached will be investigated in accordance with the priorities set above. Other conditions will generally be monitored by planning officers on site visits. In such cases the breach of condition will be investigated as for any other alleged breach of planning control and, if deemed appropriate and necessary, enforcement action will be taken accordingly.

Confirmed Breaches of Planning Control

Where it is established that a breach in planning control has occurred the council will normally invite the owner/occupier of the land to voluntarily remedy the situation (e.g. by ceasing the unauthorised use or removing the structure or other development), or may invite the owner/occupier to submit a retrospective application to regularise the situation. Whilst the council is willing to enter into negotiations with owners/occupiers to resolve matters, these negotiations much be weighed against harm to amenity and Reading Borough Council’s Planning Policy and the council will not let protracted negotiation prevent effective enforcement. In some cases it may be necessary for the council to take formal action (such as issuing an Enforcement Notice) While negotiations are on-going to prevent the development from becoming immune from enforcement action (see Time Limits for Enforcement, below).

The council will normally write to the owner before issuing a formal Notice giving them the opportunity to voluntarily remedy the situation. This may not be possible in certain circumstances, for example where there is a serious risk of harm to amenity or the environment and a Stop Notice, Temporary Stop Notice or injunction is appropriate, or where a development is likely to become immune from enforcement action if action is not taken immediately.

Advice from an Enforcement/Planning Officer will be put clearly and simply and will be confirmed n writing, explaining what breach in planning control has occurred, what enforcement action will be taken to remedy the breach and over what time scale. The complaint will also be provided with this information.

Deciding Whether to Take Formal Enforcement Action

The council would prefer compliance with planning controls to be achieved through informal negotiation and advice. However, where such measures do not result in compliance, formal enforcement action will be considered. This may include the issuing a formal caution or instituting prosecution proceedings.

In deciding whether to take formal enforcement action the council will have regard to:

  • It’s own Planning Policy within the Reading Borough Council’s Development Plan and Sites and Detailed Policy Document (2012).
  • The council’s Corporate Enforcement Policy.
  • Government advice in the form of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and National Planning Policy Guidance (NPPG).

National Planning Policy Guidance (NPPG) provides the following guidance:

In deciding, in each case, what is the most appropriate way forward, local planning authorities should usually avoid taking formal enforcement action where:

There is a trivial or technical breach of control which causes no material harm or adverse impact on the amenity of the site or the surrounding area;

Development is acceptable on it’s planning merits and formal enforcement action would solely be to regularise the development;

In their assessment, the local planning authority consider that an application is the appropriate way forward to regularise the situation, for example, where planning conditions may need to be imposed.

Enforcement action is discretionary and in line with the guidance, the council may decide that no enforcement action should be taken because the matter is, for example:

  • A non-planning matter e.g. a boundary dispute, or an issue involving private interests;
  • permitted development i.e. something for which express planning permission is not required;
  • De minimis, e.g. something which is only slightly over a limit, and if below that limit would have been classed as permitted development;
  • Not expedient. This is a difficult concept to explain, but generally means that the council, having considered all relevant factors, does not consider that the breach of planning control causes sufficient harm to warrant formal enforcement action. For example, it is a development where planning permission would be likely to be granted if it were applied for (see quote above).

It needs to be re-emphasised in relation to this last point that it is not an offence to carry out works without planning permission. The council can, and will, only take action where it is expedient to do so, where it is clear that material harm is being caused and that planning permission would not be granted for the development or change of use.

The Code for Crown Prosecutors will be taken into account in deciding whether a caution or prosecution is appropriate.

The council may, where appropriate, decide that enforcement action is appropriate but hold it in abeyance pending determination of a planning application or appeal (however, as noted above, it may proceed with action where a development/use would otherwise acquire immunity due to the passage of time).

The council will keep a properly documented record of the investigation of each case including the reasons why we decide to take, or not to take, enforcement action. Complainants will be kept informed of these decisions and the reasons for them as cases progress.

Time Limits for Enforcement

If an owner can show that a breach of planning control which has not been deliberately concealed by the owner and/or the developer has continued for a given period of time without formal enforcement action being taken the development/use will be deemed to have gained immunity from enforcement action. Section 171B of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 sets out the relevant periods for different types of breaches of planning control as follows:

  • Erection of buildings and other works (operational development) – 4 years
  • Charges of use of buildings or land – 10 years
  • Change of use of a building to residential use (e.g. conversion to flats etc.) – 4 years
  • Change of use to HMO (more than several residents) – 10 years
  • Non-compliance with planning conditions – 10 years
  • Advertisements – 10 years
  • There is no period giving immunity from enforcement in the case of listed buildings.

There are exceptions to these periods and questions of interpretation should be discussed directly with the Planning Section.

Enforcement Procedures

When it is determined that formal enforcement action is necessary the council has a number of enforcement procedures or tools available to it. The decision as to which procedures/tool is appropriate will be made having regard to the circumstances of the case and the relevant legal processes. Details of the various procedures/tools are summarised in the National Planning Policy Guidance on Enforcement.

