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 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 and Mrs W wanted to close their pub because of falling trade and incorporate the bar into their private accommodation. They explained their ideas to a planning officer on three occasions but were never told of the council’s policy on the conversion of public houses to residential use. This said that permission would only be granted if there was evidence that the premises had been realistically marketed as a pub and the business was not economically viable. They applied for planning permission which, without the marketing evidence, was never likely to be granted. There was strong local feeling about the pub closure and the Ws were subject to a great deal of personal animosity causing them considerable distress. The council's failure to tell the Ws of the policy before their application for planning permission meant they suffered distress and anxiety for longer than would have been the case if they had been properly informed. We asked the council to pay them £1,000 to acknowledge this injustice.
Mr J was granted outline planning permission for a house in his garden several years ago. He rang the council a month before the permission expired to ask for advice on how to renew it. The Duty Planning Officer told him to apply for a renewal of the outline permission. The officer did not discuss an alternative option of applying for approval of reserved matters. This would have meant providing detailed drawings but, if approved, would have extended the life of the permission by two years. When Mr J applied to renew the permission it was refused because the council had changed its policy on new development within the village. He appealed and an Inspector also refused to renew the permission. Mr J said that the Duty Planning Officer should have told him the policy was likely to change when he rang up. He could then have applied for reserved matters approval which would have ensured that he did not lose his permission. We took the view that the Duty Planning Officer was answering a general question and could not be expected to know the details of how changing policy would affect any particular site. Given that there was only a month before the permission expired, the Officer’s advice to Mr J was reasonable. Had Mr J made a formal request for advice in writing, and followed the council’s written protocol for doing so, we might have taken a different view.

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