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.

Usually, you should complain to us within 12 months of when you first knew about the problem. If you leave it any later, we may not be able to help.

For more information on how to complain, please read our step by step process.

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 avoidable time and trouble in making the complaint.

Examples of some complaints we have considered

Mr X contacted the council to request pre-application advice regarding his plans to build a new dwelling within the curtilage of an existing property. The council responded to Mr X’s request and said the principle of the development was acceptable. The council identified a protected heathland located five kilometres from the site and advised Mr X that a Habitat Regulations appropriate assessment would be needed.
Mr X submitted a planning application following the council’s advice. However, shortly after receiving the application, the council contacted Mr X and explained there had been an error and the application site was actually within 400 metres of the protected heathland. Therefore, planning permission was unlikely to be granted as the development did not comply with the council’s planning policy. Mr X withdrew his planning application, and the council refunded his fee.
We found the council was at fault for failing to identify the distance between the proposed site and the protect heathland. We also agreed it was likely Mr X would not have proceeded with the planning application had he been correctly advised. We asked the council to apologise and pay Mr X £1800 to reflect the expenses he incurred submitting the application. We also asked the council to produce a checklist for key issues that would automatically result in an application being refused and make staff aware of the list. 

Mr X contacted the council and requested pre-application advice regarding his plans to develop his property. The council told Mr X the principle of the development would be acceptable. However, further consideration would be given at application stage.
Mr X submitted a planning application. As part of the application the Historic Environment team were consulted, and the team said it considered the property a non-designated heritage asset that should be retained and conserved. The council refused planning permission due to the impact on the non-designated heritage asset. Mr X complained to the council and said a heritage officer should have been consulted as part of the pre-application advice.
We found no fault by the council. We said the decision as to whether a property is a non-designated heritage asset is a matter of judgment. The council provided clear reasons to support the officer giving their view regarding the pre-application advice and there was no obligation for the officer to consult with anyone before reaching this judgement. The council also made it clear that the pre-application advice was the officer’s opinion only. 

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.

February 2023

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