Planning Enforcement Register

Once issued, certain statutory notices remain in force in perpetuity and apply to all subsequent owners/users of the Land. These notices (e.g. Enforcement Notices) are recorded in the Planning Enforcement Register which is available for public inspection at the Civil Offices.

Appeals

There is a right of appeal against most statutory Notices issued by the council (exceptions are breached of Condition Notices, Stop Notices and Temporary Stop Notices). Appeals are in most cases to the Secretary of State (the Planning Inspectorate) or in some cases to the Magistrates Court. When a Notice is issued the recipient will also be given the necessary information as to how to exercise their right of appeal. Enforcement Action is held in abeyance while any appeal is a processed and determined.

Prosecutions and Cautions

In general, breaches of planning control are not criminal offences (with some exceptions). However failure to comply with a Statutory Notice such as an Enforcement Notice is a criminal offence and the council will normally prosecute for non-compliance with such Notices.

It is also an offence to give false or misleading information in response to a Notice and/or a planning application and the council will also consider a prosecution or caution in these cases.

As well as offences, which follow failure to comply with a Statutory Notice, there are offences that stand alone, such as:

  • Unauthorised works to a Listed Building;
  • Damage to a tree protected by a Tree Preservation Order or in a conservation area;
  • Unauthorised display of an advertisement.

The council attaches particular importance to the protection of trees and Listed Buildings. Works to a protected tree or a Listed Building require prior consent from the Local Planning Authority and failure to obtain the necessary consents is a criminal offence. The council will seriously consider prosecuting anyone carrying out or causing or permitting such works.

In those cases where it is considered appropriate to instigate prosecution proceedings the council will also consider, on conviction, making an application to the court for a Confiscation Order under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

Customer Care

The council will disseminate information about planning enforcement as widely as possible, by publishing and making this policy available (including on the council’s website). Specialist ‘in-house’ leaflets are produced to assist complainants, owner/occupiers and businesses that are subject to the planning enforcement procedure, and these can also be found on the website.

The aim of the council is to provide a service that is courteous and efficient. Staff will identify themselves by name and provide a contact point and telephone number for future dealings with the organisation. All communications are in plain English with interpretations / translation services available when requested.

Planning enforcement will be conducted in a co-ordinated manner with other departments of the council and outside agencies to minimise overlapping actions and time delays.

Complaints about the Service

Reading Borough Council recognises that there may be occasions when things go wrong and the customer’s complaint is the first step in helping to put matters right.

The council has a corporate complaints procedure, which is followed when a complaint is received. Complaints about the service can be made by;

  • Telephone – 01189373797 puts you through to the call centre who will contact the planning department;
  • Email – to the officer dealing with the matter (details will be found on correspondence from the officer), or using the contact form on the council’s website
  • Letter – send written complaints to: Director of Environment & Neighbourhood Services, Civic Offices, Bridge Street, Reading, RG1 2LU
  • In Person – customer services staff will be able to take the details of the complaint and refer it to the appropriate services.

All complaints will be recorded. If the problem cannot be resolved immediately it will be passed on for further investigation and action. We will acknowledge the complaint within 5 working days and every effort will be made to fully resolve the complaint within 20 working days.

The procedure allows for further investigation if the complainant is dissatisfies with the response. Ultimately the complainant has the right to contact the Local Government Ombudsman and leaflets/forms are available to facilitate this process.

Conclusion

It is the council’s policy to provide an efficient, fair and effective planning enforcement service within the resources available. The planning enforcement team will investigate all complaints received in accordance with the priority awarded by this policy and take appropriate action having regard to all material planning considerations. When resources allow the enforcement team will also be pro-active in exercising enforcement powers to seek environmental improvements.

Contact Us

you can contact the Planning Enforcement Team

In writing to:- The Planning Enforcement Manager, Planning Section, Civic Offices, Bridge Street, Reading RG1 2LU.

In email to:- planning.enforcement

By telephone:- 0118 937 3797

Reading Borough Council Service Standards (adapted) January 2015

When you contact us online we aim to:

  • Actively monitor messages sent to the council via the council’s website;
  • Aim to acknowledge messages sent via the website within 5 working days of the message being received;
  • Respond to complaints and requests that require investigation in 20 working days

When you email us, we aim to:

  • Provide a full response within 20 working days. If that is not possible, we will explain why and tell you when we expect to be able to do so;
  • Include the name of the officer or service area dealing with your enquiry in all responses;
  • Use plain English and always give you the name and full contact details of address, then you will receive an acknowledgement within 24 hours.

When you phone us, we aim to:

  • Aim to answer your call within sixty seconds
  • Greet you politely, giving our name and the name of the service/section you are calling;
  • Ensure that calls are not transferred more than once;
  • Arrange to call you back within one working day if we can’t answer you there and then – and we will call you back;
  • Aim to respond to messages left within one working day

When we visit you, we aim to:

  • Introduce ourselves, providing our name, and service department and identification and we will confirm the reason for our visit;
  • Arrive on time for meetings and appointments;
  • Notify you in good time of any changes to a planned visit;
  • We will identify ourselves to you as council employees with a photo identification;
  • We will let you know at the end of the visit what happens next and keep you informed of progress.