Ombudsman reminds councils historic buildings need special consideration

Planners must ensure they refer to the correct legislation when considering applications affecting heritage sites, the Local Government Ombudsman has said.

The LGO is highlighting the situation following a complaint about Northampton Borough Council, in which planning officers recommended councillors grant planning permission for a café extension in a conservation area, within a short distance of a Grade 1 listed building. 

Grade 1 listings are rare and represent buildings or monuments of ‘exceptional importance’ and so planning law affords them special protection.  However, in this case the council did not identify the correct legislation when deciding the planning application. 

The popular café, which sits in a park in the town, is owned by a local elected councillor. The café is some 60 metres from the listed building and lies within a conservation area. 

A planning officer involved in determining the application consulted with the council’s conservation officer, who said any works to the café would impact upon the setting of the listed building and upon the character and appearance of the conservation area. 

The conservation officer recommended amendments be made to the design to improve its appearance and reduce the impact upon the listed building and conservation area.

Despite this concern, the planning officer omitted the conservation officer’s recommendation in his report to members and recommended approval of the application.

The officer referred to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, where he should have based his recommendation on the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990.  This Act imposes a duty to pay special attention on both preserving the building or its setting, and also preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of a conservation area.

A regular park user complained to the LGO about the council’s decision.  During the LGO investigation, it became apparent the council had not consulted with Historic England (then English Heritage).  The LGO contacted Historic England, and a representative from that organisation said it was ‘clear’ that the café extension would affect the setting of the listed building and the council should therefore have consulted them about the proposals.

The LGO also uncovered correspondence from Historic England which shows this was not the first occasion the council had not consulted properly with them on planning applications affecting historic assets.

The LGO investigation found the council’s failure to have regard to a material planning consideration – that of the setting of the listed building and conservation area – was fault.  It also found the council’s failure to consult with Historic England was fault, and there was fault in the way the council validated the application contrary to its own planning policy.

 Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman said:

 “Local people will only have faith in the planning process if applications are considered against the right local and national frameworks. This case highlights how this trust can be lost when buildings of exceptional importance are not properly protected.

 “I would now urge Northampton Borough Council to consider my report and accept my recommendations to help preserve the area’s assets for future generations.  I would also encourage other local authorities to check their own planning procedures to make sure their historic buildings are given the proper protection afforded to them in law.”

To remedy the complaint, the LGO has recommended that the council introduce conservation training for all its planning officers and undertake an immediate review of its procedures for dealing with planning applications which affect heritage assets. It should put measures in place to ensure and monitor that all applications affecting heritage assets are referred to its conservation officer and on their advice, Historic England.

The council should also maintain a record of all pre-planning advice which should be made available to the public when any subsequent planning application is validated.

The council has also been asked to apologise to the man who raised the complaint.

Article date: 26 November 2015