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Northumberland County Council (18 011 628)

Category : Planning > Planning applications

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 16 May 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X says the Council is at fault in its handling of a planning application for a site near his home. The Ombudsman has found evidence of fault by the Council however he does not consider this has caused Mr X a personal injustice. For this reason he has ended his investigation of this complaint.

The complaint

  1. Mr X says the Council is at fault in how it considered a planning application for a site near his home. He says the Council’s assessment of the application was flawed. Mr X would like the planning permission to be revoked and a review undertaken of other applications considered by the same case officer.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated Mr X’s concerns about the planning application determined in 2018. I have not considered matters that occurred prior to this application or matters included in Mr X’s current complaint to the Council. The latter parts of my statement explain my reasons for not doing so.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
  2. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  3. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. As part of my investigation I discussed the complaint with Mr X and considered information he provided. I considered the Council’s responses to his complaint on this matter, its planning policies and documents from the application file. I set out my initial view on the complaint in a draft decision statement and I considered Mr X’s comments in response.

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What I found

  1. The Council must make its planning decision in line with its Development Plan unless material planning considerations indicate otherwise.
  2. Relevant to this complaint are the following policies of the Castle Morpeth Local Plan:
  • Policy C1-Settlement Boundaries; and
  • H16-Housing in the Countryside.
  1. Also relevant to this complaint is Policy S5 of the Northumberland County and National Park Joint Structure Plan. This policy extends to the Tyne and Wear Green Belt. The policy does not define the boundaries of the extension but instead provides information on the general extent of the extension.

Background

  1. Mr X lives in a small village which is within a conservation area.
  2. In 2014 the Council received a planning application for a site near, but not opposite or adjoining, Mr X’s home. The site is within the conservation area and adjoins the grounds of a Grade II* listed building. The application sought permission for two detached dwellings. The Council granted planning permission subject to conditions including one requiring a reserved matters application with details of the appearance, landscaping, layout and scale to be submitted within three years of the decision date.
  3. In 2016 the Council received the required reserved matters application. The plans submitted show the two dwellings located side by side each with its own access points. The Council granted planning permission in October 2017 with a condition that development commence at the site within two years of the decision date.
  4. Mr X was unhappy about the decision and complained to the Council. He did not pursue his complaint beyond stage one of the Council’s complaints process.
  5. In 2018 the Council received a new planning application for the site also seeking permission for two detached dwellings. The plans show the two dwellings have a shared access and being in tandem.
  6. Mr X objected to the application on the following grounds:
  • the proposal is not sustainable development;
  • it would have an unacceptable impact on the local area; and
  • a lack of suitable access to the site which would involve knocking a hole in a Grade II* listed wall
  1. The local parish council also objected to the proposal on the grounds the site was located within the Green Belt and would be harmful to the amenity and character of the area and neighbouring properties.
  2. The Council also consulted its Building Conservation officer who did not consider the proposal would unacceptably harm the character of the area.
  3. The case officer for the application considered the proposal in a report which said:
  • the 2014 application had established the principle of development on the site;
  • a five year housing land supply was not demonstrated for the area and so policies C1 and H16 of the Local Plan were considered to be out of date; and
  • the application site may be located within the Green Belt but also says that Local Plan policy S5 does not apply. The case officer then says the site should be regarded as infill and for this reason the proposal accords with Green Belt policy in the Local Plan and NPPF

The officer recommended the application be granted planning permission.

  1. As the local parish council had objected to the application it was referred to the Chairman of the Planning Committee to decide if the application should be determined by the Planning Committee.
  2. The Head of Service for Planning recommended the Chairman of the Planning Committee approve the application because the principle of development on the site had been established and the case officer had identified no reasons for refusal. The Chairman agreed and the Council granted planning permission in June.
  3. Unhappy with the decision Mr X complained to the Council thorough both stages of its complaints process. In his complaint Mr X said the Council’s decision was flawed because the case officer:
  • did not carry out a site visit with local residents;
  • had not properly considered if the development was sustainable;
  • not had given due regard to aspects of the Council’s Local Plan and NPPF guidance; and
  • given too much weight to previous permission granted for the site.
  1. The Council considered the complaint and concluded:
  • there was no requirement for the case officer to conduct a site visit with local residents;
  • the case officer wrongly concluded the area did not benefit from a 5 year housing land supply. This is because the Council has issued an Interim Position Statement advising that it had a 6.5 year housing land supply. This makes clear the importance of the countryside and does not only focus on the supply of housing land. For these reasons, the case officer’s view on this matter was flawed;
  • the case officer gave too much weight to the planning permission previously granted for the site and this was a significant factor in the Chairman’s decision not to refer the matter to the Committee;
  • the case officer’s consideration of whether the site was located within the Green Belt was poorly explained and unclear. It did not clearly state if the site is within the Green Belt or explain why the development was infill; and
  • the Head of Service failed to notice these errors.
  1. The Council has arranged training for its planning officers on planning law and practice to address the failings identified as a result of Mr X’s complaint.
  2. The Council upheld Mr X’s complaint and concluded a poor decision was made owing to the incorrect and poor report of the case officer and recommendation from the Head of Service.
  3. Mr X remains unhappy and approached the Ombudsman. He is seeking
  • the revocation of planning permissions from 2014 onwards for the site;
  • a review of all applications handled by the same case officer;
  • determination by the Planning Committee of all applications where the parish council has objected;
  • a review of training and management procedures; and
  • more engagement by the Council with local residents.

