Advice to planning applicants (complaints about)

This fact sheet is aimed primarily at planning applicants who are unhappy with advice they have received from the council and may be considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman.

I asked the council for advice about the work I wanted to do. I followed the advice I was given and now discover it was wrong. Can the Ombudsman help me?

Only in limited circumstances. We are unlikely to investigate your complaint if your planning application was granted even if incorrect advice caused delay and extra cost, because you can appeal to the Planning Inspectorate if statutory timescales have not been met.

We are unlikely to investigate your complaint if you were advised that planning permission would be granted and it was refused because you can appeal to the Planning Inspectorate which has the power to grant you planning permission.

We can investigate your complaint if we think it is unreasonable to expect you to have appealed to the Planning Inspectorate, but we cannot usually do this until a decision has been made on the planning application. This is because until then, even if a council has done something wrong, we do not know how it will affect you.

How do I complain?

You should normally complain to the council first. Councils often have more than one stage in their complaints procedure and you will usually have to complete all stages before we will look at your complaint.

Then, if you are unhappy with the outcome, or the council is taking too long to look into the matter – we think 12 weeks is reasonable – you can complain to us.

You should normally make your complaint to us within 12 months of realising that the council has done something wrong.

For more information on how to complain, visit our contact us page or complete an online complaint form.

If you can consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for?

We look at the effect on you of following the advice and what would have been the outcome if you had been given the right information in the first place. Some of the things we can look into are whether the council:

  • asked you for information which would have ensured you got a more accurate answer
  • checked the records of what works had been done to your house before
  • ensured that the staff answering your question knew about recent changes in the council’s policy
  • wrongly interpreted the law in relation to the question you were asking
  • did not have a system in place for ensuring that the advice it gave was properly recorded, or
  • failed to make clear the status of the information being given, for example that other issues might arise once a formal planning application had been submitted.

What happens if the Ombudsman finds that the council was at fault?

Depending on what the complaint is about, we may ask the council to:

  • ensure proper procedures are in place for providing advice to the public. For example, we might ask the council to introduce a checklist to ensure the right questions are asked at the outset
  • ensure that there is an agreed interpretation of the law so that the same advice is provided whichever member of staff answers the question
  • pay finncial remedy for costs incurred in having to suspend building work started on the understanding that planning permission was not needed, and/or
  • pay financial remedy for time and trouble in making the complaint.

Examples of some complaints we have considered

Mr Q researched existing local house extensions and then applied for planning permission for an extension. After advice from a planning officer, he amended the plans. The planning officer then told him he could amend the plans again or the council would decide his application. Mr Q did not want to change the plans again, and the council refused planning permission. He complained to us and said the council had wasted his time and raised his hopes in asking for changes to his plans.
We did not investigate Mr Q’s complaint. We found the key issue was the council’s refusal of planning permission, for which there was a right of appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, and it would be reasonable for Mr Q to use his appeal rights. On appeal, Mr Q could give evidence the council had approved similar extensions and explain why he considered the council had not followed its own planning policies in refusing his planning application.
Mr X wanted to change a scheme for which he had planning permission. He contacted the council about the changes, including making an application to vary or remove a condition on the planning permission. Later, he chased the council, by email and telephone, for progress and says he was told the proposed changes were being considered. But, several months later, the council told him it had used its powers to dispose of his application because he had not been in touch and the time limit for him to appeal against its failure to determine his application had passed.
Mr X complained to the Ombudsman saying the council had improperly disposed of his application.  During our investigation, the council accepted it had acted with fault, as Mr X had been in touch, and it reopened his application. It agreed to apologise to Mr X; waive its fee for the new planning application Mr X needed to make; and pay Mr X £150 for his time and trouble in complaining to the Ombudsman.

Other sources of information

Your local council's website will contain information about some planning matters.

Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please contact us.

We provide a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result we aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

September 2019