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Award will endorse the enforcers

Date: 19/9/2014

In an article published in Planning magazine Graeme Bell talks eloquently on the skill requirements for an effective enforcement officer.

"Thankfully, not many planners have been killed in the line of duty. To have someone aim a pistol at you and pull the trigger is the stuff of nightmares, but in 1991 this was the fate of Harry Collinson, the chief planner for Derwentside District Council.

He was shot when serving an enforcement notice on a man who had fought a three-year battle with the council after building a bungalow without planning permission. While planning is important, it should not become a matter of life and death.

But nothing erodes confidence in the planning system so quickly or completely as weak enforcement. Local authorities can quickly gain a reputation as a soft touch. The best plans and policies can be rendered worthless and the promises of councillors to be vigilant and make conditions stick met with disbelief. Yet most councils spend a tiny amount on enforcement, with a few staff often playing catch-up with heavy caseloads.

Planning enforcement is not a high-profile, glamorous activity. Rather, it involves patient, time-consuming, precise and intelligent work, and then the successful presentation of this at an inquiry or in court. At stake is the integrity of the local planning system and the quality of many people's lives and their environment. The enforcers deserve our support.

For the stakes are getting higher. Think development value, think a Lottery win. Little wonder that there is continuous probing at the front line and of the council's ability to respond to contraventions. A small cadre of Mr Loophole types earn a good living advising developers large, but mostly small, on how to challenge and spin out the enforcement process. 

Scrutinising documents for flaws and responding on the last due date are commonplace tactics, and even when bang to rights, magistrates too often fall for the sob story. Only recently has the punishment begun to fit the crime, with the Proceeds of Crime Act brought into play.

And if the enemy is in front, enforcers also have to contend with friendly fire from behind. Some councillors vote to back policies, but then suffer amnesia when seeking to support constituents who want to bend the rules "just this once". Of course sometimes the council planners do get it wrong, but not often. The councillors who stand up to those who break the rules - which are there for the benefit of all - should be saluted.

A level playing field is to the benefit of all. Nothing irritates people more than seeing someone get away with it, especially when they haven't. And developers need policy certainty if they are to have the confidence to invest. So now there is to be a Planning award for enforcement, there will be recognition for those in the back office who are in the front line. Never will a Planning award be more richly earned or deserved."

  • Graeme Bell OBE is a Past President of the Planning Officers Society. 
  • The 2014 Planning Awards included a category for enforcement.

graeme-bell-pos.jpg Graeme Bell, POS President 1997/98




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