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Transparency key to maintaining trust in planning decisions

Planning committees should record the reasons for their decisions clearly and this is particularly important when they make decisions that conflict with officers’ recommendations, the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) has said.

The Ombudsman is warning that decision making should be as open and transparent as possible, particularly in the face of public opposition. However, this was not the case in a recent investigation involving Erewash Borough Council in Derbyshire.

Neighbours complained to the LGO about the way the council approved an application for a development in the green belt near their homes. They made a number of complaints, including that the initial application was not advertised properly, and that members did not give any reasons for granting planning permission. The LGO upheld these complaints, but did not uphold some others.

The neighbours live on the edge of a village. The applicant applied for permission to extend his bungalow by adding a first floor and garage extension. The council posted a site notice, which notified adjoining neighbours and the parish council, but did not advertise it in a local newspaper as a departure from the local plan.

The application was recommended for refusal because the proposed extensions were disproportionate to the size of the original building and would increase the building’s prominence.

The officer’s report to the committee included details of the neighbours’ objections and those of the local parish council along with representations from the applicant and his agent.

Following a site visit, members decided to approve the application against the officer’s recommendation. But no record was made of the reasons for their decision.

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said:

“For people to have confidence in the local planning system, decisions must be made in as transparent a way as possible. This includes making records of the reasons for those decisions.

“This is particularly important when members decide against planning officers’ recommendations. Without written reasons people who are affected by a decision cannot know exactly what has happened or feel reassured that decisions were taken fairly.

“I now urge Erewash council to provide the remedies I have recommended and improve its practices and procedures to ensure people can have faith in its planning decisions.”

The LGO has recommended Erewash Borough Council apologise to the neighbours for failing to publicise the application as a departure from the local plan and for also not giving reasons for the decision to grant planning permission. The council should recognise that residents will now be uncertain of what the outcome might have been but for the council’s fault.

The council should also review its working practices and procedures to ensure it properly records the reasons for its decisions and provide training to members on giving proper reasons for their decisions.

The Ombudsman issued an in-depth focus report on the planning system in December 2014.

Article date: 18 February 2016