Analysis

  1. Mr X says the Council is at fault because it did not conduct a site visit with residents. I do not agree. There is no requirement for such a visit to be undertaken by the Council as part of its consideration of a planning application.
  2. The case officer report for the application contained incorrect information about the housing land supply. This is fault as the report should contain correct information.
  3. It was also fault that the report was unclear on whether the site was located within the Green Belt and did not explain why the development was considered to be infill. Such reports should provide a clear and full account of how a decision has been made.
  4. The case officer’s report recommended the application be approved however for the reasons set out above I consider there are grounds to question the merits of that view.
  5. The Chairman’s decision not to refer the application to the Planning Committee was based on the case officer’s report and the views of the Head of Service which were informed by that report. I therefore consider the fault identified above directly influenced the decision of the Chairman. For this reason, I consider there is some doubt about whether the Chairman would have reached the same decision were it not for the fault. However, the decision on the application might not have been different even if it had been decided by the Planning Committee.
  6. Mr X says that he has been caused an injustice because of the application being approved when it might not have been. The Ombudsman can only consider the personal injustice caused to the person who has complained to us. In this case Mr X does not live adjacent or opposite to the application site and so I do not consider the proposed development will have any impact on the amenity of his home.
  7. Mr X contends that the development will have an unacceptable impact on the character of his local area. He says this will affect him more than other residents as he walks his dog past the site. However, the Council’s Building Conservation Officer decided the impact of the proposal on the character of the conservation area would not be unacceptably harmed. I do not consider the fault I have found affected the validity of the Building Conservation Officer’s decision.
  8. It should also be noted the planning application granted in 2016 continues to be valid and the development approved under that permission can still be built. There is little difference between the two proposals, the most notable relating to the change to access to which the Highways Authority did not object. As the site could be developed regardless of the decision made in 2018, I consider there to be little injustice caused to Mr X because of the fault I have found.
  9. Mr X asked us to revoke the planning permissions granted for the site since 2016 but we have no powers to do this. He also requests we undertake a review of all the planning applications determined by the case officer involved in this matter but I see no grounds to do so.
  10. Mr X would also like the Council to automatically refer all planning applications to the Planning Committee when an objection has been raised by a parish council. He also says the Council should “reach out” to residents about planning matters. These are both matters for the Council to decide. If Mr X would like its practices to be altered, he should lobby his local councillors.
  11. Mr X says the Council’s Stage One response was misleading. The response failed to identify the fault found in the Council’s Stage Two response and for this reason I agree that it failed to provide the quality of reply that it should have.
  12. Lastly Mr X says the Council should provide training for its staff to improve their handling of future planning applications. The Council has already said it is arranging this.

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Final decision

  1. I have ended my investigation of this complaint as I do not consider the identified fault has caused Mr X an injustice.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I have not investigated Mr X’s concerns about the Council’s determination of earlier applications for the site. We expect somebody to approach us within 12 months of knowing something has happened which affected them. Mr X was aware of both applications at the time and began to pursue a complaint about one of them. For these reasons, I consider it was open to him approach us sooner and there are no grounds to exercise discretion to investigate these matters now.
  2. I also understand Mr X has concerns about a recent application regarding works to the Grade II* listed wall near the site. We must allow the Council the opportunity to consider a matter before we decide whether to investigate. Accordingly, Mr X must first raise this matter with the Council and complete its complaints procedure. If he remains dissatisfied after this process has concluded he can approach us for assistance and we will decide if there is something we can and should investigate.

Investigator’s final decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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