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14th May 2020

Coronavirus: what effect is the outbreak having on planning enforcement?

While local governments continue to cope with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities, some landowners may seize the opportunity to stretch the planning rules. And, as associate Matt Gilks explains, others are quite legitimately taking advantage of the array of prior approval and permitted development rights.

Two of the enforcement tools available to a local planning authority (LPA) investigating a suspected breach of planning control are a site visit and a planning contravention notice.

Site visit

A person authorised by the LPA may enter land at any reasonable hour without a warrant provided they have reasonable grounds for the purpose of ascertaining any breach of planning control. Planning officers also use this power to check on compliance; they may also enter a neighbour’s land as part of their investigative role.

There is no requirement to give notice of the entry provided it is at a reasonable hour unless entry is into a dwellinghouse, for which at least 24 hours’ notice must be given.

An officer may obtain a warrant from the magistrates’ court if the landowner is uncooperative and may be accompanied by a police officer if that is necessary. Wilfully obstructing an authorised planning officer’s entry onto land can result in a £1,000 fine. Good practice is for officers to notify landowners before entering agricultural land in order to ensure animal and plant welfare.

It is advisable to have a solicitor with you at a site visit, not least to monitor that the LPA officer does not exceed their authority and observes the formalities necessary to conduct a fair investigation.

Planning contravention notice

A planning contravention notice (PCN) may be served by a planning enforcement officer on an owner or occupier if the LPA suspects a breach of planning control may have occurred. However, the power does not amount to giving the authority an excuse to conduct a general fishing exercise. Nevertheless, the power is broad and allows the LPA to ask detailed questions about activities or operations on the land, including when they began. A notice must be answered within 21 days; not complying with a notice or making a misleading or false statement is an offence punishable by a fine of up to £1,000.

The answers to a PCN may be used as a basis for further planning enforcement action. A response to a PCN is an opportunity to put on record that there is no basis for an enforcement investigation.  Obtaining legal advice from a solicitor may give you the opportunity to persuade the LPA that it is appropriate to take no further action.

How you respond to a site visit or planning contravention notice can be a critical consideration for the LPA in deciding whether to take further planning enforcement action, such as serving a breach of condition notice or a planning enforcement notice. Taking legal advice early may also lead to the avoidance of a costly enforcement appeal or even the risk of criminal proceedings.

Please note: Nothing in this article constitutes legal advice and we are not liable for any reliance on the information provided. This is a rapidly changing subject, and whilst correct at the time of writing, circumstances may have changed since publication. Please refer to Gov.uk for up-to-date advice on the Government’s response to this issue.

To find out more about anything covered in the article, or to discuss the potential impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the planning sector, please contact Matt Gilks or another member of Thrings’ Planning team.

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